“No.” I was firm. I’d made up my mind.
“Oh boy,” Hadley said again.
“Charlie. I don’t know…” Sophia began.
Grant cursed, stepping into the room. “This is not a smart idea. Remember what you said to me? You wouldn’t recover? Now you’re going to him. Charlie, I don’t think—”
I whirled to them. “I don’t care!”
I stopped, my chest heaving.
Time and thought and me—all of it slammed back into place at once, and suddenly I was in my room at Grant and Sophia’s house. My friends were standing in the hallway, scared to come and talk me down, but also worried about letting me go.
They were terrified—of me, but for me.
And that was on me.
I had done this. To myself. To them. Me. No one else.
“I fucked up,” the words regurgitated from me, full of disdain for myself. “I’ve made a mess of everything. And I’m better. I’m okay, but I have to do this. You guys don’t have to worry about me. I promise. I will be okay. I just—I have to do this before I move on.”
“But going and seeing him. I mean—”
I cut Hadley off this time. “I have to let him go. I never did before. I need to do it this time or I’ll never be able to move on. I have to do this.”
I zipped up my bag, pulled it onto my back, and faced them.
No one moved aside.
I let out a sigh. “I’m really okay. I promise.”
I wasn’t, but I would be.
That was a promise.
I woke the next morning in a hotel.
I felt damn good, and there was a sadness with it because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt like this—like I knew what I wanted in life, I knew what I needed to do, and I was filled with hope. With Damian, I’d lost hope.
That’s the saddest part of grieving someone—whether they’re still with you or not, whether it’s a relationship or not. You’re fighting to keep hope, but when the last of that string is cut, that’s where you get lost.
That’s where I’d been for too many years, but not anymore.
I knew. In all the madness and confusion and wackiness, clarity had come to me, and once I got it, it was a ray of sun breaking through the clouds. I clung to it, and the longer it stayed with me, the stronger I got.
This. This was what I needed to do first. I got out of my car and went inside the Silver Shores Assisted Living facility.
Damian’s mom met me at the door. Her hair was cut short, a dirty blonde similar to Damian’s when we’d first started dating. She had the same angular, long face, and the same blue eyes. She watched me cautiously, which stopped me in my tracks.
Damian had lost some of his looks as the dementia progressed. He’d lost the muscle definition, and the freshness of youth I hadn’t started to appreciate until later in life. His hair was greasy half the time, and uncombed the other.
But seeing his mother now, a wave of memories flooded me.
“Hi. I’m Damian, and I suck at hitting on women, but I still wanted to come over and try with you. So consider this my lame pick-up line.” He had smiled, holding his hand out in the middle of a busy bar, as if we were meeting in a boardroom.
His eyes had twinkled.
Sandy brown hair in a crew cut, a golden tan from the summer months, and a form that showed he lifted weights on the regular—I’d been taken aback. Not by him, not by the simple pick-up line, but because he’d laughed after he held his hand out.
I heard it again now. Like an intoxicating bell, light and breezy, and like sunshine after enduring four months of a gloomy winter.
I breathed in the memory and blinked back tears, because I missed him.
“I’m going to warn you.” He’d smiled down at me on our first date. “You’re going to fall in love with me.”
“I am, huh?”
“I’m scarily intoxicating. You’ll see.” He’d winked before coming around to open my door for me.
A year into our relationship he’d told me, “I will never hurt you. I will love you forever. You and me, we’ll conquer the world.”
Brenda approached, her hands coming out of her pockets. She jerked forward, as if unsure then suddenly going for it. This wasn’t the Brenda I remembered. She’d been smooth and confident when Damian and I first started dating. There’d always been a sadness about her, and Damian had pulled away from her when his first symptoms started. When she finally learned the truth, she’d just seemed resigned, like she knew that phone call was going to come one day.
Thinking on it now, she probably had.
“Hi. Yeah. Wow.” I fitted my hand in hers, feeling her shaking, just like me.
She laughed, finishing my thought. “Long time, huh?”
Yeah. I sighed.
We were in a nursing home. He was too young to be here.
“Damian mentioned you the other day.”
This was so fucking painful. My throat swelled. “Yeah?”
He could still remember me?
How many good days did he have?
How bad were the bad days?
How far had he slipped?
Would I recognize him?
Stop. Pause. Take a breath.
The lobby had two different directions. A front desk sat at the hallway leading to the left, and a beeping came from behind the desk. But the right side was quiet. It led to a longer carpeted hallway.
Brenda headed for the right side, and without me asking, she’d answered the main question. How was Damian?
“We were able to get him in here—at first they were hesitant about taking him since, you know, he’s so young, but I got him in about six months ago. It took a while for everything to be approved, but so far, I think he’s enjoying it. He always did joke that he was an old soul.”
“I should just move into a senior community,” he’d once told me.
“Because that’s just how I am. I never thought I’d have kids. I hate loud sounds. I’m not a partier. I don’t know. Give me my sports network and my dog, and I’m happy.”
That’d been early on in our relationship, before I’d thought about kids. He mentioned one time he’d have kids if I wanted. I believed him, but he never yearned for a family of his own.
“Do they allow pets here?” I asked his mom.
Her smile lightened, and she walked with an easier gait. “Oh yes. And that was a big thing we got this year too. He has a therapy dog, and I do think Mickey has helped. He gets Damian out of the apartment and walking around. He can still…you know.”
I didn’t. “What?”
She faltered, wiping at the corner of her eye before looking away briefly. “He can still go outside on his own. They…” She paused, her shoulders rising as she filled her lungs. “They have an alarm on him. I guess he wandered once, but since he’s had Mickey, he’s doing better. Mickey guides him back.”
“I want to own a kennel and take care of eight dogs. More even.” He had laughed, as we were the couple who went to the dog park without a dog.
His hand had found mine, and I’d heard the longing in his voice. “Someday, Charlie. I know we can’t afford a dog now, but one day. And I’m not joking. Dogs over people, man. Dogs don’t leave you.”
I stopped walking as the memory blasted me inside, knives cutting me.
He had known. Somehow, he had known.
Brenda was still going, her voice lighter, and she pointed to a television room as we went past. “AJ comes to visit every weekend. Whenever the football games are on, those two are cackling like little girls together. One time they watched in here and a few of the other guys came to watch with them. It’s a sight to see. Damian, AJ, and four older gentlemen. They all get along like best friends. Damian enjoys giving the older guys dating advice, because—”
She stopped, realized I wasn’t following, and turned back. “A few of the older ones are dating, you see…”
“AJ comes to see him?” I choked out.
Understanding dawned, and she nodded, biting her bottom lip. “Yeah. I reached out after you two broke up, and he’s been helping.”
His childhood best friend. The two had a falling-out, and that’s when I came into the picture.
“He talked about AJ, but I never met him.”
“Yeah. He, uh…” She drew closer, nodding her head. “AJ talked to me a little about their argument. I think… I think Damian knew what was coming for him. AJ had just gotten married. Angie was pregnant, and I think it was hard for Damian to see that. Then he found you, and to be totally honest, I think he wanted to keep you all for himself, for as long as possible.”
Damian ’s mom was back in his life. He had the dog he’d always wanted. His childhood best friend was back in his life.
I was the one gone.
“I’m so sorry.” The dam broke. I didn’t even try to wipe my tears. It would’ve been pointless. “I’m so sorry I left him—”
“Oh, honey.” She caught me, her arms wrapping tightly around me. “No, no. Don’t think like that. You—it’s different for you than me, different than even with AJ. He’s my son. I had a husband. I had a family. And Damian’s my family—that’ll never change. The same with AJ. He has a family.”
She was trying to make me feel better, but it didn’t matter.