“See you soon. And never forget that I love you.”

The last time we celebrated your birthday, we shared a slice of the recurring theme in our story that is Junior’s cheesecake. As we walked down the street after, I was ranting about how irritated I was that your birthday cheesecake was mushy, when I looked over my shoulder and noticed that you’d stopped and knelt in front of a homeless man sitting with his back against a trash can.

“Hey I’m Mark, nice to meet you. I need to run back to the restaurant anyway. What would you like to eat?”

You couldn’t be satisfied with dropping some coins in a cup as you walked blindly past. You wanted to know his name, and remember his face. You wanted him to know your name. You wanted another human being to feel like they were noticed, that they mattered.

It wasn’t until he thanked you and said he had just eaten that you shook Carl’s hand and slipped him some money before standing, putting your arm around me and continuing our walk.

“You know, that was the best cheesecake I ever ate.”

It was days after that day in September when I got the call asking if I was ok. I’d been spending all of my time at Ground Zero with an emergency medical crew, standing by and awaiting the throngs of survivors we all had to believe were going to be uncovered any minute. I’d made my way home to shower and rest when the phone rang.

“Hey Michael. I’m calling to check on you. How are you holding up?”

“It’s tough right now, but I’m safe. I’m ok. Is Mark with you? I haven’t been able to call since before all this and I’m sure he’s freaking out.”

“Oh God, Michael.”

My ears screamed. Every trace of oxygen left the room. I put the phone in its cradle and sat on the floor in the kitchen. I would be found right here. This was where it would end for me. There was no blood left to flow into my arms or legs, to will my heart to pump one more time. 9/11/2001 had just claimed its final victim.

I was certain my life would end right then and there, but that wasn’t what was to be. I eventually stood back up because you showed me what it meant to “live your life like the car has no fucking brakes.”

I lost the man who held love in front of me like a precious gift and never stopped presenting it until I finally and begrudgingly learned to accept it. It wasn’t until I lost Mark that I realized the fullness of love because I felt the sudden emptiness of its lack. The only thing I was certain of was that I would never love again.

But I was wrong. Because love isn’t a person. Love is what happens when we allow our hearts to break. When we break, we break open. The more open we are, the more love can flow through us. I shut down for a while, but love is a verb and it needs to act.

This wasn’t the end of our story, only the start of a chapter in which I would nurture what you so selflessly gave me and tend it like a mindful gardener. I would make sure that no one in my orbit would feel unloved. I would make sure the most precious gift I ever received would continue to give until I have no breath left.

And never forget that I love you.