Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The hour of lead

"Well I don't know if I can open up and let you in, here come those tears, here come those tears again."

Last February I wrote a post about Claire Bidwell Smith and her memoir, The Rules of Inheritance. I had checked it out of the library and read it in two days, riveted both by her prose and by her story.

Both of Claire's parents were diagnosed with cancer when Claire was 14. She ws just 18 when she lost her mom to colon cancer. Her father was successfully treated for prostate cancer but later had a recurrence and died when Claire was 25. In her memoir Claire wrote about her the ways she coped (and didn't cope), her years of feeling sad and adrift in the world, and in the end, her healing. "There's another side to grief and I'm on it," she wrote. At that time she was 32 years old, a hospice counselor, a wife and a mother.

Claire started a blog called Life in LA in 2003 after moving to California to care for her dying father. When he died, she put her blog on hold for a while, then resumed writing it in 2006. The original posts are lost in cyberspace but after I finished her book, I went back to August 2006, Claire's earliest posts that are still online, and read her blog all the way through to the present. I was fascinated and moved by her life story and by the way she expressed herself. Her words echoed some of the words I wrote in 2001 and 2002, when I was mending from my own grief.

I wrote a letter to Claire, a long convoluted one, sharing some of my words with her. Somehow I wanted her to know that I absolutely lived at least some of what she had felt and written about. I almost didn't send it, but the same day I wrote it she posted this on her blog.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve received more messages from readers than ever before. All of them about loss, about grief, many of them about being motherless, and also about being mothers. The messages have pulled me open in this hard, beautiful way. Each story, each life in words sitting there in my inbox, is something so unique and painful and perfect. And it’s not that I don’t think about loss all the time, or parental loss all the time, because I do, I do, but with every story shared I see a new depth to it all.
After reading that post, I did send my letter. Claire wrote back to me a couple of weeks later.

I kept waiting for some magical time that would allow me to respond at length, but I am just so overwhelmed with my plate that that time still hasn't arrived. Please know that I read this and appreciated every word, especially your story.

With love,
Last week Amazon gave me a coupon toward a book and I bought Claire's book and re-read it. It was as compelling as it had been the first time and I read it just as quickly, although maybe with fewer tears.

The problem with publishing your memoir when you are 32 years old is that time moves forward, things change, and your story goes on, often in unforeseen ways. Part of Claire's beautiful story was about how, after years of self-destructive behaviors and dysfunctional relationships, she fell in love and married and had two daughters with her husband. In her book, she spoke of her wedding day as the happiest day of her life.

In a perfect world, the happy ending to her story would have been for ever after.

Claire hasn't blogged much in 2013. She posts photos on Instagram and you'd have to be quite dull not to notice that since late spring or early summer they are of herself and her children and her friends. Her husband isn't pictured or mentioned.

She has made some enigmatic comments on her blog and on Instagram. In September she posted a selfie on Instagram with this comment.
Self-portrait Saturday. I'm still mulling over this idea of having to give up hope in order to be present to what is. I get it. I do. But I don't want to give up hope. It's what makes me human, compassionate. Hope is both why my life is so hard, and so beautiful.
And on her blog, Claire posted this.
I’m struggling in my life right now, for a thousand reasons I can’t get into here just yet.

In order to get through this period I’ve been doing all the things I always do. I’ve been spending time with friends, drinking wine and laughing. I’ve been immersing myself in motherhood and all the wonders and fierce trials that come with it.

But at the end of the night when I’m alone again with my thoughts, I feel that old, familiar tug. That there is something more to all this.

And that I have to find it.
When I did a web search for Claire Bidwell Smith, Google considerately tried to auto-complete my query with "affair" and "divorce."

The search results were primarily speculation on other blogs about Claire having a fling with another grief-memoir writer and blogger. Whether or not the conjecture is rumor or truth, there is no doubt that she and her husband are not together. Instagram doesn't lie.

I'm not sure why that makes me sad.

Partly I miss her blogging. I can understand that you really can't continue to blog and be authentic unless or until you are ready to confront and publicly share the truth. I don't mean going into the reasons. Just the facts.

Perhaps because her book is slated to be made into a movie, she doesn't want to dash the happy ending that her story promises.

Mostly though, I feel disappointed, not so much by Claire as for her. I don't know what happened, who left whom, what went on behind closed doors, outside the spotlight. I do know that marriage can be impossibly hard and babies can put unimaginable pressure on all the weak spots. I point no fingers.

I did go back and look up something that I recalled her posting about, something vaguely pivotal at least in my memory. It took me a while to find it, scanning through more than seven years of posts. Sometimes Claire posts letters, some written to her mom or her dad, some to her children. I found what I was looking for in a letter written in June 2012, to her not-yet-born baby. (Her second daughter was born two days later.)

Here it is in part.
There are lots of things you’ll come to know about me, baby, but one of them is that for a long time after my parents died I felt really misunderstood. I just felt like I had been through this huge, terrible experience that most people couldn't relate to. This caused me to resent the people around me and that feeling was an awful burden to bear. For a long time the only way I could cope was by surrounding myself with other people who were just as damaged as I was. That was the only way I felt understood - by being around other people who knew pain as well as I did.

It was when I finally got over that part of my life that I met your father. He was the first person I really loved who wasn't damaged. Part of me being able to love him had to do with me having worked really hard to get past all of my resentment and pain, but part of it was also due to your dad being such a true listener. I knew he could never truly comprehend the things I’d been through, but you know what, baby? That didn't matter because he really listened to me and listened to my stories and he looked in my eyes, and he didn't just nod his head like some people do. Instead, I could tell he was searching inside of himself for ways to understand me and let me love him, and it was the most overwhelmingly lovely gesture anyone had made to me in years and years.
Love like that takes my breath away. And I totally understood what she was saying. Because Neil was the first person I really loved who wasn't damaged.

If I ran the world, love like that would always be honored. As long as you both shall live.

Claire will find her way. I sincerely hope that for her.

I am getting close to the end of my story of the last unhealthy man I loved. There is one more chapter, maybe two, and an epilogue left I think.

In July 2002, after a month of silence, I got an email from Marty. The subject line was "How I'm Spending My REAL Summer Vacation."
Hi Liz.... This is part of a note I wrote for my family about a little vacation adventure I’m having starting Friday, when I fly up to Detroit to meet my old crew. I wanted to share this part of it with some special friends, just as a fun thing.

I hope you’re continuing to be happy and well! I came across some photos from a year ago – you’re so pretty and your smile is so radiant.

My love and peaceful wishes to you and the girls….

In the attached story - a mere 1,945 words - he writes about his upcoming participation in the annual Mackinac Island sailing race. I soaked up every word. But more than that, I savored the indication that he was thinking about me.

I wrote to my friend in Scotland, a different Claire.
Well, having finally determined to let it go for good, this morning I have a letter from Marty.

He is thinking about me. He says nothing about seeing me again, though.

As soon as I saw his name in my inbox I started shaking.

I don't want to play this cat and mouse game. I want to write back and just ask him to meet me for coffee. But if I am shaking because I have a letter, how am I going to pull off a meeting and not reveal the effect he still has on me?

I guess I just have to do it.
Without over-thinking it - and to avoid (wisely?) talking myself out of it - I fired off this note to Marty.
Sounds like a blast.

Meet me for coffee when you return? Safe, neutral territory ... Starbucks at Willowbrook ...?

Here's to smooth sailing!

(Early on Marty had suggested meeting in "safe, neutral territory" and I'd suggested that Starbucks.)

I got an almost immediate answer, complete with double exclamation points.
Sounds familiar as well as safe and neutral, so that's a deal!!
Again, I wrote to Claire.
He wants to meet me when he returns from the sailing trip. He sounds pleased. I am petrified and exultant both at once.

And in a way, it's once again up to him. He must now call or write when he returns, or it won't happen.

Omigosh, what have I done?!

Marty brought out something wonderful in me, something bright and beautiful and precious. So in a way, it hurt the more, because he rejected the very best I had to offer. I'm not sure if I am able to forgive him for that.

At least I have a week to sort my feelings out.

In a way now, I feel good that I took the assertive position. We could have danced around this possibility indefinitely, exchanging holiday and anniversary greetings and keeping the connection alive.

This, I hope, will resolve it. We will have closure, or a new beginning, but we won't have the same relationship we had last summer, that's for sure.

I am going to try not to become attached to any specific outcome, but having expectations is a hard habit to break.
I did a lot of thinking and writing that week.
He won't be back until the end of next week, and I'm not going to hold my breath for an immediate call. He did seem enthusiastic about meeting me for coffee, but I don't suppose he has given it one-tenth as much thought since as I have.

After the initial lurch of excitement, I have calmed down quite a bit about it. If it happens fine, if not, oh well, I tried.

Of course there is the small fantasy that he will want to see me again and I will be able to put the past pain aside and find the man I once cared about.
I watched the sailing race progress on the web site. His boat came in 7th out of 16 in its class and 96th overall out of 250 or so.

The day he was due back found me writing this to Claire.
I have heard nothing further from him. I think he may be back in town today, perhaps with a lot of catching up to do at work. I think it's unlikely that he would contact me right away, he would not want to seem too eager, that is not his style at all.

In fact, a week from now, I may well be lamenting the fact that he still has not made contact and stressing over whether I must dangle another carrot.

My fantasy, of course, was that he was so happy that we will be meeting again, and that in the long night shifts on board the sailboat he was warmed by the anticipation of once again being in my company.

Hey - it's my fantasy, and I can have it any way I want it.

In reality he was probably flirting with scantily-clad female sailing enthusiasts in a mellow, rum-soaked, celebratory atmosphere.
Two days later Marty wrote.
Hi, Liz!

I’m back, and it was great! When do you think you’d like to meet?


I waited a day to reply. On Saturday I sent him this note.
Welcome back sailor!

I could get together for a little while tonight if you're free. Otherwise some night later this week, or next weekend.

Glad the trip was great.

I debriefed with Claire.
Marty wrote that he is back, that the trip was great, and when would I like to meet. Thunk, thunk, thunk goes my heart.

I debated being too busy to see him right away. But I want to see him, I don't want to play games. Also, I will be nervous until we do see each other, so for that reason alone I would be happy to have it behind me.

Of course, if he doesn't want to see me after that, I will have to deal with it and move on once again.
On Sunday Marty called me. We made a plan. On the day that we were to meet I wrote to Claire.
Hey Claire,

Marty called about 4 p.m. on Sunday. We arranged to meet tonight (Tuesday) for coffee.

I felt more relaxed on the call than he sounded. He couldn't meet me Sunday night because he was going to his brother's. I imagine he goes there quite often and it was just his way of not appearing too eager.

Well, it has been almost a year, what's a few more days right?

The funny thing is, I see right through him (I think). I sense he really wants to see me, but has to make it on his terms. Luckily I don't care. I don't feel like playing games. I want to see him, I'm not ashamed if he knows that.

I couldn't get to sleep last night. Yes, I am definitely pumped up. But I am just going to go and try to recapture a momentary sense of the happiness we felt last summer. I have wanted one more evening with him, one more chance to smile at him. The rest fate will have to determine.

I know the odds against rejoining Marty in a lasting relationship are astronomical. But cappuccino and a nice chat are not out of reach.

Whatever it was that I thought I wanted (hoped, dreamed) from the meeting just didn't happen.
Hi Claire,

I'm having a very hard time this morning. I saw Marty last night. It went OK, not great. We met, talked, hugged and said good night. He didn't ask to see me again. He didn't write me a note this morning.

I am still in love with him.

He did say something about keeping in touch when we parted, but that could just have been common politeness. I guess it is possible that he will call me again in a few days, but wants to take things more slowly this time.

I ache today. I won't fall back down the rabbit hole, I will be OK, I am much stronger in myself now that I was before. But I love this man and I don't sense that he loves me.

So it goes. Life goes on. Time will again work it's mercies. The ache will grow dull again, day by day. I'm not sorry that I saw him again.

My hope is that he will come to me yet. I will give him some time.

Other than telling him that I love him, there does not seem to be much else I can hold out.

A few days later I wrote to Claire again.
Oh Claire,

I'm not doing very well. Although I don't regret the meeting with Marty, I feel like I have taken some big steps backward. I have not heard anything more from him, not even the politeness of a short note saying that I looked great and it was nice to see me. My heart aches.

As much as I know in my head that this is about him and not me, it has kicked up the feelings of aloneness and sadness and emptiness. I know I have to fix that from inside and not through another person - but tell that to my heart and brain when I dream about him and wake with panic waves.

It is such a bitter pill. He seemed so glad when I suggested coffee and then he took the initiative to get in touch as soon as he got back from the trip. Yet from the moment I walked in the door, I felt like I didn't have his full attention.

I watched him consume a latte, a large slab of cake and a mocha frappuccino, while I sipped a low-fat cappuccino and a glass of ice water. I watched a tall man fidgeting in his chair, telling me a lot about his kids, his job, his hobbies and his extended family, and asking me very little about what has been going on in my world.

I have spent a year healing from the hurt precipitated by this man leaving me last summer. I have felt so much stronger and happier and healthier.

How did he not see it? How did he not feel enchanted again? After our first meeting, one year and two months ago, he told me he was "entranced." What happened? Where does such love go?

How did I get back into this dark place? I just wanted to see him again. No, that isn't true, I wanted the fairy tale. And he seemed so happy when I asked him to meet me, a happily-ever-after ending seemed a possibility.

And for a few fleeting minutes I recaptured some of the joy I felt in his presence last summer. And then it was time to go home. And he hugged me and mumbled something meaningless about keeping in touch and we said good night. And I drove away in my little blue car with the dream-catcher hanging on the rear-view mirror.

And now the silence is screaming.

He is here, he is footloose, I am here - and he isn't wanting or asking to be with me. I love this man and I want to touch him and sleep with him and make love with him and he doesn't see my beauty and my shining light.

Why would I want somebody who doesn't want to be with me? What is wrong with me?

I can't regret the meeting. It lets me know all these feelings were still here inside me, bottled up and simmering.

I know I don't have to stop loving him to let him go. Letting go is the ultimate act of love. I will deal.

A week later I wrote again. To Claire.
I have to accept, one more time, that Marty does not want me.

He did the pull-and-push thing, writing to me after a silence, agreeing enthusiastically to meet me for coffee, contacting me promptly on his return from the sailing trip and calling to set up the meeting - and then not even giving me his full attention. He used the food and drink, as well as the fidgeting in his chair, to distract himself and avoid feeling any intimacy.

I wrote a letter that I want to send Marty - one where I speak from my heart, not the false, stiff-upper-lip, "I am doing just fine" facade I have presented all this past year whenever we have had contact.

But then I'm not sure the cost to my pride is worth it. What I really want is for him to come to me. And I can't will him to do that.

So I guess the choice I do have is to work on becoming free. No man is worth this, no relationship is worth this, more than a full year later.

And the funny thing is, I have a feeling I will hear from him again, just as soon as I truly let go of it, just like last time. But that itself keeps me hooked, thinking if I can hold out long enough, he will bend again.

In fact, I can easily imagine that Marty will come to me one day when it is too late.

Ultimately, sanity prevailed. Finally.
I've decided not to write to Marty again. To hell with him. He has consumed a year of my life. I'm ready to let it go and move on.

He is not the man I love - that man exists only in my fantasy. Marty just happened to fit - and look very handsome in - the suit of clothing I wove, but that is all he is, a fiction, a figment of my imagination.

You know, I had talked myself into thinking he initiated and did the pull-push thing, but it was really me.

I am the one who wrote to him in March, after which he told me he had been thinking about me and asked me to call - then acted like it was nothing important when I did call. Then after another silence, I wrote to him in June on the anniversary of our first meeting and again, he took the bait by responding.

When he sent the sailing story, I jumped on it as an excuse to suggest meeting for coffee. And I read way too much into his ready agreement to meet me and into his contacting me so quickly on his return, imagining he was as exuberant about the idea of being with me again as I was.

No more.

I have done my best. I cared about him, and I held on to the hope that some of his professed feelings for me really were real and would resurface with time if his other baggage got cleared away (Mary, the job, time, dating other women who could not possibly hold a candle to me).

That time has come and gone. I will not be waiting any longer for him to come to his senses. I think, I hope, I believe I really mean it this time. Enough is enough.

It really does feel good to have reached this point. I am ready to move forward and not look back again.
It was July 31, 2002. One year from the day Marty broke things off. One day before the first anniversary of Marty's savage reaction to my chat with Robin, the day he told me to "have a nice life."

I've now almost come to the end of our story. Almost.

"Here come those tears again
Just when I was getting over you
Just when I was gonna make it through
Another night without missing you
Thinking I might just be strong enough after all
When I hear your footsteps echoing in the hall

Baby here we stand again
Where we've been so many times before
Even though you looked so sure
As I was watching you walking out my door
But you always walk back in like you did today
Acting like you never even went away

Well I don't know if I can
Open up and let you in
Here come those tears
Here come those tears again

I can hear you telling me
How you needed to be free
And you had some things to work out alone
Now you're standing here telling me
How you have grown

Here come those tears again
Now you'll tell me how to hold them in
Here come those tears
Here come those tears again."

(Jackson Browne)

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Thanks for your comment! I will post it as soon as I receive it. Liz