Dear Twenty-Something Self: Your Dreams Aren’t Going to Come True and I’m Good With That

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Image by Yuri_B from Pixabay

I can’t go back to yesterday — because I was a different person then — Lewis Carroll

Look at you my lovely, once-upon-a-time self. 25. Newly married to your high school sweetheart, your story is just beginning. Everything is on schedule to begin your modern fairy tale. The outline has been predetermined — by you. Exhilarated, you await the fleshing out of the finer details, certain they will meet your expectations.

What you don’t realize, is the best-laid dreams of starry-eyed ingenues don’t always come true.

Life’s journey will take you through inconceivable storms. At times, you will feel stripped and shattered, certain you will never be whole again. But, I’m here to tell you — three decades later — you will weather the tempests. Your memoir will be illustrated with the colors of a sweeping saga. You will recover, replenish, and rebuild time and time again. You will forge a heart of restoration and hope.

You will be your own heroine.

Prologue

Our life’s quest was a typical middle-class narration: Vivacious college-educated woman marries a smart handsome man who adores her. They start out in a modest home, eventually settling down in an upscale neighborhood with their four children — two boys, two girls. Money never being a concern, it is her choice whether she spends her days at an office or volunteering, or perhaps, a little of both. Summers would be filled with pool parties and family vacations. All her children would be athletic, smart, and popular. Soon, they would meet their own mates, have successful careers, and provide grandchildren. The blissed-filled grandparents eventually ease into a comfortable retirement and enjoy the fruits of a fairy tale legacy.

If you haven’t guessed already, younger me, that is not how our story turns out. You might think I’m seeking to dampen your naïveté, but that is not the case. To do so would douse the sparks of our history. I’m here to highlight some of the events that will steer you to roads less traveled. Annotate some of your preconceptions. Not to have you switch course, for that would result in a different destination, but to provide you with the faith you’ll need to continue your path.

To become the woman of character you aspire to be.

Being a zebra will be limiting

In our twenties, everything was black and white — politics, faith, parenting. We were crafting our cornerstones and needed a firm foundation to build upon. They served us well — provided strong roots, made us feel secure — until they became confining. They distracted us from soothing shades of grey and the charms of nuance. I shudder when I realize how dogmatic we were, failing to recognize another’s sense of right and wrong could be just as valid.

There will come a time when society feeds like vultures on such assumptions. When those who may think differently from each other are regarded as enemies. It will grieve our soul, but we will be mindful to have practiced perspective — preserved our humanity.

We won’t be the perfect parent

Infertility issues will limit our offspring to two. Blessed with a couple of fine young lads, we will throw ourselves completely into their nurturing. Education, nutrition, sports, discipline, recreation, family time all mapped out to promote optimal growth. We oversaw with a loving, not overbearing, hand — providing just enough oversight to assist direction and encourage independence. It would be practically perfect — or so we thought.

It will take a while to acknowledge some mistakes — an unnecessarily heavy hand, a few minor (and major) misjudgments. But we will eventually comprehend we did the best we had with the resources available. It will bring us a sense of peace and a newfound insight into the caring nature of our own parents.

Our hero will die, but we will survive

The ultimate breach to the fairy tale contract, our hero dies midway through the story. The dissolving of the partnership is a long, drawn-out process. We were a team and when the hero began to falter, we picked up the slack. Our role expanded to include caretaker, nurse, and, finally, widowed head of household.

We will be proud of ourselves for enduring. For maintaining some moment of normalcy each day, even if only in a robotic function. It will take decades to fully process this forced single ownership of our sanity — cultivate our acceptance of personal sovereignty.

We will need to go to the well repeatedly

Fiercely independent, it will crush us to ask for help. After all, we are the primary caregiver, not the recipient. We will be prideful, convinced that no one else is equipped to provide quality assistance. Adding insult, this will not be a single occurrence. We will find ourselves in numerous states of injury, dipping in the well of kindness again and again until we are sure it will run dry.

Like the miracle at Cana, our community wine never depletes and we are inebriated with gratitude. We develop empathy — foster humility. We acquire debts we have no chance to repay and are awestruck by their joy in giving.

Villains will serve a purpose

We will encounter more than our expected share of villainy. After all, every fairy tale needs a counterbalance of dastardly deeds to keep us engaged. Some will be overt and others will be wolves in sheep’s clothing, but all will catch us off guard and cause us to briefly doubt our judgment.

Much to the scoundrels’ dismay, however, each conflict will bestow a gift. These endowments will cause us to develop skills or discover hidden kernels of truth within ourselves. We will garner discernment — be wiser when the next challenge arises.

Our children will write their own stories

Regrettably, we were somewhat judgmental of others’ styles of parenting. If they didn’t align with ours, we surmised these offspring would be spoiled or — gasp! — unproductive members of society. Gradually, we began to appreciate the true nature of a child — of a human — will come to be no matter the influence. They will bloom in their own time and be beautiful.

As much as we tried, we could not prevent our sons from suffering, enduring hardship, or making mistakes and living with the consequences. We could only strive to provide a safe haven and a strong moral compass to chart their own paths. Like us, they have prevailed and grown sturdy, strong. Watching them navigate their courses will be our greatest accomplishment.

Epilogue

Picking up the pieces will be a never-ending process. Initially, our defenses will want to cover our wounds, camouflage our scars. But those shrouds are too difficult to maintain and we will never able to fully rest within our story if we continue to try.

And so, we will come to embrace our imperfections — honor our unique broken history. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, we will highlight our fractures with gold, delighting in our resilience. Our modern fairy tale may have an unforeseen conclusion, but it will end happily ever after all the same.

 

From Dread to Hope: Making Peace With Father’s Day

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Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash a caption

As a Widowed Mother, the Day Kinda Sucked

When you’re newly widowed, family celebrations often trigger waves of grief-laden anxiety. Eventually, you progress to tolerance. At some point, you’re able to rediscover the joy in such occasions. But for the widow and a mother  -  for me  -  the third Sunday in June was an entirely different ballgame. Father’s Day took my sons’ loss and ruthlessly thrust it into the limelight. Worst of all, there was little, if anything, I could do about it.

Not that I didn’t make an effort. I spent countless hours trying to fill the void created by their father’s death. But my attempts were largely in vain. My persistence was futile. I simply didn’t have the tools. I wasn’t him. It was like plugging a deep chasm with a shallow cork. Sure, it may have sealed it for a moment, but it was always an imperfect fit. It settled and slipped, leaving gaps and exposing cavities.

I blame my late husband.
He didn’t make it easy - not by a long shot.

My husband, Matt, was meant to be a father. It was an integral part of his soul and, quite honestly, one of the reasons I married him. From the get-go, he was intricately involved in our boys’ upbringing. When they were infants, he requested to take the midnight feeding so he could have some bonding time (and I could get some extra sleep.) He coached every sport they participated in from the age of three. On Father’s Day, he bought them presents.

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Typical Father’s Day Haul

When Matt realized time with his boys was not to be a marathon but a sprint, he strove to make each step count. He aspired to impart a lifetime’s worth of mentoring as swiftly as possible. Initiating what he dubbed “Daddy Breakfasts,” just the three of them would go out about once a month. The date wasn’t announced ahead of time; it was always spur of the moment. I was invited, but invariably declined. (What mother of two young boys would pass up a quiet morning all to herself?) During the meal, they would talk about whatever was on their minds. It was a safe zone where nothing was off-limits. Their father’s insight seasoned the conversation and his compassion was the syrup on top. What they discussed was never disclosed to me, but they always brought me back a treat.

Leukemia may have stripped away Matt’s vitality, but it never robbed him of his spirit. He spent every hour of his last seven years in some degree of pain, yet each morning he would wake thankful to have “another day above ground.” Our sons were ages six and eight when he received his initial diagnosis. My greatest heartache is that they have few recollections of him well. Doctors’ appointments, treatments, and fatigue governed our daily agendas. They don’t remember life without these overbearing dictators. But even as cancer therapies and their side effects corroded his physique, his exuberance for life - for us - remained and flourished.

After Matt was gone, I daydreamed that some man or men would come alongside my sons to mentor them. Like a beloved Lifetime movie, a gentleman - perhaps an uncle, neighbor, teacher, or coach - would recognize the “missing piece” in their life and do his best to compensate. Whatever crisis that might be looming would be adverted, their souls would be soothed and the credits would roll. In reality, a few men made attempts, but only for a short time. These were temporary positions. No one developed into a lifelong father-figure for either one of them. I never was a fan of tear-jerkers anyway.

We muddled through the first Father’s Days without Matt as best we could. At first, I thought about purchasing presents for my sons, but it felt off  -  like I’d be adding fuel to their continual smolder of loss. I rejected the common single mother’s mantra of being both a father and a mother. They had a father  –  a damn good one  -  I could never take his place.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written… Herman Hesse

It’s been over a decade of fatherless Father’s Days. The wounds of mourning have been assimilated into our history. Like tree trunks integrating the scars of fire, we have endured. The rings of struggle bear witness to our survival, rather than constricting our growth. We have matured and become resilient. My boys are adults. It is no longer up to me to tend to their grief.

The festivities of the holiday that once seared and stung now invoke comforting remembrances of a fatherhood well lived. Memories have ceased highlighting his absence, but serve as guideposts for our sons to become men of character. Perhaps, God willing, continue the legacy of exceptional parenting. It’s time to delight in Father’s Day once again.

The Worst Gets Better: A 30th Anniversary Love Letter to My Dead Husband

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May 5, 1990

It’s Cinco de Mayo, 2020. Five years since I wrote my first letter to you. Thirty years since our wedding day. Eleven and a half years since I lost you.

 

So much has transpired since those monumental dates in 1990, 2008. I am no longer the girl you married, nor the same woman you left behind. I wonder if you would even recognize me. Half a generation has passed. Very little in the world appears the same.

 

Your parents have both made their pilgrimage back to you. I wish I could have witnessed those reunions. The void that shadowed them after you left spilling over with joy. The pride in seeing their only son bursting in celestial technicolor.

 

Our two teenage boys have become adults. Complete opposites in looks, personality, and temperament. Yet, each one is a perfect reflection of you. My DNA fills in gaps here and there. You coached them on how to be men. They are your living history.

 

No more talk of darkness
Forget these wide-eyed fears*

Although we knew your time with us would be abbreviated, we were still caught off guard. Ill-equipped for the abruptness and finality of it all. It took all three of us some time to regain our bearings, reset our compasses. Each of us veered off course, sometimes plunging to the depths of despair. Thankfully, our squalls and tempests didn’t occur simultaneously. The other two were able to shore up the one faltering   – holding the tethers tight until we could stand on our own feet again. Still, it took nearly a decade for our quartet minus one to complete the journey.

 

I’ve long since sold the house. Most people nodded in approval. “Too many memories,” is what I’m sure they supposed. But they would have been wrong in that assumption. It was our house, but our foundation was in us. You taught me that. Counseled me to view our abode as an asset, not a mausoleum. When it became too monumental to manage, we moved on  – the memoir of our life together tenderly stored in our hearts.

 

When seeking our next home, I set my heart on an area that common sense  –  and my realtor  –  told me was out of budget. I was determined not to compromise, somehow secure in the conviction that I had located my new neighborhood. Your years of faith in me had instilled a confidence just beginning to bloom. My perseverance was rewarded, the market took a dip, and I found a lovely townhome. I knew you would have commended my triumph.

 

You’d appreciate where we settled. Compact and cozy, yet not too confining. No cumbersome yard to tend to  –  that was always your domain, but a small patio shaded by magnolias and adorned by a few low-maintenance flowers. I do miss our rose garden  –  our quests to discover uncommon varietals that caught our fancy. “No humdrum track home shrubs for us,” was our landscaping motto.

 

It was more than a relocation. It was the beginning of a rebirth  –  a life conducted by a soloist, no longer a duet. Downsizing was cathartic. I took very few furnishings with me. Only those cherished deeply transplanted to the new home: The photo albums you meticulously curated. The bedroom furniture you said we couldn’t afford  –  until I negotiated a deal too good to let pass. (My refusal to pay retail for anything was one of the traits you found most endearing.) Almost everything else was sold to finance the move, except for a trio of toolboxes. Each filled with implements and gizmos carefully selected from your considerable collection – one crimson case for each of us  –  to help us tend to our domicile in your absence.

 

Promise me that all you say is true*

As much as I protested during our wee hour “what if” conversations, you were correct in asserting the benefits of companionship – of reopening my heart to love. I was in danger of becoming too comfortable in the inertia of loneliness. So, I started dating. My first few experiences were like the spits and spats of an old jalopy restarting after a decade in storage: cobwebs clogging the valves, a couple backfires, and the groanings of a “mature” engine resisting movement.

 

It took me more time than most to regain my momentum, but I did end up having my first real boyfriend since you at sixteen. He was a good man. He honored my parents, our boys, even you. He would light up at my smile, but it began to flicker. We were mismatched puzzle pieces trying desperately to force the connection – only able to bend so far before the relationship snapped apart.

 

All I want is freedom
A world with no more night*

Next year, the scales will tip. I will have more years of my life spent without you than with you by my side. I can feel them teetering. At times I feel quite precarious, unbalanced. More often, however, I feel the rush of anticipation. Looking ahead with hope instead of dread. I used to feel unprepared about what is to come. Perhaps, I am ready now.

 

Happy Anniversary!

Loving you always, 

Lisa

 


 

 

*All I Ask of You – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sung at our wedding. May 5, 1990

Breaking up During a Pandemic

How wine, chocolate, Fritos and the tenacity of good friend can still comfort a broken heart.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash a caption

 

The text went out to the posse at 2:23 pm:

So…
Today sucks
We just broke up 😦

 

Responses from the rest of our sextet came almost immediately:

OMG Noooo!
Wait, what?
What happened?
I’m so sorry!

This was out the blue for them. Not entirely unexpected on my part.

Consolation calls came next. My attorney friend had the swiftest speed dial. Swamped with work — her job might kill her before the viral load ever reaches her house — she made the time for a consoling chat. The first, “Take care. I love you, my friend,” of the day.

Then Karen called. “Screw the quarantine!” she proclaimed. “Meet me on your patio in 20 minutes. I’m bringing supplies.” I knew alcohol and junk food were en route.

Without delay, I prepared for our safely distanced playdate. Chairs were positioned six feet apart. (Yes, I measured — fearful that my tears would cause me to under calculate the state-mandated range.) Side tables stacked with paper plates, napkins, disinfectant wipes, and a vitally important wine glass were placed by each. I unlocked the gate and impatiently waited.

Karen is a former gymnast — current personal trainer to an elite LA clientele. She’s Mighty Mouse in both stature and personality. “Here she comes to save the day!” echoed in my head as I anticipated her arrival. A huge plant with lavender spires and bronzed, spring-loaded legs soon bounded around the corner. Karen placed the lumbering foliage on my garden table and her sunny face was revealed. “I’ve got no idea what the hell this is, but it looked cheery,” she explained. “Sit tight. I’ll be back with the rest.”

Bags and bags of provisions were carted in: Prosecco, Fritos, Cheetos, gummy bears, red wine, chocolates and a slab of cake slathered in fudge. A perfect smorgasbord for a dejected spirit. We started with the sparkling wine. I threw in some fresh orange juice to “keep things healthy.” The salty snacks were our main course. We determined the wine and chocolate should be reserved for dessert.

My sorrows spilled out as the libations and carbs flowed in. We went over the particulars of the breakup; surveyed the peaks and valleys of my year-long relationship. I catalogued his shortcomings and acknowledged mine. Karen listened as I reminisced over the days of splendor, contemplating if settling was better than life without a plus one. She commiserated over each detail, seasoning my emotional stew with alternating “That bastard!” and “He treated you well.”

I sniffled and cried. Got indignant and fumed. Laughed at both his expense and mine. The Prosecco was soon depleted. The vino was uncorked.

We dove into the final course of our therapeutic feast. Gooey frosting was the icing on the cake for our forlorn conclusion: Imperfect love can’t last forever.

As she began to leave, Karen lamented she couldn’t reach out and hug me. She didn’t comprehend the potency of her visit. Effervescent bubbles were the tender kisses of friendship. Decadent chocolate was the embrace that soothed my broken heart. She braved a pandemic to let me know I was going to be ok — to remind me I was still loved.

Searching for Love After a Thirty-Year Hiatus

My reluctant plunge into online dating in my 50s

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I met my husband at 16. We were married when I was 25.  I was widowed three days before my 44th birthday.

Our two sons were in their early teens when we lost their father. He had been ill for quite some time, but the way he eventually passed away was sudden and traumatic. PTSD complicated our grief. I threw myself into tending to my boys, work and volunteering. Once they graduated, I created a this blog to finally process the sadness I had suppressed for years. My mind was too preoccupied and my spirit too full of heartache to allow time for dating.

And so, I waited nearly a decade to reenter the dating world.  If you do the math, this seemed to be a pattern with me.  What can I say? I needed to be REALLY sure before I truly committed.

Single and out of date

My husband was my first kiss, my first love, my first everything.  My friend used to tease me that I had the dating skills of an adolescent: awkward, unsure and pretty much clueless. I had no playbook – no references to what I liked or disliked in a relationship. Flirtation was a skill that had dissipated long ago. Now in my fifties, I was about to enter foreign territory without comprehending the language or rules of the domain.

Back in high school, my biggest concerns were whether my side ponytail was attractively askew and the horror of my butt cheeks protruding beneath my Dolfin shorts.  I could never have fathomed that a bodacious bootie would be considered alluring in the 21st century. I only wish a muffin top wasn’t an unwelcome collaborator in my middle-aged physique.

Looking for a Match made in OKCupid & other digital heavens

I had been pondering dating for a couple years before I resolved to be proactive.  It was my hope that someone in my circle of friends would introduce me to a “nice guy” they knew. He would be properly vetted as engaging, financially secure and safe. There was one enormous snag in this scenario: Most of my friends were married. I was the only unattached mare in the posse. No stallions for miles.

And so, I reluctantly thrust myself into the realm of online dating. I honed my relationship seeking resume (aka profile) to the best of my novice ability. Dating Objectives, Activities & Interests and Bio were all crafted with a touch of wit and hidden desperation. Previous Experience was glaringly absent. I appraised pictures of myself until I found the few that I hoped portrayed subtle sexiness while concealing my double chin.  Filled with apprehension, I shuddered as I posted it.

The responses began flooding in almost immediately. This is not to say I’m any more eye-catching than the previous gal to swipe across their screen – far from it. But if you’re female, new on the dating auction block and assumedly breathing, you’re a hot commodity.

Never in my wildest imagination could I have ever envisioned the types of characters soon parading through my account. There was an inordinate amount of men donning bizarre hairstyles including mullets and a Flock of Seagulls triple mohawk. I’d somewhat expected the gentlemen who obviously were lying about their age, but many were clearly decrepit. One even used a photo of himself in a hospital bed as his profile pic. Another chap sported a neck brace and still another proudly presented only his elbow scab. WTF? Did was he seeking someone to kiss his boo boo?

Call me sheltered, but I had never been propositioned to join a threesome, let alone on a daily basis. The erotic mischief requested included a “submissive guy seeking his dominant queen” who pledged to be castrated for his future mistress. There was the married fella searching for an addition to his polyamorous relationship. Only semi-good-looking gals need to respond as his wife “was quite homely” and abundantly jealous.

Then there were the usernames: AwesummaCumLaude, Eatyourkitty and Chocolate Reggie whose self-summary proclaimed, “Just a funny man with a big dick and full wallet,” were a few highlights of this brigade.

I came to the realization that I needed to apply some filters to sift through the invitations infiltrating my inbox and “likes” tallies. There were the simple sorts regarding age, height and marital status. Long distance romancers and professed CIA operatives were weeded out. Then there was the Not a Chance in Hells:

  • Dudes who posted more pictures of possessions – boats, motorcycles, guns, etc. than themselves. Boys bragging about their toys repelled my interest.
  • Grand displays of hunting and gathering prowess. Apparently, a lot of women are enticed by all sorts of aquatic life dangling from hooks. I had better fish to fry.
  • Costumes of any kind. Save your pirate garb for Halloween.
  • The inability to compose a simple sentence. I was a sucker for well-written note demonstrating they had actually read my profile. Terse missives such as “Hey Baby,” “Yummy,” and “Mmmm,” did not set this essayist’s heart aflutter.
  • A sprawling list of dislikes. Profiles spewing negativity and demands of “no drama” signaled someone who was seeking compliance, not a relationship.

Getting with the dating program

The laws of attraction are a bit cockeyed in the virtual world. You are introduced as the result of a succinct CV processed through an arbitrary algorithm. Physical mannerisms, nonverbal cues or pheromones are not in play just yet. Charm and other nuances are compressed like dough through a pasta machine, then transmitted via an LED display. This two-dimensional showmanship was superficial at its best. Counterfeit at its worst. It took me a while to acclimate and learn how to decipher these exhibitions.  I’m not sure if I ever actually did.

With the simple click of a button, your interest in someone is proclaimed to the technological universe. Hopefully, they “wink” or like you back and the initial courtship begins. Last time I was in the dating arena, you danced with one partner at a time. When utilizing an app, one engages multiple prospective mates simultaneously. No more waiting to get home to check the answering machine. Messages appeared at all hours of the day and night. On some days, the frequent alerts buzzed my phone like a bumble bee stuck in a window shade. The cacophony of it all left me woozy. I soon became addicted to the rush of electronic seduction. On other days – many many days – the notifications fell silent. I checked and rechecked my phone, desperately seeking my fix.

“All that is gold does not glitter” – Tolkien

During this period, I relied heavily upon a close single friend for guidance. She was my Obi Wan – gifted in the ways of dating and an excellent counselor. Her eager apprentice, I regularly divulged the ups and downs of this unfamiliar terrain. We regaled each other with tales of fleeting passion, being ghosted and assorted profile oddities.

She recognized my dating immaturity, gradually teaching me to trust my own instincts and realize my self-worth. Each time I would come to her sorrowful from a rejection or breakup, she would always bestow the same advice, “I’m so sorry you’re in pain, but every relationship provides a valuable lesson. Whether it identified a trait in a man you can’t abide or gained an awareness of what brings you happiness, you have gleaned an insight into what you want out of a relationship.” Her mentorship proved invaluable.

This is not meant to be a manifesto railing about the perils of online dating. I know quite a few people who have successfully found their soulmates and/or future spouse. Personally, I frequently connected with men I found attractive, had a decently active dating life and various brief relationships. Did I find the next love of my life? That story is yet to be told…