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The Early November
“That’s just life, Norah. Sometimes things work like the engine of your papa’s Ferrari when it’s all oiled and fixed up and what not, and ‘s not like it happens for one big important reason ‘er somethin’. ‘Cause then there are those other times when the engine just don’t start, no matter how pretty the paint job or how big the engine. Ain’t no real reasons, darlin’. Just life.”
This was the analogy my grandpa offered me as means of console as he drove me home that rainy autumn evening. I was beginning to think that the steady flow of tears and the dull ache that had taken over my body was becoming my permanent state of being saying as it hadn’t let up for days and showed no signs of stopping.
I sniffled. “Thanks Grandpa.” I was silent for the rest of the drive as was my grandpa because, really, there’s nothing you can say to a person whose heart is breaking right in front of your eyes.
I got out of the car, thanked my grandpa again for the ride, and made my way into my home lit by only the silver streaks of moonlight that managed to sneak between its shadows and curtains. I plopped onto the couch, still aching and weeping, letting myself fold into its brown, leathery confines. It must’ve been around midnight, but it could’ve been the middle of the afternoon and I wouldn’t have known the difference. Time became relative and, frankly, irrelevant. Anything besides Drew seemed impossibly far away, as though I was just watching the world go on around me without any real connections or relations to it.
I don’t know how long I just sat there in my dark living room dissecting my life and all of its newly dead hopes and dreams, thinking about how I’d manage to attend the funeral tomorrow, wondering what kinds of thoughts were running through Drew’s family’s minds. Mostly, though, I thought of Drew and if he was watching me right then and why he had to leave and what the point of his last reaching out to me was. That’s what really bothered me—the why. Why did God steal away from me the only guy I ever really loved? Why did Drew want to make me fall even more in love with him while knowing the entire time that it would only end up breaking my heart beyond repair? Did this give him some kind of sick satisfaction? And why couldn’t I seem to make sense of any of this?
After dozing in and out of sleep for what could’ve been moments, minutes or even hours, I noticed the stack of VCR tapes of our family’s Kodak moments that my parents had collected over the years. It had always been there, I suppose, but I guess one just doesn't really notice the minute details of her home until the busy lives that fill it come to a halt. Plus, I was in the mood to look back, mostly just because the thought of looking forward was unbearable.
There must’ve been fifty or sixty tapes when you added in all of the anniversaries and weddings. Mostly, though, since I never had any siblings, the collection consisted of my birthdays, Christmases, outings to the zoo and the art museum with my parents, field trips, all the school plays and band concerts and, the most recent ones, the times my family and I spent time with Drew. From one titled, “Drew and Norah’s 1 Year” to a recording of the funniest game of Pictionary I’d ever played in which Drew earned himself the nickname of Pooh Bear (don’t ask), the whole assortment of occasions caused a wistful kind of longing along with a surge of memories that I couldn’t block out, not that I would’ve wanted to anyway.
One memory in particular was so bright and fresh in my mind that it was nothing short of a blockbuster romance playing loud and clear behind my eyelids.
It was the most beautiful fall day I’d seen in all my seventeen years. I awoke to a pitch black sky and the smell of the blueberry pancakes made fresh by my parents earlier that morning. They had left maybe ten minutes before I woke up and the pancakes were still warm. They left me a note on the fridge, as they always did, letting me know what time they were scheduled to work for the day and that they loved me. I’d never really appreciated their early morning awakenings until I had to force my own lazy self through one. Drew was to blame for this. He said he had quite the day in mind for me, but in order for everything to go as planned, I had to wake up at the very crack of dawn and be ready by six o'clock sharp.
So awake I did. I had just enough time after finishing my pancakes and taking a shower to put on a quick layer of makeup and get my bag together before I heard the rumble of Drew's engine in my driveway.
The sun had just barely arrived in the sky and the air was cool, though way too warm for early November. He looked so cute with that proud smile and that messy auburn hair. Any annoyance I'd had from having to abandon my warm, dark bedroom on a cherished Saturday morning was gone at the very sight of him. I loved how happy it made him to see me happy.
"I thought you'd never get out here," his smile widened.
"You're lucky I'm out here at all at this time of the morning." I smiled wider.
"Hey, now. Don't ruin such a beautiful day with that attitude of yours, Elle," the only thing that made him happier than me being happy was making cheesy Legally Blonde references just for the sake of annoying me.
I gave him a look. "All I know is you'd better have a pretty amazing day set out for us, because I don't get up at this time of the morning for just anything, you know."
"I know." I thought that smile might just split across the side of his cheek and run straight into his ear when he reached into his pocket and said, "Okay, babe, close your eyes."
"Why would I do that? I don't know if I trust you," I teased.
“Forget trust. You make up for that part of our relationship with those stunning looks of yours."
He was painfully corny, but I loved him anyway. "Oh, you're too cute. Fine,” I said before making a dramatic sigh, and then closing my eyes.
"Turn." So I turned. I felt him wrap what felt like some kind of blindfold around my eyes.
"What in the world are you doing?" I tried to hide my excitement but Drew and I had spent nearly every day for the past two years together and he knew me better than that.
"Getting you ready for the amazing date of your life." He said this with such confidence that I had to believe him, and also because I honestly did. Everything was just that much more exhilarating when you did it with Drew.
And he was so right. Everything was completely perfect. From the car ride in which we listened only to Augustana, John Mayer and Animal Collective (my favorites, of course), to the food he'd so carefully decided upon to the temperature outside, it was like a chapter of our own little fairytale, something no one else could create. He knew me like my grandpa knew the inside of an engine, so only he knew what to comprise our day of and how to go about doing so in such a way that made my heart sparkle.
I remember tasting the best hotdog I'd ever eaten (definitely a Nathans', straight off Coney Island, just like the ones my dad would bring home after a Yankee game with his sports friends), drinking the worst cup of coffee one could imagine (he'd told me he was taking me to the very best cup of coffee on the east coast and laughed hysterically when I nearly vomited after a sip; he was completely aware of how much I despised coffee) riding on what I guessed from behind my blindfold to be a Ferris wheel, hearing a bit of a Thomas Cunningham concert while feeling the mist of the Atlantic ocean and the warm sand beneath my feet, and enjoying it all from the comfort of Drew's arms. He'd managed to create all of these plus so many other experiences all compacted into just ten beautiful hours. It's the kind of day that you could write an entire novel about but that no one else would want to read because it only held that deep, soul-churning meaning for you.
I could feel the chill of night setting in. I was still being lead with that blindfold on for what seemed to my tired legs like hours--note to self: do NOT wear heels when there's even a remote possibility of spending the day walking--before Drew stopped and was silent for a bit before announcing,
"Okay, Norah. Now it's time for the grand finale."
I doubted that anything could seem very grand next to spending a day so perfectly planned for my liking with the guy who did it all for the simple satisfaction of making me happy. "I'm pretty sure nothing could top today."
I could almost feel that smile of his radiating beside me, even with my blindfold on. I felt its strings being untied and within the next few moments, I was proven very wrong.
I opened my eyes to the most amazing exhibit of lights, people, and life that I'd ever encountered; I was standing in the very heart of Times Square. In every direction there were buildings that towered at least fifteen times my height. People bustled on by with their daily lives as though they weren't standing smack dab in the center of the most incredible scenery of their life (my life, to be particular). The lights dazzled and stunned and I couldn't help but just stand there in a kind of dumbfounded awe and try to take it all in. The entire scene was simply breathtaking.
"Drew, this is amazing."
But he already knew that. He looked at me for a bit, still with a kind of grin on his face, and kissed me in the center of it all as though he was really, genuinely proud to call me his own. Every last worry from my life back in Jersey seemed delightfully distant. The combination his kiss and the lights just twinkled it all away.
As he lead me down Broadway, I felt on top of the world. No famous actress in her debut production could've felt what I felt that night. I was practically elevating as we slowly made our way, hand in hand, from the lighted city to a grassy park. We walked around the trails for a while talking about anything and everything that came to our minds. We then came to a bench where Drew let go of my hand and sat down. For the first time all day, that adorable smile of his wasn't so glittery. It was, in fact, barely there at all.
I scrutinized him for a bit, but couldn't seem to find the answer. "Is something wrong?"
He looked up at me, trying to force that smile, but I could tell that something was indeed wrong. "I've got some stuff I need to tell you."
To be honest, I wasn't all that worried. I mean, being in the kind of mood I was in, I couldn't think of any news that could really bring me down.
"What is it, Pooh Bear?" I asked hoping to lighten the mood as I placed myself beside him on the bench.
He didn't even look up.
Still keeping a steady gaze with the ground, the next words he uttered from his mouth didn't even register with me at first.
"I have brain cancer." Brain cancer...brain cancer...Norah's brain is scanning the files but can find no such vocabulary in the database.
He waited for a response, but I couldn't think of anything to think let alone say.
"I've got only a while longer to live. Doctors don't really know what that means exactly, but there's no way to tell because of how unpredictable the cancer is."
As my mind started to register this information, the rest of my body seemed to forget how to function. My legs became rubber, my heart a thrashing mess under my squashy bones, my insides liquefied. I stood up. I looked down to find that my legs had decided to start carrying my body in the opposite direction. I heard him behind me but I couldn't stop. I just kept walking and walking faster and faster until the walk became a run. I ran so hard and so fast away from his voice until it became no more than a distant murmur behind me. Drew's voice only reminded me that our time was now so harshly limited, and just the whole concept of this situation was excruciating.
I'm not sure how long I ran before I just couldn't run any longer. Exhausted, I ended up in front of a dull, crumbly building in the middle of some slum. I was all alone, and there was no longer anything to distract me from all of the questions I was dreading facing: How long had he known about this? What was the point of taking me on that flawless dream date only to smash my heart into a thousand tiny pieces afterwards? How much more time did I have with him? Why did all of this have to happen to us? Why couldn’t this have happened to a bad, mean kid instead of my kind, loving boyfriend of two years? It was that unanswered-ness of it all that was the hardest thing to deal with.
After managing to sleep for maybe an hour at best, I awoke to a bright, sunny morning. It gave me an instant headache. Only moments after lying there on the couch and I was already curling back into my little ball, ready to sleep away the morning, resenting that beautiful day that could so easily and obliviously going on as though my world wasn’t collapsing around me.
Reality, however, had other plans. Just seconds later, my mom arrived at the foot of the stairs, already showered and dressed in black dress pants and a dark dress shirt.
“Sweetie?” her voice was gentle, her tone a careful one, trying so very hard not to say the wrong thing, “We’ll have to leave in an hour or so if you want to make it to the funeral home on time.”
I nodded. She got halfway up the stairs before suddenly whipping back around and coming back down.
“Hun, I forgot to tell you. You got a letter in the mail yesterday, but there’s no return address. Here, let me go get it.” She went in the kitchen to retrieve a little white envelope marked only with a stamp and the words, “For Norah, 7429 August Avenue”.
Obviously the letter was from Drew; first of all, it was his handwriting and written with the fancy, red pen that he kept on his desk in his room. Plus, he was the only person I knew that was classy and caring enough to not only handwrite me a letter but to then take the time to actually send it by mail. Inside the envelope was a short letter signed with Drew’s sloppy signature and an obvious dousing of his cologne, the scent of which being the most divine thing I’d come across in days. The date at the top was November 17th—exactly one week and two days before he died; he’d clearly had a hunch about his expiration date.
Dear Elle Norah,
Please forgive me for not telling you about the cancer, but I’d only found it out a few days before Times Square. I was so unsure about how and when to tell you. I wanted to have one last amazing, carefree day with my favorite person in the whole wide world before I’d have to leave her forever, and you know what? I got it, and I know you did, too.
And babe, I know it’s not easy right now. I want you to know that I realized how much you loved me and how much pain my departure will have caused you. I also know how much time you’ll spend agonizing over my death and its reasons and causes and effects because you’re a smart girl and you like answers, and it’s one of the reasons I fell so in love with you.
But as I sit here making a last minute bucket list, I’m realizing that there’s one thing on my mind that I have to make sure you know. I need you to understand that there’s no such thing as an answer to the kinds of questions you’re asking right now, so it’s not fair to yourself to sit there analyzing it all and getting nowhere. It’s not as though I’m not going to die because I deserved it. The world won’t keep going on indifferently just to make a point. Sometimes, things happen and there’s no point to them at all and if there is, you’ll never be able to find it, and if you do, it’s not like you could ever know if it’s the right one or not. Besides, none of it matters. All that matters is that I love you now and I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you and I’ll keep on loving you forever. I’ll always be watching over you. You might feel alone, but just remember that I’ll always be there. Forget about the “why” of it all. I love you and you love me and that’s all that’s ever mattered and it’s not like that will change once I’m gone.
With all my love,
The tears were even thicker now than they were just hours before, but that bottomless, slicing hurt in the center of my chest had actually lessened. Having Drew tell me one last time just how much he loved me and being reminded again of how well he knew me was kind of spectacular all in itself, but there was something else, too, though I couldn’t seem to put my finger on it. It seemed like some foreign kind of emotion, or maybe it was the sensation of a weight so heavy within my thoughts being lifted. Looking back, though, I think it was just me fully realizing what my grandpa was trying to explain to me the night before. Ain’t no real reasons, darlin’. Just life. I realized what he meant now, and that’s that the only clear cut answers in life regard facts. Feelings and fate, on the other hand, follow no rules. They have no mercy. They don’t discriminate. There are reasons and causes behind them, of course, but when those reasons are so ambiguous and impossible to pinpoint or label, and when fate happens so ruthlessly and randomly, analysis is useless. It can go nowhere. Sometimes, all you can do is just accept it for what it is and try to make the most of it.
Drew’s death just happened. God didn’t do it to be mean. He surely had a reason for it, but not one that anyone around here will discover anytime soon. Drew died. He’s gone forever. I’ll always feel pain when I think of this and I’ll never be able to really, truly move on, but it’s not like any explanation of it all could ever make it any better.
I know, too, that I’ll never be alone. Say what you will about Heaven and angels and a life hereafter, but I honestly believe it happens, if only because it’s a whole lot better than the alternative. I like to think that Drew watches over me at my soccer games and at school and when I drive home at night. It makes me feel like I never really lost him, but instead that we were just going to have to spend some time apart.
And you know what they say—true love grows with distance while puppy love only fades. I have no doubt in my mind as to my love for Drew and how much it’s going to multiply over the years. I mean, sure, I’ll probably get married and have kids and create a whole new life for myself someday, but I’ll never have really left Drew. He’ll be right by my side through it all, reminding me that life isn’t about the reasons. It’s about enjoying the passing of the seasons, just like he’d lived his whole life.
I knew it would be hard to go on with the day and I knew attending the funeral would be anything but a picnic. I also knew, however, that the funeral wasn’t goodbye. It was just a “see you again soon” kind of thing. Because no matter what problems or unanswered questions came up, I could always be sure of one thing: he’d always be my Pooh Bear and I’d always be his Elle.