“Was it love, or was it the idea of being in love?”–Pink Floyd
The tag line for this blog, “confessions of a self-reforming loser in love,” was inspired by a conversation with my brother about a year and a half ago. We were en route to my old house so he could pick up the plethora of psychology books left to him by our cousin, Rachelle, who passed away a few years earlier. The house was on the market, I was clearing it out, and Danny was in town for the weekend. He had met my new boyfriend, B, at a dinner the night before.
I asked him what he thought. “He seems like a great guy,” he said. Then silence. Deafening silence. “And?” I prompted. Pause. “Just don’t rush into anything,” he said. Umm . . . OK. “What do you mean? ” I probed. He continued, “You’re a devoted mother, a smart woman, and you’ve accomplished a lot in your career.” Pause . . . “But, well . . .” Pause. “You don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to relationships.”
DONG! Went the anvil. (It was a time of many anvils.) You can tell an understatement when you hear one. So being an unrelenting truth-seeker who never knows when to leave well enough alone, I continued my quest: “So what you’re really saying is, you think I’m a loser in love.” He replied, “Umm . . . yeah, I wouldn’t put it in those terms, but I guess that’s basically what I’m saying.”
You know in the cartoons where Wile E. Coyote gets pissed and he’s got the steam coming out of his ears? I became Wile E. I tried to defend myself, but it was no use. To the outer universe, his version of me was dead-on: For nearly 40 years, I never seemed to be able to get the love thing right. Picture my face, in the Love File, with big, red, capital letters stamped diagonally across: “LOSER!” No, I hadn’t gotten it right when I was supposed to, as my brother had, wedded at 26. Harrumph. Easy for you to judge, you up there on your high horse, I thought, steam spewing. How’s the view from your happily-married-the-first-time-to-the-right-person perch?
The “new me”–the evolved, therapized version, the one who ditched her bad marriage–was annoyed by the assumption that just because I hadn’t gotten it right didn’t mean I wouldn’t this time. Didn’t I get any credit for learning something, some points for personal development (my brother is, after all, a psychologist)? OK, maybe I was the girl who cried love so many times before, only to see or make it fall apart months, sometimes years later. But did that mean that it would never come together for me? Just because I was a loser in love, did that mean I was destined to remain so for the rest of my years?
As luck would have it, no. While I am no expert–in fact, quite the opposite–I do know this: Love shows up when it damned well feels like it. Love is not about shoulds or proper timing or what’s best for you at this very moment in your life. It doesn’t know its place. Sometimes it hides or runs for cover. But your heart knows when it’s there. And when it finds you, do yourself a favor and let it in.
I found B in the best of all possible places: online. It was Thanksgiving week 2008. The flirtation with the old friend having run its course, I felt ready to get out there and meet new people, despite the fact that one of my friends was adamant that I wait two years before dating. (Two years??? My therapist disagreed. He believed I had been sleepwalking through my marriage for over five years, so there was no harm in getting out there now. I figured he knew more. Besides, I liked his answer better.) The last time I was single in the mid-1990’s, online dating was in its infancy; it seemed to be the land of the lost. But since then, a number of people I’ve known have happily found their partners that way–and I would not describe any of them as desperate or even lonely hearted. I was willing to give it a try.
When I saw his profile, again, the anvil. But it wasn’t the photos that drew me in like quicksand–the one on the opening screen was black and white and, though I liked its artistry, it was hard to make out his features. No, what got me was his profile description. He wrote beautifully; in just a few sentences, my heart took in that he was sweet, funny, smart, humble, a devoted dad, and kind of shy. We had common interests–hiking, photography, reading, movies, animals. His son was a year older than my daughter, and he, too, was separated. He sounded so . . . sweet. Adorable. Someone I really wanted to meet. (After which I clicked through to the other pictures. Then I really wanted to meet him.)
So I sent him a “teaser” e-mail. But I didn’t hear back. At least, I thought I hadn’t heard back. I was disappointed, quite. A couple of weeks went by, and I decided to sign up for a six-month membership. It was then that I saw his reply, which came soon after I sent the teaser. I didn’t realize you had to sign up for the service to get the reply! Doh! I wrote back quickly, excited and nervous. Meanwhile, he had just about given up on online dating and was about to cancel his membership, but decided to check in one more time. And there was my reply to his reply in his inbox.
The rest, it seems, is history. We had a magical first date on Boxing Day and then didn’t see each other for nearly two weeks, because I was off to Florida the next day; upon my return I learned I had a double ear infection and was sidelined. But while I was away we spoke every night–he was my New Year’s Eve date via cellphone–and when I got back we spoke or e-mailed every night, and by the time our second date happened, I was pretty sure I was falling in love.
What makes this love different from the others? I’m older. I’m smarter. I’ve made enough mistakes by now, and yes, I’ve learned from them. And I decided that this time, I would look for someone who would love me for me, and who I would love for them. No molding, no putting anyone on pedestals.
As I write, it’s been nearly two years, and I have no doubt that B is the love of my life. The more time we spend together, the more certain I become. Our relationship was tested rigorously this past year with E’s health crisis, and time and again, he was my voice of reason, my rock. His support was unwavering. Lesser men would have said sayonara a few months in. Not him.
So can the Girl Who Cried Love actually find the real thing? Yes, she can! And she did. Even my brother now agrees.
As you can gather from what I’ve been writing about, these past two years have been extraordinary. It’s as if somewhere in the middle of 2008, the big, red curtain on my life’s Act One scurried to its close. Then, a short time later, Act Two trumpeted in; the curtains brushed open to an entirely new setting. Our main characters were the same, though one was relegated to the wings; and new characters emerged, their importance to be revealed.
It’s been high drama ever since, not fully by my own design. Several key plot points later, I reflect on what I’ve been offered that I have appreciated the most: the gift of listening.
My senior-year high school English teacher, the fabulous Mr. Franke, used to go around the classroom asking difficult, sometimes impossible questions about whatever we were reading–King Lear, The Bible, or one of the Greek tragedies, perhaps. No one wanted to be wrong, lest they get a zero for class participation that day. So most kids–even our top-ranked students–would just reply, “I don’t know, Mr. Franke.” Since I clearly was not going to be the class valedictorian, I figured, “Aw, hell! May as well try.” When he called on me, I’d offer something, anything; occasionally I’d hit on something that would garner an approving nod. But more often than not, he would hear me out, then deadpan (with a bemused smirk), “OK, I think I’ve heard enough psycho-babble for the day” and move onto someone else.
I’ve been doing more than my share of psycho-babbling these past few years. And while I think there’s meaning there (on most days), it is high time to say “thank you” for your ears and your attention.
Really listening to someone–without feeling the need to interject, offer comparisons to your own life, or solve the problem–seems to be an increasingly rare skill today. But it’s a beautiful act and one I think about a lot and try to emulate.
In the days of Jane Austen, the art of conversation was revered. But in the world of tweets and gadgets, fully engaging yourself in doing just one thing is almost unusual. Listening with your whole self requires empathy, patience, and self-control. But when you really take someone in, let them tell their story, and offer comfort by focusing on what they’re saying, it is one of the most generous things you can do. Without saying anything, you are showing them that they are important, that what they have to say matters and that they’re worthy of your time. It is, quite simply, an act of love.
So it’s the holiday season, and a good time to reflect on all of the generosities that have come my way. And given these high drama years, what I’m probably most grateful for are the friends and family who have been there, allowing me to vent, sometimes just psycho-babble, sometimes more, offering advice when needed, but often just listening. More than anything, thanks for that. I look forward to continuing to share the Second Act with you.
We are hard-wired for the happy ending. Maybe this is just human nature, American culture, or maybe it’s Disney’s fault. But I can’t offer you a happy ending right now; I can tell you we’re in a happier in-between space.
That’s the snapshot of our lives right now. There are more smiles and more laughter. The abject horror of our day-to-day reality has given way to stiller waters. But there is also trepidation of what’s next; the uncertainty is a challenge unto itself. The biggest unknown of all, of course, is whether E will continue on her upward climb; whether this will end in full recovery, continue to require ongoing management, or will regress to instability. The in-between space is hard to navigate and even harder to explain in three sentences or less, which is what the average person hopes to hear when they ask how she’s doing. But it’s trickier than elevator pitch timing would allow.
One of my oldest friends has had a much more difficult health crisis with her son, who just completed treatment for leukemia. I remember when we last spoke several months ago she told me that his treatments would end in September. Trying to be supportive, I offered, “I bet you’ll be so relieved.” No, mostly she feared that she would fall apart when his treatments were completed. Though his prognosis is very promising–a very high percentage achieve full recovery–come September they would enter the five-year wait-and-see phase before they could say for sure that he was cured.
Sometimes when you emerge from a crisis, it’s scary to look back or forward. As for us, we are doing lots better. E still needs her weekly shot and a pill every night that helps the shot work better. She is off the heavy-duty blood product, gamma globulins (IVIG) and the nasty steroids. (That, in and of itself, is cause for celebration.) Our once-weekly visits to the hospital are now monthly; the weeks in-between, an at-home nurse administers her medication. Her numbers have been high enough that there are no more restrictions on her activities, so she has been able to get back to karate, dance, physical education and outdoor recess at school. In many ways, she seems like every other kid.
But not exactly. I still need to check her for signs of bleeding every couple of days. She needs to take it easy when she gets a cold or a virus so her levels don’t take a nosedive. I still worry every day that she will wake up and tell me she feels something in her mouth. This is our reality.
We are both make-the-best-of-it people. But there is an emotional hangover to this kind of trauma. Physically she’s so much better. Emotionally, she’s improved quite a bit, too. The bouts of steroid-induced irrationality have given way to a much calmer child. But all those months of supreme bravery have taken their toll: She still grapples with mercurial ups and downs, is prone to tantrums and has trouble regulating her emotions. It’s as if her psyche has reached its quota. So we are rebuilding, but just like her illness, her emotional health will take time to fully heal.
I am hopeful that I will be able to report a happy ending . . . we’re just not quite there yet. When I look back to where we were, several times having witnessed near-death bleeding, it’s a nightmare that won’t go away. At those moments, the voice inside my head would say, “She will be OK. This is bottom. It’s uphill from here.” It took a few bottoms before we finally started clawing our way up. But I believed, in my heart, that we would get through it. And we’ll get through this, too.
One of my earlier blogs, “A Marriage Not Worth Saving: Signs That It’s More Than a Passing Pissed-Offedness” dealt with some of the litmus tests I used to determine that my marriage was, in fact, definitely not worth saving. A comment from a friend, though, led to a further discussion that I’d like to chime in on: When is it better for the kids for parents to stay together? And when it is better for the kids for parents to call it quits?
I am by no means an advocate for divorce. My parents split up when I was four and I swore I wouldn’t put my children through what my brother and I experienced. It was the 1970s and back then, the whole “amicable split” concept was pretty much unheard of, at least in suburban New Jersey. To our parents’ generation, divorce was sport; extra points for whoever best mirrored “War of the Roses” (and lived to tell about it). Forget about the whole ‘don’t put the kids in the middle of it’ idea that we espouse today. We were de facto hockey pucks.
My mom used to tell me that she left my father in no small part for us, that we would have been much worse off had they stayed together. Many times I tried to envision that scenario, but couldn’t fathom it–largely because I couldn’t even remember them together. So I never understood what she meant, and in some ways, thought that she was simply justifying her decision to assuage her guilt. Maybe in part she was, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t right.
Now I get it. Yes, I ended my marriage because of me–I was terribly unhappy, not in love and our relationship was neither sustainable nor healthy. It swallowed me up; I became a shell of who I used to be. But I also did it for my daughter. Somewhere along my path, it became clear that staying together would be one of the worst things I could do for her.
I have tremendous respect and admiration for couples who have problems but find ways to work it out because the love is still there, under the rubble somewhere. But in my view, couples who stay together solely for the kids’ sake–without the love, respect and trust that marriage is supposed to be built on–are doing those same kids’ a huge disservice.
Why? Enter Connie, a woman I worked with over a decade ago. Wickedly funny and smart, with an inability to mince words, she was then in her late thirties, married with one child and expecting her second. Connie told me that the most important way she could be a good mother was to put her relationship with her husband first. That seemed strange to me at the time–still in my twenties, I hadn’t wrapped my head around the whole ‘having a husband’ thing, much less a family. Whoa! But her words stuck with me, and I see the truth in them now.
Then there were a number of friends I’ve known over the years–more than a focus group, less than a quantitative study–whose parents stayed together despite the fact that they were miserable. In some cases, they were biding their time until the kids were out of the house; in others, they just stayed put, inert and unhappy, until death did them part. Uniformly, these children knew of their parents’ unhappiness–sometimes at very young ages–and fervently wished they had split up instead of staying together and spreading their tension and hostility around like a disease.
Then there was the grandmother of one of E’s friends who left her husband, but only after her three children were grown. (Her daughter, a friend of mine, belongs to the aforementioned group.) Now close to 70, she is living the life she imagined–traveling, spending time with friends, and being a devoted mother and grandmother. She practically hi-fived me when I told her of my separation, and said so many times she wished she had left her ex when her kids were young instead of waiting.
Then there was my mom. Remarried now, she was a single mom for all of my childhood. And no, life wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t unhappy. She had a solid network of friends, loved to travel, had varied interests, built her own business and on most days, seemed to relish her role as mom. She was strong.
From all of this, I realized that if leaving the marriage meant E would have a more vibrant and happier mother (and hopefully eventually a happier father), wouldn’t that be better for her in the end? And, in the best of all possible worlds, if I could model for her what being in a healthy, loving relationship looked like–wouldn’t that be a good thing? But even if that didn’t happen, if I were happier, wouldn’t I be a better mother? It seemed to me that all of that would be better than what our “intact” reality had been.
Of course, at some point in their lives all children of divorce dream of having their parents back together. I do not mean to belittle this. It’s real, and it breaks my heart to think of E’s heartbreak. It’s been two and a half years, and I know she still struggles with this loss. But my hope–and strong belief–is that eventually, this heartbreak will give way to a deeper understanding of love. I hope she will learn from this to choose someone who will be a partner to her, who will respect and honor her for who she is, and she will have the capacity to reciprocate. And mostly, I hope that she will never, ever settle.
“Squeeze my hand if you’re scared,” E tells me. It is 5am and we are huddled together in bed, braving a violent thunderstorm. Terrified since lightning struck our home a few years before, I was trying to give comfort to her, my seven-year-old little dynamo. But she called me on it. She knew: I was probably more scared than she was.
One day I will learn whether she felt my fear about her illness much the same way, whether she saw through the brave face and semi-calm demeanor. It was a Saturday night, one year ago exactly–December 5, 2009–that E was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disorder in which her body’s antibodies kill off its platelets. Two days shy of Pearl Harbor Day, this was our own version of a day ‘that will live in infamy’ . . . the day that changed everything.
That morning, she woke up again with a bloody nose. This happened the night before, but it wasn’t excessive, not witnessing any other symptoms, I chalked it up to the dry heat. But on this morning, there was some dried blood on her pillow and her legs had several bruises with tiny pink dots surrounding them. And the sore on her lip–I assumed it was a chapped lip aggravated by biting, which she often did–seemed to have mushroomed overnight. No temperature, though, and she swore she felt just fine. She was aching to get to her karate testing that day to get her yellow belt. I agreed, but told her we would need to go to the doctor immediately afterward.
Once at the testing, another clue emerged. My little firecracker, so intent on getting to yellow, was positively phoning it in. She had zero energy, was barely able to complete any of the moves. I turned to B, my boyfriend (more on B later) and said, “Look at her. I’m worried.” He agreed. This wasn’t like her at all.
At the after-care facility later that afternoon, the doctor couldn’t tell me what it was, but told me I needed to get to the closest hospital’s ER for blood work immediately. I asked him what the worst-case scenario was. He said, “meningitis.” Gulp.
We left quickly. The snow that had started to fall earlier was starting to stick; visibility was poor. I am still unsure, given my sky-high anxiety and the poor road conditions, how I got us to the ER–a good 15 minutes away–safely. It was one of those out-of-body experiences where you just autopilot it, I guess.
The ER at Vassar was quick and professional. They got us in right away. Once the doctor came in, I asked them the same question about worst-case scenarios. This time, the reply was, “ITP.” It took four nurses to hold E down for the blood test. (We later joked that she got her yellow belt that morning and got to use it that evening.) Forty-five minutes later, with a platelet count of 3,000 (normal range is 150,000 to 400,000), the doctor confirmed that she did, in fact, have ITP and required immediate attention. An ambulance was on its way to take us down to Westchester Medical, where they had the specialists and a bed ready for E to receive treatment.
That was last December. Since then, we’ve logged in dozens of trips to the ER and overnights at the hospital, nail-biting moments awaiting results. On our second trip back–a little over a week after we were released–she was given a bone marrow test to make sure it wasn’t leukemia. But the doctor–a star but not a procedure guy–failed to give me the beeper to alert me when she was done, so what should have been a 15-minute wait went nearly an hour as they tried to locate me (umm . . . I was in the waiting room.) I was terrified that something happened to her, but when they finally did find me, the news was good: There was no evidence of cancer. It was definitely ITP.
We celebrated several of the major holidays–New Years, her birthday–in the hospital. As the months went by and our trips became more commonplace, I learned who to trust and who needed to be managed. Above-and-beyond nurses helped us as we endured more than one apathetic resident and waited for the doctor’s daily rounds to hear our fate. Were we getting out that afternoon? Or one more night? What next?
By early spring, it became clear that hers was a particularly bad case and needed more specialized care than the doctors at Westchester could give her. We defected to the top ITP doctor in New York City, a specialist who had experience using the latest treatments out of the biotech industry. The promise of better managing E’s condition and getting her off the steroids/IVIG bandwagon and avoiding a splenectomy, which one particularly hard-core doctor was advocating. But a spleen is not a vestigial organ, so the promise of this new treatment–called N Plate–offered new hope. I was game.
We struggled through the spring and half of the summer until the new treatment finally started working. I had to give up work for months to be there for her, a big sacrifice both professionally and financially. (My mom stepped in to help financially. Otherwise I honestly don’t know what we would have done.) In the spring, I was diagnosed with depression. Reluctantly, I went on medication for three and a half months, enduring the side effects to get me out of the fog and get clear-headed again.
No matter what, I made sure that every day, we found something to laugh about together. If I couldn’t fix her physically, I could use all my mommy muscle to keep her spirits up. On the good days, I planned play dates and activities so she always had something to look forward to. It wasn’t hard: We have been blessed to have such a strong and loving network of friends and family who made themselves available to us and went out of their way to help out. Hillary was right: It really does take a village. Sometimes you don’t know it, though, until you need all the villagers.
If there is a silver lining to having a child with a life-threatening illness, the biggest comfort has been that this has been a shared journey. As parents, we all want our children to know that we are there for them, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Children take comfort in the knowledge that we would do anything for them if the need presented itself. ITP allowed me to demonstrate to E that I would put my life aside to take care of her. She knows I have her back.
As I write, we are not out of the woods yet, but our lives have vastly improved. She is stable enough that our once-weekly hospital visits are now monthly; the at-home nurse administers E’s shot in the intermittent weeks. Getting our time back has meant a return to a mostly normal life for both of us–school and activities for her, freelance work (and the job of getting more freelance work) for me.
My biggest hope is that someday soon they will tell us she has fully recovered. And while we’re not there yet, today didn’t just mark E’s one-year anniversary with ITP. It was also the day she got her orange belt. And did so with gusto.
NOTES ON HER ILLNESS: In children under 10, ITP most often happens soon after recovering from a virus. She had H1N1 two weeks before, and we believe this was the trigger that began our most terrifying journey. For most children in this age group–80 percent–ITP goes away on its own within six months. E unfortunately has fallen into the 20 percent category of children who have chronic ITP, which means it may or may not go away, or it may go into remission only to return to her later in life (in particular, for girls with ITP menstruation and pregnancy can trigger a recurrence.) Every ITP case is different; there is no set pattern. Time will tell.