“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearnings. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
- Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
A few yards from where I sit, just across the driveway, stands a pear tree.
Fall has come, as of this morning, and with the dawn of autumn the pear tree drops its ripening fruit onto the ground, and onto the tin roof of the house next door.
They land with either a barely audible thump into the rain-soaked earth or with a loud, slightly unnerving smack on that roof.
They lay on the ground, softening beneath the sun or the rain, more of the former recently but plenty of the latter tonight. Yellow jackets swarm their carcasses, feasting on their sweetness and scaring away the children who play out near the tree after school each weekday and all day long on the weekends.
The sounds the pears make when they drop off the tree used to sadden me.
It seems like such a waste, all that fruit only nipped at by bees and otherwise left to rot in a world full of starving people.
My mother grew up in this house and seems to remember her mother, my Nana, gathering those pears and canning them for the family fifty, sixty years ago.
Occasionally I pick one off the tree, or off the ground, and think about biting into it, but fear, probably baseless, holds me back.
What if they're poisoned, somehow, I wonder. Diseased, filled with something that will make me sick or even kill me. Better not chance it, I think, and though it feels wrong to let a piece of ripe fruit go to waster, I inevitably drop the pears onto the ground and walk away as the bees buzz by on their way to their newly found treasure.
Life had broken both Sheila and I by the time we met, in late 2009.
In the most literal sense we had met before that, as passing acquaintances possessed of shared friends, but we consider ourselves to have met in December of 2009, when, near the end of very long Sunday of parenting three very young children, I lumbered into a coffee shop in need of a boost before my eldest son's youth basketball game and wound up in line next to her.
She was studying for a professional licensing exam; we said hello, verified our suspicions that we knew each other, and had a very pleasant twenty minute conversation, me sipping a desperately-needed cup of coffee and her gently spooning a bowl of soup into her mouth.
Neither of us had any interest in dating at the time. Sheila had lived through one romantic disappointment after another, and the years of heartbreaks had hardened her heart to the charms of love. I had just limped, or maybe I should say, staggered, across the finish line of a second year of young widowhood. My marriage had been far too short at thirteen years and change and it had been a thing of such beauty that I knew I could not reasonably expect to so successfully beat the odds of love in the same lifetime, and I had no intention of even trying to do so. I listened, over the years, to the trials and tribulations of friends out in what I called Dating World and it held no attraction for me. And I had three very young children whom I felt fiercely protective of; despite the entreaties of various friends and relatives, I had no desire to expose them to the ups and downs of my own romantic life. No, I would go it alone, sacrifice my own desires for their benefit, just as my Nana had done in this same house as a young widow.
I remember standing in my Nana's kitchen as a twelve year old boy, watching her work her magic, making us some fried chicken for dinner that night. It was late summer or early fall, school had just started. I knew her husband, my grandfather, had died young, year ago. I wanted to know about him. I had been told by people I barely knew, friends of Nana's or my mother's, people who knew him, that I looked like him around the eyes.
I started asking her questions about him, like most children clueless as to whether or not the grown-up in question felt in the mood to handle the questions.
"How long ago did he die?" I asked.
To this day I can see the wistful smile on her face as she gently dropped a piece of chicken into the hot oil. I can see the little checked pattern on the kitchen apron she wore, brown and orange and red.
"Thirty-two years," she said. "Thirty-two years."
"Would you ever get married again?"
I secretly hoped she'd say no. I didn't want her to move away, and I didn't want us, her grandchildren, to have to share her with someone else. It didn't occur to me until years that this was selfish of me, but I was a child, and children are often selfish.
"No," she said with a laugh. "No one could compare with your grandfather." And then she laughed loudly and said, "And besides, what the hell do I need a man around for?"
In the days after the chance meeting in the coffee shop, I found myself thinking about Sheila a little more often than I wanted to. Something about her stuck with me. Yes, she was, or should I say, is, strikingly beautiful, but I had enough accumulated wisdom by that point in my life to know that beauty didn't mean much without anything else attached to it.
There was something about our conversation that stuck with me. There was something about her. I didn't know, at that point, her sorry history, but beyond the wit and charm and intelligence and perceptiveness her words exposed, her persona exuded, to me, the wisdom of a fellow traveler. It seemed as though she knew, as did I, that life will indeed break you.
Months later, we clearly had something going on, but whatever it was, was hard to define. Sheila resisted me mightily, much to my chagrin; very early on it became glaringly apparent to me that we had a rapport between us, an ease, that is very difficult to find, and initially I didn't trust it because it seemed too against the odds to find such a thing in my first foray into Dating World; it didn't seem possible.
But it was there.
On our third date, I attempted to give her a good-night kiss; to say it backfired is to put it mildly. She was so clearly not interested in reciprocating that I broke out into involuntary fits of cringing for two weeks after. She took the opportunity of this unwanted kiss - a brief, chaste peck on the lips, for the record - to tell me about some of her previous romantic debacles, the most recent an engagement broken because her betrothed's mother found her religious devotion lacking. She said she didn't want to date and in fact thought the word itself completely ridiculous, leading me, in conversations with my friends, to refer to our outings as "date-like occurrences."
I kept on with those "date-like occurrences", showing patience, not wanting to push things. Months went by like this: we went out every single weekend, but we were not dating. I was afraid to even try and hold her hand. One of my sisters jokingly referred to the set-up as "straight out of the Victorian Age." But I held my ground, and resisted any advice to push things. She had walls around her heart. The more I got to know her, the more I knew I wanted to scale those walls, cost to myself be damned. Life had broken me, Lord, nothing will break you quite like watching the love of your life die right before your eyes, but I didn't care; giving myself permission to get my heart broken again felt oddly exhilarating.
Eventually, I won her over, or, as I like to joke, I wore her down with my charm.
And the sound of the pears dropping onto the ground, or onto that roof, no longer sadden me.
I suppose I still do wonder if they are safe to eat, and I do still dream of canning that wasted fruit, they way my Nana did all those decades ago.
But I don't hear the sound of waste anymore when I hear them drop.
They remind me of the quote above, the words I started with, words I've carried with me for years. They remind me of the woman I love, and of how, after resisting for so long, she put aside her fears to risk her heart, to throw her fate in with mine. We both may been broken, but we're tasting all the sweetness we can.