Her name was Hillary, and she was 22 when she died.
There had been a fight with her husband, Dylan — he needed to leave their five-year relationship, he told his wife.
Instead she left her 24-year-old husband, permanently and devastatingly, taking her life on the heels of that argument.
I didn’t know Hillary, but I know Brandi, and Brandi is now Dylan’s other half. In a few months, they will welcome a daughter, Madeline Grace.
Like me, Brandi is a reporter. She’s in Texas, I’m here, and there are about 40 years between us. We both love the Beatles, bright colors and good journalism. We treasure our unexpected friendship that arrived via a listserv for education reporters.
When Brandi met Dylan, he was just three years past Hillary’s death. Pictures of his wife were still in place, along with her guitar and tambourine.
Brandi wondered then if she could make a future with a man who clearly still loved another woman.
As a teen, Brandi couldn’t imagine falling for someone who had lost a lover to death. It just wasn’t in her, she figured.
But the heart wants what the heart wants, and Brandi’s heart wants Dylan.
“Dylan is the best,” my friend said with a gentle laugh.
“I just love him.”
But this guy comes with a package of sorrow he will carry forever, and there is a special grace required to love the damaged heart. I know this the same as my Texas friend.
It was 11 years ago I sent a Valentine to column readers, letting you know my heart had shattered two weeks earlier as Late David’s own heart walked off its job.
Two miles away, a man I didn’t know had lost his wife three months earlier. And two years before that, his daughter Jennifer’s heart was stopped by a blood clot when she was just 31, with three young children at home.
Upon reading of my loss, this man emailed to tell me of his. Despite my deep well of pain, I cried for him.
By the time we really connected in person a couple of years later, I’d been able to ask compassionate readers, family and friends to help me carry the terrible weight of grief.
This guy — you know him now as Camo Man — didn’t have the same safety valves. He’d never learned to name his pain and ask anyone for a Band-Aid.
Without denying my sadness, I understood he hurt in a way I’d not had to withstand, thanks to being unafraid of being open and honest.
We started with a trip to the cemetery to sit by the graves of Camo’s wife and daughter. Before then, he’d never lasted more than a minute, dropping flowers on headstones and climbing back in his truck about as fast as possible.
That time I made him sit. I rubbed his back as the tears finally came like a summer rain, hot and fierce. Cleansing.
It’s not always been so simple, though. I’ve been hurt when my deathiversary passed without proper acknowledgment. I’ve also been imperfect in remembering every important date.
But when Jennifer should have turned 40, I gave Camo the gift I thought she would have loved. I woke up before the alarm to wrap my husband in a hug before a difficult day of remembrance dawned.
Because the pre-loved heart needs a buffer of safety sometimes. A bit of softness against the hard things.
Although Brandi is at the beginning of her adult journey, she knew this by instinct.
It’s an unconditional love, an acceptance of another’s hurt and anger rising from a past you didn’t live in, she said.
When Hillary’s birthday coincided with Brandi’s first day of college, my friend voluntarily ditched class.
“I didn’t want him to have to spend that day by himself,” she explained.
Brandi and Dylan listened to Hillary’s favorite song that day, sobbing in unified sadness.
It’s never as easy as crossing a day off the calendar, though. Brandi has experienced resentment of the way Hillary left and the impact it has on Dylan. And that she wasn’t her man’s first sweetheart.
I know. There are times I’m stupid mad that Camo gave his heart away decades before meeting me. That we didn’t get to share the hardships or joys of young married life.
It doesn’t have to make sense, readers.
Brandi said it took her time to understand people can have multiple loves in one life. That although Dylan first loved Hillary, he wasn’t “settling” for Brandi now.
“He tells me, ‘I would choose you any time. You’re the one who picked me up and made me whole.’ ”
Camo has done the same for me, and me for him. We’ve carried when the other could only crawl. We’ve been the calm in each other’s storms.
We make each other whole, even on the fractured days.