There it was--clipped to his writing board--a half-finished crossword puzzle, USA TODAY, October 24, 2005; his pencil tucked securely under the clip; everything in its place just the way he always left things.
Pour a glass of Shiraz.
She looked at the printing inside the blocks, so legible and so like his writing. By sheer grit and determination he had made a complete neurological recovery from the first stroke. Less than a year later the second one was fatal.
She had anticipated for months how it would be to enter the condo for the first time ever without him. She had, at times, thought about not making the trip. She would end that chapter. It was a long way from Mississippi to North Carolina, and the effort to go for a short visit or a season seemed overwhelming. But she had to know how it would be without him. Would there be any mountain magic?
It was a place where their marriage and their life together had time and space to grow and flourish, apart from their separate pasts and histories. “This was our happiest place,” she thought.
She looked at each piece of furniture, remembering he had purchased all of it in one day from Haber's Furniture Store in 1985, three years before they married. She had never liked any of it except the extra long sofa where they each had taken many afternoon naps nestled in the warmth of its pillows. She had tried to suggest changes every year without success. He was practical.
“The furniture is fine,” he would say. “It fits our needs. This place isn't really our home. It doesn't have to be perfect.”
“And it isn't,” she always thought.
Now she wondered if she could part with any of this collection that represented in so many ways the workings of his mind: “Make a decision and move on. Don't waste time on things that don't really matter.” That was Jimmy.
She walked through every room, opening every drawer and cabinet. In the bathroom she found the alcohol ear drops he used after swimming. “Out of date,” she said out loud to no one and tossed them in the wicker waste basket.
In a dresser drawer, she found the red velour Wildcat pullover he bought in October the last year they were there. He loved reds and yellows. “Happy colors,” he often said.
She lay down on their king sized bed, holding his pullover and staring at the nonsensical, stippled ceiling. “Why did I come back?” She wondered.
Still holding his shirt, she moved to the living room and sat down in his favorite chair. The view through the sliding glass doors was one they had often seen together: endless tree-covered mountains clothed in the misty lavender pink of sunset. Was he looking down on them? Could he see her?
Everything, and yet nothing, was the same.
His life had taught her how to live. It wasn't intentional. He didn't plan to be a teacher of living. He just was, and the lessons he taught by word or deed survived inside of her. She had not realized the strength of his teachings until she was faced with his death, preceded by the loss of her only brother six months earlier. With the course unclear and the waters uncharted, she remembered his words.
“Face the light and let your shadows fall behind,” he often said. With a never-ending look to the future he didn't dwell on the past.Yesterdays were over. It was the now of today and the expectant hope of tomorrow that were important.
“You have to walk through the door to find life. It won't come inside to you.” How often now those words played silently in her thoughts. Engaging others, making friends, starting anew--that's what he did. That's who he was. Standing on the sidelines or withdrawing were not options. Active involvement in the arena of life was his only choice. Within his core was the unspoken knowledge that strength comes from embracing the new and unknown.
“Take the high road. And leave no enemies,” he advised. He simply refused to become involved in discord, and petty jealousies weren't worthy of recognition. He courted the perceived enemy and made him a friend, stretching out his hand to the disgruntled and captivating him with a good story.
“Always have a plan for the future, something that makes you smile and gives life to your spirit.”
He lived that belief with travels that carried him to faraway countries. He learned to fly and made numerous flights within this country and across open waters to the Bahamian islands. He had motorcycles that allowed him to see highways and backroads, up close and personal, and to travel from Jackson to the west coast when he was a mere 71. And when he was 73, the two of them began a 12-year odyssey of sea travels aboard the Sunshine II, a 43-foot trawler, that carried them initially from Slidell, La., to south Florida. Through the years, their cruises included the east and west Florida coasts, three trips to the Chesapeake Bay, and six to the Bahamas, exploring those islands from the Abacos to the Exumas. Their last major trip took them along the eastern seaboard from Key West to Bar Harbor, Maine.
He wasn't perfect, and his life wasn't--not by anyone's measurement. He experienced his fair share of emotional pain, loss, and, in the end, physical infirmity.
What made his life different, at least in her eyes, was his refusal to be defined by circumstances. Through every situation he managed to prevail. She knew what he would expect her to do.
She picked up his unfinished crossword puzzle.
Pour another glass of Shiraz.
It’s been 12 years since I wrote the foregoing words about my late husband, Dr. Jimmy Royals. His example and his words live on.
Edrie Royals is a Northsider.