Friday, March 14, 2003

I dated a man for a year and a half during my junior and senior years in collge. (I'll call him Jake.) I loved him with all my heart. He loved, me, too. He worked all over the middle of the USA doing construction for a prefab house-building company. This is how much he loved me: On Friday nights, after 60 or 80 hours of working, instead of riding with his crew-mates all the way back to his hometown forty miles up the road from where I lived, he'd have them drop him off on the highway two miles from my house in town. He'd walk all that way lugging his week's laundry in his duffle bag, along with his lunchpail and sometimes even a small gift for me or my son. He'd arrive at our door exhausted, sweaty, grimy, but with a big grin on his face. On Monday morning, I'd drive him out to the highway with a bagful of clean clothes and a pailful of sandwiches and fruit, and drop him off for the crew to pick up for the week.

I would have married him in a heartbeat, but he was chronically insecure about money, and was saving it as fast as he could, and I was a poverty-level single parent college student. I didn't want to get married before I'd got my degree, anyway. Finally, his financial insecurity led him to leave the state, to move halfway across the country to work for a friend of his who was launching a big-deal new food-processing equipment company. This was the death knell for our relationship, because he was not a long-distance communicator, and I was insecure about love. I'd go for weeks without hearing from him, meanwhile sending him letters, tapes and cards daily. When I'd finally break down and call him, he was always amazed that it had been so long since he'd written or called me. I went through hell. The "friend" was turning out to be, as I wish I'd seen before, a lying sociopathic asshole, and was using and abusing Jake. But you couldn't tell Jake that; after a lifetime of grinding poverty and exhausting manual labor, he couldn't give up the hope that this was his ship coming in at last. Finally, when eight weeks went by and I heard nothing from him, I called him up and more or less gave him an ultimatum: a call a week, or a letter, or I'm finished. I can't stand this. When he equivocated, I told him finis.

Then I went through a year and a half of more hell, the hell of having dumped someone I truly loved. But I would not tolerate playing second fiddle to his friend/employer's nefarious tune. Jake called me once, about a year after I'd graduated from college and moved back to my hometown. Just making sure I was all right, he said. It was a short conversation.

A few years later, I met the man who is now my husband. I'd recovered from the college-years trauma. We started a life together, and I was madly in love with him. We had ups and downs, but since I'm still married to him now 18 years later, I guess we've done well, and though the colors of our love have changed, they are just as vivid now as ever. Anyway, when we'd been married about 3 - 4 years, I got a phone call from my best friend from those same college years. She knew what I went through after Jake left, and after I'd broken up with him. She was calling to say he had called her wanting to get in touch with me if I wanted to. She said "He's got MS. I could hardly understand him on the phone. He gave me his phone number to give you so it would be up to you to call or not, but if you're going to, my advice is: Do it soon."

To this day, writing those words sends a heavy heat of shock and horror through me, and my eyes fill up with tears. Then, it was even worse. Guilt, pain, horror, despair, all filled my body for days. Of course I told my husband what was going on, after the girlfriend called. He expressed sincere sympathy, and the subject was dropped. I went around in a fog, trying to hide the depth and intensity of my emotions from my husband. After all, this was a *past* lover, someone I'd recovered from before I met my husband, and my loyalty was by right and moral, owed to my husband. Besides, I didn't want to hurt his feelings by showing how devastated I was over the bad news about another man. It took me several days to decide to call Jake.

My girlfriend was right. I could hardly understand him on the phone, but with patience and caring we got through the conversation. He apologized for having left me adrift all those years before. I told him I'd long ago forgiven him for that and hoped he'd forgiven me for breaking up with him; he said he never blamed me. He'd left his "friend's" employ, having finally figured out he was getting screwed, and gone to work for the Post Office. He'd worked for them for a few years when he was diagnosed with MS, and apparently the disease progressed rapidly after that. He said his church and his P.O. co-workers had been a great support system, and his elderly mother, now widowed, had moved out there to take care of him. When we hung up, I believe it was in a spirit of mutual love and concern.

After that, my pre-occupation deepened. I have too good an imagination; hearing his voice had summoned up memories of his physical presence: his walk, his touch, his smell, his body. Knowing what MS was doing to him tortured me. But still I couldn't say anything to my husband, especially not these sensual memories. And the thought that I could have been married to Jake, and might have had to *be there now* going through it with him, tortured me more: a big part of me was hideously relieved that I didn't have to do it. Imagination was bad enough. I wrote to him about once a month, cheerful little note cards with short reports of current events in my life and expressions of warm regard. His mother would write back thanking me and saying how they cheered Jake up.

After a couple of months of this I took the whole thing to my AA meeting. It all poured out, all of it, along with about a gallon of tears. When I finished I looked up and my friends' faces were full of concern and a few were crying. One of the newer guys leaned forward and said, "Man, you must be one wonderful person. Nobody I ever dated would ever have wanted to talk to me under those circumstances." My jaw dropped; I didn't feel very wonderful, I felt like a piece of shit. One by one all my group spoke, as they always did. Even those who didn't address my situation, had something profound and moving to say. It helped. One of them said, "I think your husband would be more understanding than you think." I couldn't believe that; I feared losing him more than losing my life, and it seemed just too risky. I'd try to work through this grief myself, and not bother him with it.

A few days later we went out to eat at one of those "blue-hair cafeteria" places. Jake had been with me all day, and by the time we sat down I was near tears, but fighting them desperately. This makes me smile now, but I really thought I'd kept a pretty good poker face. But as I unwrapped my silverware, my husband leaned across the table and said, "I don't know why, when a love affair ends, we think that's the end of love."

No one has ever said anything kinder or more loving to me.

About six months later Jake's mom responded to a letter with the inevitable: Jake had died in his sleep. He rests, of course, in a treasured place in my memory.

The human heart knows no boundaries.

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