"Oh, Nancy got married," my mom mentioned to me.
"Really?" I said. "Wow, that's great. Good for her." I tried to think back to the last, and perhaps only time I had seen her. My uncle's long-time girlfriend, she had shared our Christmas with us once, when I was about nine or ten years old, my sister about six or seven. She had played with us all afternoon, keeping us entertained with doodles on yellow sheets of legal paper. She would start, drawing a small, meaningless shape, then hand the pen and paper to us, encouraging us to use our imaginations to incorporate it into something bigger; a squiggle becoming a snowman's scarf, a scalloped edge turned into a flower, zig-zags into a spaceship. We loved her, but in the car on the way home, my mom told us not to get our hopes up. "Your uncle will never marry her," she said. "It's sad, really. She wants to get married and have children, and she still hopes that Steve will marry her, even though he's made it clear that that's not going to happen." But why? we asked. She told us about my uncle's brief marriage years before, when I was just a baby, and subsequent divorce. "He doesn't like answering to anyone," she said. "He prefers being a bachelor."
Occasionally I wondered about Nancy. At some point I assumed that she and my uncle had broken up over the years, but then, during one Christmas get-together or another, my uncle would mention her casually, in passing, and it was clear that they were still in touch, and still together in some way, though what the exact nature of their relationship was, I was never quite sure.
And then this year, a card arrived. On the front, a gray and white Japanese landscape of a snowy mountain, the knotty branches of a tree in the foreground. The inside of the card covered on both sides with her flowing cursive writing, continuing on the back as well. She breaks the news, saying she doesn't know how to tell us this, or if we had already heard. She says a dear friend, who had been by her side helping her take care of her elderly parents, had asked her to marry him, and she had. She says that she and Steve haven't spoken in over a year. "I had truly hoped it would someday be Steve that I would marry," she says. "Twenty years later, our relationship was not growing." She says that she realized that only seeing him a few times a year and talking on the phone was not enough. That she needed someone who would be by her side, as she would be for him. Things are going well, she says. She had returned to college, briefly, and is now back at work as the cosmetics manager at Bloomingdale's.
And then, the kicker: "I still miss Steve deeply. Give him my love." With that line hitting me full force, it all became clear to me. What my life could have become. You stay because you love, and because you love you hope, until you wake up one day twenty years older and alone, with the realization that you've let life pass you by, and there's not a thing you can do about it. I could have stayed. I wanted to stay, with every fiber of my being, I wanted to hold on and never let go. He didn't want me to go either, not exactly, which made it even harder. But he wasn't willing to make any promises, either. Over the years, dreams and talk about the future had diminished, reduced to "I like being with you. I want to be with you now. Isn't that enough?" It might have been enough, and I might have continued on, hoping that he would change, hoping that I would be able to persuade him to love me the way I needed to be loved. But in the end, my natural pessimism won out over the status quo. I knew deep down that people don't change, not really. I knew, even then, that if I kept on I ran the risk of waking up one day years later, realizing that I had let life pass me by, and with nothing I could do about it. And suddenly this card from a woman I barely know and haven't seen in eighteen years, and my decision is confirmed. It was the sensible thing to do.
Though in my occasional correspondance with his family members, and my thinly-veiled questions regarding his welfare, if I had more guts, what I might be saying is this: "I still miss him deeply. Give him my love."