We’ve all seen the choreographed synchrony of a trapeze performance. The ropes and fly bar are made to rock in dependable trajectories. The rhythm of motion is regular and the high wire artists sway in time with the music. It seems so easy and effortless. It’s a ballet of connections that play out in perfect synchrony. In reality it takes preparation and effort and practice. And even then it comes down to the ability to let go at the proper time and fall through the air with the expectation that something to grab onto will be there when you need it. I can’t think of a metaphor more apt for the stage I was about to embark upon.
This chapter has turned out to be the hardest to write. It’s an essential part of my story from the other side of “What if?”, detailing perhaps the biggest leap into the unknown I’ve made. Without it, the arc of my journey doesn’t deliver the full weight of sacrifice and redemption that were part of the process. These are difficult words to wrestle to the surface, and they are an essential part of this tale. In order to understand and appreciate the feeling of arrival that brings this entire story to a sense of closure, you have to know about the departure and separation that made it possible. You have to read of the breakup of my marriage.
I will try to do the story justice and lay enough groundwork for you to get a sense of where I was and where I needed to go. Pain and heartache were part of the process, and I don’t look forward to reliving those moments. It’s true that I did not come through it with my hands unbloodied. And though the players in this particular drama have survived the third act, I don’t think any of us are eager to take a bow for it. I can assure you that we’re in a good place today, and that’s not just my own assessment. But I want to tread lightly as I relate the history of how we got here. The action was pivotal to my growth and development. And yet, my role in it is not something I feel proud of talking about. What I shall say is simply, “This is what happened,” and let you take from it what you will.
I mentioned that once upon a time I identified myself a born again Christian. That religious upbringing had a significant impact on my view of how I saw my place on the planet. Instead of helping me function in this capricious and morally ambiguous world we inhabit, it made it possible for me to avoid confronting some of the things I should have confronted and to sidestep some of the growing up I needed to do. After four years in college neatly avoiding a lot of the challenges that usually accompany the final transition from “child of my parents” to “independent adult,” I found myself thrown into the great beyond without much of a game plan or much stomach for the uncertainty ahead. I can say that now looking back. I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time.
The idea comes to mind now having just spent a Christmas holiday season with my twin son and daughter who were home for the final winter break of their undergraduate careers. Seeing them as the young adults they’ve become, I remark privately to a friend how fresh and un-buffeted by life they are. I think about all the things I’ve lived through since my own graduation from college. The accomplishments and accolades. The limitations and the losses. The cancer. The herniated disc. The surgeries and recovery that went with them. The emotional pain and eventual catharsis. All these things are still awaiting my children. Grown up and capable they might be, I consider how they have little inkling what might be lying in wait for them just around the corner. I just want to wrap my arms around them and protect them from the turmoil and tragedy they still have to live through. But of course, I know that isn’t possible. Nor would it be wise. I remind myself that I had no clue when I was their age, and I came through it all fairly unscathed. Without the turmoil and tragedy you don’t get to experience the triumphs. Those toils that take their toll are the very events that shape us. They give us the scars that define us and confer the wisdom that is our reward. It’s not age that sets the older generation apart from the young. It’s the wealth of knowledge and insight we’ve accumulated. I watched my kids go through high school and college simultaneously picturing my own parallel adventures at that age. Now as they launch into the world more fully formed and more nearly prepared, I find myself instead looking on from afar from the further shore of experience. I was young and had much to learn when I was their age. I filled in a lot of the necessary blanks with the religion I was raised with. And when those beliefs didn’t add up and help make sense of my world, I looked for a companion who could.
She was smart and insightful and full of confidence. A voracious reader, she always seemed to have something to say about any topic. Her sister even used to kid her about having “fun facts to know and tell.” When our pre-school daughter would hold forth on some subject with a self-assurance that didn’t square with the mere handful of years she had been alive, her mother and I would smile and say, “Well, we know where she got that from!” It was a big, scary world I found myself in once my college years were over. Although I had very narrowly landed myself a position with a radio station in Chicago shortly before I graduated and my toehold on a career had been achieved, I still wasn’t sure how this life thing was supposed to operate. But I met a woman who seemed confident about having a clue. What’s more, she was more than willing to take on some of the challenges of dealing with the world and managing a household that I found too daunting. We fit together well. An ardent feminist who chafed at being a woman in a man’s world, she reveled in the responsibility and authority I was willing to give her. I in turn was thrilled that I didn’t have to wrestle with decisions about automobile purchases and mortgages and insurance policies and investments. I could be a creative spirit who got to play for a living while she seemed to enjoy managing the business of life. So I asked her to marry me, and she said, “Yes.”
It was a match that made perfect sense. In fact, it operated quite well for a number of years. Her strengths and interests nestled neatly with those corners of life I didn’t care to struggle with. At the same time, my growing success in my career provided her with a life that she enjoyed leading. But as I’m sure you know, we human beings are fated to grow. Hopefully toward a greater sense of who we are. My wife had suffered setbacks in her college years. The unexpected loss of her brother and the difficulties of managing her own education expenses with no help from her parents left her eager to put that phase of her life behind her. The support and encouragement of my relationship enabled her to confront those early tragedies and perceived failures and begin pursuing her own career dreams again. For my part, I also gained a partner who brought an adventurous streak to our intimacy that I had never encountered before, and along with that a willingness to applaud my own explorations into gender bending in the world of fashion and footwear. It was a good fit for a lot of reasons. It made sense to be with her. And considering the many things we accomplished together (including giving birth to and launching two amazing children into their own life trajectories), I have no regrets. This may be a story of “What if?”, but that life-changing question didn’t come into play until my kids were in middle school.
At that time, my wife had suggested that we should go into counseling to work on our marriage. She recognized that the spark had gone, and I had found myself content to wrap myself up in my career and being a parent. She made the case for not wanting the two of us to be empty nesters in a few years who discovered that they had nothing in common. Why not work on our relationship? Because I had gotten a lot out of private psychotherapy before, I was happy to agree. We spent several weeks sorting through the history of our marriage, but in actual fact, all we learned from our work was that we were already better at communicating with each other than most of our marriage counselor’s other clients. At the time, though, I did recognize that I felt blocked. I felt there was something I wanted to say that I couldn’t articulate or a road I wanted to take that I couldn’t pursue. Where was my passion? What were my goals? Where did I want to be? As these questions came up in our sessions, I felt face to face with a grey cinderblock wall. I simply couldn’t move forward. Was there something there to be worked on? I couldn’t tell. I just knew I was stuck.
And then one day, that changed.
I was working in my studio one afternoon, when the assistant program director forwarded an e-mail he’d gotten. It was from a woman who wondered if the person with my name who worked at this radio station was the same person with my name whom she had known back in high school. It was, in fact, an old girlfriend. We had really dug each other back in Oklahoma. It turned out that while I looked back on her as my favorite of all the teenaged girls I’d dated at the time, she looked back on me as her favorite boyfriend, too. We lived in an army town, and I didn’t realize at the time how the fact that her father was a colonel affected her prospects with most of the boys (sons of lesser ranking officers and enlisted men) that she went to school with. They dared not do anything to cross him. My father, by contrast, was a civilian. That meant that the army pecking order didn’t touch my life at all. And that made me quite appealing.
D. had gotten in touch with me simply because it was now possible. This was still years before Facebook, but the internet was making it easy to poke around to find people we used to know. She was curious what had happened to me, and I have to admit that she was a chapter in my own life that I still had wondered about. Back in high school, D. lived on the east side of town, and I went to high school on the west side. I had met her through a friend who was breathtakingly prolific at dating. To the tune of a different girl every couple of weeks. I don’t remember how she and I met, but I do recall clearly how much I loved holding her hand and smelling her fragrance (Love’s Fresh Lemon, for those of you who might remember it). And then there were all the nights spent “parking.” That’s really all we clean cut Christian kids did back then. Go see a movie. Maybe go to the drive-in for pop and a burger. Then find a quiet residential street or a deserted new subdivision and kill the engine and make out. It was all PG. I wouldn’t have earned at R rating, I assure you, though I had ample opportunity. (D. once told me about another high school friend of mine who was all hands the time she went out with him. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I merited even a PG. Hey, I was only 17. I was still young and inexperienced enough to feel shy about letting a girl feel how much she excited me.) Still, I was totally smitten with her. And somehow, in spite of my reserve, she did reckon me her favorite.
Until one day, a new boy arrived at her high school, a burly jock who filled out his letter jacket handsomely and went by the name of Bubba. Who knows what goes through the minds of teenagers? I remember D. enjoying the attention Bubba paid her. I remember thinking she seemed more interested in returning that attention than enjoying mine. It seemed time to stop calling her. No more movies. No more drive-ins. No more “parking.” We broke up around the end of my junior year. And since she was clear on the other side of town, it was easy for me to fall out of her orbit and drift into dating somebody else. There was a letter or two that got sent once we’d both reached college, but then D. moved out to California and got hooked up with the movie industry, and I completely lost contact.
Until that e-mail arrived at my radio station. It turned out that she remembered our break up differently. She didn’t recall Bubba’s advances meaning all that much to her. Instead, she was hurt and confused by the fact that I didn’t want to see her anymore. She looked back on our time together quite fondly and often wished we could have gotten together again. After all these years, she still wondered what had happened to me. And I had to admit, it had crossed my mind occasionally, too. So we struck up a conversation online. I told her about my life and my career, and she told me about hers. And then something unexpected happened in the course of our back and forth exchanges. She and her children were settling in with husband No. 3 so I wasn’t getting the vibe that she had designs on me. But as I wrote about my love of discovering new music through my radio station and the ability to go backstage at some amazing live concerts and the thrill of meeting my musical heroes and heroines as part of my job and the audio projects I had worked on for broadcast locally and nationally and the many places that my creativity had taken me and the many things I had accomplished, I found myself getting very excited. I was seeing myself through her eyes. And I was really liking what I was seeing. It felt as though the electricity had just been turned on and there were lights and sounds I had never experienced before. Had the sky always been this brilliant shade of blue? Had flowers always smelled this heartbreakingly fragrant? Why were all these songs I’d been listening to for years suddenly making me want to cry? Could it be I was getting an inkling of what falling in love could be like? I was getting a taste of something I didn’t know was out there, emotions I didn’t know were possible. And I clearly wanted more.
[On the feet here as I blog: it was wet in Chicago all day, and the clouds burst in the middle of the afternoon. The proprietary plastic of the Loving from Melissa was a perfect choice fo the inclement weather. I'm just happy I didn't do my usual thing and inadvertently wear suede shoes on a rainy day. Instead, those ubiquitous Litas from Jeffrey Campbell got taken for a spin. Thanks to the shoe lifts in the rear, I can last an entire day in them even though they're a smide tight on my toes.]