The Hardest Tears to Cry
by Bradford J. Howard
It was a cold morning in the coldest winter I had ever known here in Atlanta. The limousine was too dark for comfort. They were allowing me access to a grave I was otherwise not supposed to see. Mr. Hall told me not to worry about it; I was practically family anyway, and I belonged here just as much as any of them. I wasnít sure about that. But what I was sure about was that I did love Taina, maybe even a little more than they did.
They say that everyone has a story. This is mine, or rather that of a very close friend of mine. What bothers me the most is not that the story is true, nor that it is not necessarily a story I should be telling; rather, it kills me because it took a whole year for me to admit this story to myself, and another year to come out about it. But I am no longer afraid to hide the story. I am no longer ashamed of what may become of my telling it. I only hope that, by the time I have finished the story, you will understand why I felt the way I did about it.
I met Taina Sharnelle Hall on the first day of March 1987. We were both seniors in high school. The day I first saw her freshman year, I thought to myself, "Iím going to marry that girl." My only problem was that I was invisible to her. Though I knew quite well her favorite color (silver), her favorite song (Princeís "Purple Rain"), and her beautiful choir voice that had won at many state competitions, I knew she had absolutely no clue who Raphael Roze was. One day as I sat at the table with all my other friends, athletes in high contrast to my studious yet very sturdy figure, I looked behind me and saw her looking back. Every few minutes, my friends would remind me that Taina was "checking me out, man," and I would check her out, too, whenever she looked away.
"Ray," my friend Joe said.
"Yeah?" I asked.
"What are you waiting for? Taina is practically calling your name." He was right, of course, but somehow I didnít think that she would want to be caught with me in public.
"You must be bugginí, man," I replied. "Sheís looking at you." Within seconds, the lunch bell rang and we all went back to class. I spent the remainder of that school day thinking of what could have happened if I had only done something; Taina became my only thought, my only memory. I could not keep my feelings for her bottled up, as much as I wished to. I would have to let her know the following day. As the last bell rang, I saw Taina walk right in front of me and quickly moved up to her. I could smell her short brown hair, alive with a strawberry scent, and her perfume, jasmine and vanilla dancing in the air ahead. I started to say her name, but her friends moved up to her and started up a lively conversation focused mainly on prom dresses and Theo from "The Cosby Show."
After I had gotten my books, I walked out to the parking lot, got in my car and began to drive home. On the way, I noticed a girl with short hair and a Carter High School letter jacket walking on the sidewalk. She pulled her jacket in closer to her, reminding me of how cold it had been that day, especially for spring weather; she looked so familiar, and I finally noticed the name "Hall" on the back of her jacket. Could it be her? I rolled down the passenger-side window and pulled over.
"Taina?" I called. The girl turned around. It was her. I couldnít believe it. The smile like Florida sunshine, brown eyes with the twinkle of morning dew, was closer to me now than they had ever been. She saw me and a little smile spread across her face; it was so small, you could hardly tell that it was a smile, but it was definitely there.
"Hi!" she greeted me.
"Hi," I replied. For a while, we just stood there looking at each other; I didnít know what to say. Then, it came back to me. "Look, itís pretty cold out here. You want me to give you a ride?"
Taina smiled and said, "Sure, you can give me a ride if you want to."
I opened the passenger side door and Taina got in. The radio was off; it was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop.
"You are that Raphael guy, right?" Taina asked. I was shocked. I didnít even think she knew me.
"Yeah, I am. How did you know that?"
"I have heard girls talking about you a lot, especially in the restroom. And Iíve seen some of your work. They are very nice." She was talking about my drawings, mostly of people like Prince and Paula Abdul.
"Thank you," I said. I was flattered. Taina Hall was complimenting me. Thank you, God. As if we had been asleep the whole time, it suddenly hit me that I had not even moved the car.
"So, where do you live?" I asked.
"On Holland Court," she replied with a smile.
Thatís how we met. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask her to Senior Prom. I expected a polite decline, as Taina was a cheerleader, and she was always talking to Danny Small, the second fastest guy on the track team (next to me, of course); and Iím not sure Taina knew it, but it was common locker room comedy that the guy was small in more ways than one. Surprisingly, the girl said yes. I went all over the place looking for a good suit, and I found a really nice black one the day before prom. I went to pick up Taina at about 6:50, and she invited me in and introduced me to her parents.
Mr. Hall was an architect still working on that big breakout project that would gain him international fame and adoration. When he showed me his project plans, I had to admit that he was definitely aiming high. Mr. Hall asked me if I had any plans after high school.
"Yes, sir," I replied. " I plan on going to college." He asked what I planned to major in.
"Art, sir. I want to go into commercial design or something like that." Mr. Hall looked impressed. I asked him about Tainaís mother and he told me that she had died giving birth to her. I gave him my sympathies, but he saw her mother in every inch of Tainaís body and soul. When Taina finally came downstairs, she looked stunning. She wore this nice light blue dress with a long enough skirt and high heels. Her hair was curled up, and her face was made even more pretty with her makeup on. Her father took a picture of us, and then we left.
At the dance, we got on the floor with a lot of those fast songs, and Taina forced me to dance with her when they played "When Doves Cry." Eventually, they gathered everyone together for selection of the Prom Queen and King.
I couldnít believe it when they announced that I, Raphael Ahmad Roze, was the King. My heart almost stopped when they announced that Taina was the Queen. Everyone cleared the dance floor and we had our last dance to LL Cool Jís "I Need Love." I had never even hugged Taina before, so I felt blessed to be holding her so close to me. She laid her head down on my shoulder, and my hands never left her waist. Every moment she and I had was like a slice of heaven, but thisÖ this was like being in heaven.
It was almost midnight when we got back to her house. I parked the car and walked her up to the door, hoping for something out of the movies to happen.
"I had a good time, Raphael," Taina said. I took her hand in my own and squeezed it gently.
"So did I," I said. I was suddenly at a loss for words. I didnít have any good lines or any romantic verses. Once again, Taina and I were stuck looking at each other for the longest time. She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.
" I think that says everything," she said. I smiled and kissed her on the cheek. Then we said goodbye. I remember feeling like the luckiest man on earth to have come so close to someone like her. What did I do to deserve this?
That was two years ago. After graduation, I thought I would never see Taina again, even though we had exchanged phone numbers and were a "temporary couple." I had always heard that long distance relationships did not work. So I went to the University of Georgia and got on the first string track team. I met a lot of girls at U-Georgia and some I admit I did like, but none of them could compare to Taina. In fact, I had come to see her as the only reason I won races. Every race I ran for her; every win was for her pleasure, to make her smile. Eventually, we had a meet at the University of Notre Dame. I was warming up for a race, when someone said my name. I got up out of my twenty-fifth pushup and looked behind me. It was Taina. We shared a long, warm hug.
"How have you been?" she asked.
"Iíve been good," I replied. "You?"
"The same." The awkward stares were the same, too.
"Itís been a while, hasnítí it?"
"Too long." We both smiled. A dude in Notre Dame uniform suddenly came over to where we were.
He glanced disgustedly at me, and then turned to her. "Taina, we need you over here," he told her. She nodded and the brother, after another dirty look my way, went back to the other side of the track.
"Wow," I said. "What did I do?"
"Oh," Taina said. "Ty is always like that."
"Ty? Are you and heó"
"Are weÖ? Oh, NO! Ty is my older brother. He is always afraid that I will end up with some dog."
"Oh." I was relieved. "So, does this meanÖ"
" Öyou and IÖ"
"Are together?" We said at the same time. We both smiled again.
"If you think we can handle a long distance relationship," Taina said, " we can try."
"Those Atlanta girls are kind of fine, though," I joked.
"I came from Atlanta." she said, hurt dripping from her voice.
"This is what Iím saying." She smiled, and then we kissed. I won my race, mainly because she was there. See, a lot of brothers try to impress their girl by showing off. I tried to impress Taina by doing what I already know I do best: burning brothers like the Road Runner. Taina and I were together up until January of the following year. Thatís when I got the call.
"Hello?" I asked.
"Raphael, " a quiet voice said. It was Taina.
"Taina, hi. Are you okay?"
"I donít think so. Iím in the hospital."
I drove all the way upstate to Indiana, and I was stopped once by the Highway Patrol. They had me take a Breathalyzer test because I was weaving in and out of all the traffic like I was drunk. I reached the University of Notre Dame and found out that she was in their hospital. One of the doctors spoke to me beforehand.
"What happened to her?" I asked.
"Itís a bit more serious than you might think," the doctor said.
"Is she pregnant? I donít care. I donít know how that could have happened, because we never got further than kissing. Although there was that step group partyÖ"
The doctor tried to hold back a laugh. "Sheís not pregnant, and Iím glad that you havenít got that far at such a young age yet. UmÖ there is no good way to put this."
"Just say it, doctor. Nothing you can say could be that bad, especially not with Taina."
"The young lady has cancer, sir." You could have knocked me over with a feather. I never thought something like that could happen to her.
"Thatís impossible," I said. "Taina is one of the healthiest women I know. She never eats ice cream with me. I tried to get her to share some Ben and Jerryís with me, but she insisted on some Yoplait." The doctor fought a smile, even though I was not joking at all. "How long, doc?"
She let her head fall. "Five hours." Five hours. Thatís more time than we ever had alone. Five hours. I left the hospital and went for a walk around campus. I couldnít believe it. My queen, Taina, the woman I had so many plans for, the woman who gave me true love, was about to fall to cancer. I could barely stand up; the news hit me like a brick wall. I left the room, fighting the dizziness that had suddenly come over me.
I sat outside of her room on the floor for a while, my head buried in my knees. I felt tears coming, forming in my eyes like rain in storm clouds. But they would not fall. I tried to make them come out, you know? How could I not cry when the love of my life was now on her deathbed? I was frustrated. I was devastated. With nowhere else to turn, I began to say a small prayer in my head.
Dear God, I realize that the last time we had a conversation was almost a year ago. I realize that I have not been going to church like Iím supposed to, but I just really need this one thing from you. TainaÖ she means everything to me. Iíve come to ask you if youíll let her stay so that I can tell her how special she is to me So, she could know that I love her more than life itself. If it is truly time for her to leave, let her stay just long enough so I can tell her.
I spent a few more minutes there just sitting in deep thought. Then I stood up, and went back into her room. I sat by her bed, and I held her hand in mine. Never before had it felt so soft, so fragileÖ I had hoped I would not break it. She woke up from her sleep and smiled when she saw me.
"Raphael," she said. I noticed for the first time that there were dark brown bags under her eyes.
"Donít talk," I told her. "You need to save your energy." I felt butterflies form in my stomach as I tried to voice the words.
"I have something I wanted to tell you," I began. I looked into her eyes, trying to send the fake happiness in my own to her saddened eyes, before continuing.
"I know that I love you. But I wanted to make sure you knew, too. Rarely do you ever meet someone who inspires you, captivates you, and stimulates you all at once. Even as you look at me now, I canít help but feel nervous. You are like Godís blessing to me, one I did not deserve, but one Iíll gladly take. I love you on Monday, I love you on Friday, I love you on the sunny days, and when the skies are gray. Maybe I did not day it often, maybe I kept it in too long. But one day I had hoped you would be my wife, the mother of my children. You smile at me, and I get weak. When the studies get hard, I see you and start to think. So thank you."
Tears welled up in Tainaís eyes. They fell down her face in a cascade, and she opened her mouth to say something, but she stopped and just squeezed my hand. For the next three hours, we sat there, holding hands and recollecting on what was, reanalyzing what could have been. Then I fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was morning. I did not want to look up and see Tainaís dead, lifeless face. But I did. And there she was, awake and staring right back down at me. She smiled warmly
"Youíre still alive," I said, amazed, bewilderedÖ relieved.
"Iím still alive," she replied, still smiling sleepily.
"I missed you," I told her. She lit up and looked away. "Would you like me to get you some coffee?"
"Iíd like that very much," she said. I kissed her on the forehead and went to get her coffee. When I returned, she was sound asleep. I lifted her hand in my own again; but this time, there was no pulse. Her hand was cold. And on her left cheek lay a still-wet tear. Within seconds, the flatline beep came on. Doctors and nurses flooded the room, pushing me aside and rushing past me in hopes that they would save her life. I knew, though, that she was already gone.
Itís kind of funny; I didnít break down then, and even though I have not seen Taina for almost two years, I am still very much composed. You see, I did not come to her funeral. I have not seen her since the day she died. I never wanted to see her because I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I would not be able to keep a straight face once our eyes met. Just for me, with her familyís permission, the caretaker had led me down through a row of tombstones to a fenced-in granite tomb. He unlocked the bolt on the door, and opened it. You would expect a tomb that had not been opened for two years to at least exhibit some sort ofÖ musk; Tainaís, however, smelled of jasmine and almonds, like the perfume she used to wear.
There was an open panel in the roof of the tomb that made the sun seem to drop a heavenly luminance on Tainaís glass coffin. Sleeping beauty, I thought. Even after two years, she was ageless. Perfect. Beautiful. The caretaker opened up her casket, and left me alone with her.
"Taina," I said. "Youíre still so beautiful." I held her hand in mine; it was cold. I wished she would smile for me again, but I knew that she wouldnít. I could barely look at her face. And her beautiful brown eyes were closed this time, of all times. I wished I could look into them one last time. I wished she could offer me some reassurance, some comfort. I took a deep breath.
"Taina, Iím sorry I wasnít at your funeral. Iím sorry I wasnít there at all the times you needed me. I wish I could make them up, but you canít change the past. You are a part of the past, too. For two years, I was afraid even to come down here, even to visit your parents. They were the worst two years of my natural life. A lot of pain, a lot of sorrow, heartbreak in its purest form. But I think now, I can look at you faithfully. I still love you. Iíll always love you. But I came here to say goodbye. Every once in a while, Iíll stop by here and drop you off some flowers, spend some time with you. But I just wanted to let you know, you will always be everything to me. I will never forget you, Taina."
I felt water forming at the edges of my eyes. I expected it to fallÖ but it never did. I tried and tried to push the tears out of my eyes, but they just wouldnít come out. You see, the hardest tears to cry are always the ones that say goodbye. Thereís really nothing good that can come of telling someone you really love that you have to leave them. But after two years, I finally felt some closure in my life. I finally felt like the emptiness that lay in my heart since Taina had died had left me. I thought of all the times we shared, from the moment I picked her up in my car to that day at the track meet. I finally dropped the rose beside her casketÖ and a single teardrop fell with it.