I had a brief conversation last week with someone I knew a long time ago. For the longest time – years, decades – I have thought of him as the bad penny that just reappeared at the worst possible moments. When I was feeling low and unhappy. When I was bitter and angry. When I was feeling forlorn, forsaken, and forgotten. When I forgot that I had faith without organized religion.
Always it seemed when I was at my worst and my most vulnerable for very stupid actions, this person would appear again on the horizon. Almost always it would end very badly for me. I would spend money I did not have. i would say hateful things to the adults closest to me. I would be impatient and less caring to my children. I would be left with enormous guilt and major mess to clean up after the fact. The axis on my world would tip and I would lose my bearings and be even worse for wear after the fact.
For the longest time I blamed him for my self-destruction. He was just a trigger; I was combustion waiting to happen.
A few months before M and I got married, this person appeared again on my horizon. I made the mistake of meeting him for a drink after work one night and within a few days my dissatisfaction with being M’s girlfriend had evolved into a full-blown break-up plan. After tax season. I could not deal with the drama of leaving while in the middle of tax season and the promised onset of March madness. It was 1998, and we were approaching the 2 year anniversary of my daughter’s death. In those years it took me bracing myself from January 1 until the end of March to get through her birthday and anniversary of her passing. So I was already feeling weakened and vulnerable to the bad ideas bear when he called me out of the blue. I’m in town for just one night, let’s get a drink, talk, catch up … and dumbly I agreed.
I do not even remember what we talked about. What is always more telling is all we did not talk about – our childhood, our families, our secrets. But he is and was a walking, talking reminder of the darkest years of my life. He knew and never told. He knew because it happened to him too. But he never told, never admitted it, actually denied it when asked directly.
Denied knowing it was happening to me, even though he knew from personal experience. He was the older and wiser who told me to be silent and never tell.
Our secrets were like an invisible tether that kept us connected yet mostly as far apart as possible. Our parents were close friends, neighbors, and after both our families left the old neighborhood we were thrown together most holidays. Until we both grew up and were no longer required to be present at holidays. It was both a relief and a concern not to count on having to see him and pretend to be happy at the same time.
Until last week it had been probably 10 years since I had seen or talked to him. After M and I got married I grew enough of a spine to no longer return his calls. After M and I separated and reconciled I finally told him to never contact me again. For the most part, he has respected that request, if only because M threatened to toss him bodily if he ever sought me out without my express invitation. Last year when my mom died, he sent me a sympathy card and a box of letters and photographs mom had written and sent him through the years. It was the only condolence card I did not acknowledge, much less with a personal note.
A few weeks ago he texted me out of the blue. He was dying of liver cancer and wanted to say goodbye and to tell me he was sorry. After 40 years, he is finally ready or able to apologize to me.
I let it sit. I talked to M about it, cried, raged, and felt all the angry hurt all over again. Part of me still felt hateful and wanted him to die, felt he deserved it and worse. I immediately felt horribly guilty for that, and in the end, it was my guilt over wishing him dead that made me call.
We had a brief conversation last week, as he is weak and faltering quickly. He said he was so sorry, that he should have been truthful all those years ago. I would like to say we had a Hallmark moment, where I burst into tears and forgave him, but I am not much for Hallmark moments and did not feel it in the moment. Instead I asked him if he was being cared for adequately, if there was anything he needed, anything M and I could do or get for him. He was silent for a long minute, then chuckled softly and said no, the staff took good care and he would soon be beyond caring. He told me he was proud of me, had always been proud of me, and that M is a lucky man, my kids fortunate to have me. He wished me peace and a happy life, then handed the phone to his caretaker to end the call. I was unsettled by the conversations on a multitude of levels.
I got the call he passed this evening. While I was eating Monday night pizza with my son and my husband, this childhood friend slipped off to his next great adventure.
I feel … nothing. Everything. My heart wants to burst and my eyes want to water, but not for this older, frailer man who I spoke to last week. My heart breaks for the innocence we lost and the young man I have resented and hated and blamed for so many things for too many years. He was only a few years older than I, just a little boy, and far too young to be my white knight and protector. For so many years it was far easier to blame him than to look squarely at what happened and the adult who harmed and stole innocence. It was easier to blame my childhood friend, also a victim, than the parents whose ignorance and embarrassment scarred me so deeply.
My life is good now. Stable, happy, content. I have a husband I love, children I adore. Good and caring friends. My spendthrift ways have been curbed, our non-mortgage debt conquered. I do have a rich life, including a blog! I work at the diet and exercise, and mostly I am succeeding. The decision to banish this old friend was correct for me, at the time and under the circumstances. He never married despite being engaged twice, and if he ever fathered children I was never told. He was kind to my sister in her own battle with cancer and to my mother in her later years.
Through much of my adult life I have worked hard to resolve the abuse as much as I could, but he was a trigger I could never completely conquer, so he had to be banished from my life. It was not fair, but it was the most generous I could be. And now he has gone, and I fleetingly wonder if my opportunity to finally understand another aspect of the why of it is gone as well. As I type this I realize no, there was no further resolution there. Such madness, such cruelty is beyond explanation, even to or especially to those of us who survived.
Rest in peace, Rob. I do forgive you. In this, better late than never.