Suitcases of Memories — RIP Nicole Hitt, 1975-2012

This post is random and chaotic and disorganized and being written too late, but I had to write. I can’t not.

I have wondered frequently how I would find out, who would tell me, how long it would take. My friend Lain was the one to tell me, for which I am incredibly grateful, and it took two days.

Nicole Hitt, who for seven and a half years was my wife, died on Monday.

That is the first picture that was ever taken of us together, or at least a picture of that picture.

Our first date was on January 27, 1999. We went to Memphis and ate Mexican and got lost trying to find a movie theater and hung out at B.B. King’s Club and heard Ruby Wilson, the Queen of Beale Street. Nicole had asked me the night before if it was going to be a date and I was too chicken to just say yes so I told her we would go and have a good time and see how the evening goes and decide at the end. The kiss in her doorway that night pretty well sealed that it was.

Nine days later, I took her home to meet my family. I had already turned down a job that would have moved me away from her. I was head over heels for her stupid fast, but I knew that this woman would be my wife. My mom took that picture, the first of us. A while back, I found it at their house, and took a picture of it.

We were young, and happy.

That’s the last picture of us together. It’s not the last time I saw her, but that particular time, months after the divorce, I just really wanted a picture of us, so I flipped my iPhone around and snapped one.

At one point in time, I was going to write a book, a fictionalized version of our story, and it was going to be called “The Last Time He Saw Her.” Vignettes capturing the arc of a love affair. “The last time he saw her, she had just been the other sister.” “The last time he saw her, he had no clue how beautiful she would be in that dress.” “The last time he saw her, she was still his wife.” And so forth. Maybe some day I will.

Thirteen months, less a day, after that first date, I was standing at the front of First Baptist Church in Indianola, and the doors in the back opened and I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

This is not the time or place to discuss the issues that led us to fall apart. Nicole was, from long before I met her, haunted by demons that increasingly got the better of her. And eventually those demons led her, much to my dismay, down a road we could not walk together, and so we parted ways. I had hoped for a different outcome; I had hoped a different choice could be made. But one day papers arrived in the mail saying that we were now divorced.

We stayed in touch, to vary degrees, over the five years since. At one point, when it was the only form of contact possible, we wrote letters. Not e-mail, but actual letters on paper with stamps. I saw her occasionally. She stayed in Huntsville for a few months after the separation; that last picture was taken the first time I saw her after she moved, after not seeing her for months. When we started dating, if you count dates that last after midnight and into the next day, it was several weeks after the first date before there was a day that we didn’t see each other, at least briefly. That picture came after the longest I’d not seen her in years. It was strange. It was good seeing her, and I wanted a picture of us. The last one, ever.

I saw her a few times over the years since. Many of those were in hospitals. A couple were not. She showed me her Tuscaloosa during one of her better periods, when she was working on another degree, supplementing the master’s she already had. We went to church together during that visit, and I loved her church. Another time, I got to see her again in Oxford. We ate at an long-favorite restaurant, for old time’s sake.

It’s been two years since the last time I saw her. At some point, as her conditioned worsened, phone calls became more rare. At one point, they disappeared, as she was in a coma and then unable to talk. I heard from her for the last time earlier this year. At the time, I kind of thought it might be the last time, and that’s saying something. Nicole went through things that should have killed her several times over, and yet always she pulled through. When I talked to her last, it sounded like it would be impossible for her to recover, but she’d been through impossible before. At the same time, it’s inevitable to the human condition that, at some point, you stop recovering. If I hadn’t known better, the last time I spoke with her, I would have thought I was talking to a 90-year-old woman. She sounded old, weak. Worn. She was paralyzed from the neck down. At the time, I think I commented to someone that I could be honest with, that would understand, that an end to the suffering would be the best thing for her. I cannot imagine what life was like for her.

The health problems had gone on the entire time I knew her, and had gotten ever progressively worse. According to what I was told, the last straw was “Sepsis” — “a potentially deadly medical condition that is characterized by a whole-body inflammatory state and the presence of a known or suspected infection,” per Wikipedia. Ultimately, however, it was erosion, a body worn down by more than it could withstand.

Visitation will be from 11-1 today and the funeral at 1 p.m. at Coleman’s Funeral Home in Oxford, Miss., and burial will be at Delay Cemetery. Out of respect for her family’s wishes, I will not be there; I will be paying my respects in private at another time.

As I said, Nicole had her struggles. But through all of that, she had one of the best hearts I have ever encountered in this world. She was truly, truly loving and giving, and wanted nothing more than to make life better for others. As a counselor and social worker, she gave all that she had to her clients, at various times foster children, drug addicts, dying elderly, refugees and others. There were times the main thing keeping me going in the relationship was supporting her, because what she did was truly purely good. It amazes me what she accomplished, which would have been incredible even without knowing what all she had to overcome. Through the end, her thoughts were always for others.

In that respect, she has inspired me. I have learned so much through her, and it pains me, deeply, that I did not know the things when I met her that I know now. She was a precious, fragile doll, and I was a child too young and innocent to know that I didn’t know how to take care of this thing I wanted to play with. I made so so many stupid mistakes that I can only hope to use to make me a better person now. I’m grateful that I at least did see in time to tell her that I was so so sorry, even if it did no good at the time.

I could keep going, and it would still be inadequate. It was a weird thing, after the divorce, and particularly dating again, knowing that there was a woman out there who still wore my last name. It was an intentional choice she made, and it’s one that by now I am deeply deeply honored that she did.

I miss her, often, but increasingly in a strangely detached way. Losing her launched a series of changes in me that looking back at the memories I shared with her is almost like looking at the memories of a stranger. I know it was me, but, at the same  time, it wasn’t.

Several people have asked how I am. I don’t know. I’m good. Confused more than anything. I have no road map for how I’m supposed to feel about this. It’s a strange, strange thing, and I don’t know quite what to make of it. But, like I said, it was not unexpected, and not something I see as a bad thing, despite feeling very bad for her niece, so by and large, I’m well. I’ve cried, to be sure, but mostly I just really needed to write this.

For her, I am happy.

She was suffering. Badly. For a very long time. With no hope of not. And now, she’s not. Now, she’s whole and well.

But, more than that …

I’ve written once before about the child we lost, the tubal pregnancy she had. She had wanted children, and for many reasons, it just wasn’t an option for us. While the tubal pregnancy could have been much worse in many ways, it still hurt. But I believe that life begins at conception, and that means that, no matter how short a duration she was in this world, we had a child. The child that Nicole so wanted but couldn’t have in this world would be waiting for her in the next.

And, so, yeah, I’m happy for Nicole. Not only happy, but kind of jealous. She’s not only free of pain, free of suffering, but she’s there now holding Katelyn. Finally holding her child. And that’s not a bad thing at all. That’s not a bad thing at all.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do now, then I have ever done before… it is a far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known before.”

Farewell, Nicole.