On the drive home one late night recently, I peeked out sideways and up at the stars. The sky was clear and calm, almost eerily so; the lights were brilliantly bright, like a beacon calling me home.
I thought about another night similar to this one, almost 25 years ago. Then, my heart was bursting with so much love and joy and happiness, and possibly other feelings too overwhelming to describe or name to this day. I looked up then and (please pardon the cliché) I thanked my lucky stars and heaven above them. I was in love, the way one loves when one is so young, and the man I loved sat beside me, driving me home safely.
He and I had been friends despite our relatively large age difference, and during what was possibly the most trying year of his life we exchanged letters regularly until he finally returned home. I admired his optimism, his ability to overcome and triumph over every difficult situation, his complete belief that he could -- and would -- achieve anything he set out to reach. For a while there he was at the top of his game and then almost overnight he lost it all. He told me then, " It's only money. I made it before, I'll make it again." And he did, at least as far as I knew.
It seemed that almost as quickly as we became a couple (he casually asked me out for a movie, I said yes, he gave me a kiss on the mouth when he dropped me off at my door, I stared at him in shock and then felt my heart jump), it was over. The details are complicated but ultimately unimportant; on the night of his birthday, after the few very happy months we spent together, he cried over terrible news he had received that day. I told him what he needed now was a friend, not a girlfriend, and I broke up with him because I loved him so. I was devastated, and then when I discovered he wasn't quite as honest with me I felt betrayed. It was like climbing the highest mountain and celebrating at the peak only for a split second before being hurled off just so you couldn't enjoy victory long enough to remember it. When I look back I realize it was the very last time I fell in love that way, the way you do when you're young and hopeful, and love feels like everything in the world, the only thing you need.
I bumped into him once more since then, and then never again. We were at a birthday dinner, and we were now both married to other people. He took my arm and escorted me to the buffet table. He wanted to make sure I was okay, he said. Through the years I'd hear about him, about the business he started, about how he had a son now, but not much more than that.
And then just over a year ago I heard he had cancer, stage four. It started out in his lungs and then moved up to his brain. I got his address and wrote him immediately. After nearly a lifetime of silence between us I wanted to let him know that I was still rooting for him. I really was, you know; I truly believed this man would fight and win like he always had.
He wrote back to thank me, to say he was surprised and grateful for my support, and that he was doing better and expected to recover. He then texted me a couple of times over the holiday season just to greet me and wish me well. And then...silence, again.
I heard the cancer came back with a vengeance, and that he fought back with everything he had -- drugs, chemo, radiation. But today he's in bed at home, often tired and medicated, and that on some days he doesn't recognize anyone, not even family. There's still that part tucked inside of me that believes he'll pull off a miracle, but now all I do is pray that he's at peace, that he's comfortable and not feeling pain.
So the other night when I looked up at the stars, I remembered that blip in time when I thought he'd always be by my side despite knowing fully well all the reasons why he wouldn't, couldn't, be. I looked up and saw the stars' beacon lights, and said a prayer that they would guide him home safely when it's time for him to go.
It occurred to me then, as it did to me just now: love might not be everything, it's not the only thing we ever need, but at the end of our life we're grateful we had it at all.