By Robert S. Brantley, Contributing Writer
Photo Courtesy of Robert Brantley
As everyone bustled about the house preparing Christmas dinner, I stood at the window looking out on the lawn and at the occasional passing car.
It had been a perfect morning – my brother and his wife had arrived in time for opening the presents and for the “something” else that no one expected except my mother and me.
The day before, we had gone to the bank and collected the ring from the safety deposit box that had been put there nine years earlier, awaiting such a day as this one.
That tiny box was the last present, set high in the branches of the tree. It was for her, the one I had waited for a lifetime to come. She was a part of my soul.
I had never thought love could be so easy, so effortless as I watched nervously as she slowly unwrapped the present. As she tore away each piece of paper, I felt my heart quicken and pound with a ferocity I had never felt.
She opened the small envelope hidden inside and took out the ring. Her eyes filled with tears, and my heart felt that it might explode. She smiled and handed me the ring. In my anxiety, I had forgotten to ask her. I put the ring on her finger.
A few minutes later, she looked at me and said, “Aren’t you going to ask me?”
I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as she said yes.
I thought about the previous year and all the changes that had overtaken us. We had gone from best friends to engaged in 51 weeks. During that time, I had been with her through two difficult surgeries, chemotherapy and more medical appointments than we wanted to count.
Somewhere, in all of it, we found love.
We realized that what was between us was written about in fairy tales, but few accepted or believed in its possibility.
Later, someone would ask her in a television interview if she had been afraid during the cancer treatments. Her answer was simple: “No, I was too busy falling in love.”
Her prognosis was terrible. The doctors gave her three to five years, but we knew that the love we had would stretch that time and keep stretching it. Just a few weeks before, she had been talking to a friend and said that she would be happy if she could live another 20 years. When I heard her say that, I knew that the clock had begun.
I had no idea how I knew there was nothing to stop it. I thought that if it was 20 years, then it would be the finest 20 any couple had ever lived. It was to be so.
So much of that lay in the future. She came up and put her arms around me, and I felt that complete sense of peace I always felt when she touched me.
“How would you like to go to Europe on our wedding trip?” I asked her.
She told me that anywhere was fine, as long as we were together.
I told her I had something to show her in Paris. I told her few tourists ever see it, and even if they knew it was there, they might not realize the extent of its meaning, if that could ever be known.
I looked into her eyes and told her that the hidden spot was “in the ambulatory behind the altar in Notre Dame,” and I wanted her to find it and see it for herself.
I could not explain why, but I knew when she went there she would know the meaning.
The 10 months that led up to our wedding and the trip were magical in the surprises they brought. Her distant cousins in Alsace had invited us to visit for a week or longer, and a friend in Germany asked us to visit his house. It all fell so wonderfully into place.
Our wedding day in October was one I look back upon as the only day in my life where I had done everything right – except for having to borrow a pair of socks from my brother, who would never let me forget it.
The trip and the weather were perfect; whether it stormed or the skies were blue, it did not matter. We could be with each other through it all.
In Alsace, it was harvest time and the family had large vineyards that needed picking. They were on the side of the Vosges Mountains, so everything was done by hand. Machinery could handle the flats but not the steep inclines of the hills. We worked for five days picking and filling hundreds of baskets with grapes. We agreed that if God lived on the earth, he would live in Alsace and have vineyards. It seemed to personify perfection.
On the drive to Paris, I stopped at Rheims to show her the cathedral. I had been to France before and had sat in the back seat of a car that drove past the ancient city at over 100 miles per hour. I had begged for them to stop but to no avail.
I thought about that when I helped her out of the car and walked toward the church. She fell in love with the Chagall stained-glass windows juxtaposed against the surviving medieval ones. We wondered at the past glory of the coronations that had taken place there. She said it was as if the cathedral had been built strictly for that purpose because it was so regal.
Our honeymoon hotel in Paris was small and hidden away in a quiet neighborhood near the Place de Concorde. We spent days exploring and dining in neighborhood restaurants, always avoiding any that had been written about in tour guides. I took her to the Louvre, D’Orsay and numerous churches and places we had read about off the beaten path.
Finally, on the third day, we walked into the Cathedral de Notre Dame. The sounds of footsteps and voices came at us from every direction. The church was so vast in scale that sound seemed to be continually overlapping itself in countless layers.
I took her to an opening and told her that this was why I brought her there. I asked her to take her time and wander about the ambulatory. I told her there was something special back there, and I knew she would see it. I sat in a chair and watched her disappear through the opening.
In a place such as that cathedral, time does not have a place of residence. All seconds, minutes and hours are constantly converging on one another. The year, month, day and hour could be from any and all time. God lives there because of the people who have come and gone across its cold stone floor.
I had no idea how long she was gone, but when she emerged, I saw the tears. I ran to her and held her close, and then my own tears came.
She looked at me and said, “The marble in front of all the small chapels is indented where people have been kneeling for almost a thousand years.”
I would know pride in her many times during our time together, but none ever equaled that moment. I had fallen in love with her, and I knew that if she ever saw that marble, she would understand.
There are certain truths in time that are irrefutable to a believer in God and love. One is that all prayers are heard and all are answered, whether or not we have cognizance of it. Sometimes “silence” is the finest answer that we can receive, because within it is love – a warm, glowing love that cannot be equaled.
The people who had prayed before those small, almost insignificant altars left pieces and bits of themselves and their souls behind. The stones absorbed them like a giant sponge. The stones hold those prayers in trust, each and every joyful exclamation and anguished cry, vibrating to the hum of him who one day will lay claim to them.
As Jan walked through that opening, she entered one person and came out another, not transformed but different in way that makes God smile and a husband cry.
Robert S. Brantley is a New Orleans architectural photographer. He and his wife Jan were married in 1988, and she died in his arms on Dec. 19, 2008.