Thirty-eight years, three months and some change. That’s how long it’s taken me to understand what I think love really is.
Love seems to be such a different thing to different people. I possess you, I resent you, I’m responsible for you, I want to take your pants off, I want you to whisper sweet nothings to me or feed me bullshit, I care about you and your concerns, I want to help you, I want to control you, I want massive power over you, even power of life and death.….I’ve seen people define all of these as love.
What’s the best way to explain the conclusion, (the temporary conclusion, for I seem to re-learn it, often) that I’ve come to? A bit of history, an anecdote or two (as usual) and then a summary, perhaps.
My parents checked out of my life, mentally, when I was fourteen. My father fell apart, and became a severe alcoholic. I never knew when I would arrive home to find that he had fallen asleep in his chair, a burning cigarette falling to the floor to make black spots in the oak. (Or would I just arrive home to find smouldering ruins?) Or perhaps he’d be passed out in the hallway, so I would have to step over him to reach my room. My mother was a very powerful actor in the game of “We’re fine, everything’s fine, we're fine, we're fine, we're fine fine fine.” Denial is a strong defense mechanism, and will keep you alive in an emergency, but it will also ruin a family’s ability to express their real emotions, over time. Is this love?
I was introduced the the joys of sex through date rape, at age seventeen. Having no engaged parents with whom to figure out the repercussions of this, I pretended it never happened. Is this love?
I finally came back to the idea that sex might not be too awful after about another five years, when I met my ex-husband. With him, I could laugh, be myself, be touched and actually enjoy it. Well, a little, at least. Is this love?
But slowly, over time, our connection began to erode. He would criticize me, I would hide the part of myself that he criticized. And again, and again, until the me that was inside was just a spark, and I maintained by acting, all the time. I drank, I smoked, I was a social butterfly. I killed the pain with massive amounts of pot and alcohol. Is this love?
Finally I bailed. I ran away, then I spent six months loading butts into a chair lift, two butts every six to eight seconds, eight hours a day. Sometimes I stood all day in a below zero wind chill: literally the most mind-numbing job ever invented. When I was lucky enough to be in the lift shack at the top, I sat and watched people unload, keeping just enough of my attention on the chairs going by to hit the off switch if someone fell. With the rest of my mind, I contemplated the wreckage of my life. Is this love?
I put myself back together, for a while, with the help of some amazing friends, and was touched for the first time by a lover who had no agenda. We both knew we were not a forever thing – he wanted to stay in the mountains, I longed for the city and a return to the university. But it was incredibly sweet, and the first glimpse I ever had that love could, perhaps, be generous, instead of selfish. In the meantime, I let a counselor dig around in the black tar that eroded my memory and emotions, for a while. Is this love?
Finally, a return to school. I flew, that first year. I was on top of the world, alone for the first time and not scared of it, for the first time. Loving my work. Working as a counselor for the local domestic violence shelter. I doubt I pondered, much, on the nature of love, but I also learned how incredibly twisted and ugly it can become. I became a counselor when OJ Simpson and his poor battered, now dead, wife, were in the news a lot. Many people finally got themselves out of scary situations during that time. They realized that not only was he not going to stop beating them, but that they could DIE. I like to think I have a small part in helping some people rescue themselves, but I’ll never know. Is this love?
I met a man, I fell in love. We lived together for three years. July 6, 1997, I got a call late in the evening, my mother had gone in for an operation for likely appendicitis. My father. It was not appendicitis, but cancer, massive, all over her abdomen. I packed the car, drove all night, arrived in her hospital room about 8 am the next day. Yes, this is love.
In the meantime, the man I was living with decided he needed to go back to Eugene. Things had been rocky, and I had said a few times I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but we left it for the time being. The next week, talking to him, I said, look, Larry, if you want to break up with me, do it, but I can’t deal with you hassling me right now. So he did, and we did, and I stayed to take care of my parents. Is this love?
Two months later, I returned to Eugene. All my things, from the house we had shared, had been packed into boxes, stored in the garage, and surprise! He’s now dating my supposed best friend. “Oh Chris, you know we both really love you.” Is this love? Now I’m scrambling to find a place to live, commuting 12 hours almost every weekend to care for a dying parent, deciding I can’t trust EITHER men OR women. Is this love?
Once again, reorganizing the shards of a shredded life.
But here, the story shifts. I had known for a long time I wanted a child, but never thought I had a partner I could be a parent with, effectively. I lived in resentment
, a lot. Not enough love
, not enough support
, not enough attention
. I finally realized I would prefer to be solely responsible, and be a single parent, than live in resentment all the time. Thus Tessie came into my life. Is this love?
I came into it, eyes wide open. I knew that it would be hard work, but I wanted her so badly. As soon as I saw that little bologna loaf, I knew it was love at first sight. Yes, this is love.
But being a parent is also damn hard work. There are times you lie down and cry, because you have lost your temper one….more…time, with a human being who only comes up to your waist. I cry, sometimes, after I’ve yelled at her, because I get so angry, and I feel so guilty with myself for doing it. But parenting is not about perfection, , it is about good enough. Tessie is healthy, happy, very wordy….and she has a temper, like her mama. I am a good enough parent, but I rarely live up to my own standards. Yes, this is love, unconditionally.
But I worked too hard, I drove myself, working full time, trying to be a perfect mother, trying to finish a master’s thesis. Last may, I started to fall apart, again. I let it go too long, this time.
June 4, 2001. I called my family the night before, my sister and father flew from Washington. “You need to get down here, NOW, and take care of Tessie, because I can no longer keep myself safe. I’m afraid I’m going to try to commit suicide, and I need help, NOW.” They came, they talked, Sunday morning, I walked into the psychiatric ward at California Pacific Medical Center, a “voluntary intake”. I asked the family to leave, so I could get used to the idea of being there. I hadn’t slept in weeks, and I was terrified. I am VERY claustrophobic, and the idea of being locked in horrified me. I’m now here, and I CAN’T leave. Is this love?
Three days in the psych ward. Luckily, there was a tiny outdoor courtyard, surrounded by high walls, but I could see the sky and feel the air on my face, at least. My favorite parts were the dwarf (but that’s another story, ask me some other time), and watching my fellow inmates watch TV. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was winning an award, and Nurse Ratchett drove me out of the room. Massive drugs, and thank god, sleeping pills. But I also found out that depression is not madness; I am very sane. Depression is its own scaly, sharp-clawed beast, and I will continue to wrestle with it, as I have to. Is this love?
Back home. Trying to drag myself out of bed every day, but working my ass off, mentally, trying to get healthy again, and this time to KEEP it. Two days a week in counseling. Attending a parent’s group. Keeping Tessie fed. Going home sick, a lot of afternoons, so I could lie under the covers, and hide from pain. In sleep, in detective stories, I would read ALL the time, brain candy, to keep myself from thinking. Is this love?
But oh, how I worked. And slowly, it went from pure faith, that if I just kept slogging, there would maybe be a light at the end of the tunnel, to something else. There was no light when I started, only the hope that at some point there would be. Whatever part of me still has that reptile brain, that ability to fight for survival, was going to fight until I was alive again. Then there was a glimmer of light. A few moments of pleasure, happiness, enjoyment, these nurtured like that tiny flame of a fire starting to go in the pouring down rain. Lean over it, protect it, feed it, whatever you have to do, just don’t waste those matches. Is this love?
On March 23, 2002, I finished my two master’s degrees. Until now, few people had any concept of HOW hard I worked to get to that moment. From June 4, when all I wished for was oblivion, with the Golden Gate bridge singing me its siren song, to that day, when I accomplished something that part of me STILL can’t believe. Is this love?
So finally we get up to today. It’s been a hard week, for a variety of reasons. And after all my ponderings, now I have a better answer. After falling in love with E2, and many of the people I have found on it, I’m starting to not know, but the feel, the answer.
Yes, this is love. Unfortunately or fortunately for all of us, this is all love. All of these things I’ve listed: control, wanting, lust, neediness, caring, abuse, neglect, abandonment, betrayal, rescuing, renewal, faith, hard work and pure cussed determination, all of this is love. I say this, and I tell this story, as a way of illustrating what I mean.
I have fallen back in love with living. Someone recently told me that in a world of the walking dead, I shine with my aliveness. This comment made me laugh, aloud, because a year ago, I was so close to walking death, that now I eat every day with a ravenous appetite. Looking into the abyss, but managing to pull myself back from it, has allowed me to value my own life like never before.
But love is NOT a birthday cake. It is not all sweets and frosting and fine fine fine, whatever Cinderella and Coke commercials would have us believe. It is not easy, it is not always fun, it is often work. It is work, and choice, and in some cases, bloody cussed determination, and in other cases, it is sacrifice. It is a woman who stays with an abusive man for the sake of her children. It is a woman who leaves a husband so that she can learn to love herself. It is a father who takes care of a grandchild who he doesn’t know, so his own daughter can recover from a potentially deadly illness. It is a child who cares for a parent dying of cancer. It is a child loving a parent in spite of alcoholism, neglect, abuse. It is a woman who gives of herself when someone calls a crisis line, anonymously. It is a group of people, who meet through a web site, and realize they have all become much more important to each other than they want to admit. It is love, unconditional, which I have only ever managed with one person, so far. It is myth, and reality, moments of pure glee, and a lot more moments of sticking to a commitment, when bailing out of that commitment seems much easier.
In some ways it’s easier when you’re a parent. I can’t tell Tessie, look, I’m tired of being a mom, let’s get a divorce. (Altho I’ve met teenagers who have experienced just that. I’ve wept for them, I still do.) I chose my commitment to Tessie freely, and I know at some point she will leave me. In fact, if I do my job right, she will leave me, and never know the pain I will feel when she does. I don’t know if I will ever experience that kind of commitment with another adult my age. Laurie Colwin, in A Big Storm Knocked it Over, has a character that remarks how when his daughter left for college, he wanted to lie in the driveway, and eat dirt. This line always makes me laugh, for it reminds me of the first time I cried over my responsibility for all of Tessie’s pain, as well as all of her love.
I have a few friends, (a very few – I’m quick to love, but very slow to trust) whom I trust absolutely. My best friend, and a few family friends who I’ve known my whole life. We say that we’re in it for the long haul. This phrase, for me, reflects what I think the basis of choosing love really is. Choosing to stay, choosing to work, choosing pain, choosing anger, choosing faith in spite of disappointment, choosing someone else’s needs above your own, sometimes, and choosing in spite of it all to stick it out. Pure cussed determination. To trust, and to strive for, love which sits in generosity, instead of in selfishness. To understand that love is pain as well as pleasure, that it is all of life, not only the birthday cake, but the disappointment when all the presents are gone and the guests have left.
It is choice, to love, in spite of shards, in spite of hurt, in spite of everything. It is choosing being alive, even when being alive includes the parts that are pain and loss and anger and failure, as well as pleasure and fun and happiness and success. This is what I mean, when I say, I choose love.
This was partly written for Hermetic. I never met you, but I think your impact has swept through this group of people in ways they are still coming to terms with. You are the reason I counsel people who joke about suicide, depression or abuse. You are the reason I dare to talk about my time in the bin, in spite of the fact that I will get flack and a few people will turn their faces from me. You are the reason I watch out for others here, why I set up lifelines, and I make people promise me they will use them. Life, in all its bugfuck craziness, is worth hanging in there for, even for fighting for, it is worth the long haul. I know, because the world for me has changed from black and grey, to technicolor again, and I can’t get enough of it. Adam, I’m sorry I missed you.