About a year into my re-entry back into single life after getting out of a fourteen year relationship, I had a pretty minimal understanding of the dating scene. As luck would have it, the work wheel of fortune presented me with a co-worker that taught me a thing or two about love. As the world is small and I want to protect her privacy, I will give her a pseudonym that represents what she is to me: Grace. Grace and I immediately hit it off in a way that happens not so often, like we were old friends after talking just a few hours. When she asked me about my love life, I told her about the garden of crazy that I had been tending. I explained that I had been seeing a guy in rural Wisconsin who was handsome and baked me pies and played the piano for me, but he just didn’t want to ever leave that world to do anything else and the commute to see him had worn me out.
“Nope,” Grace said decidedly. “What else?”
Let’s see. I also had a guy who I’d been emailing with that was an amazing writer, a sensitive soul, and a lovely poet. Trouble was he just didn’t want to meet me in person.
“Nope,” she said. “What else?”
Hmm. That had been enough to keep me busy. I mean, they both certainly had some promise, right?
I was taken aback by her matter of fact response. How could she be so sure after my thumbnail sketch of what was going on?
Grace said in a quiet but firm voice, “Eileen, I’ll tell you what. I was never the popular girl in school, I didn’t get asked out on a ton of dates. I met my husband in college, and after a brief conversation, he asked me for my number. He told me he’d call me at 2 o’clock the next day. The next day, he called me at 2, and he’s never let me down since.”
I looked at her, bewildered.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “We don’t always agree. We’ve certainly had arguments and bumps in the road. But he’s always done what he said he was going to do. We’re a team, and I trust that I can count on him.”
She’d been married awhile. They had two young children together, and with his two children from a prior marriage, they had a lovely family.
She expounded, “You shouldn’t accept anything less than that, Eileen. These guys you’re talking to are already letting you down, and they don’t even know you.” I had to agree.
We talked some more about her marriage, about life, about literature. We discussed Michael Chabon, a favorite author of mine, and she mentioned that he and his wife Ayelet Waldman spoke publicly about putting their love for one another on a higher priority than their love for their children. Ayelet took it in the shorts in the media for these beliefs, she was crucified by the Oprah generation, HOW DARE SHE NOT LOVE HER CHILDREN ABOVE ALL ELSE? Ayelet explained that she believed her children were better off by understanding that they were not the center of the universe, instead reaping the rewards of being raised by two equal, loving partners who placed great importance on their romantic connection. Grace felt that way about her husband, and that philosophy made sense to me. Grace left me with a copy of Chabon’s “Manhood For Amateurs”, his first foray in personal essay writing, which gave me much to think about in terms of what it means to be a man. I loved the book, and I loved Grace. Inside the book was a kind note that said lots of wonderful things, including, “You deserve the best in everything and that is what I wish for you.”
I told the story of what Grace had taught me to so many people. It gave me something to work with. It was a succinct but powerful textbook on relationship expectation. It gave me a love model, something my life was lacking. Every time I got involved with anyone, I heard her words in my head and I tried to act accordingly.
And with that, as is often the way with my job, I didn’t see Grace again for a handful of years.
She reappeared on my Facebook feed not long ago, in a new location. Smiling, in pictures with her younger children. I thought to myself, it’s so good to see her again, even if only in a virtual setting, but something felt off.
Rumors started to circulate, whispers on the work wind. That Grace had separated from her husband. As the universe has been known to give you what you need through the art of serendipity, Grace appeared on a flight that I was working. The odds of this happening were pretty slim, except that when it’s important, stars align to give you some answers. She looked lovely, like she hadn’t aged a day. Totally together on the surface, she shared with me that she had separated from her husband because not only had he been unfaithful to her, but he had been living a double life. With another woman, in another world that she was completely unaware of. She said to me, “You know when you hear those stories about men having two lives and you think the wife must be an idiot….I had no idea. NO IDEA.” She quickly made arrangements to share custody of her children, she took her savings and staked a claim in another city. “I took my babies and ran. It was the only plan that I could come up with to save my family,” she told me. I listened to her in disbelief. I could not fathom how anyone in their right mind could treat such a wonderful woman so poorly, how anyone could sleep at night leading a duplicitous existence, how anyone who had children could act so selfishly. And speaking of selfish, I WAS PISSED OFF THAT THIS MOTHER FUCKER HAD BLOWN APART MY LOVE MODEL. I had told so many people that story, I had invested so much of myself in believing what she had told me. AND NOW IT WAS ALL LIES….FUCK. IT. ALL.
Grace had lent me the Chabon book years before, I subsequently lent it to a guy I had been seeing. I broke up with him after a rocky year, but we were trying to maintain a friendship. The last time I saw him, I spotted the book on his coffee table and I slipped it into my purse, knowing that he would never read it. He insisted that he still wanted the book, and oh please, could I just give him a bit more time to read it. Sure, I said, leaving the book on his kitchen counter. I never heard from him again. I begged, I pleaded with him to give me closure, I told him that it was fine if he didn’t want to see me anymore, in fact, it was for the best. But not like this. I called, I texted, I emailed. No answer. One of the last transmissions on my end was boiled down to basics. “I no longer want to talk. I just want my book back.” It had so much sentimental value, and in light of what happened to the woman who gave it to me, I felt despondent over the whole deal.
I finally gave up hope of ever getting the book back. Then something really obvious finally sunk in, that the book was replaceable. I was clinging so tightly to what I didn’t have, in material terms, the book, in emotional terms, the love model, that I lost sight of what I still had that was truly meaningful. THE NOTE. And my love model wasn’t broken, I just needed to see that it had been rewritten. Grace had given me a new love template, one on how to love yourself. Not to get all Whitney Houston on your ass (too soon?), but it really is the greatest love of all. You can’t love anyone else the right way until you know how to treat yourself with respect….it sets the bar for what you deserve, like being surrounded by those who want you to have the best of everything.
“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” Anais Nin reminds me that you must always remain in motion, even if it means giving up ideas you feel are part of your DNA. And to do so with grace is to wholeheartedly embrace being alive.