A Lifetime of Firsts

There is truth in the statement that you never forget your first. As humans, we mark milestones by our firsts. Babies in the womb, it’s joy at the first kick or the first hiccup. Life moves on to the baby’s first smile, first laugh, first word, and first step. As you grow older, it becomes your first day of kindergarten, your first dance, your first date, your first kiss, your first car, your first job, and the list goes on and on. Of all of these, the most memorable is your first love.

Many know that I have lived a colorful life full of ups and downs, bumps and bruises, but I wouldn’t trade a moment of the good or the bad. Without one, you don’t appreciate the other. The experiences have molded me into the person I am. I have been blessed to be touched by love many times in my life.

My first BIG love happened, as it does for most, in high school. He was a friend of a friend, he was a senior when I was a freshman. We knew each other in a passing way, it wasn’t until my senior year’s homecoming night that we met officially.

I was dressed in a Flashdance style oversized sweatshirt dress of hot pink that was slashed to slide over one shoulder and legwarmers as were most of my girlfriends that night. We were all out cruising our local shopping center acting crazy.

It was a very different time in the world. His car full of friends stopped to chat with our carload of friends after the Friday night lights had dimmed.

We ended up being pushed together. Music was our common touchpoint. Our first conversation was about the song Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones. I knew he played music and he knew my brother was in radio. We talked about life and lyrics until my curfew and then kissed goodnight.

I found out the next day, he broke up with a girl he had dated for four years just so he could ask me out. We began dating and found that we could be ourselves around each other, no subtext, no games. It was a thing of beauty.

We spoke the same language of lyrics, a love of music, and laughter. He had a wicked sense of humor, and his sharp wit drew me in even further. We were old souls who connected. It was a magical time and I wouldn’t trade a second of that time for anything.

We both fell hard and fast. When I got grounded in April of my senior year for some silly infraction of curfew, we tried (and failed) to run away and get married. Instead of marriage, we ended up engaged.

When my mom found out what we had failed to do, there was a very long conversation. She realized that my stubborn streak would just keep trying until I succeeded.

The same thing happened with his family. All of the elders in our lives tried to talk us out of it. We were both set on getting married. We both felt a sense of urgency, it was something we HAD to do, though we couldn’t explain it. Most adults thought I was pregnant. I wasn’t. We set a date for July of 1983. Right after my high school graduation.

We went through pre-marriage counseling, I got the dress of my dreams, and we booked the caterer and the church. It was a magical wedding. We worked, I went to school, at night we lived a life of music, lyrics, creativity, and love. It was beautiful. It was also short-lived.

Our magic wasn’t without hardship, Gary had juvenile diabetes. Diagnosed when he was 6, his case was chronic and severe. Treatment in the early 80s for diabetes was much different than it is today.

We had moved to Atlanta for me to go to art school. He worked various jobs and tried to find gigs.

The years of severe diabetes took their toll on his body and we found ourselves moving back to Kentucky after 6 months.

The first year we were married we survived three moves and a hospital visit. Our connection even through the toughest moments never faded. The second year we were married we spent more time in the hospital than we did at home.

His organs began to take on the stress of diabetes. Even though I made sure he adhered to a strict diet and took two shots of insulin a day, it didn’t turn the tide.

His kidneys failed and he was put on a transplant list. He was scheduled for his first dialysis the Monday after he died. Two years and 11 days after we were married, Gary died in my arms at home.

It was 3 am on a Saturday morning and he awoke, just feeling off. I got up and got him something to drink. He took the drink and then he was gone. He fell over on me and I tried to give him CPR. I screamed for the neighbors or someone to call 911. The neighbors thought we were fighting. They didn’t know we never fought. We had only been in that apartment a month.

I ended up calling 911, screaming into the phone. I called his aunt, who was a dispatcher, to hurry the ambulance. I knew in my heart he was already gone. They wouldn’t let me ride in the ambulance.

Someone drove me to the hospital. I have no idea who. I was surrounded by people in the hospital and felt more alone than I have ever felt in my life. It was an eternity before the doctor came out and told us he was gone. He’d experienced renal heart failure. At that moment, I shattered. He was 23. It was two months before my 20th birthday.

April 7th would have been Gary’s 61st birthday. It was 40 years ago this month that we tried to elope. Last week I found a small spiral-bound notebook filled with his handwriting that I have held dear and carried from place to place, all over the world.

The notebook is filled with satire, wit, crazy humor, and lyrics to music that will never be written this side of heaven. Lyrics we worked on separately and together. I was his sounding board and thesaurus. Alongside his handwriting are my red proofers marks, in every word our hearts mingled, soared, and laughed together.

I am so thankful that I didn’t listen to my elders and wait to marry him. Our time was short. The heartbreak was immeasurable. It was worth every second of time we had together.

Twice I have loved with my whole heart and lost everything. Gary was my first BIG love and my first BIG loss. I have been asked if I would do it again knowing the risks. My answer is always, YES.

I have learned to listen to that still small voice. It tells you when things are right and it tells you when things are wrong. So pay attention, listen more than you talk. Cherish each fleeting moment and accept the difficulties as learning opportunities to grow and become better.

April is always a retrospective month for me, along with Gary, my biological father’s birthday is April 15th and he would have been 79, the aunt who raised me until I was 11, shares her birthday with a friend of mine on April 5th, she would have been 92 this year. April holds a special place in my heart, as it makes me reflect on what was, what is, and what is to come.

If I have learned anything it is to be true to yourself and to cherish each moment with the people you care about.

I will close this blog with a few words from the 40-year-old notebook of Gary Lane Sullivan’s lyrics. I love this one. It reminds me no matter the length of time, it is always worth the cost.

Love is just what it is

It drives some men crazy
Some go insane
You'll never know about love
Until you've played the game

Some men get lucky
Some always lose
Love's a strange experience
It can turn men into fools

Love is for both of us
It's not just yours or mine
Love is where you find it
It is just a matter of time

Some men get confused
They don't know which way to go
Some think they understand it
Some they just don't know

Men don't know about love
Some think they do, but it's all lies
When they get confused about love
You see it in their eyes

There is nowhere to put the blame
When you have loved and lost
It is no one else's worry
It always has a cost

You just have to try it
Just to find out how it is
Love is where you find it
Love is just what it is

Yes, it belongs to both of us
Love is just what it is

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