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Topic: Dropout (05/12/11)
By Robyn Burke
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Jamie wasn’t supposed to die. Not yet. We had plans. We wanted to travel, have a baby, buy a house. The cancer changed everything. The cancer wasn’t just a killer, it was a liar. We were supposed to have had more time.
I allowed my father to guide me to the kitchen, settle me on a chair and serve me hot tea. I remember studying the bone white china, with its intricate pattern of roses and vines, thinking the cup and saucer looked so tiny in my father’s rough hands.
The drive to the cemetery was as surreal as the day Jamie died. We passed a row of cherry trees, their windswept blossoms covering the ground in a thick carpet of fuchsia. So achingly beautiful it hurt to look at it and I had to shut my eyes from the brilliance of it. It had hurt to look at Jamie in those last days too; my beautiful boy, my lover. The cancer had stolen so much of him.
We’d been cloistered during the final months of Jamie’s illness. I became hermit-like in the days and weeks that followed. My college class would be marked incomplete, my leave of absence from work stretching far past what had been allotted. I was, in every sense of the word, a drop out. There was nothing that could entice me to leave the cocoon of the cottage where Jamie and I spent his last days. My family did their best, bringing me my favorite foods, funny little gifts, comedy movies; anything to distract me. I would endure each visit, grateful when at last they would return to their homes leaving me in my solitude, with my memories.
Spring became summer and summer became fall. Day in and day out, and long after his scent had faded, I wrapped myself in one of Jamie’s shirts, its flaps hitting me mid thigh. With the soft flannel against my skin, I could imagine his arms around me, still holding me tight. How was it possible that a broken heart could continue to beat?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were supposed to grow old together. I remembered our honeymoon. Two crazy-in-love kids, enveloped in an old quilt, huddled on the front porch of this cottage, watching a sunrise, a sunset. We purposely did not go away for the week following our wedding, choosing instead to drop out of sight from the rest of the world, eager to start building our life together, in this our love nest.
Friends, family, kept tabs on me, offered encouraging words, spoke firmly, trying to coax me back into the real world outside my door. At some point I surrendered. I needed to earn an income, despite my family’s endless hospitality. Held together by a delicate thread, I returned to the workforce. For 8 hours every day I did what was expected of me. No more, no less. Each morning as I stood in front of the mirror I would hear Jamie’s voice rooting for me. “You can do this.” Each morning was a small victory; each night brought crushing defeat as once again I faced my empty house.
It would have been so much easier to pull the ultimate drop out but I had made Jamie a promise: one of us would be a survivor.
And so, as all those who have been there will tell you, while the pain never entirely goes away, we manage. Somehow, we find the strength to carry on. Jamie had been my strength even as his weakness prevailed. I believe with all my heart he is still my strength today.
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