I leaned against a cement pillar.
The sun was high and heavy and far too bright.
The woman who came over to me wore a vivid orange shift dress.
This near stranger, who had led us into the surgeon’s office where we heard the diagnosis, was no doubt leaving the hospital to go home after a long day. Instead, when she saw me outside, leaning against the pillar in the awful heat as Jim waited for another scan, she came over, wrapped her arms around me, and let me wordlessly weep into the bright linen on her shoulder.
Today, exactly nine years later, I had not realized that the keynote address at my conference would be about trauma in surviving victims of violent crime. It can reorder the brain and alter the consolidation of memory. Time may be rearranged. Some images may forever be indelible; other pieces may eternally be missing, never having formed, leaving disordered space like like the indeterminate bokeh beyond a sharply-focused photographic image.
The speaker paused. “So, what’s the essence of trauma? What is trauma?” For a room full of lawyers it was uncharacteristically quiet. “I’m willing to wait.”
Not one to leave a void, my right hand flickered.
“It’s the violation of expectations, something you don’t see coming and can’t prevent.”
She nodded, as if reading my mind.
I used to cling eagerly to dreams Jim visited, alive and healthy, sometimes a young college student again, though never any older. Envisioning him at an age he never reached seems beyond the power of imagination.
But early this morning–so early as to be deepest night for anyone else–I awoke from a nightmare I did not understand until hours later, when I noticed the date.
My dream was of imagined calamities, all of them my own doing. I steered obliviously backward, veering off a sand bar into the ocean, endangering three of my children who sat quietly in back. In the next scene I drove furiously in the wrong direction on a highway, yet was aggrieved at the other drivers innocently in my way. Then I was back by a beach, in the driver’s seat (of the car I’ve in fact quite safely put well over 120,000 miles on) when I saw Jim walking on a jagged cliff edge, weighed down by a bright green backpack. I eagerly called out to him.
He looked at me in a way he never had, abjectly disappointed, and said words he never would have said, in a tone he was incapable of using: “Why would I want to go with someone who can’t even drive?”
I tried to shake off the dream, tended to my now lone beagle, left the house and turned on the car radio.
On came “Last Kiss.”
“Oh where, oh where can my baby be?”
That’s when I considered the date. And reconsidered the dream.
In the yawning space between that June 28th and this one my focus has remained disordered: I see the blurred blanket of disruptions and mistakes, and think not that Jim would, but that he should be disappointed in me, though I know he was never disappointed in me when he was here. I miss that, too: how lucky I was to spend my adult life with someone who always saw in me the best person I was capable of being.
He would have wanted me to bring the other pieces into focus.
Like the strength and warmth of his hand holding mine as we first walked inside the hospital, when he must already have known what we would hear.
The buoyant tiger lilies, which arrived earlier that year, backlit by sun, tickling our legs as we brushed past a stone bench with a carved cherub on our way inside.
And the kindness of the woman in the orange dress.