I didn’t know much about him because I chose not to, but I do know that Lee Wold’s favorite song was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I assumed it was because he heard it on one of several tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and not because he had tried LSD, but it was only a guess because he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam. The only time he brought it up was when we watched a documentary about the war and he recognized himself – a young, thin man with dark hair and regulation black-rimmed glasses, like many of the man-boys in the film – jumping off a helicopter in a clearing near the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone and he said yes, that was his job, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t press him.
A year before I met him, I was nineteen. I had a baby, and then a few days later my husband died. After the practical dust settled, I found a job pouring 3.2 beer and planting trees at a nine-hole golf course. I tried college for a few months until the bill arrived, and I dropped out and found a job in the mailroom at Musicland’s headquarters. I was still squarely in the midst of grief, but I had done everything I could to run away from it, naive to its power, how it changes shape and beckons you, like a stranger with candy, into its car, and you let it abuse you and take everything and it gives nothing in return.
My crazy jumpy grab at anything to feel normal again led me to an Advanced First Aid class at the American Red Cross, the first step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a paramedic, although how practical that was being a single mother and barely twenty years old wasn’t something I considered.
That’s where I met Lee. He was the instructor, a serious man, and handsome in a Mr. Rogers kind of way, only without the smile. Always distant, guarded, and very precise, Lee never joked. Or if he did, you weren’t sure if you should laugh or not. Like Churchill described Russia, Lee was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
The first time he asked me for a date, he was sitting at a table grading tests and I was standing over him, waiting to ask him a question about bandages or CPR or something else that I don’t recall. And I also don’t remember if he looked at me or not, but the question was asked and I felt…even now I can’t find the right word to describe it. Shocked? Confused? Excited? Never mind he was the instructor and shouldn’t have asked a student on a date, but whatever it was I felt, I said OK, and he wrote down my phone number. I didn’t tell him I had a child and he didn’t tell me he was twice my age.
On the night of our date, he brought me a bright red tropical flower. An anthurium, he called it, from Hawaii, where he was born and raised. I’d never seen such an exotic flower, not in Minnesota in February, and especially not one so boldly sexual.
On my hip was my eleven-month-old daughter.
“This is Carlene,” I said.
“She’s beautiful,” he said, smiling at her. He exuded a genuine warmth that no one in class would suspect he possessed when he lectured on wound care or how to rescue someone who was drowning. During the next few months, he fussed over Carlene and me, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his perception of me. For instance, he always told me I had pretty green eyes, but my eyes are mostly blue. Lee saw what he wanted to see, and I couldn’t change that. In the end, I needed an emotional connection he wasn’t able to give, and by the time I learned I was pregnant, we were no longer seeing each other.
He reluctantly, yet with a sense of obligation, relinquished his parental rights, although I brought Cassie to see him a few times when she was a baby. When she was five, I was remarried and we moved out of state. He got married and had three sons, although he promised his wife he wouldn’t tell them about their sister. I continued to send him photos of her every year, and a few times when I visited Minnesota, we would meet for coffee and I would catch him up on her life. One year he gave me a Pooky plush toy (Garfield the Cat’s teddy bear) and asked me to give it to her. I wasn’t a big Garfield fan, but he and Cassie were. Humor, in this case, was nature, not nurture.
Lee re-met Cassie when she was sixteen. We agreed to meet at his office, and we spent an hour of uncomfortable moments of him telling Cassie it was my fault he didn’t get to know her, and that he loved her and he loved me and that he always did, like he thought somehow Cassie could heal his heart, if only she could get me to listen to him. We left, exhausted, and his future communications with Cassie were sporadic, and with me even fewer.
One of the last times I “talked” to Lee was in 2015, when I sent him a text message as I decorated my Christmas tree on Cassie’s birthday, December 12. I was listening to the Moody Blues’ CD December. The song “A Winter’s Tale” reminded me of our relationship, at least from my perspective, and I shared it with him. He wrote back saying he still wished things had been different. I couldn’t share his wish, as I was the one who let us go thirty years earlier and even now wouldn’t change my decision, but I thanked him, as I always did, for our daughter, and told him that I couldn’t imagine life without her. He said neither could he.
Lee finally told his sons about Cassie, because you know secrets, the big ones don’t stay secret forever. Cassie met them a few years ago, and their love for each other is as genuine as if they’d known each other from the days they were born. Lee seemed happy to have them all together in his house, even though he expressed that happiness in his passive-aggressive, detached way.
Lee died on Friday, alone in a nursing home, but thankfully in his sleep. He hadn’t remembered anyone or anything for several months. He took with him secrets no one could unearth, and emotions he couldn’t share. But I know for certain that he loved his daughter, his sons, and me in his own enigmatic way that we will never fully understand. May he finally find that peace that was stolen from him years ago, and rest knowing that we loved him, too.