He was a pirate and I was a gypsy.
He was wild and daring and ragingly fun. I never stayed in one place long enough to land. We were so different and so the same, there was going to be hell to pay. But when we met it was like finding each other’s missing half. We believed that when we touched each other, we were reaching ourselves. We were two separate trees with the same roots, leaves intermingled, branches reaching for the sky.
I wish I could frame this story in a larger, clearer perspective to show you my pirate lover without telling the story’s end. But the ending has become so vivid a part of the whole that it mixes itself in the middle and becomes, even so, a part of the beginning.
So that is where I’ll begin: in the end. In the end, he dies. My pirate lover dies. And this is our story.
Terry asked me to marry him the first night we met. I said no. He was as adamant as he was charming. And just that fast, perhaps too fast, we were living together, laughing and loving and letting the rest of the world fall away.
We lived in an enchanted realm. We explored the landscapes of our home, our hearts, our bodies. We discovered secrets. Terry asked me to marry him every single day of our lives together. Eventually I said yes. But it never happened.
Soon enough, perhaps too soon, the demons surfaced. Insecurities and obsessions tugged at us from shrouded corners, unwilling to stay in the dark and unable to bear the light. The things that drove us together and drove us separately, eventually drove us apart. Years and months passed, and our wild love affair calmed to a tender friendship.
It was this tenderness that held us together during the tumultuous months of one particularly dark autumn. We spent time looking after each other the best we could, while we nursed our own private pains. We drank tea by the fireplace, watched movies and painted. In teaching me a little how to paint in oils, he had begun, finally, to paint again himself. I thought we both had hope.
Fall was turning to winter, and the air was gray and ice, the night I drove to Terry’s house, urged there by a haunting concern. He had stood me up for lunch that day in November. I tried to reach him by phone all afternoon and into the night, leaving one after another unanswered message on his machine.
Those many messages were captured by a little red light near the phone that blinked in the dark kitchen when I arrived. The front door was unlocked, the living room fully lit, the air quiet and still. I had walked through that door a thousand times to see him sitting on his couch, watching a movie, with a glass of Chardonnay on the coffee table.
But that night he wasn’t there. My heart beat like a bird trapped in my chest. My face grew hot. “Terry?” I called. “Terry?” Over and over as I moved through the house––the bedroom, the kitchen, the long hallway into the garage. I knew if his bronze BMW was not in the garage, that everything was okay. How would be out driving, which he had come to do to ease the gathering pressure of a life collapsing.
I opened the garage door, and there sat the shiny car. I didn’t have time to plan what to do next before I glanced over my shoulder. There, some five feet away, hanging by a nylon chord, still and lifeless, was Terry.
In that moment, a fallen angel came to rest on my shoulder. There it landed and there it stayed, constantly whispering in my ear. I can still hear the voices of terror, guilt and unspeakable loss: “Terry! Oh my God, oh my God. Terry…”
To this day, many years later, there are moments I still cannot believe he did it. I can’t believe he climbed on top of a red and white cooler and stepped, irrevocably, into another world.
Every year, on November 15, four days after our nation celebrates Veterans Day, I hike into the secluded wilderness. I return to the place where an aqua-blue pool makes magic just by being. There, the McKenzie River rises from underground to a deep, cold pond created millions of years ago by a now-dry waterfall.
Terry called it Hobbit Land. He took me there many times on a secret descent through the woods and down a rocky cliff shaded with overgrowth. This place gave him perspective, he said, where his troubles didn’t seem so big. A place where the world looked different.
The entire world suddenly looked different to me, without Terry in it.
After his funeral, after all the friends came and went and cried and remembered, after most of the questions stopped coming, after his family came and collected up all his things, after the hundredth question why, I found the symbol of his torment and my peace.
There, in the bottom of his dresser drawer, scattered with a few pennies, an old love note, broken sunglasses and a golf ball, I found the Bronze Star. Passed over by his family–maybe because the ribbon was missing, maybe because they never knew he earned it–the Bronze Star lay safe and waiting for me. For courage.
Heroic or meritorious achievement, it reads. Here is the story that came with his honor, of the desperate, horrific night in the jungles near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Terry’s friend, the one who carried the radio, was blown to pieces in front of him. Bombarded and behind enemy lines, the entire battalion was in chaos. It was Terry, blood-splattered and battle weary, who saved their lives.
But who could save Terry? Who could save him from the nightmares he brought home?
And who could save me from mine? I wore that Bronze Star on a chain around my neck every day and through each sobbing night for months and months. Like I wore his sweaters every day. And remembered every day.
After a year, I was told I should “let the pain go.” But I didn’t want to let it go. I didn’t want to stop hurting. I didn’t want to forget and move on and live as if the world wasn’t upside down and backward.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the tears began to spend themselves. When I think of Terry now, my sorrow mixes with tenderness and joy for who he was on this earth. Joy because I am lucky enough to have been sprinkled with the magic of this extraordinary person.
My pirate lover had hoisted his sails and cut the anchor. He set sail, face to the wind, onward of a silver-peach sky, never ever to look back. He protected his heart, and lived with a vengeance––to laugh, to love, to take what he could and give back what he couldn’t, always looking to the forward horizon.
Who could have seen the phantom anchor, treading silt, digging deeper, deeper, silent and sure, slowing his freedom ship to its doom?
The pirate ship began to sink, heavy with its load. Terry’s grand white sails lay in tatters around his boots, where the ice-cold water lapped at his darkest thoughts. And Terry didn’t have a life-line. He lacked the belief, the trust, that he could ask for help and get it. It was simply not how he viewed the world.
For me, I know I can ask. I know I am loved. And I remember that love never dies. It make look different, take on different shapes, ebb and flow, flicker and blaze. But it is the one thing in this world that never ever dies. It gives me grace to know that.
Sometimes, particularly in Hobbit Land, I think I see something: a shadow, the tip of a wing, the silhouette of the pirate’s blade across my path. I wonder if he’s watching me. Does he wait for me, my pirate lover, my heart’s other self? Or do I dream it, because I need him to be?
I still hear an angel. It’s a different angel now, leaning close, whispering, courage, courage.
By Kyla Merwin. Reprinted from Chocolate for a Lover’s Heart under the title “Silhouette of the Pirate’s Blade.” (Simon & Schuster, 1999)