Where There is Sorrow, There is Holy Ground

Oh, shit. I am in so much trouble.
~My first thought upon seeing Dustin for the first time.

I saw him before he saw me, and I knew, from the second I laid eyes on him, that everything would be different. The sun was shining during an unseasonably warm October day, and it played over his hair, his broad, muscular shoulders, his narrow waist, and the suggestion of a rear end I could already tell was going to cause me heart trouble. Hormones were rocketing around my system, and all the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

We were meeting for coffee, cliche of all cliches. We had met online, and spent the last two weeks getting to know each other on the phone. I had made him wait so long because I had been putting in insane hours at my job, and that first weekend I had available I intended to spend in the fetal position on the couch, and told him so. He found that both frustrating and hilarious.

He didn’t see my initial reaction. I was sitting at an outside table, reading my kindle. Behind my sunglasses, I saw him coming across the parking lot. He didn’t see my eyes widen, my lips part. He didn’t hear my breath catch or the soft swear word I hissed. I let him go into the cafe, let him send me a text to let me know he had arrived. I didn’t get up to meet him, but sent him a text to let him know where I was.

Frankly, I needed a minute. I pretended to read my book, trying to get my breathing under control, struggled for calm. I was in a heap of trouble, but I didn’t yet know if he was.

He took my picture while I was pretending to read. I didn’t realize it, but I was smiling.

We talked for hours. We went from place to place. He helped me pick out my smartphone, phones being an obsession of his. We went to my favorite tavern for lunch. And we went to one of my favorite places on the planet: the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Garden has been special to me for years. My aunt June took me the first time when I was nine or ten. I remember being fascinated by the Japanese Gardens-the largest Japanese garden outside Japan. The Climatron left me amazed-a tropical jungle housed in a geodesic dome. I loved it, and I loved her. She had a childlike wonder for the world that made every experience with her a kind of revelation, a romp, endlessly special.

While I was living outside Detroit, June got sick, diagnosed with breast cancer. I was already working to come back home after my cousin Steve had died in 2002. I got back just as she finished her final rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

For her birthday that summer, I took her back to the Garden. She was still weak and tired from her treatments. We had to make frequent stops, but she loved every minute of it. She hadn’t been to the Garden in years, and she exclaimed over every change and new design, and wondered over the rose gardens, her favorites.

We went back every year for her birthday after that. She got stronger, she got better, and she looked forward to the trip, would talk about it for weeks afterwards. But three years later, she suffered a bad fall, broke her leg. And we discovered her breast cancer, thought to be in remission, had metastasized to her bones.

Bone cancer is terminal. Every time. No get out of jail free card, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. It may take a while, it can be held off – slowed down – delayed – but make no mistake, sooner or later, it’s going to kill you. And it is a horrible, drawn out, terrible way to die.

That year, she was too sick to go back. So I went alone and took as many pictures as I could. The next year, she was gone. And now, the Gardens are sacred to me, hallowed ground. If she is haunting any place on this earth, she is there.

For me to decide to take Dustin to the Garden during our first date was a significant choice. For him to realize how special the place was to me simply by watching my reactions to it was even more so.

I touched him for the first time in the Ottoman Garden, tucking my hand into the crook of his arm.

We held hands for the first time at the tulip beds.

And in the Climatron, buried in a jungle in the middle of the Midwest, beside a waterfall, he kissed me for the first time.

There, we fell in love.

Waterfall at the Missouri Botanical Garden


Title quote courtesy of Oscar Wilde.




“Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third.”
~Marge Piercy

In order for any of this to make sense to me, or to you, I need to start with the beginning. No, not how we met, although that will have its place in this narrative. No, the beginning of how we came to be who we were when we met, so you (and I) can better understand why we meant so much to each other.

So. I am 35 years old. Never married, no kids, and very happy that way, thank you. I won’t say I had a bad childhood; I didn’t. I didn’t have an ideal one either, but who can truly say they have? My parents did the best they could with what they had to work with, and through no fault of their own, they didn’t always have a lot to work with. I learned to be independent and strong, and had a nearly fatal allergy to intimacy or any kind of interdependence in relationships. I was the the girl always halfway out the door; I was Zooey Deschanel in “500 Days of Summer.” Despite that, I have a deeply caring heart, and fierce loyalty to those I care for.

I am a Sagittarius born during the year of the Fire Dragon, which makes me a triple fire sign. It’s a wonder I don’t just self-combust. He used to say that although he never saw me express anger, he could see it rising in my eyes, and he was frightened by it.

He was just 30 when he passed away. Born and raised in Michigan, his childhood was even less ideal than mine. Characterized by an almost maniacal devotion to religion in his mother’s house and a psychopathic rage and misogyny in his father’s, he often found himself caught in the middle, struggling to find himself and a clear space to stand.

He used to say he didn’t know what messed him up more: the religion or the violence.

When he was only 19 years old, differences in religion and lifestyle led to his mother disowning him and casting him out. Unwilling to return to his father’s violence, he began to live his life in a half-lit netherworld, never truly returning to the light again.

At 25, his girlfriend at the time gave birth to his son. The relationship dissolved in anger and infidelity on her part, frustration and pain on his, and she took his son and left. One bad decision led to another, and he left Michigan last year. After bouncing around the country a bit, he came here. And found me.

“Sometimes the truth just ain’t enough,
or it’s too much in times like this
Let’s throw the truth away,
we’ll find it in this kiss”
~”Worlds Apart” Bruce Springsteen

I, am of course, leaving out the vast majority of the facts. In this case, the facts not only don’t tell the whole story, they actively obscure it. The essence of what became important-became, in fact, everything-is found between the lines, transcending the spare bones of detail and evidence and objective observation. He was a lost and lonely soul, a walking contradiction, part Robin Hood, part Dark Knight, looking for someone who could not only understand but accept him as he was. I was more than a little lost myself, recently recovered from a destructive relationship, looking for someone who could accept my own contradictions, without trying to minimize my intelligence, to cripple my strength, who didn’t feel threatened by my inherent nature. Someone, in short, who understood me.

We were alike. Frighteningly alike. In the areas where we differed, we were nearly perfect mirror images of each other. He was Water to my Fire. This is what we gave each other, then: unconditional love, unconditional acceptance. A clear-eyed, intuitive view into each other’s minds and hearts. We found a home.