Cold concrete bit through the denim on my skin, and travelled through my veins, sinking straight into my bones. The lifeless football field felt fragile in February. A stadium filled with nothing but echoes of all the other people who shared the same foundation. I closed my eyes, and it was like nothing had changed. So many mistakes were left untouched, relationships unmarred, and people unbroken.
When the stadium is exclusively mine, it is a sanctuary. On this day, however, the peace was cut short by the sudden realization that I was not alone.
“I bet you’ve never even seen someone make a touchdown on that field,” interrupted a voice behind me.
I opened my eyes and turned to see a young man wearing a letterman’s jacket, his thick, dark brown hair ruffled by the wind. He began a descent to my spot on the bleachers, and held up a finger when I started to speak.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. My name is John,” he said, extending a hand. “You’re Rebecca’s daughter, right?”
I nodded slowly, trying to place him. His cold hand met mine and I shuddered.
“May I sit?” he asked, but did not wait for a reply before doing so. He leaned in a little, smirked, and asked, “Do you come here often?”
Our laughter broke the silence and eased some of the tension.
“No,” I began, “only when it makes sense, or maybe when nothing makes sense.”
“Which is it now?”
He placed both hands on his knees and stared at the bleachers across the field.
“Your mother and I used to meet here all the time,” he began. “How is she?”
Suddenly I heard my mother’s voice on the phone only a month before, asking when I would visit, when I would bring my husband, and when she would have grandkids.
Then telling me she was sick, but assuring me she would get better. She knew I was busy. And finally, quietly, asking me to come visit when it was convenient.
“Mom has seen better days,” I said softly.
“Haven’t we all?” he asked, but I didn’t feel like I should answer.
“You know,” he continued, “when Rebecca was pregnant with you, she used to come here to sit and figure things out too. Sometimes she would cry. Other times she would just talk to me about how scared she was to be a mother, and how much she wanted you to know that you were loved, that you were the most important thing in her life—even if you found yourself not quite as important to other people. I told her then, and have told her often since, that she should also make sure you also understood that her sacrifice to raise you alone was not your debt to be repaid.”
“What do you mean?”
“The best gift you can give to Rebecca is a life that carries her memory, but does not change or diminish as a result of her absence. You must keep building on the foundation she gave you, and you owe her nothing except to live your best life.”
Once again, I searched my memory for John. My mother spoke of her friends often, and rarely kept secrets from me, but the grief of her own upbringing was a shadow that she could never introduce. My curiosity was beginning to get the best of me.
“John, how did you meet my mother?”
He smiled, and his eyes grew misty.
“I met her on the top of that mountain,” he said, pointing behind us. “One day, I jumped the fence, like I did almost every afternoon. I climbed the trail all the way to the top. She was just sitting there by herself. She had a backpack with her, and she was staring off at the town, but she was miles away.
I had seen her before, but we never really spoke until that day. I made a lot of noise approaching her, and she turned around to look at me. She seemed angry, as though she had been caught doing something wrong. I held up my hands and said, ‘I’m not here to bust you.’”
“For trespassing?” I asked, incredulous.
“And skipping school,” he said.
I was stunned. “Skipping school? You knew her when she was in school?”
He ignored me and went on.
“When she realized who I was, she smiled and let me sit next to her. ‘John, right?’ she said. I nodded and she went on, as though we were always friends. ‘John, do you ever just want to run away? I thought I was going to today, but I am beginning to wonder if maybe I am trapped—like one of those figurines in a snow globe.’ She looked down at her feet and added, ‘I must sound crazy.’
‘Not at all,’ I said. We talked until the sun went down about how maybe one day we would leave this town and start over. It wasn’t romantic or weird. It was simple, like we were destined to be right there at that moment for each other. We were inseparable after that—that is, of course, until the accident.”
“Listen,” he said, turning to look at me. “The only thing you’re responsible for is making sure she knows you love her. Never stop talking to her. Because the truth is that love knows no borders.”
He reached out to touch my cheeks where tears had started to fall. I closed my eyes in anticipation, but when I opened them, John was gone.
I stood, shakily wiping my own face with my gloves, and descended the concrete stairs. Within moments, I scaled the old iron fence behind the stadium and began a slow climb up the mountain, touching the small portion of my mother’s ashes held in a tiny box in my coat pocket.
“Momma,” I whispered, “I brought you home.”