Like you, my father always told me to listen to my mother, but she only ever had one piece of advice for me.
“John,” she would say, “everyone has one Question in life. One special Question that they’re supposed to Answer. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do for work, where you’re going to live, any of that. What you want to worry about, what should really rub at you, is the need to find that one Question. You worry about figuring out what you’ve been put on God’s green Earth to figure out, and then you fight tooth, nail, and tail to get to get the Answer to it.”
The first time I heard this advice was when I was seven, when I’d returned from school with an assignment, “What I Want to do When I Grow Up.” My mother, my father and I were all sitting on the back porch, rocking slowly in the fall light, drinking spicy tea. My mother was chain smoking, scratching at the mole on her upper lip between drags. My father was resting his chin on his hands, smiling dumbly and staring at the park and at his wife. I was probably sucking my fingers, trying to squeeze some ounce of meaning out of what my mother was saying. The next day at school, I turned in my page with a simple sentence scrawled across the blank. By turns, all the children stood up to read their answers aloud. When Quincey grew up, she wanted to be a writer, to give people things to read. When Jenny grew up, she wanted to be a doctor, to care for sick people. When Jake grew up, he wanted to be a veterinarian, to care for sick animals. When Bobby grew up, he wanted to be a firefighter, so he could stop people and animals from getting hurt in the first place.
“What a fantastic answer,” Mrs. Throneberry said to each of them in turn. “Johnny, why don’t you go next?”
“When I grow up,” I said, “I want to figure out the Answer to my Question.”
“What question is that hunny?” Mrs. Throneberry probably said.
“I don’t know. I guess I need to figure out that too.” I remember the acid cloud of toxic giggling that floated up from the group of seated children.
“Okay hun…but what do you want to do?” Mrs. Throneberry would have gestured at the pictures of firemen and doctors and farmers placed around the room.
“I told you. I want to figure out what my Question is.” More laughter from my classmates, bubbling up and bursting like stove top toffee.
“Johnny, hun, that’s not an answer.” Her tone hurt; whether intentionally or no, Mrs. Throneberry was the most condescending person I would ever meet. Except at that time I didn’t understand what condescension was, so a vague and throbbing feeling of mistreatment was all I had to latch on to.
“The assignment was, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ Do you want to work at your mother’s store? Or maybe help your father tend the parks?”
“I don’t want to do any of those things,” I said. My voice came out small and waterlogged, like the drowned baby mice I’d occasionally find in the creek. “I just want to figure out what my Question is.” The class again burst into laughter.
“Alright hun, why don’t you go have a seat next to Jed.” Her smile was cruel in its sincerity. I sniffled my way to the back of the room, where the boy named Jed sat aggressively clicking his teeth.
“Now, who wants to go-”
“Mrs. Throberry,” Quincey, the future writer, called out, raising her hand with all of the bravado a three foot squirt could muster. “I want to change my answer. I want to figure out my Question too.” Right then and there I should have known what my Question was, but the resulting downpour of laughter from the other children must have washed it out the window before I could see it.
“Yes, of course hunny,” Mrs. Throneberry would have said. “Now, who’s next?…” The class returned to the topic of real jobs, and I aimed bashful glances at the back of your head for the rest of the morning. The rest of the school year if I’m being honest. I suppose there’s no point in downplaying the intensity of my childish crush; I’m writing this to you with the intention of transparency.
That school year passed slowly. When summer finally came, I devoted myself to taking long walks around the park, following the trails with my father, or alone. St. Francis National Forest was, and I believe still is, the smallest of the National Forests, stretching just along Crowley’s Ridge and down some of the flat lands near the Mississippi, but it provided seemingly endless places for me to explore. I’d wander the ridge and the lowlands, sit by the waterfalls and boulderheads, ponder over what my Question was. I’d imagine it was hiding in one of the deep pools, or in one of the hidden caves. I’d beg my father to help me find all of the secret parts of the forest, and he’d oblige, using his ranger patrols to cover the park top to bottom. It was on one such trip that we came across you, seated as pretty as you’d please against a rogue hardwood.
“Quincey, isn’t it?” My Father asked. “Aren’t you a fair ways from home?”
“Yes, surh, I am surh.” Quincey didn’t have a lisp so much as she had a strong desire to have a lisp. “I’m quite a fair ways from home.”
“I figured as much.” That dumb grin crept back onto my father’s face, and I blushed, already anticipating the embarrassment to come. “Well why don’t we have John walk you back? John you be back to the station before six, hmm?” He went to clap me on the back, but committed only a soft touch. My father was always a very gentle man. Quincey, in contrast to my father’s meekness, had already clenched onto my hand before he had finished speaking. You were marching me through the pines and cedars and ash when we heard my father roar with laughter at the sight. Other people were always laughing at you and me, at the two of us together. It would be a time before you learned to laugh at yourself. It would be longer before I learned the same.
“Whatsh were you both doing out here?” you asked when we’d cleared my father’s hearing. There was so much the imperative in her tone that it took me a second to realize she was asking me a question, not ordering me to do something.
“Father’s working the trails, and I’m looking for my Question,” I blurted out. The need to be completely honest with you was so strong that it felt like it was giving me indigestion.
“Ah, I shee,” you said, nodding sagely. “Do you think it’s out here in the forest?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been all over and I haven’t found it so far.” The rest of the walk was transposed of sweet silences, sweet hushes highlighting the energy of your bold steps. We arrived at your house, your father drove me back to the station, and you waved goodbye like a metronome.
“I hope you find it.” Was the last thing you said to me. You and your family moved out of Marianna two months later.
I choose this humble memory because it’s one of the many I never spoke of. I’m sure you recall the clumsiness of our reunion in college, the buzzing of our marriage, the surprise and joy of our first pregnancy. The sorrow and shame of our first miscarriage, the three that followed it. I choose this memory to show you that I have so many things I still want to share with you, to express to you in shades of detail that I have never dared to use before. I was always honest with you, that I can swear, but I’ll admit it was a flimsy honesty. I omitted from our life together so many small details, details about what I thought, what I liked, what I wanted. I never told you these things, thinking they would be uninteresting to you. Even worse, I never told you how simple my love was for you, of how clean and pure and shining it was. In trying to impress you, I censored myself. In focusing on changing myself, I lost the ability to love and cherish you.
I know and can understand the tension that arose between you and my mother prior to her passing. It might anger you for me to say as much, but she was right more often than not. She was right about me trying to hide myself, she was right when she said we needed help dealing with the loss of our lost ones. (While I’m talking about being right, you were right about Max being a wonderful name. I think of that first lost one as Max now. I see novelty mugs and cups with ‘MAX’ squealed across them in blaring colors, and I think about what a wonderful name Max is.)
What I was saying that my mother was right more often than not, but she was most right about all of us having one special Question. That idea has tormented me since I was seven years old, but all of the thought I’ve given it over the years paid off when we ran into each other last weekend.
When you saw at the restaurant, the girl you saw me with was a friend of Nancy’s, maybe you already know this. Nancy and Ben have been truly kind in their concern for my happiness, while I don’t have the heart to tell them that happiness is no longer something I’m concerned with. Nancy’s friend and I were having a happy time. The conversation flowed easily enough to dull the discontent I’ve felt over the last year. Then you walked through the door.
I hated myself in that moment. I hated myself because suddenly I had my Question. Suddenly I knew that the little boy John, who had stared at the back of the little girl Quincey’s head for a whole year, he was the truest version of me. The version of me that was closest to discovering my Question:
“Can a man resurrect a love he has let perish?”
After all of the hours and years I have spent searching for this Question, I am terrified to admit that a part of me dreads finding the Answer. I dread discovering that the Answer is simply, “HE. CAN. NOT.”
But should you defy all reasonable expectations…should you agree to search for this answer with me…I’ve missed your fake lisp so terribly Quincey. I would give all that I am to Answering this Question with you.