Annette steadied herself before entering the hospital room. The last time they had seen each other, over forty years ago, had been unpleasant for both. Preston had called off their engagement and she was returning the ring and other things she had collected during their courtship. Standing face to face, he unleashed his anger with a vengeance and Annette had never understood the reason. He had never talked to her like that before, even when he told he didn’t want to marry. The scene was surreal and confusing. She had loved him with her entire heart. That love combined with her low self-esteem failed to give her the courage to defend herself. So she had stood there and silently accepted his avalanche of insults and painful verbal jabs. She was angry with herself for being such a coward, but unable to muster the courage to speak. It was years before she understood that what he demonstrated was actually pain, not anger. He wasn’t as ready to end the relationship as he professed. The day she learned the reason for his tirade, her broken heart finally healed.
They had gone their separate ways. Each had married, raised a family, and enjoyed successful careers. Both were happy in their new lives, but each had a special place in their heart for the love they left so many years ago. It had been the right love between the right people at the wrong time. Another time and another place might have produced a different outcome.Yesterday Annette saw the post on a social network that he was hospitalized with very little time left on this earth. She couldn’t let him leave this world with their parting words expressed as anger and hostility. So early this morning, she had dressed in her most becoming outfit and boarded the plane. Now she stood outside his hospital room gathering her courage. Unsure of his reaction, she had intentionally waited until his family left. The two of them had some emotional business to finish. She wanted to say goodbye without worrying about the feelings of others.
Slowly she opened the door and walked quietly into the room. There on the hospital bed laid a gray-haired man with wrinkled skin. His eyes were closed and his breathing labored. She walked softly to the bedside. He opened his eyes and without a word reached his right hand toward her as tears slipped down his cheeks. Annette smiled through her own tears.
“Annabelle.” He said softly. He had hated any public display of affection and the cute names couples called each other. So he had given her the nickname and said, “When you hear me say that, you’ll know that it’s my special name for you.” She had cherished the name and at this moment it spoke volumes to her heart.“I can’t believe you came after the way I treated you. I’m sorry I hurt you.” He voice was little more than a whisper.
“Don’t talk. I don’t want you to get tired. Let me talk for both of us.” Annette told him as she stroked his hand. “I had to come. I had to see you one more time.”“Thank you. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too. You were my best friend. Anytime I faced a problem in my life, I’d think, If only I could talk to Preston. He’d understand. No one understood me like you. You understood my hopes and dreams as well as my problems.”
“And you understood mine.” Preston said, smiling weakly.“We understood each other. I have been blessed with some good friends in my life, but none like you.”
“I can’t believe you would say that after the things I said to you. You should hate me.”“I know and I’ve tried, but I can’t. It’s like I used to tell my children ‘I don’t love because of what you say or do. I love you because you are you. As long as you are you, I’m going to love you.’ When you love someone, you don’t stop because they hurt you.”
“Can you forgive me?”“I forgave you as soon as I learned that you were hurting as badly as I was. I should have realized it that day. I could have said something to ease your pain.”
“No you couldn’t. Even though I had broken our relationship, I wasn’t ready for you to move on. The male ego in me wanted you to still want me. When you returned all my personal belongings, reality hit me hard. I knew God was leading us down separate paths, but I still loved you and wanted you to love me.”“I did still love you. I loved you that night and the forty years since that night. I’ll always love you.”
“How does your husband feel about that?”“He knows that the love I have for you doesn’t diminish the love I have for him. It is possible to love more than one person at a time. He not only accepts that, he taught me.”
“My wife is not so understanding. I don’t think she’ll be happy when she learns you were here. She has always believed that I secretly wished I’d married you.”“Oh that’s alright. I’ve always believed the same thing.” They both laughed at the joke.
“I’m so glad you came. It’s so good to see you.”“It’s good to laugh together. I’ve missed that. The last time we saw each other was the only time we didn’t laugh together. I think that’s what hurt the most. I can still see you snatching my engagement ring out of my hand like it was a wad of paper to throw in the trash can. I wanted to take it back. It was so precious to me and meant nothing to you.”
“That’s not true. I drove to the park to be alone. I sat looking at that ring and remembering what it represented. I cried for you, myself, and what we had lost. I just couldn’t show you how badly I was hurting.”
“I wish I’d known. I truly thought that the best time of my life had been the worst time in yours.”“I’m sorry you believed that. I couldn’t show you how I really felt because I was afraid I’d disobey God and continue our relationship. He had clearly told me what His will was and I truly wanted his blessings. So I followed His leading and broke both my heart and yours. But He has blessed both of us because we have followed his guidance. Now we’ve had a chance to say goodbye the right way. I won’t see you again on this side of heaven, but we’ll walk the streets of gold and talk as friends like we did when we were dating.”
“I’m staying at the hotel down the street. I’ll stop by in the morning before I go to the airport.”Preston’s eyes were closed and he didn’t answer. Annette didn’t wait for him to open them. She slipped out the door with a much lighter heart than she entered.
Annette had always made it a point to stay at finer hotels when traveling alone. She was not disappointed with the one she chose this trip. The room was decorated in a modified Victorian style with Queen Anne chairs and plush drapery. When she got in the bed, she felt the mattress wrap around her like a comforting hug. She drifted off to sleep and was surprised when the alarm woke her.She dressed quickly so she would have time to stop by the hospital on her way to the airport. Breakfast might wait, but the plane wouldn’t.
This time as Annette walked down the hospital corridors, her heart was light and her steps were quick. Yesterday she had shyly stood outside the door. Today she boldly walked into Preston’s room to tell him goodbye one more time. Entering the room, her steps and her heart stopped. The bed was empty. It had been covered with fresh linen in anticipation for a new occupant. Annette remembered Preston’s words about not seeing her again. He had known he was going home. Lord, thank you for letting me say goodbye. Please give Preston a good homecoming and let him meet me at the gate when I come home. Amen.