By: Nell Cunningham
There is a picture of us. It is September 14, 2002, our wedding day. I am thirty-seven and you are thirty. It is just after dinner, nearly time for us to leave the head table and take to the dance floor for our first dance as newlyweds. Around us, busboys clear desert dishes, while wait staff refill our guests’ coffee cups. A sliver of stillness encircles us. We nestle close together, your arm draped gently across my shoulder. We marvel at our guests, our party, our good fortune. We look elegant in our wedding clothes, me in a short-sleeved, white bridal gown and you in a black tuxedo.
The photographer notices our tranquility and calls to us. You pull me closer so we are cheek to cheek. I lean in, feeling secure in the warmth of your wedding jacket on this crisp, autumn night. We look directly into the camera; our smiles show teeth white as piano keys. We are confident as sunshine. The photographer captures our newly ringed wedding fingers.
Fourteen years from this moment, on a gray Tuesday in December, our rings will be stolen. I will come home from a long day of teaching to find the side door pried open, the house ransacked. A policeman will walk me through, taking inventory. The kitchen cabinets will be wide open, as if a plumber has come to inspect broken pipes. Each closet’s innards will be yanked out and strewn across the floor, mocking my relentless quest for order. In the office, bookcases, desk drawers and file cabinets will be overturned revealing both the private and the trivial: A youthful photograph of us on the pier in Williams Bay, WI—sun-kissed and sleek in our swimsuits—will mix with dusty paper clips and tarnished pennies. In our bedroom, dresser drawers will be extracted from their shelves, pulled hard and fast. The edges of the drawers will chip and fray; the drawers’ contents will spill onto the floor. One white pillowcase will be taken from our bed. It will hold $67 dollars cash, two platinum wedding rings and our security.
There is another picture of us. It is August 29, 2013, our son’s first day of kindergarten. I am forty-seven and you are forty. David is five. It is 9:10 am, nearly time for us to leave David in the care of his teacher for the first time. Mrs. Kapes senses our trepidation and calls to us, generously offering to snap a family photo. I perch atop a tiny classroom desk and usher David onto my lap. You kneel down, extend your arm around our backs, and pull us close. We huddle cheek-to-cheek-to-cheek, like unbreakable links in a chain, clinging tightly to each other before time is called.
Though unplanned, we are all wearing shirts with horizontal stripes: Yours is royal blue and white, illuminating your bright eyes. David’s is gray and white. The words SERIOUSLY HANDSOME are printed across it in large, black letters. My black and white striped top is reminiscent of Elvis’s iconic jailhouse rock shirt. My short hair is prim and a bit reddish. My pearl earrings convey convention. As Mrs. Kapes calls to us, you and David make direct contact with the lens. My deep-seated eyes, however, are slow to focus and struggle to look directly at the camera.
Seven days from this moment, two discs in my cervical spine will rupture. The discs’ gelatinous substance—which has been building up, undetected, for months—will bore through the C4 – C6 vertebrae, invade my spinal cord and ransack my foundation. A different type of thief—one who will never be caught—will upend our stability, forcing us to embrace the unembraceable. This thief will make us envy the petty criminal who stuffs platinum wedding rings into a pillowcase and makes a clean break.