by Scott Saalman
The field just sat there day and night/that’s all they said it could do/but I know that’s not entirely right/for it took me from here to you . . .
I was 15 when I wrote those lines, a high-school freshman’s first crack at song verse and an inaugural attempt to woo a girl with writing.
She was the girl across the field. To visit her—there were hundreds of visits—I ran down my parents’ driveway, crossed Brushy Fork Road, leapt a ditch, ran through the grass and clover, the field gradually inclining then declining only to rise again like a camel’s hump, the barking of a neighbor’s beagle keeping time with my footfalls until finally I passed between front porch pillars and rang the doorbell.
She smiled from the other side of the front door’s glass, and my field-racing heart pounded even faster. She, with city roots, was of a cultured upbringing, a refreshing, exotic transplant to our little river town. Ensconced in a rural route existence, I was barely better than a wilding.
Often we sat “Indian-style” on the porch with our kneecaps touching, discussing movies, music and books. She loved “Family Ties,” and told me Alex P. Keaton reminded her of me. In her basement, we’d shoot pool—my eyes discretely seeking out all the right angles as she pressed against the rails and aimed her shots (geometry finally bringing meaning to my life) while listening to Devo, Blondie, Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” and the theme from “Arthur,” her favorite movie then.
I started to write song-poems because of her. I did this to separate myself from the pack of jocks that she, as cheerleader, was obligated to fall for short-term. I wrote to be different, creating a niche to be noticed. My words vied for her attention as she cheered on baskets and touchdowns. It worked. Not how I hoped. We remained woefully platonic during our wonder years.
In 1983, after high-school graduation, we gradually lost touch, she attending private college on the east side of the city, me making do at a public one on the west side, the kind of college where students wore other college names on their sweatshirts. From mid-1986 to the late 1990s, we lost contact. Then, in 1999, on the day I returned from Disney World with my son, I learned from my mother that “the girl across the field” was dying.
I commenced immediate correspondence, despite my then wife’s reluctance. “Thanks for the letter,” she e-mailed. “It was so uplifting to just see your handwriting again.” When I asked to see her, she responded, “I’ve decided I’m too sick and ugly and I’d rather you wouldn’t.”
I flooded her with “remember when?” recollections that she didn’t remember.
She forgot the old fashioned sodas at Dairy Queen. She forgot how I watched her porch light from my side of the field, its glow telling me she was still dragging Main with some lucky athlete, how I raced through the weeds up the field when her date’s car backed down her driveway, and how she waited for me to emerge breathlessly from the shadows to hear her report.
“I can’t believe you remember so much. I remember very little…the chemo has wiped out some of my memory banks,” she responded. “We went to ET together? You mowed our grass?”
Her e-mails focused mostly on the present references of white and red cell counts; chemo and CAT scans; ovarian cyst, biopsies and malignancy; Taxol and Topotecan; nausea and fatigue; lost hair and hair returning (“My hair is coming in strong now. It has really given me hope. I feel invincible.”)
Sometimes, though, she expressed appreciation for our reconnection. “Thanks again for your friendship.” “You always lift my spirits.”
The last e-mail she sent to me before relying on a distribution list to simultaneously update her friends and family on her health status ended with, “Michael J. Fox was on ‘Rosie’ the other day. He reminded me so much of you…of how much fun you are to be around.”
I smiled. Finally, she remembered something from our past.
On 4-26-99, she reported to all of us, “I have 4 tumors.”
On 5-8-99, the e-mails coming from her e-mail account were actually written by her husband, due to, as he put it, her health declining “considerably.” His subsequent e-mails became bleaker. Phrases like “a short time to live” and “deteriorated drastically over the weekend” darkened our in-boxes.
On 6-20-99, he reported that her 14-month cancer battle was over.
Even now, 15 years later, I don’t know what any of this is supposed to mean to me. I do know she died at 34, leaving behind two children and a husband. I do know she would have been 49 this year. I do know that she was buried on the same day my daughter was born. And I do know that a very long time ago I used to write for her—the girl across the field—and here I am today writing about her.
Hold on to your people; hold on tight.