I read a lot of great books in 2018, but by far my favorite was Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by TV critic Michael Ausiello, about his husband Kit's year-long battle with a rare, aggressive and ultimately fatal cancer. I'd had it on my shelf for over a year before I got the courage to crack it. Then I spent a weekend in bed with it surrounded by tissues and grateful for the extraordinary catharsis. There were so many tiny little truths about the death of a partner that were familiar, yet 6 years into widowhood I felt no one else had articulated. Like this detail, in which Michael describes traveling to Kit's hometown to break the news of his poor prognosis to his family:
"As we approached said shopping plaza and neared some of the childhood touchstones that held special meaning for Kit (and now me), I wondered what Pennsylvania's open-container laws were. The thought of Millersburg existing without Kit was so torturous it necessitated some type of brain-numbing substance."
That was Chris and Rose Hill, for me. In fact, a few years after Chris died, I wrote this short essay:
Chris didn’t like going home.
I can't say I blamed him. Once you got within 15 or 20 miles of the tiny town where my husband grew up, you lost cell service entirely. This was annoying when we started dating in 2003 and unthinkable nearly a decade later. When Chris made the trip alone, he’d call me right before the signal dropped out, just to sign off. I still have some of those voicemails.
There’s a Tim McGraw song where the narrator describes his hometown as “a stop sign on a blacktop.” I always thought that was hyperbole until I visited Rose Hill, Virginia—a whistle-stop just at the point where Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky meet. Chris went to high school there, graduated from college just a few miles over the border in Tennessee, then took his first job in Middlesboro, Kentucky, the vast metropolis with a Walmart and a daily newspaper.
I didn’t love Rose Hill, which had a way of making me feel like a ridiculous city mouse, but I loved the journey there. I’d never have thought so then, but in retrospect, some of the best times in our decade-long love affair were those four-hour drives, winding along what I called the “country roads” but Chris pointed out was actually the highway. “I’ll take you on some country roads,” he’d threaten teasingly, and I’d giggle. (One of those truly treacherous back roads, in fact, was named for his family. We'll just leave that there.)
I loved those drives so much because there wasn’t really anything I loved more than talking to Chris. And a trip to Rose Hill meant hours of glorious, uninterrupted conversation. No one needed to be working, or sleeping, or doing anything else. In the early years of dating, we’d talk about our childhoods, first jobs, high school hijinks, prompted by the nostalgia of going home. Once we’d exhausted the past, we’d talk current events—I remember doing one final Twitter check at the last Starbucks in Knoxville’s city limits and gleefully sharing the news of Sarah Palin's latest faux pas. On some rides we'd wistfully plan our future. Oh how trite it seems there, in black and white. But it was bliss. I knew he was the man I wanted to marry when I realized that, if we had nothing else 50 years in, I’d still be crazy in love with our conversations.
That weird little partnership you form in a marriage, the "you-and-me-against-the-world" feeling full of inside jokes and sidelong glances—I felt that especially keenly in Rose Hill. I didn’t fit in there, really, but neither did he. So we’d sit on the couch at his mom's house watching old James Bond movies, with no laptops or phones; no way, really, of connecting to our regular life except in case of emergency. We’d just be.
At some point, we'd wander across the street to visit his best friend Mark's folks; if we were lucky, Mark and his wife would stop by and we'd play a few rounds of Uno with "Rose Hill Rules" (which, best I could tell were just things made up on the spot to keep me from winning). I'd get to see Chris laugh like no one else made him laugh, with a wicked, unconfined joy.
There in Rose Hill, it felt like I was in on a secret, seeing a part of Chris that so few people did. He'd guarded the details of his childhood closely, but not out of shame, really. Everything with my darling was just on a need-to-know basis. So I lived for these moments: when the man who crafted complicated sentences for a living let an “ain’t” slip out while gossiping with his mom. Or when he bent over his grandfather in the coffin and slipped two pennies into the front pocket of his overalls—a private joke between a boy and the man who’d raised him. Chris had put a lot of distance between himself and Rose Hill, and despite some whispers that he'd committed the cardinal sin of "gettin' above his raisin'," it was still so much at the core of who he was.
I don't remember the specific details of our last visit, since I had no way of knowing we'd never be back. But I can hazard a pretty good guess. I'm sure we ate biscuits and gravy and watched an old-timer solve a crime on the TV. I know we drank Diet Coke instead of our usual Friday night dirty martinis. We slept in the side bedroom, once a refuge for a troubled 12-year-old boy who soothed his surging emotions with heavy metal and stacks of music magazines.
On the way back to the highway, we drove past the school where a teacher took interest in his writing and planted the seed that he could leave the limits of this town, and break the Rose Hill rules.