In the end, they had a very ordinary relationship, and that was how she managed to survive.

If she thought about what she was missing, it was commonplace things. She only had to make enough coffee for one person in the morning, and to create meal plans that would last exactly one week. Vegetables would be eaten, and not pushed to one side of the plate as if she wouldn’t notice. Nobody teased her about keeping meatless options “away from the real food,” only to later smile mischievously when caught eating it anyways.

Her entertainment choices became more obvious. Indulging in terrible reality television no longer evoked lighthearted guffaws and the obvious statements of, “Are you seriously watching that?” Oh, and she didn’t have to plan her outings and errands to best avoid exposure to someone screaming at a hockey game. Really screaming. Not “enthusiastic reaction to winning move” or “great dissatisfaction for a poorly called play.” This was “neighbors might think wife is about to be murdered; call the cops” screaming.

This was not to say that everything just happily shifted to a new type of normal, or even that she felt she was better off. He teased, annoyed, and frustrated her, sure…but he had also been one of the best humans she had ever met. She hadn’t been able to put it into words when he was still alive. Even if she could have, he would have denied every point with the vehemence of a stranger on the internet arguing that scientific facts do not triumph over opinion.

But he wasn’t around to refute her anymore.

He had been a real person who never wanted to be a hero, and simply existed. The last part might sound critical or negative, but not the way that he embodied it. His life was not discolored by grudges and the mistreatment of others. Instead of dwelling, he would respond. It wasn’t obvious, because he could enter any situation, any gathering, and make himself belong. This created the illusion that nothing was unforgivable in his eyes, which was far from the truth. He was able to live without grudges because he could completely and effectively shut out people from his heart and his life. This was how he existed: in the moment, completely unattached to negative people and situations. Were there a few unforgivable persons or events? Certainly. But he didn’t hold onto them, not in a pitiful attempt to control the narrative and not by being bond by a sense of discontent and injustice –

– usually. Sometimes, a filter would slip or he would simply indulge in the moment. The result would be a startlingly accurate and scathing assessment of a person, made hilarious by the source of the observation and the way it was delivered without malice. These were very rare occasions, however. The majority of his time was invested on his own life, his family, and pursuing happiness thereof.

This was a trait he had managed to pass along to his wife, but only somewhat. At times, she thought she was still a little upset – pissed off, really – that he had left. In even rarer, more honest moments, she admitted she was actually upset about the way he had left: going from a towering, jovial, immeasurable existence of a man…to someone she wouldn’t have recognized if she hadn’t been with him every step of his last journey. She didn’t think it was fair that he went out like that. Even as she thought that, she could hear his voice echo in her memory: “Fair is a play in baseball.”

She watched a clock counting down against a backdrop of the near-deserted Times Square in New York. She thought about what she had been doing and feeling at that exact moment just one year prior. As the timer concluded at 00:00, she resolved to focus more on the only time she had: the exact second and moment in which she lived.

Dear Ms. Vreeland,

In my life, there have been many teachers. There were the ones who made me connect the nails of my thumb and forefinger through the skin on my forearm because it was the only way I could stay awake. On the other end of the spectrum were the teachers who were closer in behavior to a BFF, or at least a peer. In between were various others who made learning a chore, joy, or nothing at all. You, however, fell into none of these categories. Even now, so many years later, I think of you as an force unto yourself. You didn’t make subjects fun, or interesting. You gave them a life that I could neither ignore or avoid. And that was how I saw you, too.

That life force, that exuberance, was still present on the last day that I saw you. Despite the tears in your eyes and the waver in your voice, your existence was not subdued. You hugged each of us in turn, and made us promise to come back to visit and tell you what we learned.

“Not next year,” you clarified, “or even the year after that. Come back and tell me what you learned. Not in your classes, but in life.”

We all promised that we would.

Lesson #1: We make the time for things that are important to us. We make excuses for everything else…or repent at leisure.

I always meant to return. Every year that passed, I thought about what had transpired, and what I would tell you. Also with every passing year, I realized that I had discovered something new, and my previous intentions now paled in the face of that knowledge. I never stopped thinking, analyzing, and planning what I would say when next we met.

Time passed and created a gulf almost as wide as the miles that separated us. The farther I went, the more I thought about how exciting it would be to eventually make my way back, and the things I could tell you. In 2015, I finally came back to my home state. A mere 500 miles separated us, but scheduling conflicts prevented me from making the trip to any of your author events, which had become fewer and farther between. You had also retired from teaching a number of years prior, so dropping by my alma mater wasn’t an option. Someday, however, we would have a chance to speak.

In 2017, before “someday” could arrive, you were gone. I believe that the news article said that you had passed during surgery. That was sad for me. One of the greatest inspirations of my life suddenly no longer walked on the same earth that I do. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that it is sad for you. What happens after we die? I know what I was taught growing up in a Catholic household. I’ve since formed my own thoughts and opinions on what I hope awaits on the day my eyes close, and I let out one final – perhaps wheezy (sucks to my ass-mar!) – breath. I don’t purport to know how it works for anyone else. For you? I can’t imagine that your light could ever just stop. I feel as if the piece about having an astrophysicist speak at a funeral applies to you.

I wish I had seen you before you departed. I’m sorry for not working harder to make this happen.

This post is a work in progress. As long as there is breath in my body and spite in my soul, I will never stop learning. I will periodically update this.