The day after David and I got engaged, I rode my bike out to Salem to walk a friend’s dog. A host of purple-gray clouds were congregating in the southeast, and the sun overhead shone like it knew its time was nearly up. The black lab frolicked through the park while fear clenched a sweaty fist in my abdomen. Why are you worrying? I asked myself. Hadn’t I biked through the rain dozens of times?
I took the pup home and hopped back on my bicycle, determined to take a little detour before returning to Beverly. A few minutes later I stood alone at the end of Ocean Avenue, staring out at the shadowed sea.
I lived a block from here the year my first marriage ended. Those last few months I walked to this rock wall nearly every day, inhaling like a woman who can’t count on her next breath. This is the wall where I stopped telling myself that I was happy. These are the trees that couldn’t fix anything. This is the ocean that reminded me I might survive.
When David and I had walked to the beach the morning before, the sky glowered gray threats and I couldn’t care less. He knelt in the sand and sang me a song he wrote while his father snapped pictures from the bushes. I told him Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and the specter of my deceased marriage didn’t even dabble its toe in my peripheral vision. Every cell of me knew that come lightning or hail or flying monkeys, David and I could depend on each other. We walked across the deserted shore like the only people on the planet. The first drops started falling just as we made it back to my apartment.
At the end of Ocean Avenue it finally occurred to me that my queasy stomach had little to do with the impending storm. At the rock wall I reencountered the sadness I used to carry down this street, the unalterable reality that sometimes two kind-hearted people become like strangers to each other. I suppressed the urge to straddle my bike and pedal like a madwoman for home. I stood with my fear and my loss and my journal, scratching my pen along the pages the way a toddler sucks her thumb.
A small boy in green sunglasses trotted out of the house at the end of the street and joined me at the wall. “Did you see the lightning?” he asked. I shook my head no. His father, a few feet behind, smiled apologetically. “It flashed all the way down!” the child continued, pointing an expert finger at the horizon. I registered sufficient awe, so he nodded and turned away from me like a teacher who has redirected a distractible student. “Why don’t you keep watching?”
Okay, I thought. I can do that.
That’s the difference this time around. When I got married at 18, I hadn’t yet learned how to sit and watch a storm roll in. Intellectually, I understood life’s unpredictable weather: the nor’easters of illness or financial instability, the beautiful-but-terrain-altering blizzards of parenthood or career change. But when the first dark clouds appeared in my marriage, I was so enamored of sunshine that I didn’t know how to see anything else. I dove deeper into my work while my husband devised his own escapes. By the time the storm broke above us, we were too far apart to make it out as one.
Not this time. Grief tutored me in the art of stillness, and lately love has been reinforcing the lesson. I know better than to forecast cloudless skies for David and me, but I know that whatever the weather, I’ll be paying attention.
What more can any of us offer? We cannot predict how our loved ones will grow and change; we cannot predict who we ourselves will become. But we can show up. We can step back from our work and take in the horizon. We can keep watching.