Present Day

 

Phoebe Merrill liked to cry on her birthday. Each year, she allowed herself thirty full minutes of absolute solitude in which she could cry her eyes out with a mix of gratitude, grief, joy, and generally a very large glass of wine.

Today, on the very fine spring day of her fifty-fifth birthday, it was a chilled glass of a nice Prosecco that sat on the desk in her still new kitchen. It was a bright and airy space with country white cabinets and large windows that served up sweeping views of field and forest. A space that had been a long time in the making.

Phoebe wasn’t the type of woman to shy away from the beautiful symmetry of life. This was the exact spot on which she’d loved and lost and loved again. She’d learned, in these fifty-five blessed years, that an ending was never an ending.

There were big plans in the works today. Plans that made the peaceful background noise of farm country in the spring even more valuable now. In less than an hour, her sons would stampede through her front door, most likely bickering as they had since they were boys. They’d take her to lunch, regale her with stories of her grandchildren, and then tonight was the surprise party she wasn’t supposed to know about.

But mothers always knew. Especially when they lived in a small town that broadcasts the goings-on of every resident’s private life.

Tonight, she’d celebrate with loved ones, enjoying glasses of champagne, hugs from her beautiful grandbabies, and the laughter of good friends. But for now, in this quiet, private moment, her thoughts were of the two men she’d been lucky enough to love in this life.

Franklin, her husband and best friend, had been the one to buy her the oversized wine glass at her elbow and the one to design this home for her with input from her sons. The intention of the home was to hold their very large, very loud blended family on celebratory occasions.

John, her first husband—may he rest in beautiful peace—had given her the land on which the house stood and three wonderful sons for whom she felt alternating but equal pulls of pride and annoyance. John had been the soulmate she’d never expected, the surprise of her lifetime.

It had been fifty-five years filled with love and Phoebe wasn’t in any hurry to come to the end of it. She had children, grandchildren, a man who loved every damn thing about her—including the fact that she was too free with her advice—and friends that made her laugh until she had to pee and held her hand through every rough patch she’d ever faced. She lived in a community that bordered on commune. A town in which everyone was so wrapped up in everyone else’s lives the residents were all family, minus the DNA.

Her life was miraculous. And there wasn’t one single thing she’d change.

With that comforting thought, Phoebe opened the folder on the desk and began her ritual. The sheets of notebook paper had been folded and unfolded so many times the creases were like canyons. The handwriting scrawled across them still heartbreakingly familiar as if a ghost was reaching out to touch her. It was an essay she’d never transcribed to typewriter, or later a computer, as she had dozens of others.

This one meant more because of the blue ink and leaning scrawl. This one was just for her.

She took a fortifying sip of wine and began to read.

 

Phoebe, my wife, my heart. When you read this, know that you have been the greatest miracle in my life. And as weighty a thing as that is, don’t believe for a second that your life is dimmer just because mine has ceased.

It’s past midnight. And all three of our boys made it home to see me before I make my final journey. I can feel my time slipping away and, while I hate having our sons see me like this—frail, sick, unable to take a single one of them in a wrestling match—I want them to understand that death is nothing to fear. It is part of our journey and, as I’ve come to believe, perhaps it is the most beautiful part.

The looming shadow of death, the promise of the beginning of the next adventure makes a man consider his life, his regrets. There’s one I fear, one that keeps me awake even now. One that you have the power to save me from. I need to ask something of you that might sound impossible now, but I’m confident that with the healing power of time and the mule-headed commitment of our town, you will rise again, love again.

I need you to be someone else’s miracle.

That heart of yours can’t stop its gifts after I’ve returned to the earth and the air that I’ve loved so much in this lifetime. That would be an injustice. You are young. You are beautiful. You are brilliant. And someone out there is going to deserve your heart and mind even more than I ever did. Hiding from that, allowing grief to rob you of future happiness would be my one and only regret.

So, please, Phoebe, don’t let that happen… or I’ll haunt you forever.

I’ve thought a lot about our life together these past few weeks. Being immobile and staring up at the fluorescent lights does that to a person, I suppose. I decided that between needles and nurses and the constant beep of machines more concerned with quantity than quality, I’d pinpoint the exact second that I knew you were it for me. That there wasn’t another breath I’d want to take without you by my side.

This is where it all began…