I looked at my husband. At seventy-five, still the handsome man who once set off a frenzy in 7-11 when mistaken for Sean Connery. He slumped in his usual spot on the couch. Lying flat had become uncomfortable. He even slept there at night. The concentrator panted like a dragon, pumping oxygen to his only lung.
“Hey, look at this.” The morning paper rustled as he flattened the page. “They’re having a Florida Writers Conference in Lake Mary week after next. You have to go,” Jerry said.
“Never heard of them.” I placed my steaming cup of coffee on the table. “How long does it last?”
“Ummmm, about three days.”
“I don’t know. This is kind of last minute.”
“But your writers group is falling apart. You need to get serious about being a writer. No—author. I’m not gonna call you a writer. You’re an author.”
What does an author look like? A seventy-one year old grandmother with graying hair and thickening waist? Could I imagine my picture on the back cover of a book? If Jerry could, I could.
“With a cheerleader like you, how could I go wrong?” I smiled and shook my head. “But let me learn more about this group, see if they’re legit. If they pan out I’ll go next year. Okay?”
Though supportive, Jerry also had good instincts when he critiqued my work. Oh, he tread lightly, apologetically even, when offering criticism, but I insisted he be honest because he was invariably right.
Even so, I didn’t take his suggestion about the conference. I couldn’t. Not right then. I felt suspended in time, rooted to the one spot he and I were always together. If we just stayed very still in place maybe time wouldn’t move. Jerry had not been able to make it past nine holes of golf when he played a few weeks before. Prior to that, he had paused only twice for each of his surgeries. It had been nine years since doctors discovered the lung cancer. Statistics predicted fourteen months of life expectancy at the time. Almost eight bonus years. Good years. Celebrating our 50th, then 51st anniversary. Boating with children and grandchildren. Celebrating holidays. I felt it would last forever.
A week into the last of three consecutive hospital stays, I talked with him about his release. The Christmas tree still stood as it did when I rushed him to the hospital the day after Christmas. We would tackle that when he was stronger.
“We’ll have a belated New Year’s Eve celebration when you get home too.”
His long, graceful fingers gripped the sheet at his waist. His eyes focused into the distance. “I’m not coming home this time.”
“Of course you are. You always come home.”
But he didn’t.
When beeping from the bedside monitor slowed, then slipped into a piercing, steady wail, its stillness crept into my body. I didn’t move. I soaked in Jerry’s every feature one more time, from the strong brow bone to his magnificent nose. Somewhere in the space behind me, I was aware of our children rushing from the room. A light touch on my shoulder. My oldest son. I laid my hand on his and, like a drunk, repeated over and over, “I’m half a person.” My eyes filled, but didn’t overflow.
In the months that followed, I experienced living alone for the first time in my life, but rarely felt alone. More than once at bedtime, the sickening sweet smell of a gift bar of soap I’d forbidden Jerry to use filled the room—weeks after I’d thrown it away. He loved to tease me once in a while by lathering with it. Jerry had hated green. The color suddenly looked bilious to me. I pitched all my green clothing. Finally I could buy my favorite chunky peanut butter, but it grew stale, half eaten. I replaced it with his smooth. Maybe I was more than half a person. When new situations came up, I knew exactly how he’d respond. There was no question about the next Florida Writers Association Conference. I would go.
The following October I walked into a cavernous hall filled with strangers at the Marriott, Lake Mary. Florida. The smell of steaming coffee, eggs and bacon felt welcoming. A low rumble of voices eventually quieted as workers sectioned off smaller spaces with rolling walls. After the first workshop concluded, a familiar feeling washed over me. It brought me back to a day many years before. At the lunch break of a one-day mini-conference in Maitland I had stepped outside and called Jerry.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
My voice shook with excitement. “There’s a whole room full of people in there just like me!” I felt the same as I did back then, and hoped he knew.
Banquet night a smiling woman sat at a back table, with an empty seat nearby. She invited me to join her. It seemed everyone was from another area, and I expected her to be, but Joan lived in Sanford. I invited her to visit my old writing group. She accepted, but though she enjoyed the other writers, our methods weren’t a fit for her. Nor for me any longer, I realized.
Two years later we met again at the conference, where she, Bruce, another writer, and I decided it was time to act. Surely there were enough local writers to start a critique group. We held first meeting at the Lake Mary Library March 14 the following year. Later Bruce’s work forced him to drop out of a leadership role, but he remained a member.
Joan and I pinch ourselves often to be sure all that has happened is real. In a little over four years Seminole County Writers Group has attracted talented, serious writers dedicated to improving themselves and others in the group. Each year as many as ten of our members’ stories are printed in FWA Collections. Several members have won multiple Royal Palms Literary Awards, and have published short stories, and novels. We’ve also become close friends. Who knows you better than one who reads your work?
Yes, I had to start a new, unfamiliar life, but Jerry led me to the start-over point—as an author among authors.
About the Author:
Beda has published short stories online and in print. Her stories have appeared in five Collections, including a Top Ten in 2013. Along with several creative non-fiction finalists, she placed first in 2012 and second in 2014. She is a co-founder of Seminole County Writers group.