Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

———————-

The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.

Getting Over a Breakup: The Role of Love, Hate, and Time

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Most of us believe that hate is the opposite of love. Is it really? Both are intense emotions. If love captured you before a breakup, hate indicates a continuing strong attachment to that person even after. Put differently, if you are still angry, you are not “over” him or her. You have not let go. You have not moved on.

To continue feeling either love or hate means that the “relationship” is quite alive, even if it is quite different from what it once was. Perhaps you haven’t seen the person or spoken to him in years. He matters to you, even if it isn’t in a good way. He is living inside of you, playing on your emotions, influencing how you think and what you do; an imaginary companion who might not “know” you exist, but who shadows your existence.

As Edgar Rice Burroughs said:

I loved her. I still love her, though I curse her in my sleep, so nearly one are love and hate, the two most powerful and devastating emotions that control man, nations, life.

If you are really “over” someone else, you are (more or less) indifferent. You simply don’t care any more. You don’t spend any significant amount of time thinking about him or her, recalling either the memories of aching beauty or breaking heart-strings. And when something does remind you of the person, at most you might feel a bit wistful, but certainly not depressed or resentful. No, that individual now matters very little.

How do you get there, get over that lost love? Getting angry is a part of the process, just as allowing yourself the sadness of his loss. Talking to friends, or perhaps a therapist is useful, too. They need only listen to you and provide support, not judgment or advice. Don’t expect to heal quickly, but avoid holding on too long, hoping for love’s return. Don’t make comparisons to what others have gone through. One size doesn’t fit all.

Throwing out photos, old letters, and deleting old voice-mail and electronic messages can help. Don’t lacerate yourself by re-reading the same letters and greeting cards forever. Hold a mock-funeral service if you need to.

A quick return to dating usually doesn’t improve things, since some of your lingering emotions can cause you to become involved with your new acquaintance too deeply, too soon, on the rebound. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will begin to date but won’t permit yourself to get too close. Before you know it you will be back in a new and probably ill-conceived romance.

Don’t resort to alcohol or other temporary fixes that, in the end, can only make it worse. Don’t distract yourself too much, but do try to be active and get on with life.

Beware of bathing in your sadness. The shower of tears is too painful to endure longer than necessary. Remember that others have suffered in just this way. Do, eventually, get off the cross. We need the wood. It gives us something to build with.

You may have to reevaluate your former love. If you still believe that he was a paragon of virtue and perfection, you’re inclined to think of yourself as unworthy of his affections. If, however, you can see him realistically, you are more likely to recognize that perhaps his loss of you was greater than yours of him, even if he isn’t aware of it. Get a ladder and pull the S.O.B. off the pedestal (in your imagination only)!

Don’t expect vindication, one of the rarest commodities in the world. Waiting for your ex to apologize for not realizing your value is like waiting for next Christmas when you are 10-years-old and the calendar reads December 26th.  It almost never happens and when it does, it is much too late. Moreover, a search for the right words or actions to persuade him to change his mind is a fool’s errand. But then, we are all fools in love.

Although time moves slowly, let time be your friend. You need the tears, so fighting them and controlling them can sometimes be counterproductive, slow recovery down. Most of us survive and learn from these losses. Figure out why you chose this person and take care not to make the same mistake again, especially if you are inclined to put all your relationship eggs in one basket, discovering only after the breakup that you have few friendships to provide you with emotional support.

A breakup is like a mini-death. Treat it that way. Don’t isolate yourself. Remember a time when you felt better and believe that, however impossible it seems now, you will eventually feel better again.

As Oscar Wilde said, since “No man is rich enough to buy back his past,” there is only one direction left to go. Onward.

The top image is called Castle on a Hill by Jimmy McIntyre, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia.

Last Words: Be Sure to Choose Wisely

The elderly Lady Nancy Astor, the first female member of the British House of Commons, awoke during her last illness to find that her family was assembled around her bed. Clever to the end, she said, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?”

Most of us associate the idea of last words with the solemn and quotable pronouncements of great men and women, not the sassy commentary of the once beautiful English politician pictured above. Here is something more typical: John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in uttering “Thomas Jefferson still survives” as he (Adams) lay dying.

What he did not know in the pre-electronic year of 1826, was that Jefferson had predeceased him by a few hours. Nor did either of them appear to reflect on the irony that these founding fathers both expired on July 4th, precisely 50 years after the Declaration of Independence that they both signed and Jefferson wrote.

On a less ironic note, those of us in Chicago might have heard of Giuseppe Zangara, an anarchist, who took aim at President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as he and the Mayor of Chicago shook hands in Miami’s Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. The bullet hit Mayor Anton Cermak, who reportedly said to FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak died soon after and is memorialized to this day by a Chicago street that bears his name.

There are other kinds of last words, of course. And though most of us probably won’t plan out what to say in advance, I think you will agree that you could do worse than follow the example of Ernesto Giulini, an Italian timber salesman born in the 19th century. He gathered his family around his death-bed, including musician-son Carlo Maria, to remind them that the word “love” — “amore” — should guide their thought and conduct throughout their lives. And one can only imagine how many times the words “love” and “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the very end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”

A rather more wry approach to imminent mortality is attributed to Voltaire. Asked by a priest to renounce Satan, he reportedly uttered: “Now, now my good man — this is not the time for making enemies.”

As Voltaire’s comments suggest, timing is everything and it is best to consider carefully what you want to be remembered for — and by whom. Last words from or to our parents tend to linger in the memory of those who survive, sometimes because of what was said, sometimes because of what wasn’t. Too many people — including some of my ex-patients — lament never having heard the words “I love you” from a parent at the time of his death or any time before.

We are often cautioned to part from loved ones on a high note, not a dissonant one, lest someone be left with the recollection and pain of a final disagreement, or the regret of causing an injury in what proves to be the last possible moment. Nearly all of us would avoid cruelty if we only knew when that would be. Usually we don’t. The dead may not care, but those surviving surely do.

Two unfortunate examples from my clinical practice come to mind in this regard. One woman, whose mother had died many years before, had difficulty in shaking her mom’s last minute assertion, “You’re an ass, Jenny (not her real name).” It is not the only such example I can recall hearing from one or another of my patients. But the all-time cake-taker, the grand prize winner in an imaginary “Hall of Shame” of ill-timed and venomously expressed invective, are the words of a rebellious teenager to his severely taxed father.

A long history of mutual destructiveness typified their relationship. It seems that the pater familias was inept and self-interested in raising his son, and the son repaid his parent’s cruelty and clumsiness with as much drug use and petty crime as he could muster. Nor did it help that the family was under financial pressure and that the two adults of the home were a badly matched, fractious pair.

The father had only recently sustained a heart attack when the school reported to him and his wife that the son had once again been suspended. The “mother-of-all” shouting matches ensued between the middle-aged man and his first-born disappointment. And then, the last words: “You’re going to kill me.” And the reply, “I don’t care.”

Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead of a second cardiac arrest. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing argument that his death would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger, it is easy to imagine a lasting sense of guilt in the son.

That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents, well before they check out of this mortal coil. Choosing to say, “I know what you did (even if you deny it or justify it) and I won’t let you do it any more” is sometimes perfectly appropriate. That act of self-assertion can be therapeutic, even though it is usually not essential.

You can also recover from childhood mistreatment without confronting the offender. Witness those individuals who do so when their abusive parents are already dead and therefore unavailable for real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that any continuing mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the by-now adult child, have to stop it: walk away, say “no,” or hang up the phone — whatever is required.

If, instead, you aim to change the offender, be prepared to be disappointed. Most won’t change or even admit that they did anything wrong. But if you wish to overcome your fear and master the situation, that mastery, at least, is possible. Nor should you usually hesitate for fear of “killing” your parent, as in the example I’ve given, especially if health issues aren’t present. That is the only story of its kind I’ve ever been told.

Better, though — so much better — to live among friends and relatives who live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. That way, even if there is no time for a formal goodbye, nothing will have been left unsaid: respect and affection will be well-known long before the end because of the way each treated the other. I’m told that the old Italian expression for this is “volersi bene” or “voler bene:” an untranslatable sentiment indicating that you cannot be happy without the happiness of the other. Yes, much better this way.

Perhaps it is no mistake that in English and German the words for life and love are so close. Change the word “live” by one letter and you have “love.” In German, change the word “leben” (to live) by adding one letter and you have “lieben” (to love). Not just last words or Ernesto Giulini’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.

Lady Astor (1909) by John Singer Sargent, is sourced from Wikipedia Commons. The photo of Carlo Maria Giulini comes from the front cover of the superb biography by Thomas Saler, published by University of Illinois Press. The present essay is a revised version of an earlier blog post from 2009: “Last Words: Be Careful What You Say.”

The Emotional Cost of Sex: Why Some People Don’t Bother

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In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the narrator describes how his changed attitude toward sex drove him to move from the city to the seclusion of the countryside:

My point is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but because I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience — or the toughness, or the shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic professionalism — to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory meanings.

The complaint is not unknown. Indeed, some men profess that they prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems that drive Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars and cents does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing that they find so bothersome.

We do a lot for sex; or, at least for the connectedness and commitment that we hope comes with it. Would the amount spent on cosmetics, hair supplies, skin creams, Viagra, sex toys, personal trainers, gym classes, face lifts, breast implants, hair plugs, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry amount to nearly so much without the hope of a sexual or romantic payoff?

How much time is spent choosing those items and activities? How much time in using them? How much time in wondering whether they have done the job intended? How much time watching to see if anyone notices the difference?

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Sex is in the air in perfume and pheromones and aftershave. It is on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. It sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious. In that event you would be considered crude. By comparison there is some honesty in the professional transaction of money for sex; one could argue, more than is inherent in the pursuit of a trophy spouse or the prospective mate’s willingness to become a sexual hood ornament.

But Roth’s point is more subtle than any of these things. He is referring to learning the steps of the mating dance and performing them to perfection, even when you don’t like the music. Part of it is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person when you are stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide that which is unbecoming.

Then there are the questions of strategies and tactics, the intracranial meeting of your own personal staff of generals to call the shots as if you were embarked on a military campaign: when to phone or text, when to touch, when to flatter or smile or laugh, when to be unpredictable and what you can predict about the target’s vulnerabilities and impregnabilities.

If one’s heart is aflutter, there will inevitably be some attempt to comprehend what is going on despite your flustered, pulsating state of body and mind. Your conception of the union’s status may not coincide with what the other thinks or hopes, but it consumes much time and psychic energy so long as the interaction matters to you, regardless of the accuracy of your assessment.

Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded way it can injure, the extraordinary vulnerability that can come with it — the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.

He seems more concerned with the way that it captures you, throws you about, wreaks havoc with your balance and equanimity; and pitches your brain into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses that hold sway, making your gray matter a vestigial organ. Sex presses you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, and experience half-crazed feelings of pre-relationship desire, early relationship passion, and end-of-relationship desperation as you hold on for fear it will slip away.

How is it that we keep up our grades or maintain a full-time job with all this going on?

Some don’t, you know. The burden of the sexual road show can’t bear it or spare the time to do those other things.

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If you are young enough, the excitement of it, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that will define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, it comes naturally. For most, it is a little like learning to skate before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. But still, our genetic programming pushes most of us into the fray.

Time strips away the appeal and ratchets up the cost that sex exacts, just as Roth suggests. The hormonal flush diminishes gradually, while the desperation mounts. Psychic scars make one hesitate, but the clock is running. Not just the ticking biological time bomb, but the worry that you are gradually becoming invisible to members of the opposite sex because your shining externals don’t have the glow of their best years. Your receding hairline, or growing waist line tell you that your “use by” date is approaching much too fast. Meanwhile there appears to be no end of competitors who want to budge into line; less weathered or younger or richer or just simply smarter and better looking.

It is more than enough to make one nauseous, anxious, or depressed.

Some do, temporarily or permanently, throw in the towel — give up on the sex project. You can have a rich life without it, but it certainly is a different life than the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.

You can find celibacy meet-up groups around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. But some are like Roth’s fictional character, choosing to be free of the trouble of sex. A portion of those who opt for continence may do it as a kind of discipline or as a way to concentrate on other things and grow personally; perhaps to sublimate their sexual energies, focusing on something beyond and above the narcotic of flesh and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.

Resisting temptation is always an interesting and difficult project, so there is doubtless something to be gained in it, much as there is in any kind of philosophical or religious abstinence, like a day of fasting.

For how long would you traverse this solitary highway?

Well, as the tire ads say, that is “where the rubber meets the road.” Assuming, of course, that you have a choice.

But, there are as many ways to live as there are people who are living. And one such way could include a span of time without sex. The world is beautiful and forever new if you only look hard enough. Intimacy does not require some sort of penetration of bodies.

As for myself, if I were to take a break, I’d do it in winter in a forbidding place where I wouldn’t see too many winsome strangers, some of whom might want to be won.

I’d have lots to do — things of importance to me.

When spring comes and the comely shed their overcoats?

That would be another matter.

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The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, Animated Icon of a Sexy Dancing Girl by Jochen Gros, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Love Letters: Da Capo*

It is said that the art of letter writing is dead.

A pity. The age of instant electric communication has robbed us of one of the most touching ways to express the heartache — the exquisite pain — of a love who is out of reach.

Just over 60 years ago, there was a time when only a letter (or a then-expensive telegram) made any contact possible with one’s far-away love.

Such was the case during World War II for my parents.

Spouses in a marriage that ages well tend to retain very fond memories of their early days together. Whenever I see a new couple in marital therapy, I always ask them how they happened to meet and what drew each to the other. If the relationship still has “life,” these questions invariably warm the conversation. The partners have enkindling memories of the “honeymoon” period. The spark of that early time —  “the days of wine and roses” — continues to fuel the relationship they have today.

My father entered the U.S. Army on December 12, 1943 and was honorably discharged in March, 1946. Most of that time was spent overseas, in places like England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. The day that he and my mom received the news of his inevitable departure to wartime Europe, she was attending the wedding of her cousin. The tears that everyone thought reflected her response to the marriage ceremony were about something else entirely.

I don’t have any of my mother’s letters to my dad, but only some of those he sent to her, mostly as World War II was dying down. They married late in 1940, so their relationship was still very fresh when he left for the European theater. His April 1, 1945 letter to her still includes a dried out daisy that he picked for her in Paris. His words surely reflected the thoughts of many that day:

My Adorable Sweetie Pie,

This is Easter Sunday and everywhere in this world people have gone to church to pray that this terrible war will soon be over. I, too, hope so for many reasons, but mainly that I can return to you and stay, and that (my brothers) Eddie and Harry need not be exposed to any more danger. Do the folks know about Harry being wounded? I hope not…

It ends:

Do you know, sweetie, that I’m simply wild about you. Gosh, I love you so. Great big kisses and hugs from the lonely husband who loves you.

My dad’s letters frequently tried to cheer up my mother. She lived with her parents for part of this time and they were no love-match. Many people thought that the war would go on for years more. My mother’s only brother was eventually drafted and put in training for the invasion of Japan. That event never occurred, of course, as the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs.

Stateside it was well-known that many of the U.S. soldiers were not faithful to the girlfriend or wife back home. My mother must have expressed concerns in a letter to which my father responded on April 4, 1945:

You signed this ‘Your Best Sweetie,’ but it should have said ‘Your Best and Only Sweetie,’ because that is what you are. Does that answer your question? And now to answer your air mail of March 13th. It started with that gorgeous poem about Spring and, gosh sweetie, it gave me goose bumps to know that ‘the day I return will be your Spring.’

Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, but my father would remain there until late February of the following year. The time passed slowly for both my parents-to-be, as noted in his missive of June 18, 1945:

I know I could perk up your morale if I came home, but they won’t let me just now. I know, too, how much your heart and body ache for me because I am undergoing the same each and every minute. You are vital to my complete happiness.

My mother suffered from tuberculosis before my folks were married. It would recur again in the 1950s. My dad was mindful of the fragile state of my mother’s health:

Sweetie, you are working much too hard for a little girl who isn’t well and you must cut it out. Gee, I wish I was around to protect you and snuggle you in the thunder and darkness of the rain.

Poor darling, you even talk to my picture, begging me to come home, and how I wish I could answer that I’ll be home in a few hours or days or weeks. But it will be a while yet and we must just be patient and hope and pray it will be very soon. The good God above must see how hungry and helpless we are without each other and I am sure He will answer our prayers soon…

All my love belongs to you, sweetheart, every drop of it.

Dad’s letters talk of many different things: day-to-day life in the army, the problem with officers, places he has seen, family matters, army food and the much better food they sometimes had after Germany’s defeat, gifts and money he was sending mom, the progress of the war, the first Bastille Day after Paris was liberated (at which celebration my father was present), and even references to the children they hoped to have together.

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On July 9, 1945 my dad sent mom a page from the Army’s magazine Stars and Stripes. That portion of the magazine displayed pencil drawings of the beautiful women at the Folies Bergere, a famous Parisian show that included popular entertainment and scantily clad female performers. On it he wrote the following:

This will give you an idea of what the Folies Bergere is like. I’d rather look at you, though.

Not everything my father witnessed brought a smile, however. This comes from October 19, 1945:

We have two colored boys in our convoy, who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper here in Germany, the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent had made it a rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was by now a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

On February 14, 1946 the end of the seemingly endless wait to return home was close at hand. By now dad had been 11 days in La Havre, not yet assigned to a ship for his cross-Atlantic voyage:

Well, at least I will be with you soon and I know ‘wonderful you’ are waiting with all the love and devotion a guy could ask for. I love you, sweetie.

On February 26th, after 12 more days in La Havre, he was headed home.

In the mid-1980s, 40 years after these events, I asked my dad what it was like the first time he saw my mother again. His most moving recollection wasn’t their actual reunion, rather it was the first time he heard her voice when he called her on the telephone, just after his arrival in New York. His voice cracked as he remembered that moment and tears came to his eyes.

Soon after that call, he must have written her this post card:

My last letter to you. From now on I’ll tell you in person. Gosh, it will all be so wonderful soon.

My father would have been 100 years old this week.

*This was originally posted last year. I have repeated it (hence the Italian phrase “da capo” or “from the top”) in honor of the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth. Until I posted it, I didn’t realize that it also honors his service in World War II in a week that includes Veteran’s Day.

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

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Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Clocks and Weddings and Getting Cold Feet

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/29/Marshall_Field_and_Co._clock_at_State_St..JPG/500px-Marshall_Field_and_Co._clock_at_State_St..JPG

It could have happened to you, but it probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he had finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn. Marriage was now possible, his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

A marriage license would be required.

They agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at the famous Marshall Field and Company Building, now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From Field’s they would make the short walk to City Hall to get the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the Field’s clock,” he’d said off-handedly and she’d quickly agreed.

The day came and at the appointed time he was there. Right under the clock at Randolph and State as he’d promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What could have happened? Did she get delayed? Was she injured?

Or, just perhaps, did she get cold feet?

Meanwhile, a lovely young woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

And she was thinking to herself, “What happened to Milton? He is always so punctual. Where could he be? I’m standing under the clock just as we agreed.”

You see, a small misunderstanding had occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. The meeting occurred, only a little late. The marriage license was obtained and the wedding followed later that year, just as planned.

Both the bride and the groom showed up for that, on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it all could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it, because I never would have been even “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married me — a man who didn’t exist. And our kids would never have been born, etc., etc.

Getting “stood up” at weddings is hardly unheard of. Movies have been made about such events. Think Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Then there was the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared in order to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (in an effort to explain her absence at the alter) that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst “real life” tale of this type that I ever heard from someone personally involved in the event concerned a “high society” wedding — one for which no expense had been spared, enormous numbers of people had been invited, and everyone showed up other than the groom, who didn’t even call ahead to cancel or ever apologize to his fiance by letter, e-mail, phone, or text message, and certainly not face-to-face.

And then there is an Internet story of a young man who actually went so far as to go through the wedding ceremony and reception, only to speak to the assembled throng of well-wishers declaring that he intended to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with his best man, upon which he pulled out photos of the two that more than verified his report.

Now there are those who would say that “everything happens for a reason,” and that everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, good and bad, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our best efforts to control events.

And, as far as happy endings are concerned, they do happen sometimes, although not everything ends happily.

But, I do believe that you have to make the best of things.

The young woman of the “high society” wedding I mentioned was humiliated and devastated, but did eventually marry a man who loved her to pieces and actually showed up on their wedding day to prove it. They’ve been married forever and continue to be very much in love.

And, it’s hard to argue that the man who promised annulment would have been better off married for more than a day to his unfaithful if temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something from the experience and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, especially when you are young, most set-backs are relatively brief, especially if you have some resilience.

Of course, whatever children might have been born of the last two ill-starred matches I’ve described never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a very unhappy marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around, and that one of them walked down the block to find the other.

But for that… well, you know.

One of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Company Building in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons, photo by DDima.