Still in Peaceful Dreams I See
By Julianne Hill
Monday, 5 a.m.
That would be 4 a.m. back home in Chicago. The alarm rang. I ignored it. Then a guest-relations associate of the CNN Omni Hotel called, gently reminding me that this was my wake-up call. This also gently reminded me that there was no lover next to me to make sure I got up, to maybe make the coffee and bring it to me.
It felt odd to be in Atlanta alone, strange to be in a hotel here. My stay would be a week, longer than I’d like, but like nearly all my trips to Atlanta, this wasn’t vacation. This time, it was work.
In the past, saying that I was taking a trip to Atlanta never meant staying in the city limits, certainly not near Centennial Olympic Park’s plaza of bricks and fountains now visible from my hotel window. Atlanta had meant being near pines rooted in red Georgia clay. Always, it brought images of trees standing watch along the edges of the Chattahoochee River, protecting the waters and its hundreds of species of fish. Atlanta had been a place where the whooping crane, back from the brink of extinction, found refuge in the pine and hickory trees. As I’d gone on long family walks along the river, I saw these birds in their own lofty gatherings, coming together for early-morning hooting or evening dinner conversations.
I opened my suitcase, looking for my running shoes. I had to run to calm my anxious self, and this was the only moment to go. As I tied my shoes, I found myself already missing my son, Nick.
Since Doug, his dad, my husband, died five years ago, I’d tried not to work away from home, to stay close to Nick. When this trip presented itself, I felt excited for a little break in my routine. But as soon as I picked up my baggage at the Atlanta airport, all I felt was resentment that I was forced to face life’s cycle of love and loss and more love and more loss.
The National Press Foundation had chosen me to attend this five-day fellowship for journalists on HIV/AIDS. They paid for my travel, gave me a tiny stipend, and I took it hoping it would lead to more work, more stories I could sell. As a freelance journalist, I had reported for public radio shows about mental health. Typically, I didn’t think too much about sexually transmitted diseases. Jesus, how long had it been since I’d even had sex?
Certainly, I understood the need for reporting about HIV/AIDS. I lost a brother-in-law to AIDS back in the ’80s, when AIDS was still untreatable, still whispered about. But since the shock of my 38-year-old husband’s diagnosis of a rare and deadly dementia, I had stayed focused on a whole other set of mysterious and stigmatizing illnesses, brain diseases and mental maladies. I wasn’t sure I was ready to learn the details about another horrific way to die.
NPF scheduled two days for us journalists to work with scientific experts. They would act as our coaches. Their goal: Translate the complex science involved in preventing or curing HIV/AIDS into ordinary language for us journalists so then we could write about it clearly for the general public. We would stay for three more days as a huge conference convened, and the scientists gave speeches and confused us all over again.
Yesterday I called Sally, Doug’s stepmother, and she said she could get together Friday night. She was always so kind. She said she would meet me here, downtown.
August of ’82. Doug drove me in his ’78 sky blue Honda Civic from the Atlanta airport to Marietta, a suburb full of blonde white people who all seemed to be playing tennis. Doug and I knew each other for a few years at college, but things became romantic a few weeks before he graduated that June. About that time I won an award for reporting, and I took the cash to buy an airplane ticket to Atlanta, where he was working at CNN and living with his parents.
Doug pulled into the driveway of his parents’ brick colonial on a cul de sac. Tall old pines stood to the left. He opened the red front door, brought my bags up the staircase, dropped them in the guest bedroom. The house was quiet, organized, smelling like cleaning fluids, freshly scrubbed by their cleaning service.
Doug said: My father is a hayseed from Indiana. He moved us every few years, following the corporate winds around the country, selling canned goods or candy until we took root here. Dad still has a Hoosier accent, an inflection that jumps octaves. When he meets you, he’ll say, Well, YOU must be JUU-leh.
Oh, my dad won’t be home for a while, he added. He’s visiting my mom in the hospital. She has breast cancer, advanced stage. She’s pretty sick.
Oh. I froze. I was already nervous to meet his parents. I had thought this was going to be a romantic time; I had forgotten that his mom was ill. How could his mom have cancer? Cancer was what happened to other people, other families.
Outside the kitchen windows stood more tall pines. They took over the backyard, providing so much shade that impatiens grew, polka-dotting the understory year round despite the Georgia sun.
Noon. We left his parents’ home and went to the river. The water pressed against the rocks, moving forward, bending with the river on a pre-determined path. Reflections from the noon sun danced and twinkled. I tested the welcoming waters with my toe.
We dropped two inner tubes in what the Creek Indians called the river of painted rocks. Two sets of lanky legs hanging over, only toes dipped in the water, cooling off bodies heated in the sun. Two bottles of wine.
Tiny little rapids. Trout fishermen. Ducks. Low branches on new pines.
Doug left the inner tube behind, scrambled up the embankment of land the color of a penny at the river’s edge. Up to the ledge. I feared the danger, stayed safe, but felt excited by his choice to test the edge, allowing himself to be dangerous.
He jumped, splashing, making waves that rocked me as I floated.
TUESDAY, 3 p.m.
After two full days of lectures in a windowless room in the lower level of the CNN Omni Center, I snuck out with some of the other journalists. We giggled because it felt naughty, like cutting class. These reporters were an intelligent bunch, fun, young, interesting and from every corner of the earth — Brazil, Romania, Guyana, Tanzania, Thailand, China. I wanted to go to the Salvador Dali exhibit at the High Museum of Art, but all they wanted to do was go to an American shopping mall. We took the MARTA train to Lenox Square Mall on the north side of the city in the Buckhead neighborhood. As soon as we got there, I remembered how I hated shopping malls and the pressure to buy generic, mass-produced goods. In fact, I hated malls even more than I hated conferences and their pressure to sit with hundreds of strangers to pay attention in unison to experts spouting information I normally would ignore. I got jumpy and decided to leave, excused myself, took the train back to the hotel.
The quiet train ride south into town, past a few little parks and golf courses, became the highlight of this little adventure. Finally, I saw kudzu, that climbing, creeping Japanese vine that changed the shape of everything. Southerners hated kudzu. Not me. I liked its foreignness, its out-of-place-ness here, the way it made locals feel a little uncomfortable, the way it worked so fast, so insistently, in the slow and steady South.
Well, YOU must be JUU-leh.
Whitney had thick white hair, a big smile and blue eyes that leaped across a room and grabbed you by the shirt collar, and he always introduced himself with his salesman’s charm.
The morning after I arrived in Georgia I met my future father-in-law in the upstairs hallway as I was sneaking out of his son’s bedroom wearing only a T-shirt and underpants. I could feel my face turning red. The man from Indiana offered a handshake and a knowing smile.
When Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Georgia on My Mind,” the Georgia on his mind was probably in Indiana.
When Ray Charles, a real live Georgian, covered the standard in such a moving way it just made things more confusing. In fact, his rendition inspired Georgia the state to adopt the song as its own. The cover Ray did with Willie Nelson is nice, but Willie is from Texas, and apparently Willie, as another song goes, has someone else always on his mind.
The song’s Georgia was Hoagy’s sister. He was in New York when he wrote the song in 1930 while Georgia was in Indiana.
Doug’s grandmother knew this as fact. She once dated Hoagy, knew his sister Georgia, when they were all teenagers in Indianapolis. None of them ever lived in Georgia — not Doug’s grandma, not Hoagy, and probably not Georgia.
WEDNESDAY, 6 a.m.
Clues from the Isolation and Structural Analysis of Broadly Neutralizing Anti-HIV-1 Antibodies and Improving Immunogens and Delivery.
Those words scared me. If I had to write a story even using the name of this session, I was sure I’d make a mistake in my reporting, be sued for slander, lose after an extended, expensive and extremely public courtroom battle, then watch all my earthly possessions be repossessed by the government as I was hauled off to jail.
My hands shook a little and I hadn’t had coffee. Just breathe, I murmured out loud. I had to stop this spiral downward and calm the hell down. I needed to run, to sweat out the anxiety of the future and fear of facing the past. If I didn’t run, I would feel even more fraudulent and unschooled in this extremely complex topic that would topple my career and end my life as I knew it. The hotel took care of me, providing a teeny tiny little map of a 1.5-mile route around downtown. I’ll go two, maybe three times around. OK. Two.
Out the revolving door. Marietta Street to Decatur Street then left on Peachtree Street — one of God knows how many Peachtree roads and streets and plazas Atlanta claimed. I’d never seen a single tree that bears peaches in Georgia.
The cool air lacked the humidity of Atlanta’s summer, making it welcome, pleasing. I turned the corner onto to Andrew Young International Boulevard, passed the hotel, and went around again. By then, the sun had just considered getting up. The sidewalks stood empty except for cops drinking coffee just outside their station and the homeless still sleeping on blankets. Downtown Atlanta’s architecture bored me, once so twinklingly ’80s with its many windows, now just dull and ordinary.
I passed a tomb of a building. Above the door, dirt outlined letters that once hung there, spelling: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Alas, poor print journalism. I knew you well.
One more time around, passing the occasional withered azaleas and bloomless magnolia trees.
Barely springtime, 1983. The magnolias earnestly tried to start flowering. We drove from West Virginia where Doug worked as a disc jockey to what we always called Atlanta but was really always Marietta. Just inside the red door, Doug looked for his mom, tried to hear her voice, but no one was home. Jackie had died just before Christmas. What was once his parents’ house was now just his dad’s, and he was still at work, spending more time at the office these days. Doug and I barely spoke, whispering in reverence, as he came home for the first time since her funeral.
I walked with him, nervous to be in the house, this close to grief, next to a child who lost a parent, in the home of a spouse who lost a spouse.
Jackie’s pink nail polish sat on a vanity tray. I wanted to hide it, the matching lipstick, the emery boards, eyebrow tweezers, take them out of sight, make Doug forget he ever had a mom, that there was no one to lose, no reason for pain.
Leave it, Doug whispered.
Doug went for a run. I stayed at the house alone, walked around the backyard, the pines towering over me.
Occasionally, a breeze swayed the pines, not a Midwestern-sized wind but with enough force to move the South’s long-needled darlings. These Georgia pines were not the short-needled firs raised up North with the full intent to be slain, sacrificed by Christians, decorated as they withered to death to welcome in a new life, a new year. No, these spiny pines, long and lean, allowed the always blue-white sky to peek through their long needles. On older trees, the lowest branches hung higher than a house, lofty, understated and elegant. Graceful. They grew here before the white man fought the tribes who called this home, before Sherman won the Battle of Marietta, occupied this Confederate territory, then set it on fire, just as he would Atlanta, forcing life to start again. Southerners assume these pines endure everything, always adjust. But the truth is, things must stay predictable for these pines to survive, through the set pattern of birth and growth till slowly weakening toward death.
Doug ended up by the river, where he found his dad out on a walk.
Evening. I walked down the stairs toward the living room, a cool breeze coming from the spring evening air. Whitney was lying on his back on the white living room carpeting, his knees bent, feet on the floor, his eyes closed. Alone. He’d moved the stereo speakers to be just next to him.
Willie Nelson sang, “You were always on my mind...”
Whitney whispered along.
WEDNESDAY, 5 p.m.
At the conference center, 1,200 scientists arrived, and 1,100 were white guys with beards and glasses. The accordion doors of the gigantic ballrooms were pulled back, creating one even more enormous room. Tiny dots of speakers spouted medical lingo from the distant stage while audience members sat in endless rows of uncomfortable blue folding chairs.
During a session about testing potential HIV vaccines, I felt I was suffocating. Too many people were talking. I snuck past the AIDS quilts, tunneled out of the overly air-conditioned prison to Centennial Olympic Park across the street with its carefully planned trees and spots of grass. Not nature, no pines, but certainly comfortable, pretty. I felt my brain relax and my mind expand. I fought to stay in the moment.
But just the thought of you came so sweet and clear, like moonlight through the pines.
I snuck back to my room, went for a run with fading sunlight.
For most of the year in the South, the sun perched so high, the landscape became parched, so bright it became hard to look at, so hot it drove people indoors. But this autumn trip, the sun landed on a lower branch above Georgia, exhausted from all that summertime work, all that wasted energy. Now, golden light made long shadows, creating contrast. Now, I imagined variegated greens against the red clay. Delight.
1984, a year after Jackie died. When Whitney met Sally, he found a woman to take good care of him. What a lucky man, to find two such lovely women in one lifetime, I thought. Sally was pretty, kind, gentle.
Whit and his children lined up on the front steps with Sally and her two sons from her previous marriage. Suits, ties, wedding dress. A happy day at the Hill house, a second chance at love for Whitney and Sally.
Merely being brunette proved I was not quite one of them. I was just the photographer, just Doug’s fiancée. Smile.
WEDNESDAY, 11:30 p.m.
The Omni Hotel started feeling like my home, except that everything matched. I rolled in and out of the 400-count sheets. I sat at the standard polished desk as I typed away notes from the day on my laptop — how parents in Africa are so fearful of HIV they line up their adolescent daughters for clinical trials of a preventive vaccine no matter the risk, how researchers find circumcision lowered HIV infections by more than 60 percent but since no one can make money on this preventive measure, it finds little support. My standard polished chair sat next to the standard polished armoire hiding the standard TV and coffee maker. I made the room a mess to make it more comfortable, more homey, only without my home’s obligations — laundry, grocery shopping, teaching duties, high-school cross-country meets. The CNN Omni’s staff cleaned up my crumbs, threw away my cold coffee, organized my toiletries each day. Thank you, anonymous staff of the Omni Hotel, for taking care of me.
Nearly 10 years after Whitney and Sally’s wedding, Doug and I ran around the baggage carousel to catch our checked items: car seat, the stroller, the port-a-crib. Whitney and Sally didn’t help, too busy gushing over the days-old grandson, brought here for a family wedding.
Back at the house, Doug found the real estate section of the Journal-Constitution. We considered suburban Atlanta houses, weighed the pros vs. cons of North vs. South. We walked around his father’s neighborhood in the late springtime air, pretending we were shopping for a home.
What about that colonial?
I don’t like the way the garage is so big, do you?
If we had a house here, it would have to have pines. Azaleas too.
Yes, and kudzu.
You know, you’re not supposed to like the kudzu.
You’d never make a good Southerner.
We spent the weekend in a fantasy. But we realized we were true Northerners, apartment dwellers destined to raise a city kid. Still, we were happy there in Georgia, in that moment. Our life was full, becoming complete.
Desperate to not talk about science and eager to see a man who did not have a beard and thick glasses, I asked Tom to lunch. Our paths had crossed online a while back on a dating site. There were a couple of emails, a phone call or two — sometimes flirty — but we’d never met, and I thought we never would. He said yes. He’d be at a meeting at The Coca-Cola Company nearby. Let’s meet outside Glenn’s Kitchen, down Marietta Street, OK?
Tom was in his late 40s, just about my age, tall, lanky, with hair that used to be blond and dancing blue eyes. He was very attractive, far more so in person than in the pictures he’d sent. He ran. Apparently, a lot. He told me how he had recently finished an Ironman Triathlon. I’d just met him, but I felt comfortable, in fact too much so. I stood too close to him as I realized my head came to the exact place on his shoulder that it did on Doug’s. This made me nervous, and in lobby of the restaurant, I tripped over my words and over a leather ottoman. I laughed at myself, blushed as we sit down. I kept looking at Tom. I couldn’t help it. Maybe Doug would have looked something like this, worn the same polished cotton shirt, the same type of black shoes.
The waiter asked Tom, Is your wife ready to order?
Oh, she’s not my wife. We smiled at each other.
Did I look like his ex-wife?
Tom watched me carefully as I looked at the waiter, heard the day’s specials, chose the pasta. I kept thinking of the picture he’d sent. In it, he sat with his two kids, a girl with crooked glasses, brunette, like her Italian mom from up North, and a blond boy with light eyes like his daddy. They gathered on the steps in front of his house with their two dogs in Marietta just streets away from my in-laws, another big brick house shaded by tall pine trees. His wife left three years ago. Their upscale suburban life, one Doug and I once wondered if we wanted, was not the life she wanted now.
The conversation was easy. He was heading home to Maryland that night to move his mother into an Alzheimer’s unit in a long-term care facility. I understood. Clearly, I could like getting to know this man. But I kept thinking of his ex-wife. Will someday she say, “This is too hard without you. Let’s try again. Let’s put the family back together”?
In that moment I realized I could never say those words to my husband. I could never try again with him, make up for previous hurts, write a new chapter with him, tell him how hard it was without him. I was blindsided, intensely jealous, not that this unseen woman had Tom or could have him again. I was envious because she has the luxury of saying, Come back.
Involuntarily I squeezed my fist in front of my mouth, grabbed for the right words. When Doug became ill, I grieved not having a second child. I loved being a mother, was simply crazy about my son and wanted to give him a sibling, someone who would be with him long after his parents were gone. But I was 48 years old. My moment to make a picture with my two kids and a dog passed, my body and energy and patience for making and raising another child — even if I had a partner.
I opened my fist and let go of some unseen, unrealized life.
I wondered, would I have been unhappy living a suburban life with Doug? Would I have left? A wave of nervous nausea broke the spell of my attraction to Tom.
Tom walked me back to the Omni. We made no plans to see each other again. We kissed like friends kiss, smiled and parted ways in front of CNN’s offices. I snuck back to my room, put on my shoes, and ran.
Thanksgiving meant flying South. In Atlanta, the all-American holiday meant another year’s production of the standard, all-American family drama.
The location: the house. The cast: the siblings and their father, assorted in-laws. The story: an epic drama, written long ago. The lines: specific, particular, universal. One two-minute scene always stole the show:
You’re not listening, said the father to the grown child.
You don’t understand, said the grown child to the father. You have no idea how I feel.
I understand, but you shouldn’t feel that way.
But I do feel this way. Don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t feel.
The fireworks continued as details of that year’s specific topic spilled out.
After dinner, after dishes, Sally said, “Time to walk,” and everyone headed to the river. My little boy sat on his granddaddy’s shoulders. We all followed his footsteps on the path with fallen leaves, with the tall, tall pines standing watch. All was calm. All was right. Until next year.
FRIDAY, 6 a.m.
I felt overwhelmed, and the day barely started. The tiniest parts ached — chambers, arteries, capillaries, cells, nuclei. So I ran. Running served as the only escape, the only time no one talked to me. Shhhh. Everyone. Please.
The running route bugged me now. The Andrew Young Boulevard portion smelled like trash, but I was too tired to find a new path.
All the pain related to Atlanta had collected in my body. All the sadness and guilt and anxiety and shock and grief and sadness and sadness and sadness. All that poison. It disguised itself as aches in my gut, creakiness of my hips, tightness of my groin, stiffness of my joints. Pain.
Only movement set it free, set me free. Run through the mourning.
Endorphins moved through my crabby body, relaxing me even amidst the scent of pee. I pleaded with myself to run an extra lap, to retrace the same ground. Go around again.
I made Whitney come to Chicago. I made him. I pleaded. Come to the doctors with me, I begged. Please, Whit. You need to understand what is happening to Doug. Maybe I wasn’t describing this right. You need to try to understand.
Whit didn’t understand.
How could he? His son, his boy, diagnosed with a dementia so rare and so deadly? No. No. No. No. No. There is no understanding that.
I understood not wanting to understand. Understanding meant acceptance, and acceptance meant facing that Doug was dying — a long, terrible death.
Doug looked healthy, great. How could he be dying? He could keep it together for short phone calls. He could make sense in light conversation. No, no, no, no, no. The doctors are wrong. No.
You need to come here, I begged. Talk to the doctors with me, Whit. You have to understand.
Whit was so angry that Doug was ill, the injustice. Just like the rest of us.
I told him, I wished none of us needed to learn about this disease. But we had to. We had to understand so we could help Doug. Please. Loss is no stranger to you, Whit. Teach me how to be strong, how to care for an ill spouse, how to lose them. You know how to do this. Please come. We need you.
He came, but he didn’t want to.
Sally came with him. My own dad came from Ohio, my mom stayed home. And Whit’s sister, her husband from Indiana. We all had to understand it, learn about this together. They wished they didn’t have to come, but they came, willingly.
The doctor said:
Yes, Mr. Hill. Very rare.
No, Mr. Hill. There are no treatments, no cures.
Yes, Mr. Hill. It’s horrible. Dementia in a man so young, in your son.
Yes, Mr. Hill. He will live in nursing homes, need constant care.
No, Mr. Hill. We don’t know how long it will be.
I’m sorry, Mr. Hill.
Whit turned white. He sobbed.
I made the doctor say that to him. I did it. I made him hear it. He didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to think about how much it hurt him, how a part of him died that day. I didn’t ever want to.
FRIDAY, 1 p.m.
I called my contacts at three public broadcasting radio programs. No one wanted my stories on HIV/AIDS. The stories I pitched did not have a strong enough local angle. Other news took priority over these topics. No, thank you.
What was I doing here?
Concentration vanished. I sat in Centennial Olympic Park, bought a Coke, escaped the closing remarks and all those people, all that talking, all that information about awful deaths I didn’t want to know, that 34 million people live with HIV/AIDS in the world, that more than 3 million of them were children, that nearly 2 million people died of AIDS in the past year. It was too much, overwhelming.
I wanted to go home. I missed my bed. I missed my sheets. I wanted to eat my own food instead of room service and hotel banquet chicken. I wanted to drop my dirty clothes on the floor and know they would be there when I got back.
I really missed Nick. I wanted to hear his voice. He was at school. I couldn’t call. I knew I would miss his cross-country meet this afternoon. Damn it! I missed seeing him run his two-mile race, growing strong. I missed yelling his name as he passes by on the way to his finish line. I hated all this missing. I was sick of it. I threw the pop can at a tree and watched the Coke splash on the bark.
I sat in the park, found a tiny bit of Southern-style comfort as the sun touched my skin, but there it all was, exactly what I didn’t want to think about.
After the meeting in Chicago, Whit and Sally flew South, back home. Two days later, he asked Sally to join him on a walk as the sunset on the river after work. The birds just started to talk to each other, having dinner conversation as Whit and Sally went along the Chattahoochee’s dirt path, past the jumping rock, past the spindly pines.
Out of breath, Whit sat down on a bench.
His heart stopped beating, broken.
The loss of his father put the symptoms of Doug’s disease on display. His affect remained flat, and he repeated, Dad is dead, Dad is dead, dozens of times in a row.
We flew in, went directly to Sally’s house, where Whitney no longer lived, where Jackie no longer lived, where Doug no longer lived. Full of guilt and regrets, I went to Sally’s bedroom, to what had been their room, to console her, to take care of her. Family pictures with Whit and his kids, she and hers, sat on top of the antique dressers. The white shutters were open, letting in the sun through the pines. Sally sat curled, sick to her stomach, trying to be brave, saying politely she was fine, please leave her alone. She needed quiet.
Whitney’s work clothes sat slumped on the bedroom floor, just where he’d left them in front of the closet. I motioned toward them, to pick them up, make it tidy, absolve myself, make any trace of Whit go away, protect Sally.
Leave it, Sally whispered.
At the service, we sat stunned. This group gathered before in this church reading the same pages from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that were read at Jackie’s service 14 years earlier.
We knew we’d gather again, too.
FRIDAY, 6 p.m.
The conference officially ended. Some of the reporters gathered for drinks. I passed. I didn’t bother telling them I barely drink because alcohol tended to make me cry nonstop for 24 hours. Instead, I said I needed to call my son, check in at home where an adult friend was staying with him.
Nick said, I ran my personal best today, mom. He was excited, proud of himself, how he pushed himself forward. His Northern teen boy voice seemed deeper since I left. Clearly, he was fine without me, maybe even happy for the independence.
I cried. No alcohol necessary.
Three years earlier. The Carter Center’s program for journalists interested in reducing the stigma of mental illness brought my two-person family to Georgia for a few days. We flew to Atlanta, I rented a car, drove us to Sally’s new house, just a few blocks from the old one. After dinner, she took us to the river, to the exact spot where she let go of Whitney.
In the two years since Doug had died, his ashes waited in a wooden box in my hallway. Plastic bags of his remains went home with his siblings, aunt, friends. We each honored him in the waters around all the places we once shared with him, Chicago, Ohio, Indiana, waters we swam or skied or ran near, water that touched our lives with him. The Chattahoochee remained as the last place we needed to bring Doug.
Standing on the red banks, Sally, Nick and I each dipped our hands in the bag and pulled out what remained.
Human ashes are not like cigarette ashes, embers waiting to be flicked away. They are uneven, of varying weight. Some are the size of big snowflakes, others small bits of bone. They seem to fly right back to you and stick to your hands, especially as you make the terrible choice to let them slip through your fingers.
Now daddy and granddaddy are together, I told Nick.
Leave the rest, Nick said. Let’s bring the rest of Daddy’s ashes home, to be with us.
FRIDAY, 7 p.m.
A lot of general truths I knew about HIV/AIDS were brought into clear, detailed view this week—how difficult it was to create a vaccine; how microbicides did not offer much more hope; how if vaccinated, people might engage in more risky sexual behavior, how desperate people in parts of Africa were for prevention methods and a cure. It was good information for me to know, even if my clients didn’t want it.
Sally picked me up in her Honda. It was new territory for us, downtown. We talked too much while she drove, and we got lost around Georgia State University. Eventually, we just parked, walked to the Ritz-Carlton. It was a warm, comfortable, breezy night, and the sun set as we ate dinner on a veranda with wrought iron that felt more like New Orleans. We talked about today, now, Nick, her sons’ children, how they were all so grown up, how Nick was nearly the age I was when I first flew to Atlanta. I told her about my lunch with Tom and she listened and nodded. We talked about the men we’d tried to let in our lives. We talked about how we try to fall in love again, but somehow it never happened. Sally was still pretty, lovely, gentle. Forgiving.
In the 11 years since Whitney died, Sally filled her life with her children and grandchildren, travel and painting. She seemed happy to be included in Nick’s life, in my life, always eager to talk on the phone, remembering our birthdays, sending unnecessary notes and cards and gifts. Yet Sally never made the demands that people who share genes feel entitled to do, wondering why we don’t call more or stay longer or visit more often. Sally is the woman my son called grandma, but she was not my mother-in-law, not even my step-mother-in-law anymore. Now, we two widows were friends, people we choose to keep in our lives, free of obligation. The ideal in-law.
She started driving back to my hotel room but offered to let me stay at her house in Marietta, to take me to the airport in the morning. I declined. I didn’t want to go back, look back, anymore.
We would see each other soon, I said. I’d come back and I’d bring Nick. I promised.
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