I began seeing years that Rickey never would when I turned 28 years old. It's difficult to comprehend that I am now older than he will ever be. That I am experiencing ages that he has not already lived first. That he was once three years older than me, and now, I am nearly three years older than he was when he died in 2003.
I often wonder if he will always feel older than me even as I continue to age ... or if my memory of him will begin to feel younger - the way teenagers seem so much smaller now than when I was 17. Since I will never see the wrinkles form in Rickey's face or hear the decades change his voice, will I one day view him as a 20-something kid ... while I look in the mirror and no longer recognize the old woman staring back? If I am granted the gift of time, what will it feel like to get older in a world in which he exists in some parallel universe where he never ages?
Walt, an old college friend, visited New York City last weekend. We were exploring a beautiful, snow-covered Central Park, strolling along pathways and trails and people-watching on various fields and quads. It was the perfect weather for enjoying snow. The temperature was cool and comfortable, but not warm enough to melt the 15-20 inches of fluffy, white layers that blanketed the park. The Great Lawn was riddled with snowmen, snow-women with anatomically correct acorns, and entire snow-families with little snow-dogs. There was even a remarkable likeness of the Marshmellow Man from Ghostbusters. The creativity was staggering.
I am reminded by the plaques on benches in Central Park that I am not the first - or even one of the few - to have experienced heart-wrenching loss. My favorite plaque, on a bench adjacent The Great Lawn, reads: Dad ... we will always remember you here. Playing tag and flying kites ... Hannah, Lucy and Henry.
Almost every hill was occupied by dozens of sledders or grated with crisscrossing sled tracks, the ephemeral hints of good times that had already been had. And when I see sleds, I am always reminded of Rickey. Of how, ten years ago, he spent the better part of an hour trying to sled down a hill at Western Carolina University standing on a lunch tray. His coveted prize? A kiss. A first kiss from me in that first winter of the new millennium.
The Western Carolina Men's Basketball coach would have been livid if he had known that one of his starting players had been trying to surf a snowy hill. That the hill had been dimly lit by the street lamps from the Helder Hall parking lot and sprinkled with baby trees and large rocks. And that his teammates, friends and I had looked on in amusement, laughing too hard to even think to stop him.
Walt and Rickey were both student-athletes. Though Walt played football, the two had known each other well during our days of purple and gold. As Walt and I trudged through the snow in Central Park ten years later and 700 miles away from our college stomping grounds, he shared the tales of Rickey's seven-month pursuit for the kiss that would eventually lead to a wonderful and rocky three-year college romance.
As I listened to Walt recount the stories, it was as if the snow around us melted away, unveiling a lush, green Central Park, and then the park itself slowly morphed into the beautiful, rolling hills of our Cullowhee campus. The memories were as crisp as if they were yesterday and as clear as if we were actually there - transported back in both space and time.
Walt laughed as he recalled a particular evening when the student-athletes were leaving study hall. Rickey had turned to him and asked, "What do you think of Katie? You think I have a chance?"
"You're Slick," he had replied, referencing Rickey's nickname, "You're the man."
Dre, one of Walt's teammates on the Western Carolina Football team, added, "Slick, if you get Katie ... dog, I'll give you my entire refund check."
Months later, after Rickey got me, I vaguely remember hearing him say to someone in passing on more than one occasion, "Where's my refund?"
I can't actually remember if it had been Dre to whom he had often laughingly posed the question. I had never known what that meant, and I had never asked. I can remember, on one particular occasion, peering over Rickey's customary headlock - our usual stance when we were hanging around casually with friends - his forearm draped across my collar bone, his hand lightly gripping my shoulder, his chin resting on top of my head. Someone passes by and waves and I barely notice a moment in time that would become one of the most replayed in my mind. I can hear Rickey's voice echoing in the memory, "Where's my refund?"
The face in the distance is hazy. Blurred more by the distance of time than actual space. I think the blurry figure says, "I gotchu."
Ten years later, returning to the present in New York, it felt unbearably bittersweet to choke back tears and swallow the resurfacing lumps in my throat as children shrieked with joy around us and families, friends and couples played merrily in the snow. Sometimes I can't remember Rickey's laugh and that makes him feel so far away.
Later that evening, Walt and I stopped for cocktails at a penthouse lounge in Midtown. More stories of Rickey came up, including another from the earlier days of our courtship. After eating dinner in Brown Cafeteria one evening, Rickey barged into Walt's dorm room in Benton Hall: "Walt, I messed up! I feel so stupid. I feel so lame."
"What happened?" Walt asked. "What did you do?"
Rickey was so distressed and seemed sincerely agonized that he had ruined any chances with me whatsoever as he grumbled: "I told Katie that I like her hair."
"So?" Walt replied. "She has nice hair."
"No," Rickey moaned. "I guess you had to be there, but I feel so stupid. So stupid!"
I laughed and laughed as Walt retold story after story over the flickering candle light of the Manhattan lounge. Some I had not heard before. As I listened to the things I had never known that Rickey had done or said, something inside began to hurt. The other lounge guests danced and chatted, completely oblivious to our private moment in the corner. The flashing lights of Times Square danced through the elongated windows and bounced off the sparkling walls. I could feel the tears stinging the corners of my eyes, trying to squeeze their way through the laughter. I'm always unprepared for those moments, when the stories bring Rickey painfully close, and I'm suddenly struck by how much I miss him.
Memories have a way of transcending time. Memories take you back and put you in the moment. Being able to relive those moments with an old friend - in the way that you can vividly share reciprocal recollections, share different angles and perspectives - makes the memory into a 3D hologram between you ... there is a comfort in that. The ability to bring the memory back to life through multiple accounts is what makes the transcendence lucid.
Yet it breaks your heart over and over to relive certain moments that you can no longer share with the people who were in them. In those moments, I am reminded that the stories are all I have left. Those few seconds always ache with soothing pleasure and simultaneous grief. I crave the high of remembering times gone by and, at the same time, scorn the low that comes with its finality. Nostalgia becomes an inescapable drug that soothes the surface while mutilating within.
There is comfort in being able to recall a memory with someone and knowing that they remember ... or in being able to tell them that you're sorry and having the reassurance that they know.
But when the memory involves someone who is no longer here, the memory becomes surreal, and it's pure anguish to re-realize that you cannot just call him up and say, "Hey, remember when ..." When you can't just let him know that you are thinking of him, when he'll never know that you are sorry, when over six years go by and he can't have any idea of how much you have been missing him ... that slices your soul.
It's the same deep ache that consumes me whenever I have the instantaneous, blissful urge to tell Rickey something immediately before I remember that I can't. After six years, six months and 27 days, that's the ache that I've begun to realize is never going to ease.
Realizations like that have a way of making time feel incredibly, excruciatingly, agonizingly finite.
I was batting back tears and trying in vain to swallow my emotions with my martini as Walt evoked a few more stories I had never heard. On another occasion, Walt had dragged a desk chair into the hallway of Benton, where Rickey was seated, receiving a quick line-up. Under the buzz of the clippers, he was visibly troubled by a rapidly approaching Valentine's Day: "I don't know what to do, Walt. I want to do something different."
Some of the other football players - within earshot through their open doors - began to make jokes, calling Rickey "Valentino", but he didn't care and continued to lament out loud: "Whatever I do, it's gonna be different."
"I think that was the year that Rickey took me to see Hannibal," I said, pulling myself out of another ten-year old apparition of Cullowhee, and rejoining Walt in the present in Manhattan. I was half-joking in an attempt to lighten the mood, half-serious because it was probably true.
"Well, that was definitely different," Walt replied, shaking his head and chuckling before the sincerity returned to his tone. "But he was so taken with you. It's very rare to see someone who is truly taken and doesn't care who knows it. Rick never tried to play it cool when it came to you. He was all in."
I never tire of the stories, even if I've heard some of them more than once or twice. Even if I hear them ten times, I'll never tire of sitting around and hearing them again and again. Of trying to feel close to Rickey and finding laughter. Even though it hurts.
"Do you ever wish we could go back and do it all again?" I asked.
"All the time," Walt said. "All the time."
It's a glorious yet burning constant. Rickey has been gone for 343 weeks. 2,403 days. 57,672 hours. 3,460,320 minutes. 207,619,200 seconds. Six autumns. Six winters. Five springs, and five summers. It has been six years, six months and 27 days since my last chance to tell him that I miss him. And I'm sorry.
I'm sorry, and I miss him.