THERE IS a moment, just as twilight gives way to total darkness, when everything over the lake is still. It’s like the world is holding its breath, waiting to see what’s going to happen. It’s during this one, singular moment when I feel… free from the memories. Of course, like they always do, they surge back when I realize I can’t cling to that magical second any longer.

In October, Brian and I bought a cabin near Crivitz, Wisconsin. A quiet, peaceful tract of land where we could lie together and love each other as much as we could. I had a company come in to fix it up, so after we shared Thanksgiving dinner with our family, we could pack up our things from our home in Milwaukee and move into the cabin. The place was beautiful, but I don’t know how much of it Brian really saw. Each passing day he got weaker and weaker, and each day I wished I could freeze time.

When January came around, we went home to Milwaukee for a little while. Brian told me he wanted to go back and say goodbye to our friends and family. The trip was awful, what with my mother and father spending hours locked away with Brian, and him wanting some alone time with my brother, Robert, and his lover, Galen. After finally meeting with Lincoln and Noel, Brian also asked to go to Lincoln’s diner alone so he could sit and talk with Noel. It hurt me to have him away from me, but I understood his need to be by himself for a time. It still sucked.

I remember the night clearly. There was a haze over the lake, and the clouds obscured the moon. Around us, the night air filled with sounds, like the animals were doing whatever it took to make Brian happy. We sat there, holding hands in our little bit of paradise, where nothing bad could happen. Only… it could. Brian wanted to stay here because he didn’t intend his last days to be spent being fussed over by our friends and the family we’d created. The thought that they pitied him made his heart hurt, because Brian was the healer. He needed to make everyone else feel good. And now it was he who needed the healing, but we both knew it wasn’t going to come. The doctors had given him less than a year. He swore to me that he would prove them wrong, and he did. Being the fighter he was, Brian stretched it out to five. But every hourglass runs out eventually.

One night, just as twilight was giving way to total darkness, he reached for my hand.

“I love you.”

My throat seized. I knew what he was doing, but I wasn’t ready. Not yet. “I know.”

“You have to let me go.”

I jumped out of the chair and spun to face him. “How the hell do you expect me to do that? Since that first day in college, I have been in love with you.”

It was true. When this young Asian man knocked on the door to the dorm room, my tongue stopped working. He was so goddamn beautiful, it hurt to see him and not be able to touch his flawless skin. But that was 1993, and things were still kind of closeted. Hitting on your roommate was probably the stupidest thing you could do, despite what the porn videos said.

“I’m Brian Chen.”

His voice sent ripples of pleasure through me. I was hit hard by lust and longing, and the only thing I could think of was that it would be a very long four years.

“Hi. I’m Tom Kotke.”

He held out his hand, and after I took it, I was reluctant to let go. He smiled at me, showing off pearly-white teeth, with one just a little crooked. I wanted to kiss that mouth and let my tongue explore that tooth. I’d never had sex before, but right then I wanted to drop to my knees and show this man the pleasure one guy could give another. Or, at least what I’d seen in porn.

He chuckled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tom Kotke. Might I have my hand back?”

It was then I realized I still held his hand in mine. I let go of it, instantly regretting having done so. “I’m sorry.” I worried that now he’d think I was some kind of freak. “I’m not a weirdo.”

And saying that out loud seemed to prove the opposite.

He gave the barest of smiles. “No, I never thought that.”

And that was our first meeting. Over the next two months of living together, Brian spent every night at home, in front of his laptop. Secretly I was grateful for that fact, because seeing him with another person would have hurt. It wasn’t too much longer before I had to admit to him that I was gay, because having him be uncomfortable around me was definitely not what I wanted.

“I figured that out when you held my hand that first day. If I’m honest, I wish I hadn’t said anything and you had continued.”

My heart beat a little faster. “You mean…?”

His grin slid into place, and my heart went pitter-pat. “Yes, Tom, I’m gay as well.”

And that sealed the deal for me. I was in love with him.

Before those memories could swamp me, a wheezed breath dragged me back to the here and now.

“I watched you every night, pen in your mouth, as you worked on one paper or another. I dragged you up to bed on nights when you told me you needed five more minutes. I sat in the audience as you stood up there, diploma in hand, and told our class that they were responsible for the world they were entering. That they had to choose kindness over money. And the day I asked you to marry me….”

“And I said no.”

I couldn’t swallow past the lump in my throat. “You said no.”

He quirked his artfully plucked eyebrow. “And why did I say no?”

“Because you didn’t want me to have to choose between you and a career. You thought you were doing good by me.”

“And I was wrong. The day you slid that ring on my finger, I finally understood what it meant to be whole.”

“Right, and now you think I’m supposed to just let you go and move on? I won’t be whole anymore, so how the hell do you think I can pick up and forget you existed?”

“Sit down.”

“No.”

He gave me a weak smile. “Tommy, sit down.”

When he called me Tommy, my knees wobbled. It was a nickname that only he could use. I wouldn’t accept it from anyone else, not even my family. From him? My heart always thumped a little harder at hearing it in his soft voice, as his light brown eyes held me captive. I sat on the bench beside him, and he put a hand on my arm.

“I’m not saying you have to do it now, but you can’t keep living for me. I won’t be here in anything more than a memory. If you really want to honor that, then you need to live. You’ll have to do it for both of us. Take that trip and go parasailing like we always said we’d do. Trek across the desert on the back of those humped nightmares. Ride the scariest roller coaster in the world. Do that, and your heart will race harder than it’s ever done before.”

“No, it won’t.” I turned my hand over and wrapped our fingers together. “The day you said ‘I do’? Nothing will ever be more thrilling or terrifying than that.”

He coughed, his body shuddering. He reached up to cover his mouth. When he pulled his hand away, dots of blood coated his palm. The inevitable had finally happened, and I was about to lose my heart.

“It’s been twenty-five years, baby. The best anyone has ever had, but—”

“Shut up.” I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder. “Please. Just stop talking. Let’s sit here and enjoy the quiet.”

He laid his head against mine. “Okay.”

The moment was perfect. A reminder of why I loved him so very much. We sat there for an hour, and when the coughing started again, worse this time, I reached for my phone. He shook his head.

“Don’t. You’ve got to let me go. It’s time. I don’t have it in me to fight anymore.”

My heart broke, knowing what was coming. “But I can’t…. I don’t want to.”

“I know, but no one can stop time, and mine has come. You need to accept that.”

My eyes filled with tears, and I scrubbed a hand over them.

“Do me a favor?”

“Anything, you know that.”

“Hold me, so I won’t be so afraid.”

God, my heart tore in two. “Okay.” I wrapped my arms around him, the body that had always been delicate but was now thin and fragile. He put his head on my chest, and his wheezing grew harsher.

“I’m always going to love you, Tommy. And if there’s an afterlife, I’ll be waiting for you in the park under the big oak tree. Will you look for me?”

That was where we had our first date. Him sitting there, his face tilted up at the sun, looking so fucking gorgeous. “I swear, I won’t look for anything else.”

“Okay.” He coughed, harder than before. “I’m going to miss waking up and seeing your smile every morning.”

I squeezed him tighter. I no longer had words. In my mind, I was wishing I could die along with him, because being alone? I couldn’t see how that was possible. The man I clutched to me was my life.

“You’re going to be okay. You know that.”

I started to disagree but stopped myself. He needed it to be true. He didn’t want to die with the regret of leaving me alone. “I’ll be okay.”

“Stop lying to me. You’ll cry, grieve, and try to hide away from people. When we went home, I told our family not to let you do it. They’re going to hound you. They’ll force you to go out and meet new people.” He reached up and put his hand on my chest. “And one day, I hope you’ll find love again, because there’s too much in your heart not to share it with—” Harsh coughs wracked his slight frame, and I knew the time had come.

“Rest. I’m going to be right here for you.”

“You always were. And when the time comes that you need comfort, you know where to look, right?”

“Sure.” I really had no idea, but I just needed him to be at peace.

I’m not sure when Brian passed away, but the night had gone dark. As if sensing my mourning, everything around us was still. Taking out my phone, I called the hospital and told them that he had died. They sent an ambulance, and the EMTs found me still cradling the body of my husband. A numbness sapped any strength I had, and I was grateful to the men who took me to the hospital, because I wouldn’t have been able to get there on my own.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of calls and letters, the funeral—Brian had asked to be cremated and wanted his ashes laid to rest in his favorite place in the whole world, Yellowstone National Park. He loved the beauty and tranquility of the place. Of course, I would follow his instructions to the letter, but I wasn’t prepared for what I found when I opened his urn. Brian was always so full of life. He personified grace and beauty in all things. And now? My husband was nothing but a white powder, like something I cleaned out of our fireplace. Upon seeing what was left of my Brian, I broke down in tears. Still, I sucked it up and did what he asked, burying his ashes beneath a tree that he’d carved our initials on decades ago.

Going home—to the house we had bought together a lifetime ago—was bittersweet. I could sense his presence everywhere, and more than once the memories of the life we shared overwhelmed me. Stupid things, like sitting down to watch a favorite TV show, became hollow and empty without him next to me. Going to bed, knowing his side would stay forever cool, had me moving out onto the couch. Not comfortable by any means, but still a damn sight better than rolling over to wrap my arm around him and finding him gone. Again.

One night, a few months in, a storm blew through Milwaukee. The power flickered several times, until it went out completely. I lit a candle in the living room and sat there, watching the lightning flash outside. A sense of melancholy washed over me, and I found myself on the verge of tears once more. I got up and went to the bookcase, where Brian and I had spent a lifetime gathering books from favored authors. I reached up and pulled out my personal favorite, Charlotte’s Web. Taking a seat on the couch once more, I opened the cover, and a piece of paper fluttered out and landed on my lap. I put the book aside, reached down, grabbed the paper, and unfolded it.

Tommy….

So since you’re reading this, I’ve got to assume that the cancer has finally won. We both knew it would, but I’m not ready to leave you to your own devices just yet.

Hot tears streaked my cheeks. It was as if a scab had been torn from a raw, painful wound that had never really healed. I needed his words more than I ever thought I could need something.

I’ve got so many things I’m sorry for. That we didn’t get to celebrate our silver anniversary comes to mind. I’d fully intended on surprising you with a trip to Mexico so we could go parasailing, but I’m guessing that never happened. Too bad. I was looking forward to soaring over the ocean with you.

I choked back a laugh. “Liar.”

Well, I hope that got a laugh out of you, because we both know I would have happily stood on the ground and waved at you, but no way in hell would you have gotten me up there. If God had meant for man to fly, he would have given us wings.

I was never a believer in religion. Having seen too many times the way it was used to put pressure on people, I could never get behind the idea. Oh, I was spiritual, but that was only to the extent of empowering people. Still, if heaven did exist, Brian was up there, looking down on me, cursing the wings that he’d been given.

I don’t know how much time has passed, but knowing you as well as I do, I’m going to guess maybe a few months at best. I figured you’d go for Charlotte at some point, so that’s why I left this letter here for you to find. I just want you to know, no matter what happened or what will happen from this moment forward, my heart always belonged to you.

Maybe by now you’ve met someone—though I doubt it—and you’re happy. If that’s the case, then know you’ve done what I wanted. Don’t mourn me forever, Tommy. It’s not in your nature to be alone. I want—no, I need—you to go out and find someone special. If you won’t do it for you, do it for me.

He was crazy. He had to be. No one could replace him in my life. The thought of it was beyond insane. I glanced up at the picture on the wall of the two of us holding out a slice of wedding cake for the other to take a bite from. I frowned, trying to understand what in his mind made him think I could move on. A deep, shuddering sigh rolled out of me as I went back to his letter.

I can hear you arguing, you know. I’ve already said you’re not meant to be alone. You need someone to hold you at night so you can sleep. To wake up with you in the morning so the day is heralded with love. Please, Tommy, you need this. Maybe not now, but one day. Don’t shut yourself off, because it hurts me to think that so much love would be lost to the world.

Now, get back to reading. I’m sure Charlotte is waiting to whisk you away to a new world.

And remember, you’ve always been the only one to have my love.

Brian.

I set the book on the table beside the couch and put my head in my hands. My heart ached, a battle of both sadness and joy warring for dominance. He was right—no one in the world knew me like he did. Almost a quarter of a century together had that effect on people. He could tell with nothing more than a glance when I needed him to hug me or when he needed to back off. He could make me laugh with a quirk of his brow or bring me to tears when he sang my favorite song, softly crooning in my ear, reminding me of our wedding, when he got up, grabbed the microphone, and belted out Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” in a rich, sonorous tenor.

When he finished, no one in the hall had a dry eye. He handed the mic over to someone and strode to me, our gazes locked. “How did I get so lucky?” His voice was thick with emotion. “If you were smart, you’d run off and have the life you’ve always dreamed of.”

I grabbed him by the back of his head, gripping his hair. “Funny thing about dreams is that as we grow up, we’re given new ones that let us know the others were just musings of a child’s mind. When I met you, everything I thought I needed went out the window, and you were the only thing left.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but I kissed him hard. I could feel the warmth of his tears as they mingled with mine. I knew that I would spend the rest of my life reminding him he was loved, and the thought had filled me with hope for my—our—future.

I stretched out on the couch and closed my eyes. I knew I’d dream of Brian, just like I had every night since he died. They always ended the same way, though: me curled up on the couch, clutching the small, sunflower-patterned pillow that Brian had made, with a hole in my heart that I knew would never heal.

All this talk about moving on? How in the hell was I supposed to do that without him? Hell, I hadn’t even realized what life could be like until I saw him, held him in my arms, had him under me. We were each other’s first and last, and that was perfectly fine with me.