The Story of B: And You’re The Only One Who Knows
NEO, I heard you in an interview last month talking about your poetry book I Dream of You and you were telling some very wonderful and heartbreaking stories about which poems were related to what relationships in your life. There was one group of poems you talked about a young girl you fell in love with who was dying. I was cussing out everybody in the house keeping them out of my room because it had me so messed up crying I couldn’t even remember everything to tell my sister about it. Can you please please please please tell that story on your website because I cannot find it. –KATRINA
MY REPLY: You know I never really intended to tell that whole story but each time I have done an interview it comes up and it is like everybody wants more detail about it. I will try to tell it but it still takes a lot out of me.
Seven years ago I finally filed for divorce from a twelve year relationship that I got into to protect someone, had no business being in, and paid a tremendous price trying to be Superman and marrying Kryptonite. But that is what happens when you think you are invincible enough to solve any problem or situation. Life will teach you to recognize your limitations and, often, in a way that is very messy. Divorce is never easy but I will never deny the necessity of it to save your own life.
As with most broken relationships, the end did not begin with the divorce. Divorce is usually the end of a long process of exhausting mental and emotional suffering that makes you literally feel like you will die if you continue to stay with someone- in fact, you already feel dead inside to the point where you would rather just die alone. As with any other near death experience, your life with that person literally flashes before your eyes, and you must come face to face with one of two undeniable realities. Either that relationship uplifts you to Heaven, or drags you to Hell.
Too many times we waste a lot of water trying to put out hell fire instead of recognizing that Hell exists to burn and that our focus should be on just getting the hell out. The hardest part of escaping any fire is not only the pain of your own burns, but the guilt and shame of not being able to get to and carry others out who cannot make it on their own because Hell has its own gates and guardians of it. There are some flames you just cannot walk through and so you are left to mourn and pray for those captured therein. Such was the state of my soul after the demonic scorching that was my divorce.
I was never a man to contemplate taking my own life, nevertheless, I would not have minded if God had taken it from me. My life was my children and with my reason for living gone, I saw no real purpose in my existence. I simply sat and told God, whenever you are ready, I am already packed. In fact, since you already took the only things that mattered to me, I don’t even need a suitcase.
One of the gifts I have been blessed with is music. My music was the only thing that kept me from withering away. In fact, it was the only thing that kept me from losing my mind while I was married; although there were gaps of years where the stress so drained me that I could not even think to sing or write. But I stumbled upon a place online where I could anonymously and literally sing my heart out without anyone knowing it was me. It became my outlet, my life support.
Much in the same way that my readers respond to the passion of my writing, I did not expect there to be an instant and growing audience to my singing online. Having just then entered into my 40’s , most of what I sang was pretty much old skool and other hits from various styles of music so I did not expect that one of my biggest fans would be a young sistah barely twenty years old who was not even alive when most of the songs I sang were on the radio.
She dropped me a note telling me how much she appreciated the songs I sang and that she was a big fan of old skool. She also called me handsome and sexy. Of course, with me being at the lowest point in my life and having come out of an interracial relationship after having little success being appreciated by my sistahs, her words were a little shocking. I suppose, much in the way as a woman who has been married most of her life may feel getting hit on by someone younger after she is single again. It does not feel normal being complimented in such a way after being “off the market” for a while. You have a tendency of brushing it off like that other person is blind or something.
So I treated this young lady like I would any “child” by just playing it off as some youngin nipping at my heels. But she wasn’t quite a child. Her spirit was very very deep. There was a silly playfulness about her that suited her age but there was something I could tell that was very much beyond her years that drew me to her. The only other person I felt that depth in at that age was me. And so we began to exchange messages.
She told me that she was a single mom. I believe her daughter was barely between one and two at the time because I could hear her trying to sing along with her mom in some of her online recordings. She had a similar balance to her blackness as me in that she understood the ghetto side but was also very smart and very forward thinking. Best of all, she did not question my blackness in the way that I spoke nor the fact that my taste in music and other things did not fit the profile of the stereotypical hood raised black man. It was refreshing that I could be me- all of me. And the fact that she had been raised with the same music and values as me by two parents made me all but forget that 20 years separated us. She was the sistah I wish I met and married when I was her age.
It was obvious that we liked each other a lot. It was also obvious that we were both holding back from admitting it. I knew my reasons. Aside from the fact that I considered her much too young for me, I was still very much wounded and far from being in any condition to consider a relationship. Yet being a man of expression, I wanted her to know the joy she had brought to my life and that I cared about her. However, as soon as it went from our constant laughter to me trying to express my appreciation of her, she shut down. Not only did she shut down, she disappeared. In my already fragile state I wasn’t really prepared for that. It felt to me like, once again, I wasn’t black enough or good enough to be appreciated by a sistah.
A few days later she messaged me and said she needed to tell me something that she tells very few people. She went on to explain to me that in her teens she was diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer that no person diagnosed had ever lived 6 years past the diagnosis and she was in her 5th year of treatment. She explained that she shut herself off from being in love or allowing anyone to love her because she knew she would be dying soon and could not bear the thought of leaving behind someone who would be hurt by her loss. And so she did not want me to ever express to her any feelings. She just wanted to enjoy the fun of our conversations in the time she had left.
Well any of you who have read my writings already know that was not going to work. I am a touchy feely emotional man despite the fact that I am also very disciplined. Needless to say, there were numerous occasions where she walked away from a conversation online simply because I expressed care and concern. Even so, we became very close. So close to the point that there was absolutely nothing we could not share. After all, what did it matter because she would be taking every conversation we had to her grave. I know that sounds cold but that is how we viewed it. Imagine being that free to talk because you have nothing to lose.
The end result was that we became conversational soul mates. There was not an ounce of our lives that we did not share. Our hopes, our fears, our joys, our sorrows. No one alive, not even our families or exes would know each other as well as we had come to share. So strong became our bond that each time she would have to be rushed to the hospital, I felt it before she called me. Sometimes I would stop in the middle of the day when she was at a doctor’s appointment and call her just as they were going to admit her. It got to the point where even her own doctors were shocked at the spiritual bond we shared and how I always knew to call. At the end of each call when she would hear me about to wish her well and tell her I love her, she would cut me off, say I was being mushy, and hang up on me.
She had stolen all my recordings online and bootleged them to her ipod and each night she and her daughter would fall asleep to me singing much like my own kids did when I used to practice at night. Her daughter knew my voice so well that she would fight for the phone when I called and I would do all the sesame street characters for her. As time went by, her daughter simply knew me as Elmo.
Over time, the condition would get worse. The hospital visits would increase and the pain medication would not be as effective. Caring about her took away me feeling sorry for myself. Some nights, instead of her falling asleep to her bootleg recordings of me, I would stay on the phone or on an internet feed and she would listen to me rehearse. I could hear her cry herself to sleep from the pain of the cancer and could barely sing because I too would start to cry but I could not let her know. After a while her room mate would come in to the room and whisper to me that she was asleep. I would also call her before going on stage for a concert and leave my phone connected so she could hear.
The depth of our bond was such that everybody- her doctors, family, friends, even close friends of mine knew that there was a very deep love between us. We spoke to each other in ways that only a couple married to each other for 50 years could talk. But at the same time, because she had been diagnosed so young, she was really not used to someone holding her accountable. She was a real spoiled brat because who would correct a girl who could die at any time. Guess who? And lawd lawd we had some knock down drag out fights. Yall already know how I am. I didn’t care if she was on her last breath, if she was wrong, she was wrong. Funny thing is, it only made our bond stronger because I didn’t handle her like a dying person. We had a real friendship where she could trust me to not hold back.
By this time we were well into the year she was expected to die. Even though she complained every time I said it, she finally accepted me telling her that I loved her. Her cancer count was increasing and she was spending more and more time in the hospital. One day I was on the phone with her and she told me that just once, before her condition takes away all her strength and beauty, she would like to know what it was like to be made love to by someone who actually cares about her. What you have to realize is that if you saw her on the street, and did not know her condition, this short body mama breaks necks and was a sistah I considered out of my league when I was young.
Her request stunned me. I even talked to a few of my friends about it. A few of you are even on my profile now from back then. I remember one of my friends telling me “Neo, you know even I wish I had my life together enough to be able to be that woman in your life but I have to be ok with being your friend. All I can tell you is that if you really feel about her the way I think you do, then go, and your friends will be here to support you.”
Now bear in mind that this friendship was built online and sustained through calls and video chat for two years up to that point. So we made a pact that if she got out of the hospital and was well enough to be intimate, that I would go and we would spend an entire romantic weekend together. That, in and of itself, was a huge leap from not even wanting to hear me say I cared about her. Only she never got better. The next several months were a roller coaster in and out of the hospital, seeing more and more specialists. I just wanted to go see her. I wanted to see my friend before she passed. I even planned to take a few months to stay with her and her roommate while still writing to help take care of her but she shot it down because she feared me seeing her looking less and less attractive. She wanted me to remember her as she was. Our arguments over it were strong and passionate and entrenched. It got to the point where we even stopped speaking.
The months that went by after that were very emotional for me. I could feel each time she was in the hospital. I felt every cry and every pain she went through. I feared the call that she had finally passed. One day a call came from her number and I held my breath expecting it to be her room mate or her mom breaking the news. But it was her voice.
All throughout her treatments her cancer count was battled with major blood transfusions. I don’t want to get too technical but if you ever had to type a paper on the computer and for some reason the computer shut down before you gave the paper a name and saved it, you end up losing everything. But if you saved it, then the computer usually saves every 10 minutes after that so that if the system shuts down, you only lose a little bit of your work.
Well that is kind of like her memory was after each transfusion. Your brain is the hard drive and your blood is like the RAM or the temporary memory of things that have not been saved yet. She lost her temporary memory each time and would have to read her journal that she kept of all of our chats and conversations to remember a lot of things about us. A little like the movie 50 First Dates with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.
She would make notes next to the transcripts to remind herself how she felt about me and what I said- including feelings that she kept to herself that she was not ready to express. Each time she would get released from the hospital, that is how she rebuilt her memory. And so knowing how much she would lose each time, she learned to be more and more brutally honest with herself because sometimes she did not want to believe her own words after the transfusions would make her regress back into her fear of love.
Apparently she went through that quite a few times during the months that we were not talking and finally recognized that I truly did love her. More than that, she came to the conclusion that she loved me too. So when I answered the phone, those were the words I heard from her voice followed by her hanging up. Needless to say, I almost needed a trip to the hospital that time.
I tried several times to reach her and she would not answer. Finally she did and she explained that she felt a need to tell me and that I didn’t have to say anything. I was so stunned that I couldn’t say anything. She told me that her cancer count was out of control and even though there was some suggestion of an experimental treatment, it was likely a battle she would lose but she refused to die without being honest with me about her feelings and everything she had learned about love from our friendship.
At that point in my life I had sworn off ever getting married again, but we wanted to spend the rest of her days in each other’s lives and since that would include complicated medical situations, in that conversation, we agreed to get married and enjoy whatever time we could share. We were already closer to each other than we were with any other human beings in our lives. Having faced death since she was in her teens, she was not a child, and neither was her body whose bones were very fragile and always seemed to be in some kind of cast because of a street fight between her and some ghetto chick who took a swing at her because the girl’s man could not keep his eyes to himself. Her little azz behind would throw down and nobody knew how sick she was and that fighting would end up breaking her own bones. That was the fighter I fell in love with and I began to make plans to be with.
Almost immediately after our plans were made, her health took a major turn. I begged to go see her and she refused saying she did not want it to be the first and last way I saw her. She was so adamant that she said she would put in an order with the doctors to refuse visitors. I was crushed but who was I to truly understand everything she had going on inside. I just waited and prayed. Her roommate would connect with me online and try to encourage me to be patient and tell me she was working on getting her to change her mind. Up to now I failed to mention that her room mate was my age and had watched the relationship unfold from the beginning. Her roommate was the one who encouraged her to finally tell me how she felt and told me it was the most incredible love story she had ever witnessed.
So I calmed down as much as I could. A few days later she called from the hospital to tell me that plans were being made for her to take an emergency medical trip overseas for an experimental treatment that was not yet legal in the United States. It was a last ditch effort for her to beat the odds that nobody before her had ever beaten. I begged to see her before the trip but she said no, she didn’t want it to be the last way I saw her but she promised that no matter what time she had left when she got back, that she would want to spend it with me but she didn’t feel right about me coming into her life at her lowest. The last words I heard from her was, “when we get back I will know what I face and will have to accept and I will be ready to marry you and spend whatever time that is together.” She begged for me to respect it. She told me she loved me, and she got on the plane.
The first few days of testing overseas she text me from her hospital joking and in a good mood telling me how much her young body was going to wear me out when we got married. The day of the major procedure included a 100% transfusion in addition to stem cell treatments. Her mom, daughter, and room mate were there and kept me updated by text. At one point her roommate text and said she was not looking good and I just prayed and tried to make myself busy.
A few days later I got a text letting me know that she was out of the woods and was being sent back to the hotel suite still under observation but would be resting. Later that night I got a call. It was her roommate very panicked. She had awoken with all her memories gone. The only person she recognized was her daughter and had locked herself in the bedroom with her daughter. I could hear her emotional rage screaming through the doors at her roommate and her mother asking where she was and who were they and what the hell was going on. Nobody could calm her down. Nobody could get her to open the door.
They asked me to call her phone and I did. Apparently others tried to call her and she hung up on everyone in a rage. But somehow she recognized my number and she answered. All I did was speak her name and I said “Baby, I love you and it is going to be alright.”
Her rage immediately settled into confusion and she started crying. She said, “Your voice, I know this voice. I am soooo sorry I know you mean something to me. I can feel it inside but I just, I just don’t know. I just don’t know. Dammit I just don’t know” and she began to sob deeply followed by an emotionally agonizing scream. The phone dropped as I heard her voice becoming ever more distant screaming “Who told you to call him? Why did you have to call him?” and a door slammed.
Her roommate picked up the phone and told me she had run out of the suite with her mother in pursuit and she was staying to watch the child. As she explained to me what happened when she awoke, the mother came back and said that she had fled the hotel into the streets of the city and no one could catch her. At that point I totally lost it inside. I had been through all kinds of things in my life. I do not know if it had more to do with my relationship with her or the fact that it was just one more thing on top of the pain of divorce but I felt a pain inside I had never known. A pain that no relationship with any woman had ever made me feel before, or ever since.
In a day and a half that felt like a lifetime, I finally heard back from her roommate telling me she had been hospitalized to complete the next phases of treatment. I spoke with her one time after that in the hospital and it was beyond emotional with her sobbing that she knows I am supposed to be something to her but she just did not know. It upset her so bad that it was medically determined best that I did not call.
For several days I exchanged online messages and calls from her roommate updating me on her progress and encouraging me to not give up. But by that time my depression had fallen so deep that I had stopped writing. I stopped eating. I told her roommate that I could not bear it and to just let me know when they were safely back home in the Untied States and that I would leave her alone since my presence only seemed to hurt her. Her health was more important than me.
At the time I had a grad student staying with me who had only known me to be strong. Those of you who were readers on my website saw me withdraw from writing for months. Many of you wrote me very worried. The post that I left online before taking my break included the following song from one of my favorite artists, Billy Joel:
After a few months in mourning and hearing nothing except a message from her roommate telling me they were trying to help her get back her memories, I returned to my website to see that she had been there and reading. That would be the beginning of the four poems that would make it into the book “I Dream of You”
The recordings we made the same day that each poem was written and reflect the true emotions felt at the time. Knowing she was visiting my site I posted these three:
R U Alright
Time passed and although many of my readers did not know the story behind those poems, they certainly responded to the passion and I got many letters from fans expressing to me the emotions that were evoked when they both read and listened to each. Those who had been readers for a long time also wrote to express concern because they felt the pain in my voice. But still no word from the person for whom they were intended.
Then, a few months later, I got a call. It was her, and yet, not quite her. The joyous child was missing, replaced by a somber maturity still searching for answers. She explained to me how she had spent months trying to reconstruct her life and that the treatment had stolen all of the emotions she had apparently learned to feel through our relationship. She said that were it not for the years of notes in her own writing to herself, no one could have ever convinced her of the person she had become through learning to love me.
She said that her roommate was in tears trying to explain to her all the time and work and effort that built our relationship and how she finally realized that she could love and that it was ok to love. She said that she could not deny her own words nor all the evidence of it she had kept including all the notes to herself of the times that she forgot things before… but this time… this time she could not find within herself all those feelings that even her own words told her she felt or why. Her frustration began to build as I began to cry. She said “I feel your love so deeply. I see every example of your love in the incredible ways you have shown me love and when I read it back to myself I feel like I am crazy because it is any woman’s dream to know love like I see you have loved me. It just kills me inside that I cannot give you what I gave you before. I know there is something inside of me and I see here right to the day I told you I love you and even explain to myself why, but I do not know why I can’t recall those feelings. I am sorry. I am soooo sorry for hurting you. I have put you through so much. I see how much you been through to get through to me and I don’t even know why you love me after all that. I am sorry. I am.. I am… “
By that time I was emotional and I felt like I was only adding stress to her condition. I swallowed my emotion and gathered myself together and said “It’s ok. It’s ok. I would rather know that you are alive and lose your love than to be selfish and have you for only a moment just to know my name.” For her sake I could not let her know how much I was dying inside. After all, it was a miracle that she was even still alive. But that night, I finished the fourth poem about what was going on inside of me.
Next we spoke, we tried to carry on as friends. She had grown a lot through the ordeal, being the first patient in medical history to beat the death deadline for that form of cancer her count was miraculously down to single digits. Not only was she more mature, but she possessed a sophistication to her thought process that seemed familiar. It turned out that she had used the years of notes from all the conversations and battles between us as part of her template to rebuild her life. So, in a way, a part of me had become a part of the new her. It was like talking to someone who had somehow been redesigned to be perfect for me. Add to it the emotional history that I remembered but she could not, it was very hard for us to talk. We would bring up something in the past and she could feel the pain in my voice that she could only remember it as something that happened while I could fully recall the joy of it.
It was decided that, with her new lease on life, we would just have to let each other go. We would check in on each other now and then and talk about others we were dating, but she admitted the lifelong cancer experience and my influence upon her life, and the fact that she had a body that was really much older in what she could do, that she felt out of place with her peers. She was so much older in many ways and even when we discussed others who were in our lives, we both could see right through to the end of each others’ relationships because no one knew us better than we knew each other. At the same time there was much concern amongst those who knew what happened in the past that trying to rekindle anything would be too much for me to bear if a similar thing happened so everyone thought it would be just fair to err on the side of caution.
But it was like one of those situations where you break up with an ex who you don’t really hate. For whatever reason you couldn’t make it, you still get along and actually like each other. Staying too chummy under those circumstances makes it hard for a new person to come into your life in the face of someone who knows you so well. And in the case of this young lady, absolutely no one knows us as well as we know each other.
She continued to be the miracle girl, passing each other online with an occasional hello until finally late one night, after a few years, she wrote to say she had awoken right that moment to all of her missing emotional memories. The message was lightly laced with regret that the timing of these memories was not exactly best or fair to the circumstances of her life.
It was a bittersweet redemption to all that we had grown to become in the brief months that we commonly shared our love prior to it being taken away by her treatments. But I equated it to if I had lost my memory and moved on with my life and then in the middle of making love to someone new, realized that I was actually deeply in love with my former wife. I mean how do you handle such a thing when you had no control over it? Yes it did make my heart smile to know that she finally remembered it all. But for every leap of joy I wanted to make, I imagined my feet landing as a cruel stomp upon another’s heart.
To my friend who yet lives whom I know is reading this as well, seven years into a, now unspoken, love that was not supposed to last even one, rest these memories of you and all that we have been. The epitaph of my last breath, if the measure of my life be spoken true, will include these final words to you,
And this is why my eyes are closed
It’s just as well for all I’ve seen
And so it goes, and so it goes
And you’re the only one who knows