A stranger in a strange land
I’ve always been prone to darkness. Friends would say I was moody or even in some cases, morose. I had very few friends growing up. And although I have five sisters, none of them had much time for an annoying brother. Almost all of my early memories are of me doing things alone. I had snowball fights with snowmen I’d built on the other side of the road. I read A LOT. I roamed the woods, hunting, fishing, exploring. I was drawn to solitary adventure. What’s on the other side of that hill? Where does that path lead? What’s new, what’s different, what’s unknown? I constructed elaborate fantasy worlds in my mind. I still do it. Someday, I may take to writing novels. I’ve got hundreds of fully formed stories still in my head.
This morning I read a story by Iva Ursano. And it sent me into a world I have been very reluctant to visit. Mostly because it’s a painful place to go. And therein lies the reason I must make this trip. There’s a disrespectfulness about much of the self-help, “live in the now” culture that is incessantly preached to all of us. But particularly to those with traumatic history. It glosses over the fact that there is deep pain that, at the very least, needs to be recognized and honored. Yes, there is only NOW, but everyone’s NOW is informed by all the moments that came before. We are the people we are, not because of now, but because of what happened before this moment in time.
I had about seventeen really great years with my wife. That’s what it turns out to be when I do the math. A couple of years in which we lived together before we got married. Then fifteen years before the beginning of the end. There were three tense years after that. Two people absorbing the news that everything they’ve built together is being taken away from them. Not because of the choices they made, not of their own choosing, but because, in the end, none of us really have any power over the future at all. We didn’t know how to deal with this knowledge. I’m not sure anyone ever really does. That final year had a little more tenderness than might otherwise be expected given the stress and strain of the previous three. Maybe we’d figured it out a little bit by then, but the last five months were consumed by impending death.
We had four children together. We bought a house in 1999. We attended school plays and took the kids to the town pool. We had giant piles of Christmas presents under the tree every year. And a basketball hoop outside by the mailbox. We played with the kids, changed diapers, and talked about our work lives. We made love almost every Friday night. I know we did these things. There are shadows in my mind that hint at the love we once shared. And photos in boxes and on the computer that prove there was joy at one time in my life. But I can’t remember any of the details anymore.
I spent three years impotently watching while the love of my life lost, cell by cell, the ability to move or control any part of her body. As the disease took her physical capacity away it built a towering stone castle in my psyche. Memories of what came before she died are locked away on the other side of those walls. And I don’t seem to be able to access them from the universe I live in now.
So, what do I have left? I mostly see her, sitting in an electric wheelchair, head slumped over. She died a mere silhouette of the beautiful, vibrant warrior goddess she personified for so many years. The last three years of her life did nothing but take; life, love, hopes, memories. I lost way more than the love of my life when she died. I lost our history, the family we created and the future we had dreamt about. I still have four wonderful children, even a grandchild, but the family we are now is a family with a gaping hole in the center.
I can’t even properly honor the good times we had. They’re ghosts flitting amongst the shadows in my mind. Behind me is a fortress where my past and my memories are locked away. I stride forward into a future that’s unknown, unknowable and I don’t even have access to my history to help guide me on my way. There was a battle fought in my past. I’m standing in an empty field with a bloody sword in my hand. I don’t know who I am, where I come from or which road leads home.
I’ve struggled for a long time to find a way to tell this story. I’ve talked with a lot of people with a history of trauma. Most of it was inflicted upon them by someone else. It seems to me that they all carry shields, and often swords, around with them. Understandably so. But nobody inflicted this pain upon me. And, unlike the phrase “everything that happens to you is a result of your own decisions” this isn’t a result of anything I chose. Neither is the trauma most people survive at the hands of another. It’s platitudes like that, that blame the victims. We don’t all control everything that ever happens to us. Life happens. It’s terminal. And if you think otherwise, go ahead and make the choice to live forever and never get sick. Let me know how that turns out for you.
Yes, I own my response to what happened. Insofar as I did what love, honor and the promise I made dictated that response. I’d do it again, without even a second thought. But I suspect the construction of that giant citadel behind me is to protect me. From memories that would make creating a new life much more difficult. I remember echos. Of a life that was easy. Nothing that has come since that world ended has been easy. If I remembered more, I suspect the road to a new, rich life would be impossible to find. No, the universe is protecting me by requiring me to take a different path through the wilderness that lies before me. One that can be filled with unforeseen triumphs from entirely unexpected directions. There is a path out there. Despite the darkness of many of my days, I know it’s there. I don’t have a map and I don’t have a compass. But I don’t have a past to hold me back either. All I get for this trip is my imagination and my fearlessness. And they are all I need. They’re all any of us really need. And THAT is the power of living in the NOW.
Thank you for reading.