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.

To Praise A Soul’s Returning To The Earth

And I swear I’ve tried to be worthy of
The name they gave me when I was young
But I ain’t that pretty; I ain’t that brave
My kids have seen me cry
They should have given her name to my sister Marie
And that don’t mean a thing to you
That don’t mean a thing to you but it does to me

— Lori McKenna, “Lorraine”

My mother looked at me Saturday under the shining sun, and said to me, “You know, you have as much gray hair as your dad.”

Later that day, my uncle called me over to the table where he and my aunt were sitting. “How old are you?” “36” “See, he was three when we got married.” I thought maybe they were just trying to figure out the timeline, perhaps. But, no, he then tells me, “We were just talking about how much gray hair you have.” Um, thanks?

But it’s a fair comment. I started getting gray hair a while back, and never stopped. As I like to say, I’ve earned every bit of it honestly.

My family got together this weekend to return my grandfather to the Earth.

His funeral was held over a month ago, and on Saturday we gathered together to scatter his ashes at Camp Sumatanga near Gadsden, a place that was dear to him.

That picture at the top? My hand is whitened from the ashes of my grandfather.

When he died, I wasn’t really in a place to blog about it, but instead posted a link to an article that had been written about him only a week before his death. About the only comment I did make was about the fact that I am William Hitt, son of William Hitt, son of William Hitt.

My father talked about that some Saturday. His were bigger shoes to fill. While I have always been called by my middle name, he and his father were both Bill Hitt. For my dad, going into Etowah County and introducing yourself as Bill Hitt was really saying something.

I’m blessed that it’s not the same for me. I’m not called by the name, so I’m not measured by it, either.

But, Saturday, I couldn’t help measuring myself by it.

And I don’t know how I stand up. It’s hard not to get discouraged during a time of unemployment, but, in general, I’ve felt like I’ve done OK by the name David Hitt.

But William? Have I carried it in a way that would make my predecessors proud? Or that I feel is worthy of them? I don’t know.

The funny thing is, my grandfather was a Methodist minister and, in his other job working with juvenile delinquents, a de facto social worker and counselor. I’m a writer by vocation. But as I get older, the more I focus avocationally on finding my ministry and on putting myself in a place to do counseling. It’s not been intentional, and I hadn’t even thought about it until this weekend. But perhaps the name does have some pull.

It didn’t, help, though, when the minister who performed the scattering ceremony, an old friend of my grandfather who also performed his funeral, talked about there being William Hitts there, and how the name would live on after my grandfather.

And that’s why I mentioned the gray hair at the beginning of the post. Right now, I’m the last. It’s not impossible that I could continue the name, but with every day it becomes more unlikely. It’s also possible that one of my brothers could pass it along, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like somewhat of a failure for the fact that I haven’t.  And it saddens me.

I wanted to end, however, by sharing two things, the minister, Watt Washington said that stuck with me, and that belied somewhat the things I was feeling.

“There’s no point in worry about what you could have done, make sure you’re doing what you can.”

“If there are words of assurance, it would simply be two words: Look forward.”

Because I Could Not Stop For Death

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Death.”

Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

— Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”

From the moment we are born, we are dying. All of us. It’s eventual, inevitable and universal.

The only question is when. And, ultimately, that’s not really much of a question. Fifty years from now, most of us will be gone. A century, almost all. We hear about huge tragedies that kill hundreds or thousands and our minds boggle, but all of those people were already marked for death. Even a global catastrophe, the end of life as we know it, only speeds things up a little for people who would die soon anyway, relatively speaking.

If a man were to be killed today in a earthquake that kills thousands, it would be considered a disaster.  But the same man could die today, and with greater probability would, in a car accident on his way home, and it would be considered tragic only to his near and dear. The same man dies 30 years later, and the passing is considered natural.

And not only do we die, but our creations all too often do as well. Empires crumble. Businesses close. Photographs fade. Buildings burn. Books disappear into obscurity. Relationships end.  Languages die out. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Everything that dies does not, in fact, someday come back. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Monkey’s Paw abominations can be all too common and are best avoided.  Few things worth recreating can actually be recreated in a way that does the original justice. Witness most romantic relationships, the Star Wars movie series, and the Los Arcos Mexican restaurant in Indianola, Miss.

We die. It’s what we do. It’s a part of who we are.

Many of us believe that death our death, and the deaths of loved ones, are merely the passage into something better. We believe it, but we have a hard time living it. Arguably, if we fully embraced that, we’d have no reason to want to stay in this life.

But so much of our focus has to do with the things undone, and the things left behind. We consider it a tragedy when someone dies young because of the things they never got to do, and because of the impact the loss has on the friends and family they leave behind.  We consider it a disaster when large numbers are killed, because that tragedy is multiplied.

So where does that leave us.  To quote a great, if fictional, man, “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” But how do the two relate. A song by Rebecca St. James argues that “until you find something worth dying for you’re not really living.” But, I believe that a corrolary is also true: “Until you find something worth living for, you’re just slowing dying.”

If the tragedy of an early death is the things not done, and the impact the loss has on those left behind, then those things should be the focus of our life — doing the things we would want to leave this world having done, and living in such a way that our lives have more impact on those around us than our deaths.

Because we only have so much time.