This is a guest blog/short story which I believe you will enjoy and remember. I do.
Should I Trust My Heart?
by John D. Britto
Just home from Hong Kong, my well-worn suitcases were barely unpacked as I settled in to check my email account. A bit jet-lagged, I dreaded the process.
Despite my spam guard, crafty marketers always found a weakness in my defenses. They would send me information I didn’t need, didn’t want and didn’t like. Get-rich-quick-schemes, diet pitches, miracle pills and urgent announcements telling me I had inherited riches beyond my wildest dreams traveled through cyberspace into my quiet condo.
My tired eyes quickly reviewed the two-dozen message lines. Without mercy, my finger deleted everything that didn’t have a familiar From or Subject line. I settled into a comfortable rhythm, clicking at a reasonable pace making short-work of the irksome meddlers.
Then, like a burst of fireworks in the night sky, I saw a brief, cryptic subject line. It could only be one person; an extraordinary person who was an influential part of my life many years ago. My eyes popped open, my heart pumped a little quicker and I was suddenly wide-awake.
But it couldn’t be, I reasoned. Why would she want to contact me after all these years? We had grown from the closest of companions, to the best of friends, and then almost inseparable. She was my first love. But that was a quarter of a century ago. Our parting was, well, unusual. In fact, much about those final days still remained unclear to me.
We had each left for college right after high school. In my senior year, my parents wrote and told me she had married on the East Coast. After college, I got married on the West Coast–and then almost predictably, unmarried in Texas a few years later. As time passed, she became a fond memory. Certain songs or movies stirred long-lost feelings, but our lives were separated by three-thousand miles and twenty-five years. I wondered why she would contact me now.
Then it hit me like a punch in the gut, there was a possible worst-case scenario here. A hacker or identity thief might be on the other end of this message. I might be a target. I might be at risk if I opened this message. Was this a deceitful ploy playing on my emotions, luring me with the promise of rediscovering a long-lost love? I had to decide what to do: Be cynical—or trust my heart?
My wavering hand was poised over the mouse. My burning eyes were fixed like a laser on that cryptic subject line. As my breathing quickened, I faintly recalled listening to a college professor lecturing on the phenomenon of human indecision. But here I was, in real-time, trying to choose: Is it a former love—or perhaps a ruthless thief? I needed a moment to think.
I pushed away from the desk and leaned back into my chair. Crossing my arms, I began reflecting on my life: Where did all that precious time go? I marveled at the incredible sights I had been privileged to see, my world travels and most of all, the many wonderful people who enriched my life and enabled me to enjoy all that I had.
Slowly, without effort, vivid images of my childhood sprang into my mind’s eye: My supportive parents, my boyhood home in rural Iowa and my neighbors, Pastor and Mrs. Dugan. My father was the editor of the local newspaper and my mother taught Sunday school. We lived in modest two-story home in an older part of town. Century-old oak trees stood like sentinels along our quiet street where lush lawns spilled out to the sidewalk. That is, when there wasn’t snow.
There weren’t any children my age near-by so Pastor Dugan and his wife filled-in as my good friends and extended family whenever I was not in school. But that was before Ella May Dugan entered my life.
Ella moved into her grandparents’ home—the Dugan’s–on a Tuesday afternoon during an unusually warm spring. She and her parents had been involved in a horrific car accident near their farm in Duluth, Minnesota. Her parents died instantly. Ella lost an eye and badly damaged the other. She was rendered physically weak, even after months of physical therapy.
My parents and the Dugan’s encouraged me to befriend her, to show her around school and introduce her to my friends. I was more than happy to do so. I finally had someone my age close by. Neither of us had siblings and we lived right next door to one another, so we already had much in common. As it turned out, there was much more we shared.
Ella was special from the start. I expected her to be depressed, sad, even detached. But she wasn’t. She had an incredible philosophy that practically embarrassed the rest of us. Ella possessed a wisdom borne of true tragedy. We got along famously from the first time we met. We were destined to be best friends.
Our eighth-grade year and well into the ninth, kept us together studying, talking about life, our fears and our yet-to-be-finalized aspirations. Sometimes I would work at my father’s newspaper, or Ella would help out at her grandfather’s church. We frequently discussed the worldly issues we learned from our loved ones. It was a marvelous period of discovery in many ways for each of us. Our youthful transformation was as exciting as it was challenging.
Sometimes she’d watch as I shoveled snow, raked leaves or mow the grass. Other times we’d just sit in the park. On warm sunny days we might visit the civil war monument next to the Skunk River and talk about where it originated, where it went before it joined an ocean: We each wanted to see an ocean, any ocean. Our yearning for travel was another desire we shared.
We would sit day-dreaming about our future as we watched the peaceful river head south. What direction, we wondered, would our paths take us? Living in Iowa, all points of the compass looked exotic to us.
That second winter, Ella lost almost all sight in her remaining eye. She now required stronger glasses, an eye patch, a cane—and a helper. As a result of this decline to her eyesight, Ella now required someone to read to her. Softly, and with a depth of sincerity I had not heard before, she asked me if I would be her eyes; if I would see for her, tell her all that I saw. I immediately promised that I would. From that moment, I made it my mission to see for Ella.
I am sure we made a comical pair as we walked together. Me, the tall gangly attire-challenged youth next to the gal with thick glasses and one patched eye like a petite pirate. Neither of us, of course, saw anything but our deep friendship for one another.
I would read anything she asked me to. School books, newspapers, catalogs, magazines, or comic books, just anything she wanted to hear about. We would camp-out on her porch on most warm days and I would describe, in the greatest detail, everything I saw. The irregular twisted curves of the bark on the tree trunks, the shapes of twigs and branches as they bent and reached for the sky, the way leaves shimmered in the breeze as the wind shifted directions, the changes in their colors as light passed through them—or bounced off, depending on the time of day.
Winter brought new sights to see and share. The random way snow would fall and pile up along the bushes and fences, its array of colors and density, the glow of the ice refracting the sun’s rays and the way our breath would crystallize as we chatted endlessly.
On occasion, Ella would ask me to retell what I saw and insist that I provide greater clarity. She said she wanted to see in her mind what I saw with my eyes. She would gently coax me to provide the slightest nuances of what was in my world but not in hers— shapes, light, colors and movement.
Once she blurted, “Paul, look closely, white clouds aren’t just white, there is everything from ghost-white to dark silver-white—and many shades in between. Which white is it now?” She required that I be accurate with my word choice and descriptions.
The kids at school began calling Ella Annie because of her contagious positive attitude. “There’s always tomorrow,” she’d frequently say. Her cheery laugh would fill an entire room. Her smile could make even a hardened cynic forget his troubles.
Along with a few other classmates, we worked on the yearbook together. She was a budding Barbara Walters when it came to interviewing. She just had a gift that encouraged people to open up to her. She could disarm anyone and make them feel comfortable. She interviewed custodians, cafeteria workers, faculty, counselors and most of the students at our bustling school: Being around her was a lesson in living.
During our senior year, Ella and I went to the Winter Ball together. With hard work by the decorating committee, our aging gym went from smelling like wax and socks to a winter wonderland complete with the pleasant aroma of fresh-cut pine. I carefully described the glimmering five-pointed tinfoil stars, the billowing cotton clouds that hung from the ceiling and the large bowl of crimson punch. I took my time explaining the details of her soft blue gown that made her look like a princess.
As she pinned on my boutonniere and felt my jacket, she asked me what color coat I was wearing. I altered the truth to see what she would do. Of course she caught me and we laughed a long time about that. She said it was the slightest change in my voice that told her what she could not see.
Like every other couple, we forced a weak grin into the box camera—the camera that Ella could not see—as we stood in front of the Styrofoam ice castle pretending to be somewhere out of Iowa.
Our last semester was filled with a blur of activity. We lost track of the days rushing through seemingly endless demands in preparation for the approaching move away from home. There were final exams and projects to complete and lists to review as we began the transition for college.
Ella spent as much time with her aging grandparents as she could, and I worked extra hours to make money for school. Secretly, I think we each didn’t want to face the certain reality of parting after so many wonderful years together.
It was a warm Thursday afternoon in late May when I received a telephone call from Pastor Dugan. “Paul, could you stop by a little later if you have time?”
Naturally, I asked if everything was alright and he assured me that it was. He said he just needed to speak with me for a moment.
A little concerned about the mysterious call, I ambled next door and gently knocked on the old screen door, just as I had a thousand times before. Mrs. Dugan called out for me to come in. When I entered the room and took my seat at the lace-covered dining room table, I knew from the looks on their faces they had something important to tell me. Pastor Dugan handed me a large, tan envelope and said Ella wanted me to have what was inside. I tensed up not understanding what was happening.
“Paul,” Mrs. Dugan said, “Ella had to leave for college early because of her limited sight. She needed additional time to learn the campus and the location of her dorm and classes. The early arrival was necessary for her safety. It was best for her to learn when there were fewer students on campus.”
Pastor Dugan began to talk, but I was too numb to hear, to fathom what I had just heard. When he finished, I thanked them and drifted home in a daze.
The next thing I knew I was sitting in my room holding a large, tan envelope. My mind raced. I was hurt, confused and sad all at once. Ella and I didn’t ever discuss saying good bye to one another. The topic never came up. I didn’t have a plan for our last visit together, but what just happened sure wasn’t an option I had considered.
Soon, there was a welling in my eyes. Without thinking, I automatically lifted my hand to wipe away the tears and I felt the envelope brush my face. When I looked down I saw Ella’s familiar child-like handwriting on the outside of the envelope. The simple one-word inscription said, Paul.
Inside was a single piece of pink, lined paper and a large photograph: Our Winter Ball photograph. The brief memo must have been difficult for her to write. It was a beautiful expression of farewell, appreciation, and good luck. She apologized for leaving suddenly and hoped I would understand. She promised that if ever she needed to see something very important in her life, she would contact me.
Her letter ended with encouragement. She asked me to continue seeing the world for her, that I would forever be her eyes.
I stared at the photograph of us standing together at the Winter Ball. The fond memories of that special night rushed over me. I sat in a fog wondering what I should do next. After a short time, I turned the photograph over. In large block letters Ella had written: PaulUC4ME.
Soon, the spring of separation brought a summer of sorrow. Then, a cool fall turned into a life blurred by living. My fond memories of Ella and her inspiration proved invaluable for me. As a photojournalist I have been fortunate to travel the world to capture colorful images and write vivid descriptions of my adventures.
Faintly, somewhere off in a distance, I heard a soft musical chime from my computer and I was forced back into the present. I blinked my moist eyes and stared at the screen. The bright message lines of text caught my attention as they returned to focus. But the one message I kept looking at, starring at, in large block letters called to me: PAULUC4ME.
As if in a dream, my finger fell slowly, softly onto the mouse; the familiar clicking sound shattered the silence. As I read the two short sentences I felt like Alice in Wonderland, being pulled into another world, another time.
“Paul, I can see again—not much and not clearly, at least not now, but I can see—and, I want to see you. Love, Ella”
John D. Britto
[John retired after almost 30 years of teaching; he lives and writes in northern California–but continues to travel, visiting 28 countries and 49 states to date. ]