John Milton Wesley had a dream about 10 years ago that he was shopping with his fiancee, Sarah Clark, when she walked into a dressing room to try on clothes and never came out.
"I woke up sad and agitated ... almost in tears," Wesley recalled.
Three months later, on Sept. 11, 2001, Sarah boarded American Airlines Flight 77 in Washington, the ill-fated flight that was hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the Pentagon, leaving no survivors.
When Wesley learned of his fiancee's death, the first thing he did was go into Sarah's bathroom at their Columbia home and pick up her toothbrush to see if it was still wet. He started to cry, looking at the nightgown Sarah had worn to bed the night before and thought of the dream.
"The feeling from that was too real," Wesley said. "It was as if God had prepared me for what I would feel again."
But nothing could prepare Wesley, now 62, for what he would feel in the years to come. He struggled for a long time, maintaining certain rituals that felt helped him cope, such as burning candles 24 hours a day and caring for Sarah's plants (eight of the 10 are still living). Three years passed before he moved a single item Sarah had placed in their home.
"There were many times that I didn't know what to do," Wesley said. "There were many days that I could do nothing but think and I didn't want to think."
After Sarah's death, Wesley had a lot of questions he had to answer for himself: How could he continue to combine his creative, business, spiritual and social life, which Sarah helped manage, without her? What is there that he could complete for her?
Wesley and Sarah, who would have been 75 this year, had been friends for 20 years before they started a romantic relationship. It was in the mid-1990s, when Sarah, a school teacher by trade, took over Wesley's writing career and showed him how he could balance his creative projects with his daily job, that he realized he wanted more.
"That to me was the watershed event in terms of our relationship," Wesley said. "It was a complete escalation in our closeness because I could share my work and my life with her."
Wesley's writing career took off when his piece about the lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy from Mississippi, appeared on the front page of the Outlook section in The Washington Post and then in the International Herald Tribune. Having grown up in Ruleville, Miss., the small town where Till's murderers owned a grocery store, Wesley's story touched on the impact Till's lynching had on black boys in the area.
The international exposure he received from the Till story eventually led Wesley to a publishing deal. The publishing company, Cune Press, was founded in 1994 to help market books about the Middle East.
Because of her interest in international affairs, Sarah encouraged Wesley to get involved with Cune's Bridge Between the Cultures Project, a series of books about the Middle East used to help educate people about Arab culture. After Sept. 11, Wesley's continued work on the project made him one of the few 9/11 survivors working to improve Arab and American relations.
Wesley's writing has appeared in eight anthologies and several other publications, including a history of African-Americans in Howard County. He attributes his writing and publishing success to Sarah.
Comfort in music
Sarah also helped Wesley reignite his music career, something he had largely abandoned after moving to Columbia. They first met in 1974 at First Baptist Church of Guilford, where they sang in the choir together.
"Before I met her, if somebody didn't play for me ... I couldn't perform," Wesley said. Sarah encouraged him to practice the piano and eventually he was able to play again.
After Sarah's death, Wesley turn to his music — a mix of progressive jazz, sacred jazz, R&B, world beat and Afro-Cuban — for comfort.
"I was very interested in the role that music plays in healing, so all of my music is built around that," he said.
Wesley writes his own music and his own lyrics. He has created 45 original songs, many with themes inspired by Sarah. He released is first CD in 2010.
"When I write about love, I write about love from the standpoint of unconditional love, which very much grew out of my relationship with Sarah," Wesley said.
Music allows Wesley to be alone with his thoughts, something he said is much easier for him now than 10 years ago, which he sees as a sign of growth.
Another marker for growth has been his learning to love again. His new "significant other," as he calls her, is also his new manager for his writing and music career.
"In a lot of ways she reminds me of Sarah," Wesley said. "And she is not intimidated by Sarah. It took a long time to find someone who is not intimidated by that whole experience and how it was still affecting me. When I was able to do that, I knew I was well on my way to healing."
Wesley fell in love with Sarah partly because she helped him become a "new and improved person," he said, and he didn't want anything to break the momentum of that. But then came Sept. 11, 2011.
Wounded, Wesley looked to future with goals of regaining that momentum. He said he wanted "to survive the 10-year period never playing the victim; to survive the 10-year period without anger or malice, without the need for revenge."
Ten years later, Wesley said he's met those goals and become the person Sarah helped shape him to be.
"I think I've taken 10 years and completed most of what she wanted me to get done," he said. "I don't think I have to be as literal doing that in the years ahead. I can be the light that she wanted me to be."