Sometimes life doesn’t follow your expectations. Sometimes despite your very best intentions, you hurt the one you love the most. Sometimes the greatest betrayal you can make is leaving.
While in Austin, my boyfriend had a death in his family. He seemed lost on the phone and when I asked him if he wanted me to come home. He said, “Yes that would be comforting.” Since he’s a person who rarely asks for anything, I rushed to get packed so I could leave the next morning.
My nomadic journey had taken me to Austin where I was staying with my college best friend Andrea and her family. We hadn’t seen each other in way too long but we both agreed we hadn’t aged a bit. She’s one of those rare friends who got me at a deeper level and who I also understood deeply. And when it came to crisis, she’s someone you want in your corner.
I had just a few hours before stores closed and I needed two things; warmer clothing for the northern chillier temps and a dress for the funeral. Andrea snapped into high gear and with her husband watching the kids, we very efficiently worked our way down the aisles of a second hand store and left a short while later with everything we needed.
We imagine what life is like for our partners when we’re not around. I’d imagined he’d poured his time into work and the theatre, hitting the goals he’d set for himself when we’d parted, trying to distract himself from missing me too much. How could he eat if we weren’t cooking and laughing together? How could he plan without me there to bounce his ideas off of? How could he locate and put on pants?
I realize that’s all utter nonsense and he was quite capable of managing life before me so there was no reason to assume he hadn’t been able to without me. He’d certainly been able to manage the pants bit, after all he was wearing them now. But in truth no matter how modest we are, we always somewhat assume life stops when we’re not there with the one we love.
I’d had a number of adventures while we were apart but he was always present in my mind. I’d texted him constantly but probably should have called more. I’d tried to share everything with him so he could feel like he was there. I’d wondered how he was doing. I’d hoped we’d be ok when I returned.
The final day of driving had been long and windy and I was exhausted when I parked in front of his building. He hurried downstairs to help me unload the car. We looked at one another, taking in the changes and then we were hugging. Time morphed and stopped.
I’ve always had a sense of time warping when it came to Mark. Days apart could feel like months or minutes. This time it felt like I’d been away for years, even though I’d last seen him only 3 months earlier. He looked different, older, sadder. He’d lost a lot of weight and I wasn’t sure they were happy pounds.
“Hey you,” I said softly. “I’ve missed you.”
“Hey you,” he said, kissing me.
We weren’t sure of when the funeral was going to be and it took a couple of days to sort everything out. During that time we talked for hours over coffee and wine, we cooked, we ate ice cream and we passed out on the couch. We gained some happy weight back. We slowly began to rediscover one another and when we finally got word on the funeral arrangements, we organized our exodus and left for New Jersey.
You learn a lot about a person when you travel together and the scenic fall mountain foliage in Pennsylvania is a gorgeous backdrop for such discovery. This began to feel like a vacation, like Mark had just suddenly joined me for a leg of my voyage.
And that felt both right and wrong.
We talked about his aunt and how warm and welcoming she had always been, about his uncle and how hard this was going to be for him. But mostly we continued to reconnect the frayed strands of our relationship. We couldn’t stop touching each other as we drove, re-marking our territory with gentle caresses and laughter.
Neither of us had done a great job of truly staying connected while I was gone. We’d tried but we realized we’d relied on texting and a few phone calls, putting our relationship into some sort of long term maintenance mode. We’d talked at one another instead of with one another. We should have video chatted more.
Later that night as we drove off the interstate and towards our hotel, I got introduced to the WaWa experience and tasty cakes, things from his childhood that felt like home. And the next morning as we walked into the church, I discovered just how large and welcoming his home is.
As we stood in line waiting to pay our respects, I could feel eyes on me. It wasn’t difficult to pick them out, the brothers all looked so similar and between his eight siblings, their spouses and significant others, their kids and his parents, they took up a full corner. And it felt like they were all looking at me.
It wasn’t long before Russ’s wife Susan came over to introduce herself and she immediately put me at ease. Then Felicia’s husband came over and told me all about how to survive around the Dodge’s, which definitely included being an Eagles fan. One by one I met them, trying to memorize faces and names. Wondering at who this man I was dating was in the scope of his family.
When the service was about to start, we took our seats in the pew behind his parents and his mom, who I hadn’t yet met, turned around. Mark was about to introduce me when his sister grabbed his attention and his mom turned to me instead asking, “Hi, who are you?”
“I’m Mark’s girlfriend,” I stammered. This wasn’t a trip specifically for me to meet the family but I suddenly realized quite awkwardly that is what it had become. We hadn’t thought about it in that way. He needed me, I came. That’s as far as thinking had gone.
I got to know his family better later that night at his parent’s house, their house brimming over with teasing laughter and chatter. I asked his mom how she’d met his father and she shared the story, him crossing a dance floor for her hand and not the hand of her girlfriend who every other guy had seemed to have their eye on. I got to know all of his nieces and their adventures. We visited more family the next day and he showed me his high school and homes they’d lived in.
Despite him opening this part of his life to me, he seemed slightly distant throughout the trip, so very lost in thought. I knew his aunt’s death had hit him especially hard and I wasn’t sure how to comfort him. It wasn’t until the trip back to Chicago that he finally talked about what he’d been feeling.
“So that’s your reward for opening yourself up to someone completely and having a full life together?” he asked me. “You have to look forward to losing one another. That’s the payoff?”
I wanted to reassure him, but I couldn’t. It was the truth, though just a part of it.
It’s scary to be vulnerable with another human, not just because they then have a great power to hurt you deeply by their actions but also because despite their best intentions, one day they will very likely cause you the deepest pain you will ever experience simply by saying goodbye.
I suppose the alternative is distrusting one another, keeping others at arms length and living life in a muted silo of grey.
I’d rather live and love in vulnerably joyous technicolor.