She was losing a son. AJ was losing a best friend.
“Hey!” She was more forceful, as if reading my mind. She caught my face in her hands and looked me in the eyes. “You are mourning. I know how much you loved him, and when you see him, it’s going to be a different grief. Because he’s still here, but he’s not the same Damian.”
More tears. They were choking me, damming up in my throat.
“He was going to be my husband.”
“I know,” she crooned. “I know, honey.”
“I wanted him to be the father of my children.”
“Oh, Charlie. I know. I’m so sorry.” She pulled me in, rocking me as if were a child. Her hand cradled the back of my head. “Damian knew this was coming, but he was living life as if it wasn’t going to happen. He loved you. I know he did. But I don’t want you to feel bad about not being here. Sometimes you have to step back, you have to heal, so then you can come back and be here for him. Because he’s not the same Damian you knew.”
“Is he…” I looked at her, my hands fisting her shirt, holding on like she was a lifejacket. “What’s he like now?”
“Happy.” She laughed, for the first time. She wiped some of her tears. “Sometimes they get happy and sometimes they don’t. He’s happy. I mean, that’s the typical day for him. There are days when he’s not, when he knows he’s slipping, and those days are hard.”
She went on, walking with me down the hall.
He got along with the other residents. They took care of him, doting on him like he was one of their grandchildren. And he had them watch movies, gave them stats on sports to impress their grandchildren.
I smiled at that. “He always did love sports so much.”
“Yeah.” Her arm linked with mine. “Sports and his dog. He always used to say that’s what he needed to be happy.”
Hearing my memory coming from her broke me again.
I felt a crack down the middle as I remembered the first time we’d kissed, how he’d felt like home, how I’d wondered if that was normal. Our first date—how it’d been uncomfortable until I made a joke about farting and he’d countered with a poop joke. We’d both laughed when the neighboring tables gave us looks of disgust.
I thought about the first time we’d told people we were dating—how proudly he had stood with me, holding my hand.
I remembered when I came home to a bouquet of roses on the table, how he’d stood to the side and waited until I saw the ring on one of the stems. How he was on his knees when I looked back.
I’d gotten two and a half years with him. Those years had been good. Laughter. Love. Kindness.
“He made me a sandwich one day and left it at my door.” I felt myself grinning. “He texted me while I was at the gym, and I was annoyed that I had to leave early to get the sandwich because he was worried my neighbor’s dogs would get it. That was before he had a key to my place.”
But then I’d realized how he took the time to make the sandwich, how he’d put a Hershey’s kiss in the bag with it, along with strawberries because he knew I loved both. It’d been the first of a long line of thoughtful little gestures he did for me.
He’d left a handwritten quote on my bedside table every morning for a full year.
He used to buy me chocolate muffins to share from my favorite deli.
If I was ready to go to sleep and he wasn’t, he’d watch television, but he’d watch it with no volume. He never wanted to wake me up.
“He drove me to work, and he’d pick me up if he could.”
“Yeah.” Brenda nodded, her hip brushing against mine. “He’d come home during his lunch breaks to check on me. He bought me puzzles. He always knew I loved them. Now we do a puzzle here every Sunday together.”
A new wave of grief broke over me.
She was in her sixties, doing a puzzle with her son who was thirty-one.
As if sensing my feelings, Brenda stopped and gazed at me. “It’ll get better. The first visit is the hardest. You’re going to cry probably the whole time, and when you leave, and maybe for a few days after. But it will get better. You’re grieving the family you didn’t get a chance to have. Not just him, but you’re grieving a part of yourself. It always gets better. Time moves along, and the hole you have for him may always be there, but you’ll grow layers around it. It’ll begin to heal.”
A hole. Check.
Layers around it? Maybe.
But getting better?
We turned the last corner, and she opened the door to Damian’s apartment. He sat in his living room, the television on, and as I entered, I remembered the day and the time. I knew, before walking in, that he’d be watching Reese’s basketball game, and I also remembered that I always got Damian during those games.
As he turned to look at me, I saw recognition and a bright smile broke over his face. Inside me, something clicked back into place.
This was family.
Brenda was right. It would get better. It already had.
Five days ago, I’d sat next to my ex, listening to him tell me Reese Forster’s stats, hearing the old ribbing he used to give me about my crush on Reese. I’d sat there with tears welling up, but I never let them fall. Not in front of Damian. The tears weren’t for the teasing—far from it. And they weren’t even from the pain of seeing where Damian was in his disease.
The tears were good tears, finally.
I hadn’t realized how empty I’d been without him.
I’d gone back two more times through the week, meeting AJ for the first time and getting closer to Brenda. And I met Mickey, who was adorable. A German Shepherd, whose first priority was always Damian —always checking on him, watching him. It wasn’t until Damian sat down that Mickey was off-duty. He hadn’t been brought up as a typical service dog. He had training specifically for dementia, and while I hated the terminology—because Damian wasn’t Damian with dementia to me. He was just Damian—I understood the training was needed.
A few times Damian started to get up and do something, and Mickey sensed it, whining, pressing him back down. One point he prepared to leave the apartment, but Mickey blocked him, and AJ called his name. Then Damian remembered we were there. His eyes lit up, a smile spread over his face, and he came back for another round of Reese Forster stats.
Going to see him had been a goodbye in my heart.
Not a goodbye forever, because I could never do that, but a goodbye to him being my romantic partner. Maybe if I were older, if we’d had kids, things would be different. I would’ve stayed at his side, held his hand, kissed his cheek, and known he was my soulmate for life.
But I was too young.
He tried to send me away so many times because of this reason, so I could still have a husband, perhaps children. I got it. I got it then, but I never accepted it. I hadn’t wanted to lose him either.
At one point, one of the other residents had tried to classify my relationship with Damian.
I wouldn’t have it.
I wasn’t his sister. I wasn’t his best friend any longer. I was family. That was it.
And now, I was back to traveling.
A part of me felt whole again. I was getting there, and I had one more piece to fix. Reese.
“Why are you going to Chicago?” my seatmate asked once they announced we were starting our descent. He’d kept to himself the whole time, headphones plugged into his phone, but after going to the bathroom, he didn’t immediately tug the headphones back on.
I’d been slouching down, but I sat up now, stretching my arms and back. “I’m, uh… I’m seeing a friend.”
He nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Good friend?”
He was in a business suit, and I because I didn’t want to talk about the details, I gestured to him. “You’re going for work?”
“What?” He looked down and laughed. “Oh. No. I travel so much, I forgot. Nah. Not this time. A friend of mine has box seats to the Chasers game tomorrow. I’m flying in to see him, catch the game, and then I’m off to Japan after that.”
I swallowed tightly. “The Chasers?” My stomach twisted up.
“Yep. Yep. They’re playing the Seattle Thunder, who seem to be the fucking team to beat this year. I kinda miss the old days when Johnston played, you know? He would’ve shut Forster down hard.”
I couldn’t help myself. “But Forster, Cartion, and Crusky?”
He sighed, resigning himself. “I know.” He settled into his seat. “Thunder’s stacked this year. They don’t usually have so many heavy hitters. Chasers are hurting. They need to plan better for their team, but we can get there. I know it. Give us another year, and Thunder wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“That’s your opinion.” I waited.
He registered the dig and looked over, his eyes wide. “You must be a Thunder fan?”
“Not Coyotes? We flew from Minneapolis.”
“Not this year.”
He groaned. “God, you’re one of those.”
I knew where he was going, but I wanted him to say it. I wanted him to squirm as he said it.