Their second meeting led to a third and into September. Mikaela didn’t mention her budding, albeit terminal, relationship to her brothers who continuously noted her penchant for strays and lost causes. They were married. They didn’t understand how fully her parents had filled every empty moment of her life not dedicated to work and school. But her parents were gone now, and Mikaela hadn’t found a personal connection to fill the emotional gaps and holes that remained when she finally crossed her doorway at the end of the day.
Matt, and thoughts of him, filled every empty nook and cranny with humor and kindness. She grew in his light, and he frequently told her that he benefited from time with her. Was the pleasure of his company worth the self-inflicted pain of knowing she would likely watch him die? That was the question. She had handled loss before, stunning loss and the agonizing anticipation of it, and she knew she would not have forfeited joy just to spare herself sorrow.
She pulled her shoes on and scanned her lonely living space. Apartment life denied her the right to bring home anymore stranded kittens or puppies, and the gifted carnival-prize beta fish had finally succumbed. She was as alone as she had ever been, and perhaps that made her reckless enough to welcome a dying friend into her heart with eyes wide open. She knew they were living a dream of denial, but their individual loneliness was diminished by having someone fill the empty hours, and for that even temporary joy, she proceeded.
They spent their time together simply, with strolling conversations in the gardens on Prospect’s Baltimore medical campus, or in Baltimore’s harbor area where they asked one another questions as they watched the autumn tourists, and boaters enjoying the end of the season. The game was tit for tat. Mikaela asked a question of Matt, and he responded by turning the light of introspection on her as they became comfortable with each other. The questions were generally fluff, delaying further discussion of the ultimate reason they had found each other.
“Favorite music?” asked Mikaela as a yellow leaf fluttered to the ground.
“Favorite music . . . well . . . my parents taught me to appreciate and love classical.” One corner of Matt’s mouth curved upward into thoughtful smile. “But when I’m feeling deeply introspective, I turn to classic folksy rock—Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The smooth older stuff.”
“And what constitutes deep introspection?”
Matt rubbed the back of his neck and smiled sheepishly. “Mostly self-pity.”
The answer put a temporary chill on their game. Matt guided their walk to an ice cream vendor where he broke the conversational ice by supplying frozen treats.
“Where do you live?” asked Mikaela as she licked her single-dip cone.
“I have a brownstone in Georgetown. Very Feng Shui. Or Spartan, depending on how you look at vacant, undecorated rooms.”
Mikaela’s shoulders rose as a single giggle escaped. Her five foot eight inches softly collided against his toned six feet, like a physical rimshot in response to his joke. He absorbed her assault with a smile, and she couldn’t help but notice how well they meshed.
“Where do I live?”
He nodded and licked a drip on his cone.
“I have a tiny studio apartment over a consignment shop on Pratt. It’s perfect for me right now. I’m hardly ever there, it takes about three minutes to clean, and my landlord, who owns the shop below, gives me great bargains on things I need.”
“Very efficient for a busy life.”
Mikaela noticed how their steps just naturally fell into sync.
“Tell me about your family.”
Matt cleared a lick of ice cream from his lips and began. “My father’s people have been in the rye whiskey business for generations, and my father noticed that most of them died young from overindulging in their own goods. He and my mother were fortyish, childless, and unhappy. My father knew he was heading down the same destructive path that took his father and his grandfather, so he had an epiphany of sorts. He granted my mother’s long wish to adopt a child.”
“Yes, when I was still an infant. Then my father asked his siblings to buy him out, and we moved to New York. My parents bought a small import/export business which they built into a conglomerate of over thirty-five companies.”
Mikaela focused on her cone and shivered as she considered how different their worlds were. “You’re a conglomerate owner’s son.”
“And a principal in my own venture,” he added defensively. “I moved to the D.C. area and built Great Expectations. We create high adventure experiences for clients.”
“What is a dream come true worth? Clients name it, and we do our best to make it happen exactly as they want—travel, food, accommodations, and the most exclusive, exotic locations on earth. We’ve sent families on safaris, round-the-world cruises, Arctic adventures to see polar bears and seals, you name it. Now you know what my family and I do. Tell me about yours.”
She looked down and shook her head. “My family is nothing like yours.”
Matt stopped and squared himself to her. “It made you who you are, so it must have been pretty spectacular.”
She smiled up at him, awed by how adept he was at making her feel his equal. She wriggled up ramrod straight and sniffed comically before breaking into cockney accent. “I suppose we were in our own way.” They laughed and continued their stroll. “We were a large working-class family. Seven sons, all named after presidents.”
“Republican or Democrat?”
“Mostly historical. George, Thomas, James, John, Abe, Franklin, and Dwight.”
“And if you had been a boy?”
She gave him a comically indignant glare. “Ronald, of course.”
“And then . . . surprise!” He laughed and raised his hands in the air.
“Exactly. I arrived after a twelve-year gap, the little princess, but most of my brothers were gone into the military before I was old enough to really know them. My father was a sailor before he went to work in the shipyard. Asbestos exposure likely killed him, but he wasn’t one to hire attorneys and sue people. He said he made his choices and accepted the risk. Mom was a homemaker with a weak heart.”
“And you stayed behind to take care of them.”
Her mouth pressed into a thin line. “I don’t regret a minute of it. I always felt very loved. My brothers are spread across the world, so I don’t see them often, but we have a family text group, and we shoot each other stupid messages and photos from time to time. And I know they’d race to be with me if I ever needed them.”
Matt tossed his partially eaten cone in a trash can. “Then I declare you the wealthier of our pair.”
“Growing up as an only child, did you ever miss having no brothers and sisters?”
“Not that I recall. Probably because I have some of the finest chums a person could ask for. My best friend Daniel Lebed and I have been together since grade school, and the rest have been with me since my prep school years. They are like brothers to me.”
Mikaela recognized the look of disguised pain that crossed Matt’s face. “Are you getting sick from your treatment?”
He smiled reassuringly. “You owe me a question. Are you trying to wiggle out?”
She didn’t press the issue. “Nope,” she replied with spunk. “Lay it on me.” Matt shook his head at her, and she wondered if he found her funny or crass. “I had all brothers, remember.”
“I understand. Tell me about them. After growing up in a large family, was it sad to watch them each head off and leave you behind?”
“A little, I suppose, but I always had my parents, and most of the time, one brother or another seemed to be passing through on leave. And there were certain advantages to being the last and late child. The budget loosened up, and I inherited my brothers’ clunker at sixteen.”
“Aha! You sold out for a car.”
“I confess that I did.” She laughed and offered up another question. “If you could be anywhere . . . right now . . . where would you like to be?”
Matt slowed his pace to a stop and turned her way. “Just where I am, Mikaela.”
His voice was as soft as air and she breathed his words in. “Me too,” she answered.
The moment demanded a response all its own, a touch, or an embrace, but Mikaela resumed their previous pace and Matt followed footstep for footstep as the silence grew awkward once more.
Matt provided a respite. “I’ve travelled a lot. Were you asking about physical places I’ve been?”
“Yes,” she replied with relief. “Is there a city you adore? Or something you long to revisit?”
“There is wonder and beauty everywhere, but I’m most content when the sky is above me and the wind is on my face.”
“Which explains your company.”
“Exactly. I once spent three months alone on a mountain range with nothing more than a sheet of canvas to call home. It was the most meaningful experience of my life.”
“I think everyone should have a period in their life devoid of things. That’s when you really come to know yourself. Who you are, what matters most, and who is of ultimate importance to you.”
“Is that what you found on that mountain?”
His smile seemed pained as he checked his watch, as if he had touched on a topic too personal to pursue.
“I should head back to Rockville. I have work waiting for me at the office.”
Mikaela placed her hand on his arm, the first touch they had shared since the stilted hug that began the day’s encounter. “I have one other question before you go.”
She saw worry pull at his mouth. He nodded and said, “Ask me anything.”
“You said something the first day, about how you wanted to avoid falling in love, as much to protect me as to protect you. It sounded a little ominous. What did you mean by that?”
Matt placed a finger across his mouth and dropped his gaze to the sidewalk. Without saying a word, he turned, and upon finding a bench, he cupped Mikaela’s elbow in his hand and led her to it, motioning for her to sit. He joined her, but when she turned to face him, Matt leaned forward, his arms on his knees, with his gaze set on the ground.
“I was in college when I had my last cancer recurrence. Staring down death in the prime of a young man’s life is a strange experience. It made me self-destructive. I figured I was living on borrowed time, as if life was a finite thing . . .” the next words came out with forced deliberateness, “and I intended to spend every minute fully and die on my own terms.” He turned to face her. “I was selfish, Mikaela. I did what I wanted without thought of the consequences to myself or others. I clubbed and partied and hurt people, more people than I probably know, and worst of all, I quite literally broke my mother’s heart.”
He drew a deep breath. “I woke up one day in a lavish hotel room with people whose names I didn’t know in a city I couldn’t remember, feeling so empty that living at all seemed worthless. I walked out of that room with nothing but my wallet and the clothes on my back. I hired a bicycle cab, and when the driver asked, “Where to?’ I emptied my wallet into his hands and said, ‘Somewhere peaceful,’ and I fell asleep. When I awoke, I was at his home, a hovel of a cottage at the foot of the mountain, with him urging me to follow him up a trail. At the top was a piece of canvas stretched across four poles, and the most humbling view of God’s earth I had ever seen.”
Mikaela held her breath, anxious for him to continue.
“The man’s children brought me food and a jug of fresh water each morning. Some days I hiked the trails. On others I watched the family far below me as they worked and played and took care of one another. Mostly I just sat there and thought, and remembered wonderful moments with my parents. At the end of three months, I had an indescribable hunger to get home, but I was too late. When I called my father, he told me how inconsolable my mother had been with worry for me, and then one night, she’d had a small stroke.”
Mikaela gasped. “Oh, Matt. I’m so sorry.”
“The flight home was the longest, most agonizing of my life, and then seeing her face twisted, her body so weak, and to know I was, at least in some part, the cause?” His head hung down and then lifted. He looked into Mikaela’s eyes. “I told her how sorry I was. That I wished I could trade places with her, and take her pain and afflictions away. She smiled and told me that I now understood what it really meant to love someone, to care more about them than you do for yourself.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “She slowly improved, and I finally understood a few critical lessons about love.”
Mikaela could barely eke out the words, “Such as?”
“That the greatest pain isn’t your own, but that which comes from watching someone you love suffer. I finally recognized that my parents’ grief and pain over my illness was at least as great as, and probably deeper than, my own because they were powerless to help me. And I realized that love isn’t all romance and rainbows. There’s an excruciating vulnerability and responsibility that comes with love. I don’t want to leave this life grieving for someone else I’m losing, nor do I want one more person to grieve that way for me. That’s why I want to keep things light. Friendly. Nothing more.”
“Aren’t you shutting your parents out again?”
“We said all a family can say after Mom’s stroke. I don’t want them to grieve for months. I’ll stay in touch and tell them in time to share some moments together.”
Mikaela struggled to camouflage her emotions and push the words past the lump in her throat. “Thank you for helping me understand. You’re a good man, Matthew Grayken.”
The words seemed to give him no comfort. “A man asking way too much of you.”
She placed her hand on his arm. “I have a few conditions of my own. Since this is primarily a long-term care arrangement, I don’t want your house or your fortune. I’ll move into your home, and I’ll send you a contract with a standard daily rate for home care. Not a penny more, okay?”
Wide-eyed, he nodded.
“I’ll cancel classes for this sem—”
“I don’t want you to do that.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder and leaned in to emphasize the next words. “You’re in for the fight of your life. Besides your immunotherapy, I’m going to make some other changes to your diet and lifestyle. I’m making you my priority, and you need to make you your priority. Agreed?”
“One hundred percent. Will you also marry me and be my legal voice?”
This knife sliced deep into her core. Here was a good man whose humor and kindness filled the hollow ache within her, but their marriage would be like a sandcastle at low tide. She would pour her heart into it, making its short lifespan as beautiful as she could, and then it would be washed away by death. Instead of hope and joy, depleting time and sorrow loomed for them. Could she keep her emotions compartmentalized? Healthcare worker/patient? Could she actually bear such an arrangement? Her mind swirled, trying to imagine living within the same walls with Matthew Grayken. Would life be better . . . would she be better for having shared this wrenching experience with him? More importantly, could she survive losing him at the end?
Pleading crinkled the corners of his eyes as he watched her wrestle. She saw how deeply he needed her. Only her. It was humbling to know he believed she alone could be his comfort and peace. She placed her hands back in her lap and drew a deep breath.
“Yes. I’ll marry you.”