|dan (67) myron (1) rich (61) shiloh (4) :: Contact|
Wed, 30 Sep 2009
What is the appropriate kind of relationship to have with people from your past, with whom you were once close but have subsequently lost contact?
Given the popularity of social networking web sites like Facebook, it is virtually certain these days that people you once knew but of whom you have long ago lost track will suddenly pop up out of the blue, asking if you remember them and requesting that you be their "friend". Sometimes these missives are amusing. Sometimes they are unexpected pleasures. Sometimes (well, probably often) they are unwanted and awkward intrusions into your life. But yet, they come, and we who participate in such schemes have to be prepared for them. And likewise, we social networkers also have to be prepared for those who we find there, and to decide what to do about the old friends we may come across there.
So it was with me recently, when, quite unexpectedly, my old flame, Beth, turned up on the Internet after my having lost track of her for more than twenty years. Former lovers are certainly a special and more difficult case of the general question about appropriate relationships, and, to me, Beth is no exception.
I suppose the first question which needs to be answered is why do I feel so strongly about Beth in the first place? After all, we were only together for about three years, and that was thirty years ago, when we were both much younger and a bit less jaded then we might be now. For me, the answer is simple -- Beth was the first person who loved me as I was, for myself, warts and all. (The members of one's family do the same, of course, but that is more or less required and doesn't count in this sense.) My relationship with Beth was not a schoolyard crush or mindless infatuation, but my first experience of a relationship based on real love. And I'm reasonably sure it was the same kind of relationship for her. We were young and in very much in love, and in my youthful naiveté, I thought I had managed that rare emotional hole-in-one, finding the person and the relationship which would carry me through the rest of my life on the very first try.
But such was not to be. I've recounted the story of how our relationship deteriorated and eventually ended in other postings on this site. Much to my dismay, Beth left me. While I was distraught about it for a long time, eventually I did move on with my own life; Beth obviously had moved on with hers. Against all expectation, I managed to fall in love again with another beautiful and intelligent woman, April. We had a long-term relationship, but eventually, due to an awkward combination of circumstances, we went our separate ways (more about that below). And again, after another period of singledom, I met yet another beautiful and bright woman; we fell in love, and we were married a few years later (to my everlasting delight, we still are). Married life being what it is, and with the arrival of my children and the responsibilities that come with helping to raise a family, I had very little time to think about old flames like Beth. She was a wonderful memory, but that was about all.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, I stumbled across Beth on the Internet -- I found out her name (she had been married twice, which helped explain why I had had such difficulty finding her earlier), where she lived (I knew the general area fairly well), and even managed to glean some sense of the details of her current life (including pictures of her husband and what I believe was her son).
So now what should I do?
My first, impulsive urge, was to print out directions from Google Maps, hop into my car, and drive up to her house at the first opportunity. Just why I would want to do that wasn't clear to me at the time: did I want to see her house? Her car? Her? All of these? (Although I have to say that the possibility of seeing her in person was at once incredibly alluring and utterly terrifying.) This would not be like the drive-bys I had done all those years ago when Beth and I were breaking up -- her house was several hours away, not tens of minutes distant. It was not a trip I could take stealthily or surreptitiously. But the idea nagged at me, and the more it nagged at me, the harder I thought about it, trying to understand why I would even want to do such a thing.
After a lot of thought and introspection, I don't have a definitive answer, but I do have some questions I've asked myself which indicate to me the direction in which the answer to that question lies. The most frequent of these questions is, "What do you think you'll see?" Now of course, if I were to drive to Beth's home I can't predict exactly what I would see (an aerial photo preview of the address obtained on TerraServer notwithstanding). But deep down, I am forced to admit to myself that I hope that, regardless of the specifics, when I see where and how Beth is living now, I would mentally compare it to where and how I am living now, and I would find her current circumstances wanting. I am a little ashamed to admit it, and I am more than a little perplexed to find myself hoping for such an outcome. But it's true. Perhaps that's some unresolved anger over her having dumped me all those years ago. After all, the guy she left me for was no great prize, intellectually or otherwise; the only thing he had going for him was that here was there with her, and I, being away at college, could not be.
Of course, the other possibility was equally disquieting in its own way -- what if I compared her circumstances to mine and found she was better off than I am? In an absolute, materialistic sense, would that justify her decision to ditch me all those years ago? Would she be better off without me? Even without trying to spin out all the consequences of this It's A Wonderful Life type of scenario, I quickly realized that I did not really want to know if that were so.
Finally, what would I really learn by doing such a nonsensical thing? The more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer -- nothing. Nothing of any real consequence, anyway. Even a superficial glance at her outward circumstances wouldn't tell me anything truly important about Beth's life, and whether or not she had eventually found real happiness in her life. Compared to that, all the rest were just the outward limbs and flourishes of what truly matters in life.
So I nixed the idea of actually driving up to her house. But there were other possibilities that also ran through my mind.
The next idea I had was to contact her. I had come across Beth on Facebook, and, for a while after I had, I toyed with the idea of asking her to be a Facebook friend (although I still think having to put things that way sounds childish, so Third Grade). But quite unexpectedly, she suddenly dropped off of Facebook just a few weeks after I found her. Naturally I assumed that she had been using one of those disallowed but still widespread "who's searching for you" Facebook programs, saw my name pop up in the list during a periodic check, and promptly blocked me from viewing her page again. But I asked a couple of trusted friends to do a little searching on their own, and they couldn't find her either, so it was more likely that she abandoned Facebook entirely for some reason.
But in the course of my researches, I had managed to ferret out her home address. Beth and I used to be world-class letter writers, exchanging missives several times a week starting when I left for college. (In fact, that was one of the ways I subconsciously realized that she was losing interest in me was that her letters came less and less often, and eventually stopped.) But what do you write to a former lover after an interregnum of more than twenty years? "Hi there. Long time no see. Here's what I've been doing. What have you been up to? How's your life been? Write back if you have a chance. Regards,"
Again, the more I thought about writing, a similar question kept coming back into my head: what did I expect to find out? Suppose she felt inclined to reply at all -- what would I do when I read it? Would I be parsing each sentence and analyzing each choice of word or phrase to try to compare her life to mine, to try to see if she would have been better or worse off without me? When I realized that was probably the case, it did make it seem like a petty and hollow thing to do.
(But I must admit being disappointed to not be able to use an opening paragraph which I have been polishing in the back of my mind for years, if I ever felt inclined to write to Beth again: I have no doubt that if and when you recognized the handwriting on the envelope, you probably felt like someone who had just gotten an unexpected letter with "Internal Revenue Service" in its return address, and you said to yourself, "Oh God, I know what this is." The only difference is that, sooner or later, one has to take notice of the IRS.)
So I had one last idea -- sending Beth a birthday present. On her next birthday, Beth would turn fifty. For her twenty-fifth birthday, I had gotten her a rather fine bottle of champagne, and now I was thinking I could send her a similar kind of present for her fiftieth. After all, even more than turning twenty-five, a person's fiftieth birthday should be rather prominently observed.
Of course, I then started to agonize about just what a suitable present would be, under the circumstances. The memory of the champagne (which was apparently quite well received) got me thinking about a vintage wine or cognac laid down in the same year Beth was born. But after a few rounds of searching on the Internet, and a visit to a very informed wine shop owner my sister knows, I realized that bottles of any kind of fifty year old wine of any decent quality would probably be horribly beyond what I could reasonably afford. I even considered trying to track down a bottle of fifty year old balsamic vinegar, but decided not to pursue it when I thought that she might not enjoy it -- you'd really have to be into cooking to enjoy it, and who knew?
But then I started to think about the notion of sending Beth a birthday present from a different perspective -- her husband's. How would I feel about it if I was in his place, and on my wife's fiftieth birthday, she opened a (somewhat extravagant) present which turned out to be from an old flame? When I thought about how that would make me feel, it was pretty obvious to me that this was not a smart thing to attempt to do.
Having disposed of my visceral responses to coming across Beth once again, I was left with only more intellectual attempts to rationalize wanting to see her again. And the only one that managed to make any sense to me was to try to assuage my feelings of mortality. Having turned fifty myself last year, I find myself realizing for the first time in my life that there are clearly fewer days ahead than there are behind. I haven't seen Beth in more than twenty years -- when, if ever, will I have an opportunity to see her again? Knowing that if I did see her again, it would almost certainly be for the last time, I found myself deep in a state of melancholy. Human beings have a powerful need for saying goodbyes, and I am no exception. I never really got the chance to do so with Beth -- probably out of my misguided hopes of getting her back someday. I want to tell her that she was my first love and will always be special to me -- that I long ago forgave how she treated me during our breakup -- and to wish her all good things, and then say goodbye. If I ever do see Beth again, that's why I would go and what I would do. It seems like the only right thing to do.
I did mention April, the second of the three women I have truly loved in my life. And she is also not an unknown quantity to me. Certainly she was far less difficult for me to find once I thought to look.
Unlike Beth, April was not living a life of stealth far off the radar. In fact, about a year ago, the sudden thought came into my head one day as I was meandering around the Internet on Google that I should Google April's name and see what came up. And low and behold, up came several references. She even had a set of personal web pages, which I naturally clicked to immediately. And on a link named "Family", up came a page full of photos of April, her husband, and her kids. There was no doubt that this was the same April I once knew. And I felt similar feelings as I did later upon finding Beth on Facebook -- I wanted to see her again.
But some additional explanation is in order here. As I have mentioned before, April came into my life as Beth was moving out of it, and in a very real sense, she saved my life. I wasn't suicidal or anything, but I was depressed, and was convinced that no one would ever love me again. Fortunately, April did not believe that, and, with reserves of patience and compassion which to this day I still cannot fully fathom, she took pity on me, worked incredibly hard to help me, and eventually fell in love with me. And I, beyond all expectation, found myself in love with her. We made each other very happy, and life was good again.
We were together for several years, but the circumstances under which we split up were very different from those with Beth. To make a long story short, because of a mix-up regarding birth control, not terribly long after a particularly exciting and passionate night of sex, April discovered that she was pregnant.
I am not very proud of what happened next. I was just getting established in my career at work, and April had just graduated from college not long before; she was looking for a position using her newly minted degree in Religious Studies. Now everything was all jumbled up with the baby on the way.
I was ashamed of getting April pregnant, and didn't want anyone to know about it -- least of all my parents. I could only imagine their disapproval and disappointment. I knew that marrying April was the "honorable" thing to do, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Shortly after finding out she was pregnant, she announced to me that if I wasn't going to marry her, she thought it would be best to move out and be on her own. I was devastated at that, and, not thinking clearly about the subject anyway, I also didn't react well to what I perceived as her giving me an ultimatum. It wasn't really like that, of course, but by paying more attention to my fears than to my heart, I thought that's what she was doing.
So April moved into her own apartment, and I supported her financially as best I was able. I even took Lamaze classes with her, and, when the time came, I helped her with the birth of our son, Michael. He was a wonderful baby, and I spent time with him and April as often as I could. Then one day, when Michael was about a year old, April told me that she had found a job as a religious educator -- in a parish in central Florida. She accepted the job, and, again, gave me what I perceived as an ultimatum, but was really a last chance to do the right thing -- would I marry her and move to Florida? Fear and stubbornness once again got the better of me, and I declined. I helped April pack her things, and cried like Michael when she said goodbye to me and went off to live her own life without me.
A year or two later, I got a letter from April telling me that she was getting married, and enclosing papers for me to relinquish any legal rights to Michael and permit her and her husband-to-be to adopt him. In the last expression of my mixed-up thinking about the whole thing, I replied that I would not sign the papers; it was not necessary; I would not make any trouble for her, her husband, or Michael. (I suspect their lawyer showed my letter to the judge in lieu of the proper forms, as the adoption proceeded forthwith anyway.) And, like Beth, April and Michael went off to live their own lives, and I went on to live mine. (I can't feel entirely bad about it, though, because I did end up meeting and marrying my wife, which I wouldn't have traded for anything.)
So now here's April, and there's even a photo of Michael on her "Family" page. Fortunately, he favors his mother's looks, not mine -- but I do see an unmistakable resemblance to myself in him. They are now living in Ohio, more than twice as far from me as Beth is. And all the same kinds of questions run through my head again -- should I try to see her? Contact her? There are also new questions: what about Michael? How is he? Does he know anything about me? Would he be at all interested in meeting me?
I think again about all this from April's husband's perspective, and as with Beth, I quickly conclude that imposing myself on April and Michael is not a good idea. They have their lives, and I have mine (FYI, my wife and kids do know about Michael). I don't want to make waves or disrupt anything.
But I do have one thought that keeps the idea turning over in my mind -- and again, that's the thought of my own mortality. I think I would like Michael to see me in person, to get to know me just a little. I certainly would like to know more about him, and what sort of young man he has become. I would like to tell April how proud I am of what she was able to do as a young single mother. I would like to apologize to her for my cowardice and stupidity, and for making things much harder than they should have been for her and Michael.
And I would like to say goodbye to both of them.
We all have a need for closure in our relationships, especially if we separate on less than friendly terms. Unresolved feelings and unanswered questions may just be an unavoidable part of life, but that doesn't mean it's wrong to try to resolve them. I have loved only three women in my life, and I would like to live out the rest of my days knowing that, with the first two of them, we had answered the unanswered questions, said what we needed to say to each other, and come to terms with our time together and our lives apart.