Secret Smiles

Nobody knows it but you’ve got a secret smile,

And you use it only for me  – “Secret Smile”, Semisonic


So it’s been six months.  The inevitable march of time carries on, whether we want it to or not.  And the inevitable erosion of time is starting to weigh on me, like a worry that begins as a benign thought but then grows to a burden that wakes you from a deep slumber.  So I have been searching for a vision of Debbie that will anchor my memories when the tides of time attempt to wash them out to sea…

I have formulated this vision mostly when I am in my outside prayer grotto, usually in mediation or contemplation.  But of course it percolates throughout my conscious and subconscious all the time.  This is the vision that has been filtered through six months’ time.

Debbie had a slight head tilt, a bit to the right, as if she were perpetually curious, the slightest body language that let you know she was genuinely interested in what you were saying.  It became a part of her posture, of who she was – you can see it in pictures – because she genuinely WAS interested in what anyone was saying to her, no matter how small or insignificant.  She took the time to listen, really listen, to everyone, even when she was sick, and you knew it.  And she listened to me – for right or wrong! – more than anyone, and her little head tilt reminds me of this.

I struggle with which version of Deb’s hair to remember.  Of course the big hair of our partying 90’s heyday will live in infamy through many many pictures and countless stories retold and re-laughed at at any social gathering (delivery counter? really?!?!) and I want to remember Deb when she was most vibrant.  But I also can’t forget the courage and grace and dignity that Deb lived while she battled her disease for four years.  When she finally found her blonde bob wig it actually made her look even younger and vibrant again, gave her the confidence to publically face her challenges with a smile.  And it accented her head tilt; so I go with that, with the big hair of her Birmingham shot girl days right behind that.

And Deb’s big brown eyes?  Well that is easy.  I will never forget when we were climbing Mt. Rainier, and we were tucked into a 30×30 plywood bunkhouse at 10,000 feet at the base of a glacier with 23 other people, both of us exhausted and scared shitless.  We each had two feet of space to throw down a sleeping bag, and Deb was cuddled in first. It was well below freezing, frozen breathe filling the still air, and when I climbed into my bag all I could see of Deb were her big brown eyes peering out from her mummy bag, wider than usual because of what we were doing and where we were, but so full of life and excitement and adventure and love.  Those are the bright eyes I will keep…

And then there is Deb’s smile…where to even begin here???  Of course Deb’s smile is the thing that everyone will remember about her, and everyone has a favorite.  I have had to think about this one the most.  I am partial to the ear to ear grin, wide open mouth and all teeth smile of pure joy, taken on our balcony in Birmingham, Deb holding Mickey, our first pet.  This is also the smile that is in most pictures taken at any celebratory function, whether it be a wedding or birthday party or just a TGIF happy hour on a sun-soaked deck at Frills.

But what about the sly closed mouth smile that Deb reserved only for me, when we shared a knowing glance that only couples can share?  Or the satisfied smile of accomplishment, usually between a joyous smile and a knowing glance, slightly surpressed but unable to hide the bursting pride of earning Salesperson of the Year or watching her kids receive a year-end academic award?  Or the smile and near tears and almost piss your pants laughter that was always accompanied by a guttural cackle that escaped in moments of pure uninhibited silliness and usually ended rolling on the floor?

And what about the secret smiles that are special and unique to both Jake and Trevor?  Jake, our first born, the wonder and awe and overwhelmingness of the miracle of life held in your arms, begot from love?  Trevor, the pure love and joy of perfection?  I know Deb had special smiles reserved only for them, and I pray the boys can keep these as their own vision of mom.

In the end I choose the secret smile that only we shared.  I was lucky enough to share in many laughs and ear to ear grins and cackles, but there were those special moments, usually quiet, alone moments, where it was just us, where things were just right, and where we connected heart to heart.  In hindsight they were too few, but you can still hold on to the ones you had, and that is my choice.  It is Deb’s face in a crowd lighting up only for me, the subtle, peaceful, partially open mouth smile that brought out her dimples and the sparkle in her eyes.

From my knees in the grotto I can clearly see Deb coming around the side of the house, with that slight head tilt, accented by her blonde hair trailing slightly to the right, just enough to throw off ordinary.  She has the curious look of wonder on her face, the anticipation of finding me, like the young girl sneaking down the steps on Christmas morning, peering around the corner in the excitement of unknown gifts under the tree.  And then when she would find me, doing yard work or just simply sitting in the dirt or under my favorite tree…her face would light up in that magnificent smile that she reserved only for me.  “Oh hey…”, spoken softly, with a slight trailing lilt that clearly told that she was glad to find me…I cannot help but smile back my own secret smile for her.

This is the vision I will hold on to, the vision I will keep close.  This is the vision of Debbie that I will cultivate and tend to in the garden of my memory.


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