At the ripe old ages of 20/21 I had the confidence and maturity level of a 16-year-old. That’s not self-deprecating nor is it me looking for compliments or sympathy. It’s a mere fact. It wasn’t some amazing epiphany that changed me, though. There was no shining light, no medical breakthrough, no therapist that unlocked the key to my inner “Dave.” Two words can tell you what happened: Andrea Andrews.
Going home was the best idea to deal with these memories. Not because I didn’t think I could handle the anniversary date, three mere days ahead of me. I know full well that the anticipation – like it was for Andrea’s birthday, Christmas, New Year’s even – is far worse than the actual event most of the time. For me, though, that anticipation is secondary. I don’t have a singular event to prepare for. I have a day that I should celebrate as well as a day I have to endure. The day Andrea passed away, you see, is also the exact day of our wedding anniversary.
Andrea, you see, was this amazing, gorgeous, California girl who by all rights should have been like every other woman I’d met. She should have taken one look at me, heard me stammer like the nerds in every romantic comedy, and chuckled as she walked back to the party. Oh, she walked back to the party, but not until she’d wrapped her arm around mine and dragged me into it with her. I knew the person she saw inside me. I was just too scared, too damaged, too used to being let down and hurt to let him out to see the light of day. The fear of embarrassment was greater than my desire to know any woman. That is, until this woman came into the picture.
Andrea looked past the awkward small-town guy with the pre-Bieber haircut. She didn’t let up. She simultaneously frustrated and intrigued me. When we worked together in Council Bluffs, Iowa, we decided that there was no need to subject ourselves to the leers, stares, even ridicule that would come with dating a colleague. We’d seen other colleagues date, have their “nooners” and return a little flushed and a lot disheveled and we were determined not to live up to those low expectations.
Andrea had this grin, a mischievous smile that showed she was thinking something she knew would cause some sort of mischief but she wanted to see what would happen when she did it. It was never anything crazy, not like a gut-wrenching “hangover” kind of event, but always memorable and always what I needed and not necessarily what I wanted.
Before we started dating she and I worked at this TV station and had a thousand things to do on a daily basis. She was a reporter and Entertainment anchor. I was a photographer and director and sometime reporter/anchor. I would shoot a story for her, sometimes for me as well, then go back, edit, put pre-production together, then direct the whole newscast at 6pm. When Andrea was finished with her story she would run a studio camera.
Directing for me was a combination of so many intense, concentration-sapping puzzles that took all of my synapses that the little switch inside my brain that turns on the buffer to prevent cussing, yelling and chastising people was shut off in order to allow me to use that processing power to handle concentrating on the monitors, timing, rundown and cameras. When the camera shot would be off I wouldn’t immediately yell, but the average conversation on headsets, particularly with Andrea would be:
“Pan left, camera 3.” No answer.
“Three, are you there?”
“Who?” would be Andrea’s answer.
“You, Andrea, you’re camera three. Pan left.”
“Dammit 3, pan left.”
“I will, say please.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you Andrea, I said pain the hell left”
“Well now you have to apologize.”
More than a few newscasts had off-center or graphics covering the anchor shots because Andrea would play with me crazily while my blood pressure soared and my eyes bugged out of my sockets. But I soon came to the conclusion that when I was working late on a story and a backup director was in there she didn’t do the same things. There was no prodding, no call for apologies, no seemingly indifferent thoughts to the production value of our nightly newscast. She panned, tilted, and adjusted shots without question. She simultaneously frustrated and intrigued me. At the time I couldn’t understand what she was thinking or doing. I’m a guy, you see. We need a 2×4 slammed across our foreheads to understand the obvious. Had I not had the lack of panache or self-confidence I mentioned up there, I would have realized long before I asked her out that she was messing with me to get my attention.
I’ve chronicled her thoughts and attempt to move and how she stayed with me instead of moving for her career. We weren’t just in love, we were madly, hopelessly entwined with each other’s personalities and souls already. She decided to stay, after just a couple months of intense, passionate, pleasurable dating. We decided during the company Christmas party to go ahead and go together and let everyone see that we were, indeed, together, and not just together, but joined at the hip. (like best friends, you creeps. Get your minds out of the gutter!) When we walked into the bar that night, hand-in-hand, there were a handful of people we knew that had no idea we’d been dating and were sitting there with their jaws wide open, nearly to the point their tonsils were visible. It was obvious I hadn’t just given her a ride to the party, we were an “item.”
Fast forward a few weeks, maybe a month. We’d been dating just a few months and during her wait to get on the plane home for Spring Break I took her by the hand. She was wearing a small Black Hills Gold ring I’d given her for Christmas to show her I loved her, she wasn’t just a casual date, she was someone special. I took that ring off her finger.
“Dave, what are you doing?” she asked.
“I don’t want you to wear this ring any more,” I told her, and I could see she was unsure. Understand, her parents, sister, friends, all of them had told her that on Valentine’s Day I would have to be asking her to marry me. I was not one to go with tradition and social expectations so part of me refused to do it on heart day simply because everyone wanted me to. I hadn’t realized that she would take that as a sign I was backing away from her. We still spent nearly every hour together.
“Why don’t you want me to wear the ring,” she asked, and I could see she was both excited and scared.
“Because I want you to wear this one,” I said, and I took out an engagement ring from my pocket and put is 3/4 of the way on her finger.
“Andrea, I looked at what my life was like before I started going out with you and what it’s like now. I looked ahead and realized I don’t just love you. I can’t see life without you. It would never be the same. Andrea, will you marry me?”
Now, you might see this as romantic, but it was really not. I was stupid to wait until then. I thought I was being cute. I had told her Mom and sister, who were picking her up at the airport. They’d told her friends in California. She was one of the only ones who didn’t know of that circle of people. The mistake I made was after she cried and said “yes!” they boarded the plane. Nothing’s worse than a rush and wave of love and emotion and they you have to be apart for more than a week. She was both ecstatic and insanely angry with me because now she wanted to stay with me but couldn’t.
The co-workers and friends from Omaha who only knew we’d been dating for a few weeks had no idea. A few days before Andrea was to return I pulled aside our News Director and friend and told her that I’d asked Andrea to marry me. Not because I wanted the attention, but because I was sure they’d see her back and notice the ring and think “Oh my God, she met some guy in California and got engaged . . . poor Dave!” I also thought they deserved to know. Our friend looked at me and at the top of her lungs shouted “WHAT?!”
I think “Oh my God!” was the general consensus. But in the end, I could tell. Most of the people we knew, even some of Andrea’s old friends, thought there was no way it could last. It was like love at first sight, sure, but most of the time that sight fails and the marriage goes with it. But here’s the thing: Monday would have made 19 years of it working. The day I lost her is the same day I made official my love, honor, and cherishing of this amazing, confusing, confounding woman who made me so much better than I was. The love story, the storyline we’d started, ended abruptly. The story ended and I have to angrily admit, the ending was less than satisfactory. It’s like the book ended abruptly so the sequel could begin before it was ready.
There are, as you all know, 365 days in a year. 8,760 hours. 525,600 minutes. That’s how many new starts I had to face. The moments after losing my wife mark exactly that: moments. In that first day it was seconds I faced. 86,400 seconds in that day. It’s not that I faced only part of that, I faced exactly that many minutes. I stayed awake that entire 24 hours, unable to close my eyes and unable to see beyond the next second.
As I moved past those first 86,400 seconds, I started to look at the 1,440 minutes. Then the 24 hours, next came the days . . . and that’s where I’ve been since. I haven’t looked ahead to next week, next month, next year. This 365 days has flown by because all I have been able to do is look day to day. Only now do we feel like a slight routine is hitting its stride. I came home, visiting the parents who lived with us for so many months after Andrea’s death so we could start writing our story and follow some sort of story line that made sense. I came home specifically so that we wouldn’t obsess about the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months that led to here. These amazing parents helped me to see I have these amazing children, family and friends. As I said before, the anticipation was far worse than the actual event likely will be.
Sure, at home I find pictures and moments captured in singular frames of those photographs from the last 41 years of my life, 23 years of them knowing Andrea. But today I can look at those years, and as the wound in my soul bleeds a little and continues to feel raw and empty, I can smile, proud that the woman who needled me to get my attention still weighs on my mind. In your life you meet so many people, but only a small number have a massive impact, a paradigm shift on your life and story. Hers altered mine forever.
Only now, nearly 362 days after her story ended, do I realize that no matter how much it still hurts, that shift was for the better.
Please log on this coming Monday, day 365, to Our Story Begins to see the video I created with my children in celebration of that life. We are proud of the work we’ve done and the song I wrote for her and re-recorded to match our lives today. I hope you celebrate her and our lives with me . . . and see how our story begins.