Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Two Loves of My Life

Most people are fortunate to have one "love of their life". Sadly, many people either don't, or fail to recognize it when the person crosses their life's path. I have the extraordinary blessing of having two.

Now, most people might assume that I mean my wife and my daughter. No, I mean it literally: I've had two women who have lifted my heart higher than the sky is high. I'm married to one of them; the second. Yet, without the first, the second would never have happened. And I'm still desperately in love with both of them.

No doubt, you're confused already. Most people have that reaction.... The conventional theory is that once you meet that special person and get married, you're not supposed to have feelings like that for anyone else, ever again. Anything before then isn't supposed to count anymore, having been swept away by the tidal wave of of meeting Mr./Ms. Right. To a great degree, of course, that's true; once you've made the solemn pledges of marriage to another person, then they should not be violated. You've promised to be true to that person, and you should do your utmost to honor it no matter how hard it may be.

(Of course, there are relationships that were never really meant to be; some, at the start, and some, things down the road aren't what anyone thought they'd be. I don't mean to cast aspersions or judgment on those situations. It is sad, though, even when it's the right thing to do)

But does that mean that you should no longer be true to other people? Is the human heart so small that it can't accommodate more love than just a few people, as defined by the questionable norms of our society? And what about honoring the truth? Is it right to lie to yourself and everybody else about your deepest and most important feelings?

I say "no" to all of them. While no one can accuse me of being a "normal person" (whatever that actually means), I've had some excellent teachers in my life, who taught me that if I ever find myself looking at a line that puts a limit on love, to erase it and then walk right past it. Absolutely, my wife is the chief of them, and there is no way that I'm worth the amount of unconditional love that she lavishes on me. Fortunately, she's never asked me to be worth it. But this story isn't about her. It's about the first love of my life.

Once upon a time, I was in an honors history series at ye alma mater. A collection of delightfully brainy and diverse people, and very different from most of the history classes you probably recall from your school days: this one was highly interesting. No, really! At the start of the year, I hung out on the back of the small class with the other resident inveterate smartass in the group. We liked to think that our "contributions" added to the valuable educational experience that we'd paid a lot of money for the privilege of acquiring. The instructor had a sense of humor, too; once, he allowed my cohort and I to present a mock paper on how Luxembourg started World War II (and how do you know that it didn't?). As in any class, some people were more outspoken than others. Don't we all have a tendency to notice the quieter ones less? Well, I can tell you that doing so can be a big mistake. Fortunately, I wasn't completely clueless.

Up near the front was a girl who was pretty shy. She had a soft voice, and tended to huddle over her note-taking. Indeed, at first I didn't notice her; I was too busy deconstructing major figures in history, who fully had it coming anyway.

And then she started speaking up. Invariably, what she said or asked was amazingly perceptive and caught the whole class off guard because we completely overlooked the point. THEN I noticed her, and the bells went off in my head: "BRILLIANT!" I have always had a severe weakness for brainy chicks. Having caught my attention, other things registered; everyone has a list of qualities that they tend to find the most attractive, yes? She registered hit after hit: Brunette? Check. Lithe build? Check. Athletic, in fact. About 5' 7"? Dead on. Dark eyes? Yep. A "natural" girl who doesn't wear a lot of makeup? Totally. By the time I'd gotten through studying her, she'd managed to have every quality on my list. Yeah, too good to be true, but there she was. I became so utterly smitten, I was rendered speechless. For months. Me, the Irish-American, one justly accused of practically never not having something to say, whether anyone really wanted to hear it or not. But I couldn't get myself to go talk to her. What an idiot! My smartassed partner took great glee in ragging on me about it, while also being a good friend and trying to get me to take a bloody risk! And yet, I just couldn't approach her. Not because I had some unrealistic delusion that she was a goddess and perfect; mainly, I'd never felt that way before and hadn't the slightest idea of what to do about it.

Inch by scary inch, I got closer. I abandoned the heckling gallery in the back and started gradually moving my seat closer to her. First to the side so I could study her more; then, right behind her. I got more irresistibly drawn to her every class. Now I was in love with the back of her head, her neck, the way she breathed, and especially, the graceful movement of her hands. Still, my pathetic inertia held; I just didn't know how to say "hello" to someone I was already in love with. Time flipped between dragging and flying so fast that sometimes, I nearly panicked. It had taken me the entire first quarter just to move into her proximity! But.... I was still speechless and terrified. We passed through the second quarter, into the THIRD quarter. I knew that I had to break my paralyzed condition, or I might never see her again. Well, I had nothing. Nothing! So, in desperation, I played my "Weird Card". I tapped her on the shoulder and said "Excuse me. There's a lizard on your shoulder." "YOU IDIOT!!" I said to myself. Why did I say something that strange? She turned around and looked at me, peering a bit sideways through her glasses (God help me, I even have a thing for chicks with glasses). She looked down at her shoulder, where there was no lizard, of course. She looked back up at me, and I was sure that I was doomed. Doomed! And then lightning struck; she said "What's its name?" When I started to breathe again, I said "Leto", a glancing reference to Frank Herbert's Dune series. She caught it. So, I then theorized that we should go out and get some coffee and maybe see what else was crawling on her shoulder. I was in love with that shoulder.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was completely bonkers for this girl, and finally, I'd broken the ice. Since this story is entirely too long already, I'll jump ahead to the point where we were both very, very much in love with each other. A summer filled with letters flying back and forth.... I still have every one of them. Then, back on campus in the fall, and the happiest time that I'd ever had in my life.

She elected to go off on one of the university's foreign study programs the next term. I frantically tried to talk her out of it, because I couldn't bear the thought of being separated. She was nonetheless determined, and off she went. The letters then began to fly the Atlantic. Sometimes, we sent each other cassette tapes to talk to one another, since the phone rates were obscene. I missed her terribly, but things seemed fine.

Until the day that "that" tape arrived. Unusually, it was red plastic in a red box. On it, she said that she was afraid of the intensity of our feelings for one another, and that she felt that she should end the relationship. We were all of 19, and she said that she thought I was "Mr. Right".... Five years from then. In the meantime, she felt overwhelmed.

I was devastated down to the core. At the beginning, I'd had no idea how to deal with being in love, real love, with another person. Now, I had no idea of what to do without her. I'd long since lost my ability to see my life without her; now it seemed like I'd lost my ability to see my life at all.

Naturally, there is much to tell in between, but I did my best to lock the love and the broken heart away. Two years later, I met the second love of my life. Like the first time, I was blind-sided and never saw it coming. This time, it was different; I did know how to handle having my heart & soul invaded and conquered. That's another story, and a good one in its own right. This time, we held on to one another, and have had for 24 years. No regrets, ever. Still, there was that part of me locked tightly away; since I never figured out how to handle the hurt and the grief, I did what we so often do: I buried it under layers of denial.

Flash forward 15 years. I was talking to a friend I'd made while working on an artistic project, and somehow, we got onto the subject of my Lost Love. This friend has some inexplicable qualities of perception. She quizzed me further and further, and eventually extracted from me the story I've told so far. Then, for reasons I have yet to fathom, she asked me what I'd done with the tape. I answered that, well, I still had it. She said "You still have it? WHY? Do you listen to it?" "No," I said, "I've only ever listened to it that once." I didn't know why I'd kept it myself.

Upon that, her tone changed completely. "I want you to bring me that tape!" she said insistently. I asked her why in the world I should do that? She replied "Because you're going to listen to it, whether you like it or not!" Don't ask me why in the hell I complied, but bring it I did. She sat me down, put the tape in a player, and pressed "Start". The inability to breathe returned with a vengeance. The leader passed with a hiss, and the soft voice that I hadn't heard in so long came once again to my ears, saying the words I couldn't bear to hear. I was furious at my friend for convincing me to do this, but she physically stopped me from getting out of my chair. Away the layers of "protection" began to peel, one by one, past the barriers I'd erected to protect myself, past the anger, past the hurt, finally shedding the tears I was too broken to have shed before, past the shadow of time that had passed. Back came the image and persona of the girl I'd loved so much, and lost.

Back with it came the truth. A truth that I'd never expected.

I was still in love with her! Nothing that had happened had changed that, and apparently nothing could. The pain of the loss was steamrolled and destroyed by the power of the love that was more true than all of the rest. It wasn't a matter of forgiving her for hurting me; it simply no longer mattered!

I took the tape home, and placed it in the fire pit in my back yard, and consigned it to the flames. Its power was gone, its use fulfilled, and it had no more place in my life.

NOW what? I'd lost track of her. There was no thought of flying out of my marriage and trying to "pick up where we left off"; not at all. I simply wanted to find her, and hear that voice again. It wasn't all that hard; she being the very exceptional person that she is, I soon found her. We began e-mailing one another, and the level of good friendship that we'd had for about fifteen minutes in the old days before we both went completely insane, was re-established. But somehow, we never spoke on the phone, and I didn't get to hear the voice. One reason was that being such an accomplished person, she was very busy. She was also married and had two children. "Lucky bastard!" I thought. "He'd better be good enough for her, that's all I've got to say!" It was very good to have her back in my life, but there was something always hanging over my head: the truth. I felt like I was being dishonest by not telling her about what had happened and what I'd uncovered in the time between. However, I felt that it was something that I'd have to say in person; I didn't want her to misunderstand, and I didn't want her to run off thinking that I was out of my mind. I was out of my mind, of course, but the truth was the truth. Is the truth. But, she lived a thousand miles away. How was I ever going to deal with this conundrum? I'd finally learned that love isn't something to be locked up, thrown away, or kept to oneself. Certainly, one needs to keep a healthy perspective and know the proper boundaries for any relationship; many people run into trouble there. I didn't want to. I'd learned and grown in the years since. More Truth: I realized that once I came to love someone, it was permanent. The "dreaded tape" proved it beyond a doubt; I suppose that my buried feelings explains why I'd never let go of it. I had no earthly idea how much I would need it some day. The reason that I don't have the ability (or desire) to withhold love is its wellspring; it comes from a Source with an unquenchable love for all.

It all changed in the last few days. I crossed most of those thousand miles to come to my sister's wedding; she'd found her Love of Her Life, and what could be better? I'd told my lost love that I'd be in the area, and she theorized that we could get together. She wanted to.

And then she called me here to see about making it happen. The voice! Still with the gentle tones I remembered, but matured and strengthened from speaking to classes of young, brilliant minds. Mine had changed, too, but she said she knew it right away; now, though, it was more resonant and more powerful. Years of vocal training and performance had become a part of me.

We made arrangements to meet halfway between, which required me to take two commuter train rides. The plans changed, as I've been ill with a persistent infection for months, and she felt that it would be better if she drove down on the appointed day. That was very generous of her, because she'd have to travel through hellacious traffic.

That day was today.

I'm house & cat-sitting for the newlyweds. I waited. And waited. The knocker on the door sounded. "Breathe, dammit!" I said to myself, and for once didn't fool around and delay, and opened the door. After 25 years, there she was. We'd both changed, of course, and time is nagging the both of us. No matter; I opened the screen door, took her hand and pulled her inside, and immediately hugged her for all I was worth. She started to say little things like "Hello", but I held on and said "Shh! I'm being happy!"

We'd planned on going to a museum neither of us had ever been to, but that got shot down as soon as I started talking. As you might guess from the way that I write, that pretty much killed the idea of going to the museum. We talked for a bit about the important things in our lives, and I reveled at finally being in the same room with her again. Her eyes still spoke the same language. Finally, I stopped and said that I needed to change the subject. And I related the whole story of how she'd affected my life, and strangely felt no tension or worry. I simply told her the truth.

"I still love you, I'm still IN love with you, and I have no capacity to ever stop."

There it was, spoken at last. While a lot of the details of the story and my perceptions (a lot of which I'd never told her, like how I'd come to love every beautiful detail of her. She'd had no idea) were news to her.... She wasn't actually all that surprised! I guess I'm not very good at hiding behind "normal conversation", even in e-mails. More to the point, she understood. No, she doesn't feel the same way about me, and that's perfectly all right. Love has many degrees, and she still has a generous measure for me. What was important was that due honor was paid to both her and to the truth, and that there was nothing left unsaid anymore. Like I've said, she's an extraordinary person, as she's always been, and accepted what she'd already owned anyway. It wasn't for me to keep to myself.

The story of this wonderful day doesn't take the turn that a lot of people might suppose. It didn't turn into anything improper; I was never after that and wouldn't insult her by even suggesting it (though I do find her just as beautiful and attractive as I ever have). It wasn't a secret from anyone. Certainly, I haven't told everyone all about her, but my wife has always known all about her. I never hid the truth about how I'd felt about my first love, and they did, in fact, briefly meet in the alma mater days. Not surprisingly, they have a lot in common. Both are extraordinary people whom I'm lucky to have in my life. My wife is more than perceptive enough to have known all along about the feelings I'd locked up "for my own safety". Surprise! There's no jealousy involved. My wife knows that the feelings I have for each of them really don't have anything to do with one another. Therein lies another unusual quality that they share: they don't put limits on the ability and need to love other people, and they both have enormous quantities of trust and understanding. Right before I began this story, I sent my wife an e-mail (I wasn't being lame, I can't call her at work due to the nature of her job) and told her all about it. She's very happy for me, because she loves me, and knows me, and understands what it meant to me to hug the "long-lost" back into my life.

Today will always be one of the happiest days of my life. I rest secure in the love and care of the second love of my life, who is "second" to no one. And the first love of my life, I finally have back. Not in the way it might once have been, but in her words, "This is what was supposed to happen today." What a splendid gift it has been to know and love her. And my soul soars knowing that the gift will still be given to me tomorrow, and the rest of my life. I wish I could take some credit for taking the chance of speaking up, but really? Love and Truth are both far more powerful than I am. As for me, I am one extremely fortunate person. I'll not forget that. Not ever. Like I said, I've had superlative teachers; maybe my best quality is that I learned from them, both the corporeal and the mystic. Maybe I'm not completely hopeless, after all.

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