September 21, 2016

I once joked that our love story was so magical, not even Nicholas Sparks could have written it. That’s even more true today.

I met Vicki in 2011 on my first day as a graduate student assistant at UNC Campus Health, where she worked as a security guard. I wasn’t ready to come out to my conservative Christian family, so I quietly admired her from a distance, until February 2014, when I finally had the guts to ask her out. And, at thirty-two years old, I fell in love for the very first time.

It’s fitting that our first date was on Valentine’s Day. We were that couple: the one that makes people gag because they can’t keep their hands off each other.

Vicki was the most generous person I’d ever met. She paid the grocery bill for the person behind her in line and brought big pots of homemade chili to work for people who had to stay late. She stashed sweet notes everywhere, so that I would never forget how much she loved me. Recently, I found a note in my toiletry bag that read, “You are my endless love.”

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  • Photo by Natalie Rich

But our love wasn’t all romance and magic. We were a same-sex interracial that couple, which was hard work.

Having just come out, I struggled to navigate the subtle slights of homophobia—like the time Vicki introduced me as her “partner” at a conference, and a man looked us up and down and said, “Nice. Can I watch?” Or all the times I heard the Bible quoted like a slap in the face. Or when loved ones said they wouldn’t come to our wedding because “it’s wrong.”

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As a white woman in a relationship with a black woman, I watched racism hurt the person I loved most. There was the time she was a finalist for a job, and they gave it to the white guy with less experience. It felt like every time we went out to eat, the server brought me the bill or took my order first. I had to face my own internalized racism, too, and learn to apologize for thoughtless things I said and did without wallowing in my own guilt or regret.

The sweetest triumphs are not the easy ones. I had glimpsed the road ahead of us, and it was graveled and tarred with hard work. To find someone who’s worth the work. Worth the pain. It’s the hardest thing to find.

And it’s the hardest thing to lose.

On December 18, I woke up to a phone call from Vicki’s supervisor: “Vicki collapsed; we called an ambulance and they took her to UNC hospital.”

I remember not panicking. I’d spent so much of our relationship worrying about her. She suffered from relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that damages nerve cells. But Vicki was a model MS patient. She was young. She took her meds like clockwork. She was an avid cyclist and remained relentlessly optimistic.

When I saw Vicki in the ER, wide-eyed and gurney-tied, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor. The nurse explained that she’d had a cardiac arrest, that her coworker found her unconscious. The EMTs restarted her heart, but she was in a coma.

As I stroked her lifeless hand in the ICU, I reflected on the past week. The sunset walk we had taken Sunday evening, talking about our plans to start a family. Wednesday evening, as we filled out life insurance paperwork, when I encouraged her to find love again if I should die. She laughed: “If you die, I’m crawling into that bed and I’m going with you, just like in The Notebook.”

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The doctors never found a reason why her heart stopped, but on New Year’s Eve, they told us she had zero chance of recovery. On New Year’s Day, we made the decision to withdraw care. She died two weeks later.

She was my first love. My heart, my light, my joy. I had no idea how I’d go on without her.

Vicki had always loved biking. Riding in the Bike MS Tour to Tanglewood in Clemmons, North Carolina, was something she looked forward to every year. She registered for the 2016 ride months before her death, so even though I had barely been on a bike since I was a kid, I knew I had to ride for her.

Training for this ride saved my life.

I ride because it connects me to Vicki and to something she loved. Because every time I push myself, my heart fills with gratitude at what my body can do, and I’m humbled knowing that she did everything I’m doing now, with the fatigue and muscle spasms and pain of MS.

I ride to exorcise my anger at all the people who called Vicki my “friend” and told me that loving her was a sin. At all the barriers I’ve scaled in settling her estate because we weren’t married. At all the opportunities she deserved and didn’t get.

I ride to assuage the pain of never having the wedding we wanted or the child we dreamed of raising. Of never growing old together. Of never again feeling her long, skinny fingers interlace mine. I ride because it helps me see light in the world again, as friends cheer me on and donate money to the cause, as my church family prays for me and wipes my tears, as strangers help me reach my goal.

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I ride because, sometimes, it’s the only thing that keeps me from sliding down the slippery slope of despair. I do it for her, to honor her life, her legacy, and our love.

I didn’t crawl into that hospice bed and go with her like the husband in The Notebook, but I know our love is endless, just like she wrote in the note I found stuffed in my toiletry bag months after her death. She will always be my first love, a love that inspired me to take up cycling and push myself beyond what I thought I could do, a love that brought me out of the closet after years of living in shame. A love so magical, so poignant, not even Nicholas Sparks could have written it. No matter what happens now, I know that Vicki will always be with me.

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