We were sat at a table for six, yet there was only five of us, catching up on old times and reliving long-ago memories while creating at least one more new one to carry into the future.
The empty seat was far from vacant, though, and I think we all knew that.
An angel was there with us. In spirit. In our hearts. Forever.
As I sit by the lake on this Thursday afternoon, though, my heart aches in a way I never expected. The loss of 20 years of memories has finally caught up with me. Deep inside it has created a vacancy, a void that pokes at me every time I think about what might have been.
In the nearly two decades since I left the state of Maine behind, I’ve made memories that I do hold tight and dear and will cherish for all of my tomorrows.
But in the aftermath of a simple meal — of seeing loved ones so near and dear to me again after such a long time apart — I can’t help but question, “What if?”
What if I had never left? What if I had come back sooner? What if I never come back again?
There are people in your life that will never become less than what they are — special in every which way possible.
The Carleton family of Carmel, Maine, will never fully comprehend what they mean to me; perhaps just as I will never understand what it is I might mean to them.
They are, simply put, the greatest family I’ve ever had the honor to know.
Lee and Sandy; Joline, Lisa, Robyn.
I was only 19 years old when Lisa won my heart and as she drew me into her fold, her family accepted me as one of their own.
When I needed a place to lay my head, I knew there was a place for me.
When I needed help and could turn in no other direction, they were there.
When I needed to feel loved and cared about, they were there.
Always and forever … until they weren’t.
Cancer took Sandy away from her family way too soon. Yet to look at Joline today is to see her mother — in her eyes, in her face, in her inner strength, in her patience and tolerance for other people. They both epitomize everything that is good in a world that every day seems a little bit worse. Knowing Joline has so much of her mother in her makes me love and admire her even more.
Tragedy took Lisa away a few years later, the day an airplane fell out of the sky. She was one of 110 people who were snatched away from their loved ones over the Florida Everglades that day, and without lessening the loss of 109 other souls who were aboard, the loss of Lisa was a devastating blow to everybody who knew her — family, friends, acquaintances.
Just as there was something special about the entire Carleton family, there was something extra special about Lisa, an intangible that drew people to her. People loved her and she loved people. She loved life and people loved live even more because they had Lisa in theirs.
I know I did, but over time it didn’t stop with Lisa. Their family became a part of me. Even as worlds separated us by the passage of time and growing up, growing apart, there was a bond between us that would never waver.
I remember the day my son was born and I learned that Robyn was in the next delivery room, ready to have her first born as we prepared to have ours.
Autumn and Sam. I always thought it would be funny — if not fateful — if they someday ended up together, but alas through 22 years of life that has never been in the case. (At least not yet).
When I left Maine nearly 20 years ago, I physically left the Carleton family behind me, but I have always carried them with me.
I would see a camper and it would trigger a memory.
I would hear the phrase “coming out of the closet” and it would bring forth a memory that goes down in the family’s history of me literally coming out of Lisa’s closest on a night when I wasn’t even supposed to be in her bedroom. (And yet her parents still loved me).
I hear songs to this very day and I can’t stop the tears from welling up in my eyes.
After spending just a few hours with Joline and Robyn upon this return — this vacation to the place I once called home — I found myself cherishing that moment, just hours long, more than ever.
Yet today, I regret the 20 years of missed memories that my chosen path has cost me. Or cost us.
You can’t live life with regrets — Lisa would be the first one to tell me that; and we all know it — but I can’t help how I feel.
Thankfully, after too much time had passed, it took a man named Mark Zuckerburg to bring us back together and I’ve been able, from afar, to be a part of the Carelton’s world again.
It’s vastly different in so many ways, yet it’s exactly the same in terms of their love for one another and the strength they have all shown, no matter what the world throws at them.
Instead of succumbing to the devastation of losses so great, ones which would destroy lesser families, they have moved forward with an even deeper love and appreciation not just for each other, but others outside the family, as well.
Instead of letting an evil masked man tear apart their world, they put their focus on a princess whose strength and zest embodies everything that is good and whole about this family that I care about so much.
And as I write this, sitting lakeside, I know I have to leave them again. And it’s not easy this time.
Leave this place. Leave this state. Leave them.
Driving away from them on Wednesday night was hard enough because of the emotion and feelings it brought forth, but soon I will be driving further away and the Carleton family — while forever in my heart — will be in my rearview mirror, with me staring back and wondering if any other memories will ever be made.
They have filled a big piece of my heart for more than 30 years of my life, but it is only now that I realize how empty part of my heart became without them.
I know they have each other and some angels watching over them every day, and for that I am grateful.
And I hope they always know that with every breath I take, and every morning I’m blessed to see another day, be it here by this beautiful lake, or back down amidst the hustle and bustle of lower Connecticut, they will forever have all my love and respect, and I can only dream somewhere down the line we have more memories coming our way.