The Beginning of the End
In April 2004 Bryan flew into Raleigh. He had lined up an interview, which did not go well. “Can you believe it? I forgot to pack a belt.”
On that Easter Sunday, he dressed in a suit, I in a new Easter frock, and he accompanied me to Sunday service at my church. I was glowing but on the drive home I noticed he was not speaking. One look at Bryan’s face told me that something displeased him. He looked straight ahead as his hands clenched the steering wheel. He didn’t say a word.
“You called me your fiancé.”
I was confused. “I thought you were. For the last three years, you’ve pressed me to set a date!” I yelled.
Back at my house, we were upstairs in my bedroom changing clothes. My family was on their way over for our traditional Easter Sunday brunch. Bryan’s chin trembled, and he swallowed hard, nodding. He swallowed again, almost cringing as he licked his lips and turned desperate eyes on me. “I’m so sorry, Sharon. I don’t know what came over me.”
What was he saying? Was he telling me that he had changed his mind, and he didn’t want to marry me? I was not prepared for what he said next.
“I feel dirty,” he said through tears. “We went to my car and I parked behind a McDonald’s restaurant.”
For a moment I stared at him in disbelief. I felt betrayed and violated. “We who? What are you talking about?” I felt like a fool. I was hearing the man I loved admit that he picked up strange women for casual sex. I stumbled backwards and dropped onto my bed. The anger started in the pit of my stomach and welled up into my throat. I felt ashamed. Why did I feel shame? I had not cheated.
“Was she white?” I asked. Bryan didn’t answer.
I tried to wrap my brain around his words. This man I loved, with whom I was planning to marry, had just admitted to cheating on me in such a vile way.
He knew what he was doing was wrong. He said he joined a men’s group at a church in Dallas. “They prayed for me.” he said, but he stopped going. “After I told them what I was doing, they looked at me strangely. They were judging me,” he said. “Please, please forgive me?” he begged.
I felt the life flow out of my body. I tried to speak but had no words. My cheeks burned and my skin felt like it was on fire. I threw my car keys at him and said, “I think you should take my car and go spend the night with your daughter.” His ex-wife, who had remarried, had extended an invitation for Bryan to spend a night there with their daughter. Then I would drive him to the airport in the morning, so he could catch his flight back to Dallas. He didn’t want to leave and instead stayed upstairs in my bedroom.
I always thought I’d be blinking back hot, stinging tears or collapsing into a wailing heap on the floor. Instead I went downstairs and cooked a leg of lamb, roasted asparagus and oven browned potatoes for my guest.
I had to drive my daughter back to her college campus eighty miles away. When I yelled up the stairs to tell Bryan I was leaving, he asked if he could drive us. I didn’t speak as we drove west on Interstate 40 toward Greensboro. I’m not sure if Samantha felt the tension between Bryan and me. If she did, she didn’t let on that she did. She had a way of engaging with Bryan. He was fond of her, and she accepted him. I was relieved. Alone in my thoughts, I remembered my sister, Susie, telling me many years ago that our late mother, who was forty years younger than our father when they married, had once confided. “Cheating is not a reason to leave your husband.” When a man cheats, a woman will fall on her knees, kiss his feet, and apologize for not being perfect. This was me.
Now and then, Bryan would glance over to me. It was late when we got back to Raleigh. I think we were both too tired to talk. We fell asleep with our backs to each other.
Some people lean toward being happy. I think he tried desperately to be happy, but continuously sabotaged his efforts by doing things like betting sports through online gambling. This was no different.
The next week I called his mother and cried. I don’t remember what she said. I just remember she was kind and patient with me.
After that Easter visit, for a little more than a year, we would talk by telephone. He sent flowers to my job occasionally. I suppose we were both hoping for a miracle or magic. There is no such thing as magic and I’m not sure what the miracle would have looked like. My last visit to Texas was Labor Day weekend in 2004. I flew to Texas, hoping for a miracle. That weekend, we did all the usual things couples do. We went out to dinner, we caught a movie, and we came back to his place and made love. Our last night together, we held each other. I think we both felt the sadness and desperation.
On Monday, I had to fly home. We sat in the seats outside the TSA checkpoint until I had to go to my gate. We hugged.
“I love you, Sharon.”
“I love you, Bryan.”
I somehow instinctively knew that this was the end. I would never see him again. He moved toward me and began hugging as he’d never hugged me before. All the goodbyes rolled up into one. I knew it was over when I hugged him. I turned to walk away and then turned again to look back at him. He wasn’t coming back to North Carolina. I wasn’t moving to Texas. Why had it been so hard for me to move to Texas? I left North Carolina in 1977 to enlist in the Navy. I did not return until 1998. I was tired of moving. Maybe I was selfish. We did not say any of this out loud.
I didn’t know how to tell my family. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I was in denial when I confided in Barbara.
“Girlfriend, you’re gonna have to tell them the wedding’s off.”
I didn’t go into details. I just said, “I’m not getting married. I don’t want to move to Texas, and he doesn’t want to move back here without a guarantee of work.”
Loving Someone Does Not Mean I Should Be With Him
Part of me held out hope we could get back together again. I admit that and I’m letting go of it. I chose to get on with my life, even with great sorrow in my heart, even while carrying this loss. Losing the love of your life and realizing it can take some time to surface. There is pain on both sides when a breakup occurs. There is also a time of healing. A time when moving on begins and life slowly becomes happier. The pain subsides, and you reflect on the lessons you learned and seek new love.
Bryan and I talked a few times after that. One of the last calls was in December 2005. I was in my office, talking to David, a coworker, who would eventually be the man I’ve been with for the last fourteen years.
“I love you,” Bryan said. I hesitated before saying “I love you” back. He called in the spring of 2007. I told him, “Bryan, I’m seeing someone.”
“Oh, okay. Goodbye,” he said and hung up. I did not think it would be our last conversation, and I certainly did not believe that he would be dead in twelve years’ time.
I found the last email from him.
How are you? I hope you are doing well and are happy. I’m doing okay. Sure
seems like the world is falling apart, though.
I just keep my faith in God and Jesus. Are you still going to the church you used to take me to? Remember? The Frozen Chosen.
What have you been doing? Are you still working in your field of study? Psychology?
I just got home from work. I’m still working the second shift after all these years.
How is Samantha doing? How are Frank and your sister doing? I hope they are all good. And your brothers too.
It sure seems like a long time ago when we were together… I can’t remember everyone’s names. Oh yeah, Susie… your big sis.
You know what? Maybe it wasn’t that long ago… Maybe I am just getting old and senile… Not sure.
I sometimes feel real bad about what ended up happening between us because I know it was my fault.
I remember one time I was at your house and slipped on the linoleum kitchen floor after I came down the staircase.
I yelled at you for spraying something slippery on the floor that made me fall down. You were only trying to help me because of my allergy to the cat, but I didn’t know, and I yelled at you for making me fall. Now I feel so bad about that. I feel bad about that and other things I did to you. I hope you can forgive me for all the bad stuff I did to you.
You never did anything bad to me… ever.
Even though things fell apart after I moved to Texas and 9/11, I still love you and always will love you because you are a good person, and I thank God for allowing me to know you. You were always good to me.
Are you still at the Faversham address? I have been meaning to send something to you.Sun, Dec. 7, 2014, 1:29 am
I pasted his email into a Word document and used the read-aloud option. The computer-generated voice was not Bryan’s, but as I listened, I could hear his voice.
In 2020, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, on top of protests and rioting in major U.S. cities after years of police brutality and murder, I started thinking about Bryan. A few years earlier, I had dialed his cell number, but it had been disconnected. I had no way to get in touch with him. I’m not sure why, but I felt that something was wrong. I tried to find him on Facebook. Bryan’s last name is a common name. If he was on Facebook, I couldn’t find him. In June, I searched for him on ancestry.com using his birth date and his mother’s name, and there it was—died November 23, 2019. I followed the link, hoping that it was a different Bryan. I opened the link and saw his smiling face. This sucked the air out of me. I’m not sure how I knew Bryan was gone.
For a little more than five years, this was the relationship I thought would be the one that would last—that’s what we think about every relationship. The cracks and the turmoil just got to be more than we could surmount. Bryan gambled online and continuously struggled to pay bills. Jobs were flying overseas, and I had dealt with his struggles to stay employed when we first met. I convinced him to take the job in Texas. I really believed I would be willing to move to Texas. When I realized I couldn’t, he agreed to start looking for employment in Raleigh so he could move back. That never happened. His luck must not have gotten better, and he died in his mother’s home in Pennsylvania.
Learning about Bryan’s death left me feeling a sadness that I did not expect. I was grieving for a man I walked away from. I spoke with someone at the funeral home who gave me one of Bryan’s brothers and his mother’s telephone numbers. I dialed Jeff’s number and left a voicemail, which he returned. On June 21, 2020, I had a voicemail message from Jeff. “Hello Sharon Powell, this is Jeff, Bryan’s younger brother. I just got your message. Thank you so much for calling. I’d love to talk to you about Bryan. We did see references to you, including letters you had written to him. Apparently, you were very special to Bryan. He had a lot of mementos with your name on them and he kept a lot of things from you.” Jeff offered to send the items to me. I texted him with my address. Now I wait. I also called Bryan’s mother, Marianne.
“Sharon, thank you so much. The funeral director sent us your letter. What you said was so lovely. I’m sorry we lost touch with you. We didn’t know what happened to you, and we didn’t know how special you were to Bryan.”
November 23, 2020
From time to time, I stop at the Starbucks Coffee Shop on Capital and Trawick Road and sit in my car for a few minutes, remembering. Then I drive to the parking lot where the Brentwood Road Harris Teeter store used to be. Finally, I go a block to his 1980s ranch-style house on Cranston Circle. Sting’s haunting voice, “You’ll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barley,” plays on my smartphone.
For many, love is the ultimate positive emotion of joy. Though love provides pleasure, it can also result in torment, even grief. I close my eyes and listen to Sting and remember that feeling of falling in love.
Paul Lesako Funeral Home: Bryan Lee Smith, 60, formerly of Wauseon, OH, died Saturday, Nov 23, 2019 at his parents’ home in Crucible, PA.
Part of me held out hope we could get back together again. I admit that I had that hope, but I am finally rid of it. I chose to get on with my life, even with great sorrow in my heart, even while carrying this loss.
Losing the love of your life and actually realizing it can take some time to surface. There is pain on both sides when a breakup occurs. It can be a time of healing, as well as a time when moving on begins and life slowly becomes happier. The pain subsides, and you reflect on the lessons you learned and seek new love. The feeling of wanting your love and missing him fills each day. The love you still hold for him doesn’t dwindle. The guilt you feel for hurting this special person holds tight. When you think of them, your heartstrings pull because you remember just how pure their intent was.
I had hoped he would have had a good life and found someone to share his life with. He did not. He was not the first white man I loved, nor was he the last. David and I have been together since 2006. There have been trials. I learned how to love from Bryan. I love David and don’t regret the choices I had to make. I put Bryan in that place in our hearts where lost loves are stored. His mother sent me a locket with a tiny bit of his ashes. Thus, in a way he did come back to me. The necklace is heart-shaped, inscribed with the words, “Forever in my heart.”
Bryan moved to Texas after he got out of the Navy. He moved to Raleigh in the late eighties to marry his second wife. They met when he was in Raleigh for training. After that marriage failed, he stayed. I now realize the dilemma he faced when he lost his job. When he told me his company was terminating him, I panicked. He did not want to move back to Texas, but I pushed him to transfer and promised to join him there after I finished grad school and my youngest child went off to college. I meant it when I made that promise. However, I started sending him job announcements in Raleigh as soon as he left.
I was asking a lot from him. If I had not panicked, we probably would have gotten through the crisis of losing his job. He was happy in North Carolina. He was miserable after he moved back to Texas―and now he’s gone. Now I am working on forgiving myself for not having the faith and courage to support him through his job search in Raleigh and insisting that he take the transfer. I understand why moving back a second time was so hard for him. He said I did nothing wrong, but I did. I know I have to forgive myself for asking the impossible of him. The tears won’t stop. How do you grieve for someone you haven’t seen in fifteen years? Earth Wind & Fire explains this in their song:
Somethin’ happened along the way
And yesterday was all we had
Rest in peace, my love.