We sat in front of the doctor as he gave us the news. “You don’t need any more tests, you have ALS. I’m very sorry.” he said as he rose from his stool. “I’ll leave you now. If you have any questions, please contact my office.”
We’d been through half a dozen doctors. Visited three separate neurologists. And after over a year of searching we now had an answer as to why wife’s right hand was becoming a useless appendage. It wasn’t good news.
Do you want a successful life?
Have you planned for EVERY conceivable contingency? Because if you’ve missed one, that’s the one that will bite you in the ass.
I planned for every one I could imagine. Or so I thought. I carried a million dollar life insurance policy. On myself. Because I thought I’d die long before my wife. And she would need the resources to successfully raise our four children. But I never really considered that she might get sick and die first. And long before those kids were all grown up.
I put a lot of money away for retirement too. Because my wife couldn’t. And I figured she’d need that if she were going to have the time and resources to be a proper grandmother in her later years. Truly, I never even considered that I would be the only one to get a chance to be a grandparent.
But here I am. Financially free after a lifetime of trying to make sure the people I love would have a chance when I was gone. And I AM successful. In most ways.
But I lost the one person who gave meaning to success in my life. And that’s something you can’t plan for, no matter how smart and capable you might be. Real success doesn’t come from anything you achieve in life. It comes from the people you love and the gift of love they give back. If you lose one of them, you have to start all over again. And you’ll be way poorer than any lack of money could ever make you.
If we’re lucky, we get the opportunity to love a lot of different people in our lives. Parents, children, one or more spouses, lots of friends. And then there are the romantic liaisons that for one reason or another just don’t quite end up happily ever after.
Some end clearly. There’s a moment of “we need to talk”, possibly a complete surprise to one party, but it at least puts everything out in the open. A conversation follows and decision is made. The relationship becomes part of each person’s past. There’s pain, but it’s like ripping a band-aid off, sharp and startling but it’s usually over fairly quickly.
Then there’s the loss from death. I loved my wife. Like I will never love another in this lifetime. But when she died, the relationship came to a natural end. An end that is clear and delineated. There’s closure. I’ll always miss her in my life but moving on is like pulling away from a stoplight. Everything has changed, but the past is behind me. The pain is unique and long lasting (likely life long) but you at least know why it ended.
Some aren’t quite so cut and dried.
I walked down the street from the bar with the rain beading up on my glasses. And I pondered, as I have several times over the past few months, why it was that I still couldn’t quite get over her. Just as I will always love that beautiful dark haired Italian woman from thirty years ago.
I realized it was because the relationships never came to a coherent conclusion. There was no point in time where there was a clear signal that this was over. And I think it’s because the love didn’t really end. The relationship just didn’t work in the context of each partner’s lives. Maybe the timing was wrong. Or maybe there just wasn’t a way to rationalize each person’s values with the other’s. Despite the love, two people sometimes just don’t fit together.
I think most of us have one or more relationships that end in this fashion. I suspect it’s how most marriages that end in divorce come to their final conclusion. The love doesn’t actually go away. Someone cheats, or finds they just don’t feel that same passion. Maybe the kids grow up and that glue that held everything together just sort of dissolves. There are as many reasons as there are couples who split up. But there was love there once. And I suspect it’s still there. The relationship just can’t survive the new reality.
This pain fades slowly. In fact it’s actually grief. But a different form of grief, because the party that is central to the pain is is still alive. Often, I think, the grief morphs into anger. Possibly, for some, it runs through all five of the stages of grief, although that hasn’t been my experience. For me, there’s always just been a profound sense of disappointment. It’s a failure. And I don’t deal well with failure at all.
I guess what I’m really getting at is, it sucks. Sometimes life just doesn’t give us the answers that we seek. Nowhere is that more plain than in relationships between people.
One day I’ll undoubtedly find myself with another love interest. But those two relationships will always be behind a door in my heart that I can’t quite close.
I’d never even heard his name before. I was sixteen years old and starting my first “real” job. I’d be doing odd jobs at a golf course. Mowing, raking leaves, “whipping” the greens every morning, oh, and dodging golf balls. Greg was at least fifteen years older than I. He rode a motorcycle. He smoked (not just tobacco, either) and did pretty much any other substance he could get his hands on. He was almost certainly the most intellectually eager human being I had ever met.
I grew up in a mountain town of about five hundred souls. Deep history. But not a whole lot of intellectual curiosity. There were plenty of smart people around. They regularly kicked my ass academically. But there just wasn’t much passion for the unknown. I’m kind of a big question guy. I don’t so much care what the answer is, I just want new questions. Preferably questions nobody has ever before answered to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Greg was my very first introduction to philosophy (my wife would become my ultimate partner in those endeavors).
But here, for what seemed like the first time in my life, I found someone who spent their time thinking the same kinds of thoughts I had always entertained. Thoughts that went beyond “how do I fix this carburetor?” or “will I have a date on Saturday night?”. Here was someone with adventure woven into his soul.
He’d left home right after high school. Spent the last two years of the Vietnam war on an army base in Germany. When he returned to the states he took diving lessons and worked for a couple of years in the Gulf of Mexico doing underwater welding. He traveled all over the country taking on jobs that made him just enough money to get by while he tried to figure out what life was all about. At one point, he found himself in Wyoming working as a roughneck on an oil rig. When that tour ended, he hopped on his Yamaha SR500 and made a beeline for home. Over twenty hours of riding, stopping for nothing but fuel. He was around forty years old and had spent most of the last twenty years on the road. He had a lot of stories to tell and I sat in rapt attention listening to him.
Greg was a student. Not a formal academic, but rather someone who had never stopped learning. He could spend hours discussing the ins and outs of Eastern religion or with a flip of the subject, the mechanics of rebuilding a motorcycle transmission. He defined “Renaissance Man” to me. He knew something about almost everything and was one of those “most interesting men in the world” types.
But life in what Western culture had become bored Greg silly. Like most people with half a brain, a bit of compassion, and a taste for adventure, capitalism represented subjugation and exploitation. It just wasn’t a game he wanted to play. He’d grown up with money and saw the single-minded pursuit of it as something of a moral failing. The fact that all of Western culture had become enslaved to its pursuit had left him more than a little distressed and depressed.
My friend died young. Not in a noble way either. He didn’t kill himself. The end was as forlorn as his view of the world had become. He was run over by a car in whiteout conditions on a cold winter’s night in his hometown. The driver of the car never saw him and his family declined to press charges. It was simply an accident that nobody could have foreseen.
I met my wife about a year after Greg was killed. And to be honest, he didn’t cross my mind much over the years. Like so many of our early relationships, we had just sort of drifted apart. Twenty four years later though, on one of the darkest nights my soul has ever known, this man came to me in a dream.
It was a late December night, about a month after Liz had died. I hadn’t really gotten a decent night’s sleep in about three years. There was something otherworldly about everything since my universe had come to an end on the Monday before Thanksgiving. This particular night I had already been visited by my father (who had passed away twenty-two years previously).
Here, in the pre-dawn hours, I found myself straddling a motorcycle on an empty road. I looked to my right and Greg sat there, on the very SR500 Yamaha he had ridden all those years before. He wore the same blanket lined denim jacket and Marlboro Man mustache he had always sported. He grinned at me, laughed out loud, gunned the engine and took off. I chased him, across the flats and up over the hill. The last thing I saw before I woke up was the taillight of that Yamaha going around the bend in front of me. I was strangely comforted by this visit from a nearly forgotten specter of my past. He hadn’t said a word and yet he told me all I needed to hear.