Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 13, 2004
Why can’t I get over my bitterness at my bad luck?
It seems crazy to write you at this time because actually I am happier right now than I’ve ever been in my life. I am engaged to a wonderful man and we are going to be married in the spring. He is 53, handsome, with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a truly sweet nature. I am 45. I’m crazy about him and I never thought we’d end up together. When we met, in 1995, we were both married to other people.
I know it sounds like a convenient coincidence, but both of us really were married to unfaithful, abusive people. When “Tony” and I first found ourselves thrown together, we quickly developed intense feelings for each other, yet when we talked about it, we decided not to act on it. Neither of us wanted an affair, for a lot of reasons. So the years went by and we talked on the phone occasionally, or met for coffee once in awhile. In 1997 I told Tony I couldn’t see him at all anymore — I was trying so hard to make my marriage work. I had two small children (Tony has two children as well, but they’re older) and every time I saw him, I wanted to be near him again and I felt I couldn’t “do the right thing” — i.e., concentrate on my husband.
Well, eventually Tony got divorced, and in 2000 I finally left my abusive husband. Now Tony and I are together, and after dating for several years we have taken the plunge and decided to marry. I can’t believe it finally came true — it’s like a dream. He’s the love of my life and he feels the same way about me. Our kids get along great and each set of kids loves the other person.
So, Cary — why am I writing you? This is why. And dear God, I really want to know whether other people feel the same way. I hope you can tell me. I can’t seem to get over wondering why Tony and I didn’t meet sooner, didn’t have a chance to fall in love and marry sooner, didn’t have a chance to have children together. Here’s something funny for you: We grew up in this midsize Southern city only about three miles away from each other. For the first 25 years of my life, Tony and I never lived more than five miles away from each other. He dated a girl in my neighborhood; I often rode my bike past his house (never knowing). Yet we didn’t meet. In 1989 he was invited to my brother’s wedding, but didn’t attend; he was separated from his wife at the time and could have met me then — I was a bridesmaid. It would have been a perfect time to meet — if we had, we could have married and had children. I have the strangest feeling that Tony and I have crossed paths a hundred times in our lifetimes. Yet we didn’t meet. And by the time we did — and by the time we finally got untangled from our bad marriages — it was too late to have a child together. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have found him at all — most people go their whole lives and don’t feel this.
Cary, I can’t seem to let this go. It hurts so much that I’ll never have this man’s child, that I wasn’t his first wife, that I wasn’t there when he was young, that I was with other people, wasting my time. I find myself HATING the woman he married, who bore him two children and treated him terribly. I happened to see a snapshot of that wedding once, and the image is burned in my brain. Why wasn’t that me? Why aren’t his kids mine? Why aren’t my kids his? Why didn’t we have that wild youth together? Why couldn’t it be me in his arms? Why didn’t we meet sooner? Why? Why? I even find myself, for brief flashes, terribly resenting his younger child for being the daughter of her mother and not of me. It’s breaking my heart. I was taught that God leads you to the “one” you are meant to marry. So why didn’t it happen? Yes — we (hopefully) have 25 years of happiness ahead of us. He says to concentrate on that. So why can’t I let go of the agonizing jealousy, and the wondering why it will never be 50 years together? I can’t stop feeling like it’s sooooo late, and it’s not fair. And how do I get past the jealousy of thinking of him having children with someone else? Please say something to help me get over this. Does anyone else feel this way? I can’t bring myself to ask even my closest friends, for fear that nobody else suffers through this!
In Love With Tony
Dear In Love With Tony,
Some things happen for reasons so random, complex and indeterminate that to question them is fruitless. How could you possibly retrace your childhood to learn why you never met? Your bicycle routes through the neighborhood, your trips to the store, the parties you might both have attended: All that is swept away into the past. It’s tempting to try to retrieve it, as though the past resided in some vast TiVo and could be replayed to pick out the details. Replay that scene again: How close did you come to him there? What were the missed opportunities?
But without an accurate record, we replay the past in our heads and, whether we mean to or not, we refashion it to our liking; each time we replay it, our wishes reshape it until we come to believe what we want to believe — that we really were only a hairsbreadth away from winning the Nobel Prize, that an Olympic gold medal was just beyond our reach, that it was only the barest of chances that prevented us from meeting and marrying the man of our dreams. And then, because we have come to believe that fate has not favored us, the suffering begins: Why, Lord, why? When I was so close?
By this time your feelings, though real, are based on a fiction. You were never really so close to being with this man. It only seems so in retrospect. At the time, you were doing what you had to do, and so was he. There were children to be looked after, and relationships to conclude. You had made some choices that had unexpected consequences, that led to unforeseeable difficulties. You worked through those difficulties. You are now grieving for some lost time. But you did the right thing as long as you could. And now you have found some happiness. Your happiness is tinged with sadness about what might have been. But it is still happiness. Having been through so much, you are perhaps a little greedy for more of this happiness. You think of what life might have been like if this happiness had been there all along. It’s understandable to think of such things. But do not let such thoughts torture you. There is nothing you can do about the past now. Let it be.
Spend some time feeling what you feel and remembering what you remember — not for what it means, but just for what it is. Out of this, a story may emerge that explains what happened. Stories are a kind of mercy. So after looking over your past you tell a story. Perhaps it begins as a polite apology to the present, for being unavoidably detained in the past. Or perhaps you say, “There was a raging storm. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and then I was rescued.” You say you were held captive as a slave until finally set free by strong hands. You say there was some sorcery involved: A spell was cast over you; you were blinded and could not walk away until one day the spell was lifted and the sun shone and you could see and you walked out of enslavement into freedom. You don’t know why you were enslaved, or who put the spell on you, or why your rescue happened when it did. But now you are free, and grateful. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. I was lost but now I’m found.