Even if you didn't always agree with the message behind them, you were always fascinated with icons. Russian, especially, with their egg-tempera faces staring somberly outwards through the snow and dust of time. Never smiling, despite the warm glow of goldleaf halos lighting the sky. Not once. I've never seen a smiling icon.

Angels, too. You loved angels. All kinds. Especially the darker ones, with peacock feathers glittering iridescent Mardis Gras behind robes and raiment that Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat could not hope to match.

Before you left, you painted an icon for me. You were in it, and so was I. You were...dying, and hung limply against my chest. I was no angel - more like a demon, with the wings of a bat curled tenderly towards you. An extra pair of arms to hold you with.

You left. I grew up. My old artwork was thrown away; old books given to younger siblings, and old clothes found a place at Salvation Army.

Growing up doesn't mean that I forgot you, while you were at college and I stayed behind. And then I went to the university, only it wasn't the same as yours. The dorm was small, my room-mate immediately stamped me as "insane," and my signature rhinestone cat-collar that we both loved was stolen.

Your icon is hanging above my bed. Even after all the memories had faded to black and white photographs...even after the remnants of my childhood had been packed away in old newspaper and bubble wrap...my angel was there.

I kiss it every night, thinking about where you are.

I hope that you know that I'm still here, arms and wings oustretched, ready to catch you decide if you fall.

I am sloppy and I lose things.
Eventually, I find them again.

Several months ago I started thinking about a story. It was a story written by my friend Christina in 1999 as part of an explanation for why we couldn't stay together as a couple. For the past five years it has been buried in a filing cabinet. She helped me find it today.

The story is seven pages long. I would reprint it in its entirety here, except that I have no concrete way of getting her permission. Metaphysically speaking she has given her permission, but that won't hold up in a court of law. So, I'm left with just my thoughts on it.

Over the course of my life I have received a decent number of break up letters from women. Some women I've been close to have written poetry for me. This story is unique in that it was telling me something beyond the usual reasons why people stop being together.

There are only two characters in the story, a man named Adrian and a woman named Heaven. Heaven is described exactly as Christina saw herself. The height, weight and hair are the same. She is timid and small, but willing to roar when necessary. Adrian is a dark and powerful figure. He is a vampire who has been alive for centuries, preying on people and animals to maintain his existence. When he meets Heaven, a part of him awakens. She is the embodiment of his desires, but she is also capable of bringing light into his dark life. There is a reason why her name is Heaven.

Adrian wants Heaven to bring light into his life. He wants her to "save" him, but the only way for them to be together is for her to become what he is. She demands he turn her into a vampire. The only other option is to walk away. To stay means that together they must descend into eternal darkness and everlasting life.

There were two sides to Christina. On the one side was the girl devoted to overcoming all obstacles, becoming successful, amassing material riches and a lavish lifestyle. This was the side she showed most often to people. Her other side was tormented.

After having cancer as a young child, she lived with the stigma of being the "cancer kid." For many years she had barely any hair and wore a wig to school. She suffered through obesity that lasted into her late teens, as food became her drug of choice for escaping depression, isolation and loneliness. She considered herself a survivor. Through it all, her parents had spoiled her and treated her like a princess, giving her everything she wanted in the hopes that it would dispel the cloud of depression that settled in over young Christina. She was introverted, scared and tired of being looked at like a freak. She would become rich and successful as a way of "showing them all."

The story, called "Eternity," reflects the conversations we had over the course of our relationship. She would tell me how I could never give her the mansion on the hill, fabulous trips around the world and all the lavish things she desired. I accused her of being materialistic, which she denied by telling me that her desire for these things had nothing to do with herself. She had other reasons. In the end, she admitted it was just a cover because she had no idea what she really wanted in life. She just wanted to live. She wanted to prove to all the people who had made fun of her that she could make it big.

She was going to school full time while working full time, even though her parents were more than willing to pay for anything she wanted or needed. This would have allowed her to easily quit waitressing so she could concentrate full time on school, which was what her parents hoped she would do. They didn't understand why she worked as a waitress when she didn't have to. She couldn't quit working. Concentrating on school alone brought back memories of her lonely, isolated youth. She used to money she made working to pay for her habits. She chained smoked, drank heavily, rarely slept and generally led the life of a party girl, all while working and going to school. She got very high grades and did very well on tips. Her ability to balance everything was amazing. She never burned out. She just kept going. The Energizer bunny.

When Christina was a child, she died on the operating table. The cancer had won, the doctors told her parents. She was legally declared dead, but started breathing again several minutes later. She had a death experience and could not remember any details, but did remember it happening. The ghost of the experience stayed with her, as an undefinable presence. One thing that stayed with her was a strong feeling that she would never live to be thirty years old.

Her story, "Eternity," is an abstract painting of what was between us. She once told me two things were accomplished during our relationship and they left a permanent mark on her. I showed her she could be loved and taught her not to fear death. One of the things that drove her to seek success at all levels at top speed was her fear of death coupled with knowing she would not live very long. The stories of my death experience brought back memories of her own. She found she could relate even though she couldn't put a finger on why. The ending of the story, Heaven demanding that Adrian make her into a vampire, is about Christina overcoming her fear of death. Beyond that it was about her fear of becoming old. Adrian's power keeps Heaven from getting old and from dying. She will be forever young and beautiful. It took me years to realize what she was talking about. We had once achieved a perfect moment together and through me that moment would live forever.

A couple of months ago, a friend asked if I could ever truly be satisfied in a relationship with a woman. She asked if I was waiting for someone to come up to me and say, "My name is Heaven." In Christina's story, her character just happens to announce that three times. She's also wearing thigh high boots, a short black skirt, a white cotton shirt and a black choker. The description of her clothing and appearance is one whole page of a seven page story. Christina was always concerned with her appearance and dress, seeing it as the final step for the ugly duckling who grew up to be a swan.

In a way, I could relate. I spent most of my youth being insecure and painfully shy. I didn't so much get better looking as I got older, I just became more confident and was able to project myself the way I wanted to be perceived. With Christina, her childhood was so painful that she continued to have nightmares about being the little fat girl in school who had to wear a wig because she had no hair. After she finished high school, most of her hair had grown back, she lost nearly a hundred pounds and suddenly she was a beautiful young blonde woman. While she was working as a waitress, two young men came into the restaurant and began flirting with her. She played along for a few minutes and then asked if they had any idea who she was. They didn't. She shook her head and walked away. When she was in school, these two boys had taunted and made fun of her relentlessly for years.

"And now you want to fuck me. Classic."

Our romance was brief, but intense. Everything we did had purpose. There was no down time. She would test me at times, as if I were a lab rat, seeing how I would react to different situations. She wanted me to prove that I wasn't like other men. She wanted me to prove that we could allow each other to be who we were instead of trying to change each other. She wanted me to prove that I would accept her and not try to force my own philosophy of love and life on her. In the end, I failed.

Christina was the most passionate person I've ever known in my life. Whatever it was, she did it with full on passion. Every moment of life meant something and she would be damned before she let another moment be wasted. She was living in the fast lane after a childhood spent alone and depressed in her room with her parents trying everything possible to cheer her up. The vast sea of stuffed animals in her bedroom was a constant reminder of that. She lived in the moment with an eye on a future she knew in her soul would never be. It was her driving force.

She was a protector of people who truly cared about those who were in trouble or were not accepted in the mainstream. She intended to become a psychologist because of her desire to help people who needed a helping hand. She especially wanted to help children who struggled with acceptance and depression. As is often noted, the people who go into psychology are people who have been through their own rough rapids in life and want to build better boats.

"What do you think would happen if two angels made love?"

One night our combined passions created something. I can't explain what happened. Magic has happened before and since. Love has happened before and since. That night was something different. We were connecting on a different level. We transcended the ordinary and together exploded in what remains easily the most powerful sexual experience of my life. The energy surrounding us was overpowering. It was the kind of thing that was so powerful and fulfilling that you wish you could just die after it was over. In fact, she said she wished she had died right after because then it would be her last memory. She understood that much about death.

The following night I went to see her at work. She had asked me to, and so I did. Everyone there was asking me what happened. They said Christina was bouncing off the walls laughing and smiling all day and wouldn't tell them why. It was the peak of our relationship. Within the moment we felt complete. Several days later she was going to meet some friends for dinner and asked me to come along. "I want them to meet my boyfriend. I finally have a boyfriend I can actually show off."

The dinner was the beginning of the end. Everything felt out of place. Neither of us were into playing these roles of boyfriend and girlfriend. We were trying to act like we were a normal couple. On the ride home we barely talked. We both knew it wasn't going to last. Things were falling apart quickly.

I believe very strongly in a metaphysical level of existence that transcends the trappings of our everyday existence. Christina believed in it as well, but she had trouble focusing. One night we were sitting in the front seat of her truck. I wasn't feeling very well. I had my head on her lap and we were both staring up at the sky. She looked down at me and told me she could see angels. They were coming to take me away. I felt something as well, a voice that told me I could leave now so that I could remember these days instead of the hard times that were to come. She heard the voice as well. She told it that she was destined to go before I did. She brought me back. It was a very strange experience and we never talked about it again. "I don't ever want to talk about what happened that night," she told me later. "I can't handle it."

The hard times predicted did come. My life began to fall apart. It started with the engine blowing in my car, followed with losing my job and continued with a spiral into almost complete financial ruin. Christina left me in the midst of it. Part of the reason was that she couldn't handle what was happening to me. With the protective shield her parents had around her, it was out of the realm of possibility for her to fall into such straits, but it scared her regardless. I needed her help, but it wasn't something she was able to give. It tore her apart that she couldn't help me because she wanted to but couldn't. She was living on borrowed time, knowing the clock was ticking and she only had so much time left.

"You have to understand. I spent most of my life hiding in my room, and now I only have a few years to really live. I can't handle holding you up while you're falling down. I'm sorry. I'm not doing this to be mean. I'm doing this because I can't handle it. I can't handle it."

It took me a while to understand. I resented her and I was angry with her for a while. To me, at least if she was with me things wouldn't be so bad, but I was getting buried under an avalanche of bad events. If I had a dog during the summer of 1999, someone would have run over him. Repeatedly.

Christina's passion for life continued unabated, even though she continued to bleed inside. She had an insatiable longing for a man she believed was her true love, her soulmate and her destiny. I knew him as well. They had been together for some time before I came into her life. He wanted nothing to do with her. He didn't understand her and he didn't much care. He was a bartender where she worked and before I even knew about their relationship I knew how he operated. They had broken up because Bill became interested in a new waitress that had just been hired, a waitress that would eventually become Christina's closest friend and deliver the eulogy at her funeral. She never got over Bill and she never put him in perspective. For the remainder of her life, she continued to pine for him and to be angry at him for not understanding their shared destiny.

I never understood her obsession with Bill, a guy who longed to be a player. He wasn't a bad guy. Bill was good natured and easy going, but never committed to anything. He was finding his way by trial and error. He didn't know what he believed in. When he decided to join the military, Christina became convinced that they would "straighten him out" and return him to her as a new man. Instead, he got engaged to someone after boot camp.

In the spring of 2001, we would see each other for the first time in almost two years. She was no longer working as a waitress. She had finished school and was working with juvenile delinquents. I just happened to be back in the restaurant where she worked on the same night she was there having dinner there with her parents. I was there with my friend Mark and I had recently gotten engaged. The combination was valuable because it made her feel there would be no pressure of any kind. She told her parents she wanted to go out for drinks with me.

"He looks familiar. Who is he?"

"Keith is the guy who bought me the ankle bracelet."

"Oh, I remember now. Go ahead. Have a good time."

It was always weird to me that I was remembered as the guy who bought Christina an ankle bracelet. To her it meant something, as guys she dated had never bought her anything. What do you buy a girl whose parents give her everything? It was the end result of a strange conversation that produced a question that was not easy to answer. Christina had come to me along with her best friend to ask me which one of them had better looking legs. It had been one of the reasons Bill gave her for his pursuit of Erin. I told them there was no comparison, they were two completely different women. "Well," I said, "Erin is wearing an ankle bracelet and you aren't. If you were wearing an ankle bracelet, you would win hands down." The next night I bought her an ankle bracelet.

We made peace happen on that last night we saw each other. She was happy and told me she never felt so alive. What she wanted in life was now visible on the horizon. I had a stable job now and was about to get married. She said that it seemed like everything had turned out right, despite Christina being one of a dozen people who warned me that I was never meant to be married. We embraced and we kissed on that final night. She asked if I ever thought if we had met at a different time in our lives if we might have stayed together. I told her all that really mattered was that I would always love her. Looking into her eyes I could see that she had completed her transition. She was now the swan.

I believe that people face obstacles and tasks in life. Once these tasks are completed, the purpose of their life has been fulfilled. I believe that Christina's purpose in this life was to overcome all that was placed before her early in life. Her purpose was to show that she could become a swan. It was not easy for her to do, but she overcame rejection, humiliation, insecurity and doubt to succeed in life. She was working helping troubled kids and going to graduate school, seeking a way to help others and give to others in order to make their lives better. She believed in her mission.

Then, everything stopped.

She was twenty-four years old when the cancer came back. She spent the next year in a hospital bed. Few people knew what was happening. She didn't want anyone to see her this way. There was more chemotherapy and there was hope that she would beat it again. When they told her it was inoperable and that she would only live so much longer, she devoted herself to living past the deadlines they imposed on her life. Her fight ended on December 30, 2002. She was twenty-five years old.

Most stories would end there, with death as the final curtain call. For Christina it was only the beginning. She insured that I would be amongst those invited to her funeral even as I was one of those she made certain avoided any knowledge of her illness. She scripted her wake and her funeral, spending much of her lengthy hospital stay working out the particulars. While she fully intended to win the battle, she also prepared for the possibility that she would lose the battle. She didn't want anyone to be sad that she was gone. She wanted us to be happy and she wanted us to remember her as she was. She wanted us to remember the swan. At her wake she insisted that once everyone was assembled before her coffin that "Copacabana" be played. Her final joke was leaving all the people that loved her in a room not knowing whether to laugh or cry. "Did she really lock us in a room with her and Barry Manilow?"

"Are you wearing a tie?"

Sitting at her funeral as her coffin was brought into the church, I heard her voice. I thought I was hearing things, but then I started seeing things. Looking at where her body rested I instead saw Christina, running through a field of purple flowers laughing and joking. The swan was fully powered. She told me she wasn't interested in her funeral because it was too depressing, but wondered how many people had come. Then she laughed and told me not to be sad. She ran towards an angel that was bathed in white light and told me not to worry. She was doing better than she ever had in life. She was going to become an angel. I wasn't at a funeral. I was at an angelic coronation.

The vision left me overcome with emotion. As I came out of it, the priest leading the ceremony was talking. He was talking about a nun at the Catholic school Christina attended. They had been very close. This nun had helped Christina survive her early years but had passed on while Christina was a teenager. The priest spoke about how this nun had become an angel, something he knew because he had visions of her in an angelic state. I have never seen a priest cry while addressing a congregation. I imagine funerals are a regular fixture in their lives, but he struggled with his emotions as he told us the story. It confirmed my own vision, the one I had just experienced moments before. He told me that he believed the nun would call to Christina and embrace her. It was her heart, not her lifestyle, that had brought her full circle. Christina, he told us, was already an angel.

A cynical mind would believe that a girl who chain smoked Marlboro Reds and drank Jack Daniels hand over fist was not suitable angel material. The cynical mind doesn't understand eternity. The cynical mind believes that the rules we have here apply to other levels of existence. Christina understood eternity. Her story reflected her belief in the choice before her. Eternal life through darkness or light. She chose light.

"Very few people know that Christina always believed it was her destiny to become an angel," the priest told us. "She is not gone from us this day. She will always watch over us and she will always be with us."

As the body was being carried out of the church, the music that accompanied her exit was Sarah McLachlan's "Angel." After all her playful efforts to use goofy songs to lighten the mood, she hit us over the head on the way out. I was already struggling with the feeling that I could not follow the procession to the burial when I got into my car, caught my breath and started the engine.

"There is something I always wanted to tell you that I was never able to," her voice told me. "You'll understand in a minute what I'm talking about."

On the way to the funeral I had turned the radio station to one of those light music stations. It seemed right in some way to listen to such music under the conditions. When I turned the radio on for the drive home, a song was just starting. It was Sarah McLachlan again. The song was "I Love You."

And I forgot to tell you
I love you

I don't know what the odds are of leaving a funeral where one song is being played and then having another song from the same artist and the same album being on the radio. The fact that you already have a history with album may or may not be relevant. I took it as a message. I could feel her presence all around me and I started to cry. I drove out of the parking lot because there were too many people all around me. I drove down the road not seeing where I was going or knowing what I was doing. I could just hear the song, feel her presence and know in my soul what the message meant.

The ugly duckling had become a swan, but it was not enough to be a swan. She had to return to the battle she won as a child and lose the battle this time so she could become what she was always meant to be. It was her destiny and one day we will fly together and she'll make fun of me for crying. I'll make fun of her for making me listen to sappy songs.

Dedicated in loving memory to Christina's time in this frame
May you always fly higher
May your wings take you to your destiny
May you always remember that I love you
Love isn't about being together
Love is a state of being

You were right in your story
Adrian was able to give Heaven eternal life
Just in a different way than you imagined

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