I was 17 and Fred was 24 when we first met. Fred and I belonged to the same Synagogue. We were both involved in local musical theatre productions, but had never crossed paths. Instead of randomly meeting at High Holy Day services like many Jewish men and women might, we were divinely united to sing “You Gotta Have Heart” for a temple fundraiser variety show.
Fred had red hair with accompanying adorable freckles. He had a sparkle in his smile, eyes that beamed with each playful thought, and a uniquely infectious laugh that made me melt from the inside out. For many weeks we rehearsed and kibitzed getting to know each other while sharing our love for creating and performing. We harmonized so beautifully that it didn’t take long before we had a ‘heart on’ for each other and he asked me out. As love stories go, ours would be right up there with the best them — I just didn’t know it at the time.
Fred and I were two peas in a musical theatre pod, sharing not only our love for theatre, but for stand-up comedy, food (from knishes to Thai to his incredible lemon chicken), movies, music, witty conversation — and ultimately for each other. Our age difference was not an issue … until it was. They say timing is everything, and it seemed our time had to come to an end when the college bell rang from 400 miles away, and I needed to explore that stage of my life without him.
A couple years went by, and while I had my share of experiences away at college, I was very homesick for Fred. Somehow we found ourselves talking on the phone again, eventually every night, usually late at night as he was working a graveyard shift for a computer company at the time.
His voice and his wonderful laugh were so comforting. He gave me a sense of calm and a feeling that everything was right with the world. He missed me as well, so we decided to try a long-distance relationship. Not surprisingly, even as strong as our feelings were for each other, it didn’t work. Contrary to the long -running commercial, long distance is not the next best thing to being there.
Fred and I attempted reconnecting again a couple years later when I moved back home from college. But again, we were unsuccessful. After much inner conflict, I came to the realization that our relationship wasn’t working, ironically, because of the fact that we were both artistic people. Let’s just say my vision of a financially secure and comfortable future didn’t mesh with the soul I fell in love with. I needed to be with someone who balanced my creative side, providing me with a sense of security. As much as I loved Fred, I felt unstable about a future together, and that hurt and insulted him. After a terrible fight he stormed away, slamming the book shut on what appeared to be the last chapter in our story.
Loving someone and realizing you can’t be together is not an easy dilemma. Five years had passed and I still missed him. Even though I had gotten married to someone else (three years after that blowout fight), each year at High Holy Day Services I wondered if I would run into Fred. I would visually scan the entire congregation to see if Fred was there, part of me hoping he would be, the other part terrified of that possibility.
Though our fight had cut off our communication, I knew nothing could sever the connection between us. I felt horrible about the way things had ended. Call it selfish, but I needed closure. I needed to see him and apologize for hurting him. I needed to see my Fred.
After a bit of detective work, I located Fred’s phone number and called him, expressing how awful I felt about the way things had ended, and I asked if he’d consider meeting for lunch. I also made sure to mention that I was married and pregnant so he didn’t think I had any other agenda. Fred was understandably taken off guard by my call and a bit hesitant, but to my surprise and relief, he agreed to meet.
Seeing him walk into the restaurant made my heart race and calmed my nerves all at the same time. He walked over to me and hugged me as he always had, with such passionate gusto and deep, genuine love, the likes of which I had never felt from anyone. No, not even from my husband. I didn’t want to let go. His hugs were worth a thousand words.
We eventually sat down and talked about what had transpired in our lives over the past five years. He had not married, but was doing fine. We discussed our tumultuous breakup and mutually apologized. We agreed that our history and friendship meant too much to let it go, and decided to occasionally meet as friends; and we did for quite a while.
We met for walks on the beach and picnics with knishes in the park. We talked, and more importantly, he listened. He’d tickle the ivories to songs from Guys and Dolls and Les Mis with his cute, freckly fingers, and we’d sing. After my daughter was born we’d go for Thai food with her in tow. One time the waitress asked if she was our child since we all had red hair. His response was, “No, she’s not, but she should be.” I knew he wished we had married, but he told me that he never asked because he was afraid I would say no.
There was an undeniable magnetic pull between Fred and me. Being with him was like going home again. When we were together, we were in our own little happy bubble. It felt good to feel happy. After each visit I felt like I had taken a deep satisfying breath, and life was good. I felt seen and heard. I felt important, understood, deeply loved and adored — all the things I didn’t feel in my marriage.
Ultimately, and not surprisingly to either of us, reality burst our bubble once again. While our bond was stronger than most people ever feel, we both knew the weak link that caused us to break up the first time was still there, and I needed to concentrate on my marriage, which meant discontinuing our visits. Instead of cutting all ties — which, frankly, would have been the wise thing to do — we decided to occasionally keep in touch by phone.
One day Fred called, his usual upbeat, adoring voice sounding flat, and I knew something was wrong. He was calling to tell me he had lung cancer.
Lung cancer? I had to repeat it to try to process what he had just told me. “No way,” I replied in shock. “Way,” he said, and we cried together.
Throughout Fred’s chemo, I’d visit him in the hospital. I’d lay in his hospital bed with him, and he’d hold me, stroking my face as if to comfort me. One rainy day we were scheduled to meet for lunch. I arrived at the restaurant and waited and waited, but he didn’t show up. I panicked. I called him, and much to my relief, discovered he had fallen asleep. He insisted that he wanted to see me regardless of the weather, and asked me to please wait. As sick as he felt, he drove through the rain to meet me.
I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks, and the difference was devastating. He was thin, gaunt and pasty gray. My heart was breaking.
I brought old pictures of us to show him, thinking it would lift his spirits. He shook his head as he reviewed them, asking, “Who is this person? What happened to me?” He looked at me, and his once-sparkling eyes were now rife with angst and frustration, as if he were stuck inside his own body, trying to escape. I kissed him, and then we hugged and sat for a long time holding each other tightly.
Not long after that visit, I got the call from his mom to come say goodbye to Fred. I gently caressed his face with my hand, and he opened his beautiful eyes, which were now at peace, filled with love and tears. Thank you for being such an important part of my life, I said. I told him that I loved him, and I always would. I asked him to give me a sign once he crossed over to let me know he was okay, and then I kissed his clammy forehead and said goodbye.
For whatever reason, we were not meant to be a couple in this lifetime.
Fred has since given me many signs from beyond letting me know he is with me, and continues to do so, which is very comforting. As we sang together all those years ago, Ya gotta have heart, all you really need is heart.
He will always be in mine, and we will always be together. I miss you, Fred.