Most days upon waking, my mind drifts in and out of consciousness, wondering whether or not I will ever feel passionate about anything again. I marvel back to sixth grade, when Mrs. Schneider gave us “passion” as a vocabulary word. I sat there, next to Bobby Newenschwander, who, as a typical sixth-grade-boy, snickered incessantly at the word as Mrs. Schneider’s chalk scraped white letters across a golf-course-lawn colored chalk board. I copied the list down into my vocabulary notebook, reached into my desk for my copy of A Student’s Dictionary and found the word right between “passenger” and “passionate.” I noted a small n. next to the word and copied, “a strong feeling or desire, enthusiasm.” I couldn’t help but read the next entry—“adjective, ardent in feeling or desire.” I wondered then, in my eleven-year-old-self, if I had ever felt passionate about anything.
My mother was working on dinner when I tossed my backpack across the table, poured a glass of cherry Kool-Aid and sat at a bar stool across the counter from her bowl of cornbread stuffing and sliced chicken breasts.
“How was school today?” And then, “did you copy your vocabulary list?” This question was always part of my Monday interrogation.
“Fine, Mom. Thanks. And yes, I have my vocabulary list with definitions.” Even though I hadn’t missed any words the past few weeks, I had spent the first quarter missing several words…okay, more like half the words…on the list each week. Doing better lately didn’t erase the concern from her brow, though. “One of our words this week is ‘passion.’ Do you know what that is?”
My mother’s hands stopped stuffing moistened bread bits and seasonings into the open breast as she looked into my face. “Yes. Did you look it up?”
“Sure, but I just wondered what you thought about it, and what I could do with it for my vocab. sentences for homework tonight.”
“Well,” she began, as I could see her mind working between handfuls of stuffing, carefully placing the prepared chicken into the casserole dish and just as carefully placing words, “people can be passionate about lots of things—like politics,…sports,…hobbies. Sometimes people use the word in reference to feeling strongly about a relationship.”
I remembered looking for that relationship many years later as a college student at Emery. Back during a time when we had no classes on Wednesday, I would wander through the tree-strewn campus, walking up and down paved hills, reciting formulas for OChem and wishing I could find that feeling of passion for someone. Sure, I’d dated lots of guys—frat guys, athletes, intellectuals—all without a glimmer of that “strong feeling or desire” I wanted. I became passionate about searching for passion.
Then, one Wednesday, I saw this guy driving a golf cart with lawn tools in the back as I was out for a morning run. I waved to him, as I had grown accustomed to waving to everyone I passed, and his eyes looked eager as he returned my wave. The tips of his hair stuck out in dark tufts under his Red Sox cap as his eyes met mine. I passed him to feel a drop from somewhere in the vicinity of my chest cavity to my abdomen (I was pre-med at that point), and I decided to circle around and see where the golf cart was travelling.
About a mile of up and down the grey stripe of pavement dividing a sea of green, I noticed the Red Sox cap turned backwards on a body, stooped over some type of planting area. I saw rhododendrons and azaleas, which I recognized, but he looked to be planting some type of annual as a border plant around the edge of the bed.
“Good work,” I remarked, keeping up a stationary jog. He startled a bit, turned, and stood to face me.
“Uh, thanks.” I watched him dust his shirt with his dirt-stained hands, hands which would later arouse feelings within me I didn’t know I could have.
“What are you planting?”
“Oh, it’s very nice. I love the color.”
“Would you like one? I have more than I need.” He took a step toward me with flower in hand.
“I have to finish my jog now, but maybe I could catch you later,” I offered as I continued a stationary jog. “When’s your lunch break?”
“Oh, I just have to finish this bed and two more. I should be done about 11:30, and then I’ll need to shower. Want to meet up at the cafeteria?”
“Sure. I’ll see you there—a little less sweaty—around noon?”
“See you then.”
I jogged back toward my dorm with a smile all the way. We met for lunch (where he gave me a flower), and so began our two-year courtship, eight-month engagement, and twenty-seven-year marriage, filled with moments of passion so indelible…moments of support, love, and companionship mixed with anger, frustration, exhaustion, and the act of passion that would land me here.
I opened my eyes to look up at the tall ceiling. My lovely orange suit (I look much better in red) hung over my delicate bones, my small hands that once performed surgery to sustain life were calloused and swollen from manual labor, my lovely size 6 feet that used to slide in and out of Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo were now lacing into something more like generic Converse—and I didn’t care. I had a momentary flush of feeling as I remembered that Clara and Angelique were coming for a visit today, but it did not last long. A pang of guilt filtered from my bed-headed hair to my bulging cotton socks, but that didn’t last long, either. “I guess I have finally shut down, after all,” I muttered to an open cell, with no one around to hear. If I cared anymore, I think I might try to get out, to appeal, to kill myself, but I don’t.
So I sit here, and lie here, and eat here—well, I eat sometimes—and pay my debt to society. Never mind all the lives I saved once upon a time (which, I recorded once in med school alone to be around 27, 28 if your counted that little girl who I Heimliched in the cafeteria), but I guess that was another life…another feeling of passion. Passion for life. My passion for him was different. He needed me, and I needed him. Together we fit in ways I could not describe with words in any language I knew (which included six conversational, two dead, and one more just reading since I never learned to pronounce correctly in German). But then, he needed me to help him leave. And I didn’t want to; I really didn’t. I fought against the need for the better part of a year. But I loved him. And he was in so much pain. So much suffering. “I save lives; I do not take them away,” was my mantra each day. But he would look at me with his dark, undiscerning eyes, which reminded me of his dark hair sticking out of a Red Sox hat one spring day in Atlanta. I put Madagascar periwinkle by our bed, but he didn’t notice. At that moment, I realized that we could leave—like a dream—together. He would leave his body and I would leave my emotions and we could survive in some other sphere of existence where passion filled our days and nights, where we only existed for each other. So I did it. It was an act of mercy as much as it was to save what we had—to save our marriage, our passion, our daughters. And no good or great attorney could get me out of what I started, and no good or great therapist could help me live again the way I lived with him.
I guess eating really doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll see the girls today and tell them that everything is fine, remind them to put fresh flowers over his stone. Spring must be right around the corner. I don’t feel as cold right now. Or as warm, either, come to think of it. Maybe I don’t feel anything. I wonder what death feels like. Cold, or warm, or like walking or running or singing or dancing or praying. Maybe it feels like the moment you release all that energy from a lifetime of learning and going and doing and working and saving. Some of my patients would talk about a light, bright like the sun.
I loved our honeymoon. We spent four glorious days on St. Pete Beach at the Don. We swam out as far as we could to the buoys each morning and ran along the beach in the evening sunset. He wandered the gardens, with hands and nails cleaned for our wedding, but I knew he longed for the feeling of earth, of planting, of growth. He went on to teach landscape architecture at Purdue for fifteen years, but still he was happiest with soil under his fingernails and the smell of earth imbedded in his skin. I could see his shadow, over me, his face filled with love, then excitement, then relief. I remember each spring, he would bring me a small pot of something new, mixed in with Madagascar periwinkle. He would often ask me, “What if I had been planting geraniums that day?”
“You weren’t.” I would smile back at his teasing. “Geraniums stink. We were both sweaty and smelly enough that day—so you needed to be planting something simply beautiful.”
And we were. Together. Somehow. Simply beautiful.