When you slow down long enough your life finds you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “How did you go from the hallways of Saturday Night Live and casting CBS daytime to hospice?” Obviously there is a story behind my answer to that question.
Everyone has a story about how they end up where they are, but I’ll keep mine short and sweet. Circumstance, happenstance and a very special person transformed my life almost 20 years ago and ignited a passion that I’m now living.
After leaving New York City, I moved back to a small town outside of Raleigh, NC, known as Garner. I fell in love for the very first time with a boy that happened to be a Garner police officer. His dream was to one day become an FBI agent.
I refer to him as “Apple,” for many reasons.
Our relationship was full of respect, love, laughter and adventure. He opened new doors to different ways of thinking. He exposed me to movies such as “Down the Rabbit Hole” and several books by Stephen Hawking. He rarely watched television and read all the time. He loved good food, cooking and rock climbing. He changed me in so many ways.
When he was accepted to the FBI Academy, he chose to dedicate his time to becoming the agent he dreamed of as a child. We mutually agreed to briefly halt our relationship; making promises to reconnect after his graduation. With professional aspirations of my own, it made perfect sense.
Our last weekend together was magical. I remember clearly driving away in my Jeep Wrangler heading east and watching his Del Sol disappear in my rearview mirror as he drove north. I felt overwhelmed and grateful at the same time. I was so thankful for the emotions I was allowed to feel toward another human being. I was not afraid because I knew in time we would be together again.
That was the last time I saw him. There were no cards, phone calls or emails after that last magical weekend. What I thought was a pause in our relationship allowing both of us time to obtain our individual goals was actually a break-up.
I was haunted by the small town of Garner after he left. Memories of our relationship replayed in my mind every time I passed a restaurant or movie theater. The questions lingered. Nothing at all―not even a phone call or email.
In search of a major change to jump start my life again, I packed my things and moved to the eastern coast of North Carolina in 1999. I chose the coastal town of Wilmington hoping to work once again in the film industry.
Wilmington’s film and studio opportunities were on hiatus when I arrived, so I took a position with a hospice organization overseeing their volunteer program. It was a temporary position―or so I thought.
My life seemed to be gaining traction. I was working full time, living at the beach and meeting new people. It had been five years since my relationship with Apple had ended with no correspondence.
A few years later, a co-worker with hospice asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding and I reluctantly accepted. At the age of 34, I was not interested in purchasing a dress I would never wear again. I was also not interested in being portrayed as the mid-thirties spinster in the wedding party who had not found her soul mate, but out of love for the bride I did it anyway.
The night before the wedding, I arrived late to the rehearsal dinner. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, The Oceanic restaurant at Wrightsville Beach can be magical in its own right. Running in, I picked a random table and struck up a conversation with a lovely group attending the dinner. They were strangers to me.
Making small talk, a lady next to me mentioned her husband used to work for the police department in Garner, NC. Without much pause, I said, “I used to know someone that worked for the Garner police department.”
She asked, “Who?”
“Apple,” I responded as casually as I could.
“Wow,” she said as she continued to eat. “Now that’s a sad story.”
My mind began to race. Was he killed in the line of duty? I chose to not say a word and let her share her next thought.
“He died,” she said.
“He was in love with this girl in Garner,” she continued, “and broke up with her and never told her that he had cancer. He died in hospice care only 18 months later.”
I was completely paralyzed. I don’t recall much after that moment, but I do know I managed to reach out and grab that woman’s arm.
I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “You’re talking to the girl.”
The summer of 2000 found me working with hospice in a small closet office off Wellington Drive in Wilmington, NC. Knowing Apple had graduated from the FBI academy over a year ago and was relocating to Salt Lake City, I was trying to move on with my life. And although I was dating again, something was still missing. I needed to find closure and come to terms with the end of our relationship.
Before the days of Google, I sat at my desk, picked up the phone and dialed 411 for Salt Lake City’s information line. I asked for Apple’s number, and it was given to me.
Hesitating just a moment, I picked up the phone and called.
“You’ve reached the Apple’s resident, we are not home right now,” a woman’s voice said over the answering machine. “Please leave a message.”
I hung up.
It would be years later before I found out the truth about Apple. Instead of him getting married and moving on with his life as I had assumed, he had died just two months prior to me making that call. I had even unknowingly dialed the wrong number.
Although all of my assumptions were wrong, the call did help me find some sense of closure to move forward in life … until that fateful night in April when I was late for a rehearsal dinner.
I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “You’re talking to the girl ̶”
The following day I had to be a bridesmaid in a church packed with happy people celebrating my co-worker’s marriage. Me? I could barely stand. Still in shock, I wanted to be anywhere but there.
I felt my entire world crashing down around me. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs and make the world stop moving until my questions were answered. As I stood there watching two individuals exchange their wedding vows, I knew what I had to do for myself. I had to find out what happened to Apple. I had to ask, “Why?”
Apple’s family lived in Indiana. Other than talking with them over the phone, I had never met them. I was determined, though, to find them and ask the questions that now haunted my every moment, my every movement.
The following Monday morning, sitting at my hospice desk now as Vice President of Communications and Outreach, I started my Google search. The last name Apple and the state of Indiana were all I had to go on. The search returned over 200 hundred Apple names with phone numbers. This was going to be a long process. Remembering they lived in a small town, I randomly picked a city called Fort Wayne. There were only two Apple families living in that area, so I thought it would be easy to cross this town off my list.
I picked up the phone several times, but could not pull myself together enough to press the numbers. What if I found out he didn’t love me? Maybe the woman at the rehearsal dinner had been overly dramatic. Why didn’t he tell me he was sick?
Then I realized it had been almost seven years since he drove away from me in Garner, NC. No matter the answers, no matter the outcome, my heart was already broken. I just needed to know.
I picked up the phone and pressed the buttons. A woman answered.
“Hello”, she said.
“Yes, I’m looking for Apple’s parents,” I said nervously. “He was a Garner police officer and continued into the FBI.
“You’re speaking to his mother,” she said.
“I’m Apple’s mother.”
“My name is Kimberly Paul. I knew your son.”
“I know who you are.” Her voice turned to sadness.
“You do?” I asked surprised.
“Of course. You’re the girl my son loved.”
“What happened?” I asked with such confusion.
The conversation continued for another hour.
“Will you come visit us?” Apple’s mother said. “The family would really like to meet you and get to know you. We try to get together on Apple’s death date to celebrate his life. Would you consider coming out to celebrate with us?”
“I would love to.” I replied.
I arrived in Fort Wayne, Ind., only five weeks later. Apple’s mother picked me up from the airport. We drove back to her house and immediately started talking, sharing stories and pictures.
“Why didn’t he tell me he was dying?” I asked with tears in my eyes.
There was a long pause.
“He often spoke of the time you guys were dating,” she began. “You had lost someone from high school to cancer and it hit you hard. Do you remember what you used to say to him when he worked the night shift as a police officer in Garner?”
With tears rolling down my face, I replied, “Yes. I told him to be safe. I told him I respected that he loved being a police officer, but I couldn’t bare to lose another person.”
“He heard you,” she said.
I could not believe what I was hearing. I gasped, put my hands to my mouth and started to sob. Apple’s mother stood up, walked over to me, wrapped her arms around me and held me for what seemed like hours.
“I need to show you a few things prior to the rest of the family coming home,” she said pulling from our embrace.
Apple’s mother led me into her bedroom. On top of the chest of drawers was a picture of me and Apple. She picked up the framed picture and said, “I look at it everyday.”
“There is one more thing,” she said. She led me to the garage door and opened it. There was the Del Sol, the car he had when we dated, the car that drove him north the day I last saw him. His family had kept it.
“Can I sit in it?” I asked.
I sat in that Del Sol for over 20 minutes. It still smelled of him. I shut my eyes and within moments I could see Apple, smiling, driving us through downtown Raleigh. With the wind blowing through the windows, NPR on the radio, we were on our way to see an off -beat movie and then pizza in the Five Points district.
I didn’t want to open my eyes, but a knock on the window brought me back to reality. This was my life, not a book or a movie, but my life. I felt this overwhelming responsibility that my life was not just mine anymore. I would have to head back to Wilmington and explain my broken heart to friends that had never heard of a boy I called Apple.
“Are you okay, dear?” Apple’s mother asked.
As I climbed out of the car I said, “I will be. I think. I think will be.”
It took several years to come to terms with the finality of losing Apple. Time helped fill in the details of Apple’s final months, and I got the answers I was looking for.
For so many years prior to knowing the truth, I wondered what happened. I knew he wouldn’t leave me without an explanation, but my own self-doubt convinced me that he just didn’t love me. It just wasn’t meant to be. Only on that day, back in April, at that randomly selected table at a rehearsal dinner, the one I didn’t want to go to, did the truth finally find me. I guess I was ready to hear that truth and come face to face with the reality that Apple, my Apple, died at the age of 30 from melanoma.
So, there once was a boy I loved. He became an FBI agent. He broke my heart, but saved my life. It was 18 months, almost to the day, after he left me that he died in hospice care in Indiana.
I often wonder what would have happened if he told me the truth about his illness, but I stop myself and embrace the unconditional gift he gave me. My head says, “I could have done this, or I could have been by his side.” But my heart, well, I’m not so sure I would have recovered from such a great loss at such a young age. It happened exactly how it was supposed to happen. It happened how he wanted it to happen.
Some might romanticize this story, but I assure you reality doesn’t need anything but the truth. Apple and I shared a deep connection. It was magical how everything conspired to come together to reveal the truth to me on that fateful day in April.
I’m grateful I knew Apple. I’m grateful that I loved Apple. He changed me in ways I could have never imagined. I’m grateful I now know the truth.
My leg now adorns an apple that resembles a heart on my left inside ankle. It is shielded from the outside world, but a permanent reminder of and tribute to the connection I shared with a guy I called, “Apple.”
So, the Apple Effect is when you love someone enough to let them go; you prefer to break their heart to save them from unbearable suffering. In essence, you save their life. And that is exactly what Apple did for me. He saved me in every way a human being could save another. For that, I will be forever grateful.
I feel Apple next to me every day. Walking with me, teaching me to live boldly and fully and how to embrace death on our own terms.