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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Great Expectations (The Last Part)

We received a wedding invitation early 2016.

Michael was getting married in the spring. It would be in New York City where he now lived. He grew up in Oklahoma, spent most of his life there. Once he graduated high school, he moved to NYC. He has lived in the city ever since.

The invitation was flattering. But of course, all sorts of thoughts followed. Is this just a kindly gesture? Would it be inappropriate to go? Or weird? This went on for weeks. Heather, however, really wanted to be there, so after a short correspondence, she booked a flight.

Initially, I wasn't able to go. But, as luck would have it, plans unexpectedly changed at the last minute. We flew out on a Saturday morning. 

We'd never been to New York. It was a little intimidating. The unknown usually is. All we knew about New York is what we'd seen on television. In my experience, if your preparation for a new situation involves movies, you're effed. Fortunately, we knew someone besides Michael that lived there.

We didn't know much about his fiance. We wanted to know more so we did what most people would do. We stalked Facebook. Five minutes later and we were about to click off when I noticed a line in italics. 1 mutual friend. 

Remember the secret family password weirdness? Here it comes again.

Five minutes ago we didn't know Michael's fiance and now we have a mutual friend? Naturally, you'd think it was Michael but we're not linked on Facebook. The one mutual friend was someone that had lived in New York City for the past 26 years. His name is Jamie.

And we went to high school with him.

Heather and I grew up in a small town tucked between Illinois cornfields. Heather and Jamie were friends through middle school until he moved away. His career took him to New York City in his mid-twenties and he'd lived there ever since. And he knew Michael's fiance. He moved there 26 years ago. When Michael was born. 

Six degree of Kevin Bacon can't touch this.

Heather and Jamie.

We arrived before noon on Saturday and spent the afternoon with Jamie on the Lower East Side. It kept us occupied. We were out of our element, in a new city, not sure what the evening would bring. Would they be happy to see us? Nervous? Is this weird? Now we weren't so sure.

We asked the hotel what was the best way to catch a cab. He said walk outside and raise your arm. Was it really that easy? Yeah. Yeah, it was. Turns out, cabs really are everywhere. We arrived at the venue, early evening. The sun was hours from setting, the spring air cool and crisp.

Had it really been 26 years? Is this really how the story ends--the crises that began so long ago, when we were young and lost and scared, a distant memory? Will we wake up on the floor and realize it was all just a dream? Because these things don't end this way.

There aren't happy endings like this.

We followed the eclectic crowd up an iron staircase and for a moment, we were all alone. It was 26 years earlier, just a couple of nervous kids in a really big world, unsure which way to turn, what was around the corner. But in the next moment, we saw Cathy. Tears. Hugs.

It was real again.

We caught up with Wayne and Cathy, and a now grown-up and married Kelsie; we met extended family, recalled the day we met at the Italian Village. They were from the Midwest so it didn't take long to speak the same language. Had it really been 26 years? 

The ceremony took place on the rooftop. Wayne and Cathy ushered Michael out. As dusk drew near, they took their vows in a short ceremony among friends and family. It would be another hour before we met Michael.

The reception took place downstairs. We found a table in the corner. It was small and convenient, one where we could stand up and hold our drinks. An inconspicuous place. It wasn't until later that we realized it was perfect. The family graciously invited us to the table but we declined. From our little corner, we watched an extravagant New York crowd mix with Midwesterners--a clash of style and values, interests and eras. But a crowd united in love.

The reunion with Michael was what you would imagine. Outstanding. Grateful.

Perched in our corner, we watched the night unfold. We were not removed, not distant or antisocial. We spent time with all the family and friends. It was the perfect balance of being there.
The fathers gave touching speeches. And when cake was cut and, one by one, friends toasted the newlyweds, Heather and I made our exit. We thanked them for being the family anyone would wish for. They had exceeded all our hopes. The script of this moment was surreal and oddly perfect.

The night was relatively young, but we'd done everything we'd come to do in New York. We ate a slice of pizza in a very small hotel room and fell asleep.

Heather, Micheal, and Cathy

So why tell this story?

The world needs to hear it is a tad presumptuous. The world doesn't need anything. And this certainly isn't the end of anything. But for some reason, it certainly felt like it. Twenty-six years ago, we would not have been so bold as to write a tale like this.

But I'm a storyteller. I like a good ending. And this certainly felt worthy.

Even if it is true.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 9)

Why tell this story?

Here it is 26 years later. Looking back, crises doesn't seem so bad. In fact, it turned out quite storybook. So it would be easy to romanticize, to gloss over the bumps and bruises, the crying, the stress, the anguish and uncertainty--for us and those close to us, our families and friends. Time, though, works its magic, it smooths out the rough edges, takes the stink off a bad deal.

They say forgetting is a blessing, an survival mechanism that eases our suffering. A brain wash that dulls the pain. Case in point, when Heather got a tattoo several years back, she insisted it hurt worse than childbirth. I was there for both of those events. The baby hurt worse.

Trust me.

So why tell this story? I'm reminded of a cancer survivor that spoke about all the life lessons that were inherent in her struggle, the leaps and bounds of spiritual growth, how it renewed relationships and let the sun shine again. When asked if she was glad she got cancer, her response was curt.

Oh hell no.

We were once invited to tell our story to a youth group. It was a few years after Michael was born. By that time, the dust had settled and we were in a better place. Our presentation was upbeat and positive. Michael was a beautiful baby in a great family and we unwittingly made it sound too easy, too wonderful, too... Look what we did with an unplanned pregnancy, we made a beautiful flower, turned lemons into lemonade, ain't life grand?

Some of the parents wanted to see more remorse and less hey no problem if you get pregnant, there's always adoption. And I totally get that. In a lot of ways, we were lucky--lucky Cathy and Wayne were solid, lucky to have each other, lucky to have supportive parents. Maybe our message needed to be, perhaps, a little less rosy.

But we were happy. Happy for Michael, for Wayne and Cathy.

When we were older, we addressed adoptive parents about our experience, in particular the open adoption aspect. Some parents are wary, and that of course makes sense. Our experience provides a glimpse of what it can be, how healing can take place for everyone involved. Adoption is sometimes referred to as the third option. That's last place. It's frightening. Scary as hell. Will there be regret? Will something go wrong? There's a lot of unknowns, and that scares the shit out of us. So yeah, I get that. Completely valid fears, all of them. Like I said, we had some luck fall our way.

So why tell this story? Because it's about what's possible. Because it wasn't until recently--26 years after Michael's birth--that was a felt sense of closure. I don't think we realized we'd reached that juncture until after it happened.

You'd think a sense of closure would've occurred with all the birthday correspondence, or when Michael sent the email with our secret password. Or when we reunited downtown. Turns out, it happened a few weeks ago.

In New York City.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 8)

Heather had a Bachelor's degree in Administration of Justice. She did want most people do with their college degree. Something else.

She became a social worker.

She started out in drug and alcohol counseling at a halfway house in Champaign-Urbana. A few years later, she would work for Catholic Social Services, the very same agency that introduced us to open adoption. While her job titles varied, she would end up working as an adoption case worker for the next twenty-some years.

She worked with the adoptive parents, helping them assemble portfolios, arranging meetings with potential birthmothers and handling the paperwork. Most importantly, she counselled them through waiting periods as well as the grieving process whenever an adoption didn't go as planned.

The past fifteen years, she worked closely with birthmothers. Her experiences varied greatly. Sometimes she spent six or eight months with the birthmother, taking them to doctor's appointments, providing them with necessities, counselling them through difficult emotions before and after delivery. Other times, she received a call from a hospital and arrived to meet the birthmother a day after delivery. Sometimes the adoption went well.

Other times, it did not.

She didn't always share her experience with those she worked with. It all depended on whether it would be helpful or not. For birthmothers, it often was. Heather had been through the crises and survived. She knew the importance of counselling and support. She also realized how lucky she was to have had both.

Many birthmothers had neither.

Some were alone. Sometimes they lacked basic necessities or emotional coping skills or had aggressive birthfathers that wanted them to keep the child or aunts or grandparents or parents that weren't about let them give away their baby. One thing she always made clear.

Adoption was loving.

It wasn't about getting rid of a problem or shucking responsibility. In fact, for us it was the opposite. We made an adoption plan because we loved Michael. He needed a family that was ready for him, parents that were loving and stable and supportive. Our intuition was right on the money. Wayne and Cathy were great parents, and Kelsie a wonderful sister.

Heather and I married two years after Michael was born. Crises will make you grow up in a hurry. Our relationship had grown stronger. However, my dark years of depression were still upon me. It would be a few more years before I found my footing through counselling and meditation. 

Ben and Maddi were born in Illinois. In 1998, four months after Maddi was born, we moved to Charleston, SC where I began teaching college. Heather stayed at home with the kids but resumed working as an adoption case worker on a part-time basis. I was born in Charleston, IL and thought it was coincidental that we would raise a family in Charleston, SC. As coincidences go, it was nothing compared to what happened in 2008.

That was when Michael came to visit.

To tell that story, I need to tell this one first. There was a news story about a family that had a secret word. I don't remember what the word was or even what it meant. We just knew we needed to have one.

So one night at dinner, we decided our secret word would be hammer. (Full disclosure: the secret isn't really hammer.) And hammer meant I love you. I don't remember if Heather was on board at first. Our kids' have my sense of humor. We were sort of goofing on the whole secret word thing. Not sort of. We were goofing on it.

But then it stuck.

We wrote little notes signed hammer, texts with hammer, waved goodbye saying hammer. It really became our weird secret word. In fact, it became a password for the longest time. Many of our accounts were assigned hammer88. The number had no significance. It was just tacked on when passwords required a letters and numbers.


In 2008, Heather received an email from Michael. He was eighteen years old. We had received annual updates from Cathy and Wayne, saw him grow up through the years. Heather would send birthday cards every year. But now he was graduating high school. 

And he wanted to visit.

Angst. Elation. Apprehension. Everything was in the room when the email arrived. He was going on a road trip with two friends. We would meet them in Charleston. Times and dates and places were arranged, but that's not the odd part of this story. Sure, eighteen years separating us is not a common event. And why tell the whole story about secret words and hammers and passwords? It was Michael's email. His username.


His username contained our secret family word. Not only that, it had the number. The number.


How is this possible? It's not. It's just not.

But there we were looking at it. It was there. It happened. You might assume I'm spinning a yarn, adding spice to story that's not really in need of it. The odds of that word and number are... they're impossible. We've shared our silly inside joke with very few people, certain not something that would go in a birthday card or texted with directions. Definitely not something for a birthday card.

Micheal didn't have an explanation. He didn't seem to really know why he used that word and number.

None of this felt real anymore. Like some sort of surreal Matrix movie moment, an impossibility that suggested this was a dream. It was all dream. Too perfect.

But we didn't wake up. We met Michael in Charleston. The reunion was stunning. Heather and Michael recognized each other from a block away. They tearfully embraced as tourists passed in horse-drawn carriages.

They had no idea she'd waited 18 years for this moment.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 7)

It was June in Illinois.

The weather was fair and clear. Heather and I sat beneath the hickory oak with a three-day old infant. We were not hesitant. We were not ready to be parents. Not when this crisis began. Not now. Perhaps because we had made our decision so early, we had progressed through the pregnancy with his parents in mind and never wavered.

Wayne and Cathy met us beneath the oak tree. We introduced them to their son. We visited for a short while, they signed papers, and then they were back on the road.

Journey complete.

The recovery was certainly not seamless.

Despite our steady commitment, there was a period of emotional recovery that, at times, was difficult. But never regret. It was sad for many reasons. And happy as well. We made it through an unplanned pregnancy. I finished college. Our relationship was as strong as ever. And Michael had an older sister and loving parents.

I returned to work at the college research station. In the fall, I started graduate school at the University of Illinois. Heather stayed in Carbondale to finish her undergraduate. We would travel on the weekends to stay at one place or the other. But before that would happen, we would meet Wayne and Cathy one more time. It was at the hospital.

Blood was drawn.

It was an option, but paternity needed to be determined. If there were any health issues, it would be imperative to know the father's history. I gave a sample. Steve met us to provide a sample, too. And Michael, still an infant, had blood drawn from his foot. It took a few days for the results.

I was not the father.

I could say it didn't matter. To a large degree, it didn't. Michael was with his family. Heather and I made sure of that. What did it matter if I was his biological father or not? But it was impossible not to feel some sadness. Crisis is such.

The years passed and we kept in touch with Wayne and Cathy through letters. Cathy sent photos. Heather sent birthday cards. She finished college and moved in with me while she did an internship at a halfway house and I continued graduate school. In 1992, we got married. That same year, we arranged to meet with Wayne and Cathy.

The greatest fear of open adoption is the unknown.

It's the adoption tragedies that make the news, the disasters that get made into movies. In reality, they are often very cordial. For us, the correspondence helped us process the transition. Our top priority was always Michael. To see that happen, to witness his growth allowed us to grow with him. We eventually became the adults that we knew we would be, adults that just weren't there when he would need them.

Michael was two years old when we saw him. We spent a few hours with the family, got to see him play, got to hold him. Got to say goodbye. That closure made all the difference.

Two years later, we started a family. Ben was born. When his head crowned, I cried just as hard. Four years after that, there was Maddi and, despite my conviction that I'd been there, done that, I bawled a third time. We read books, rolled on the floor, took them for walks and blew out birthday candles.

And every June, Heather would send a birthday card to Michael. She would get pictures back and we watched him grow up.

Eighteen years after giving birth, we would meet him again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 6)

The contractions started. Then stopped. Then started.

The hospital was half an hour away. Despite Lamaze, our baby-making knowledge was mostly influenced by movies, especially when the baby is delivered in the back seat. We wanted not to do that, so we got there super early. Heather's water broke so they didn't send us home.

I rubbed every part of her body for 15 hours. She was shaking so badly that she needed a little something through the IV. Other than that, it was old school pain management. We engaged the breathing practice, focused on something, she told me to get my breath out of her face. It was a long night. And that carefully packed travel bag lay completely unpacked in the corner.

At some point, she was completely nude, covers on the floor. People were coming in and out but no one cared. Pain trumps modesty every single time.

Close to 5:00 am, Michael was on the way. The doctor arrived in time to catch him. I stayed up top with Heather, my hot breath in her face, as they told her to push. The doctor inserted forceps inside her, clamped his tiny little head to pull him out. It was about that time I became a sobbing mess.

Head on Heather's shoulder, I was snotting into my mask, weeping uncontrollably. Maybe it was the stress or sleep deprivation, but full disclosure: I did the same thing with our following two kids. Complete and utter collapse.

Me losing it when Ben was born. It was the same with Michael.

Michael was a healthy boy.

Illinois law requires three days after birth before adoption papers can be signed. This can be difficult. Heather stayed in the hospital three days. I don't think that happens these days. Her sister and mother were there from Arizona. Her grandmother, too. The birth certificate had to be filled out before we were released. We called Calvin Taylor Grant. His parents named him Michael.

We were a couple of young adults driving back to my parents house with an infant in the back seat. Emotions were turbulent. We had prepared ourselves for this moment, but you can never really be ready for it. We had no doubts about our decision. Michael would grow up with a good family, one that loved him, one that was ready.

It was a long 30 minute drive.

My parents lived on a lake. The backyard was big and scenic. There was a picnic table beneath a sprawling hickory oak and a swing tied to a branch.

That's where Wayne and Cathy met us.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 5)

We met at the Italian Village.

It was a small family owned restaurant with simple tables and wood paneling. There was a salad bar and an arcade in the back. You went there for thin-sliced pizza and spaghetti.

We met Wayne and Cathy at one of the vinyl booths. Nervousness hovered over the table. We were excited, but couldn't help feeling nervous. If this didn't work out, then what? The clock was ticking. We weren't unreasonable but not willing to compromise.

Their daughter, Kelsie, was with them. We loved that. They were unable to have a second child after her and that's why they were considering adoption. Kelsie was charming. Over breadsticks and spaghetti, our concerns were laid to rest.

We found our parents.

We told the social worker. She started the process. We still had many months to go, but at least we knew where we were going. The hard part was over. We had a destination. Now to get there.

We told friends but, for the most part, kept the pregnancy quiet. She hid the growing baby bump in baggy sweaters and sweat pants. We kept our daily schedule, kept up with college, and signed up for Lamaze classes. Childbirth was still quite a bit natural at that point. This was before epidurals were vogue. There were drugs but we interested in avoiding them as much as possible.

The classes mostly taught us what was going to happen. There was a mucus plug. There was water that would break and 100% effacement and 10 cm of dilation. There was breach, the umbilical cord, a travel bag that needed to be packed. There would be pushing. But first, there would be breathing.

Breathing was our main defense.

A series of short breaths and cleansing breaths. I would coach her through the labor pain, help her focus, keep her present, feed her ice chips, rub her legs, her back, her arms, hands, neck, whatever she needed. She would be on the front line. I would be support.

We made it through the semester. When he due date neared, we returned home. Heather's mother would fly back from Arizona for the birth. In the meantime, she stayed at her dad's house. I slept at my parents. There were some difficulties with those arrangements, but all in all we received the support we needed.

Michael arrived in June.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 4)

Heather and I grew up Catholic.

We still remember the hard pews and long Sundays, the monotone sermons and dry wafers that clung to the roof of our mouth. We weren't Catholic anymore and I didn't dress for church to visit Catholic Social Service, wearing a Who Framed Roger Rabbit t-shirt and red suspenders with pants that would be described as trousers. Heather dressed normal.

The social worker met us in a drab room with wood paneling and Berber carpeting. It smelled churchy. We wanted to know about open adoption. What was it? How did it work? Can we pick the parents?

She was a mildly shocked. Maybe it was the way I was dressed or that we were so excited. Open adoption wasn't that common and we were on the edge of our seat because this was it. We knew it, we could feel it.

The social worker explained that adoptive couples put together profiles. These were mostly narratives that told us a little bit about themselves, their background, education, philosophies, etc. If we liked someone, she told us, we could meet them. There was no pressure to say yes, no pressure to follow through. In fact, we could change our minds at the very last minute.

When we left, we were locked in. We weren't changing our minds. We couldn't be parents but we could find a good family. We were going into this wide-eyed and awake.

Heather told Steve the situation. She was pregnant and there was a chance that he could be the father. She had made a decision to make an adoption plan. He could be involved, if he wanted. If not, we had it covered. He was fine with that.

That made things easier.

We returned home for Christmas break and told our parents. Initially, we didn't mention Steve. The news was best served as simply as possible. Heather was pregnant and we were making an adoption plan. We had already met with a social worker, we were looking at profiles and we would choose the parents.

My parents were respectfully supportive. Heather's mom was incredible. Her father was not.

She was making a mistake. She would regret it. This was his grandson she was giving away. He would remain in that position throughout the entire pregnancy and beyond. That sort of pressure was difficult. If we were teenagers, it would have had lasting repercussions--on Heather, on us, on the child. But we were old enough to weather the resistance and work through it.

We had her mother. We had my parents. And we had each other.

In a way, the hardship galvanized our relationship. I pushed through barriers that kept me from committing. The pregnancy was greater than the two of us and we were both heading in the same direction, hand in hand, step for step.

We returned to school after the holidays, our decision intact. We poured through the profiles. There were certain attributes we were looking for but mainly we wanted good people. Several profiles later and we weren't making a connection. Then we read  about Wayne and Cathy.

And called the social worker.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 3)

There was some upside to our situation.

First off, we had nine months, not nine minutes. There was time to breathe, time to think.

Secondly, we were alone. We were still kids, but not exactly. We didn't live with our parents or even near them. My roommates didn't say anything. They either slept through the home invasion or chalked it up as an argument. This was the space we needed to let the pieces settle before sorting through them.

In the meantime, life continued. We still had class to attend, exams to take. Bills to pay.

We confirmed the pregnancy, did the check-ups and brought home the prenatals. Now it was real. What were our options?

Parenting. I was struggling with my own life. It was going to take years to figure my own shit out. Throw a newborn on top of that and we both go under. Heather wasn't ready, either. She was 21 years old. Our relationship needed time to build, to become stable and healthy. It wasn't ready for a baby.

There was also the issue of the third party. I might not be the father. That was a wrinkle. Steve didn't know about this yet. We would eventually cross that bridge.

Could we raise a child? If we had to, we could feed and clothe him, send him to school, sure. But getting married, staying married, being happy... all of that looked choppy. We could be parents, but not the parents we wanted to be. Not good parents. We needed to figure out our own lives first. After that, get our relationship working. If we get to that point, we have something to share with a child. It was clear we weren't there.

So parenting was out.

And that's what made our next decision. Abortion was out. We supported a woman's right to choose. We were choosing not to. The answer came easy for both of us and, in that regard, we were lucky. We seemed to fall in step with our decisions, both landing on the same squares as we went along. Abortion was out, case closed.

Now what?

We didn't know anything about adoption. We had friends that had been adopted in the late 60s. They didn't know their birth parents and neither did their adoptive parents. All transactions were made through a third party. A birth mother placed her child with an agency and the agency placed the child with an adoptive family. Nobody knew anybody.

We weren't sure we could do that.

One thing had become clear, a factor that was guiding all our decisions. The health and well-being of this child was first and foremost. He was top priority. What was best for him? It was why we couldn't parent, why we couldn't abort. And it was why we couldn't drop him off at an adoption agency and hope for the best. We were out of options.

Until we met with an adoption case worker.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 2)

We've all had those moments.

The moment you miss that last step. The panic rises. For a second, you're not sure you'll ever hit the ground. You just keep falling because this can't happen to me. It's surreal, overwhelming. All of that packed into the red pill and then down the hatch.

I was 22 years old. I was still going to school, sleeping on the floor, staying up too late and wondering where I might work that summer. I was still a kid. We both were. And we were huddled in the corner of a shit hole house, the quiet night shattered by her sobs.

My roommates didn't say a thing. Not then or in the morning. Midnight arguments were not the norm but they weren't that unusual, either. They probably heard the door crash open, heard the wailing and went right back to sleep. Despite walls as thick as the paneling, they didn't understand much. Unless they caught that one word.


So now what?

This was unplanned, certainly. Not good timing, definitely. I was at a point where I wasn't 100% sure I could take care of myself. I was heading into depression. I had been for quite some time, just didn't have a label for it yet. I was frightened, confused, and aimless. School was about done and I had no idea what I wanted to do or why. Like many kids, that transition to adulthood can be long and winding. I was thoroughly lost.

So I lay in the blankets holding her, supporting her. Whatever my issues were at the moment, they took a backseat. It forced me to set them aside, stop focusing on myself and be there for her. In a way, it was a relief. I wasn't thinking of me and, as a result, stopped wandering around lost. I had a job to do.

It was grow up.

The storm eventually passed. Her violent sobbing settled. She was able to breathe. And then she told me. She had taken a pregnancy test because she was late and it turned out the price was right. But that wasn't the show stopper, the force that drove her across town in the middle of the night, the reason she was consolable.

I don't know if you're the father.

Bit of a left turn I didn't see coming. We weren't an exclusive couple. She had been with someone that month so there was a fork in the road. I was on one side and a guy named Steve was on the other. In the meantime, we had a big red pill to swallow.

After the words left her, the storm returned with all the guilt and shame and sorrow that one would expect. It was out there, she said it. It was real now. I wasn't angry, not even hurt. Maybe it was the depression that kept me from heading down that path, or that there was this person I loved in genuine, utter distress. Despite my feelings about it, I needed not to go that way and be right there. I could (and would) feel all the hurt and sorrow for myself at a later time, a tidy little mess I would eventually address many years later. But for now, there was this.

So we lay there. In the morning we'd figure out what to do. Two kids, barely in their twenties, with a baby eight months away.

Time to grow up.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 1)

This story is a true story. It took 26 years to finish. To tell it, I need to start from the beginning.

It begins with a girl named Heather. A fair-skinned redhead that was a year behind me in middle school. We had never said a word to each other but I would see her in church, watch her as she approached communion and returned with her family. Attractive, sweet. A good girl.

We didn't hang out with the same crowds, so our paths rarely crossed. But in high school, we somehow ended up together. I don't remember how that happened, but it didn't last long. About two weeks. It was standard high school dating--hold hands a few times, make out and move on. She broke it off and I was bummed out and back to watching her take communion.

The end of it.

A few years later, we hooked up again. I was 19, she was 18. She had just broke up with her boyfriend and put the word out. She told her sister, who told my buddy, who told me that she was interested. I told him to tell her to tell her sister, I was too.

That's how it all started.

The very first date.

The next three years were bumpy as we navigated a relationship. They were the best of times with a lot of crying. We broke up, got back together, broke up, she moved to Florida, I went to college, she traveled Australia, I wrote letters, she sent pictures. It was reality TV. Without the TV.

My senior year in college is where this particular story begins.

At this point, she returned to the Midwest. She attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which happened to be where I was. This was no coincidence. We both expected to get back together and then it didn't happen. It was more me than her. I wasn't feeling it, one of the many reasons we were hitting all those bumps.

She was upset that I was cool with not getting back together. It took some time, but eventually she adjusted and got her grove back. She was living in an apartment on the other side of town with roommates, parties, and the college experience. And, for the most part, without me.

It was the fall of 1989. Having declared a major late, I stayed an extra semester to finish undergrad. I ended up living at 511 for a third year--a shithole house ravaged by three years of parties. I was 22 years old and done with the college experience. It was time to grow up, become an adult, get a job, pay some bills and live happily ever after.

So far, it wasn't working out.

Heather and I were talking again but still seeing other people. She was getting on just fine. I was mostly isolating. Most of my longtime roommates had moved out because they graduated on time, so I spent Saturday nights in front of the television eating Ramen noodles. I'd call her on the weekends, sometimes hear the party in the background. Sometimes she'd come over and spend the night.

October, 1989, we took a rode trip to Eastern Illinois University to spend the weekend with her sister and my buddy--the same couple that hooked us up almost four years earlier. We were lying in a pile of blankets that Sunday morning, lazy and content. Things seemed to be good, we were heading in the right direction. It could work this time.

And then it happened.

It was later that week, in the middle of the night. I was sleeping in the back room of the 511 shithole on a makeshift bed of blankets. It was the middle of the week, classes were the next morning when my bedroom door swung open. The doorknob hit the wall. I shot up. It was dark back there. The pale light of an alarm clock illuminated someone. In the span of two seconds--from waking to seeing--the figure lunged.


She was crying hysterically--a sweaty, tear-soaked, snotty mess. I couldn't make out a word. All I could do was hold her. It was 3:00 am. She had come all the way across town and crashed through our house. A word-smear of panic gushed from her, one syllable smashed into the next. Nothing made sense. Someone had died or got run over or blown up. And then a word rose out of the puddle and it all made sense.


However, this wasn't what had her so upset.