An Open Letter to All the Men Who Came Before

Thank you. You taught me so much. You taught me that I am on my own.

Each time you reached out, I reached back: my eyes, hands, voice there to answer and embrace you. My words there to comfort you. But when I needed to be held or heard, there was only the sound of my own voice echoing back to me. The sensation of my own arms embracing the emptiness I felt with or without you.

It takes time and patience to learn another person’s virtues. If I was ever guilty of anything, it was being hopeful. Poverty of character is more plentiful than rain. That your word might actually mean something filled me with hope. As time passed, you taught me to expect nothing. That my needs are better left unmet. You taught me that some men are opportunists who will only give the bare minimum. After all, how could I expect you to give me things – answers, compassion, respect – that you couldn’t even give yourself?

You hid behind your silence. I thought being close-mouthed meant you feared vulnerability, but you taught me that silence is really a sin of omission. Because if you never lied out loud, then you couldn’t be accused of lying.

You. You whisked me away to far-off places. You made no promises that you couldn’t keep; I respect that. But then you were afraid to say that we’d made a wrong turn somewhere, that when I crossed the ocean, alone, the only things I would carry with me were memories and the broken pieces of my heart. Your downcast eyes, so dark with fear of the words that I eventually said for you. You gave me a voice, and I thank you.

You.

You said you loved me after just two weeks. You were the first man to say those words to me; how could I know if they were true or false? I was too intoxicated with the shock of them. I stupidly held vigil for your ego. I listened as you droned on each day about your existential burdens, your financial worries, your broken family, your first love, and your fascination with your own creative brilliance. I didn’t know the true meaning of narcissism until I met you, and I didn’t know the damage it did until I left. Everyone tells you love takes sacrifice, but they forget the specifics. I convinced myself that feeling depleted was love, because feeling empty meant that I had given all that I had to give.

Did you ever learn to love anyone as much as you love yourself? Or – less likely – more? I hope so. You taught me that love doesn’t require self-abandonment, and I thank you.

I gave my heart to you. I pledged my life to you.

I fell in love with your kindness and fairness and how you washed my days-old dishes when I was working two jobs and could barely stand at the day’s end. I fell in love with you for all these reasons, but I chose to love you despite the gut feeling that I deserved better than someone who created an alternate life to escape the reality he was so ashamed of living, unaware that I would become an extension of that shame. I chose to love you because I made a promise to choose you each day. We never feared a God we didn’t believe in, but how could you stand before the people you love and make promises you never intended to keep? What is intention, anyway, except an escape from personal responsibility? It’s a salve for our shame.

And what are promises if they are so easily broken? You taught me to desire men who promise, each day, with their actions, not their words, and I thank you.

And you. You made me believe, in the end, that it was my fault. If your mixed signals made me think it was more than it was, it was on me. You couldn’t be held accountable. Forget that you lied when I gave you an out; it would’ve been so easy to walk away then. Forget the daily texts (who cherishes minutiae more than lovers?). Forget how you never seemed to want to leave, or how I was always the first to pull away, afraid of getting too attached. Forget how we giggled and kissed for hours the first time we slept together, lying nose-to-nose like children, entangled and giddy at the perfect impermanence of it all. I could never hate you for not wanting more, but I hate what you did when I finally found the courage to walk away.

You taught me to demand clarity and how to ask for what I want, and I thank you.

Do any of you know what it’s like to be a woman? It’s this: we are the mothers of nightmares. With the bravery you’ll never know, we conjure every terrifying thing you can’t bear to say into existence, because nothing is real until it’s spoken out loud.

We are also the gatekeepers of progress. Nothing perpetuates without us. We give life to all things, men and women. Is it this power that scares you? Or that you spend the rest of your life trying in vain to return to the body that created you? Is that why you fear losing control? Because everything that you are and everything you will be once depended upon a woman?

You pretend to care. You use people in a way I was never able to replicate. How could I? Since childhood I’ve been an empath. It took me a lifetime to learn that I couldn’t feel everyone’s feelings without abandoning my own.

Do you know this word? Empathy?

You taught me that I can survive anything, because I thought the worst thing that could happen was losing you – yet, here I am. Everything you couldn’t be. Beautiful, capable, and happy all by myself.

You taught me not to need men. That I can learn and grow and become anyone or anything I want, without you. You taught me how to be alone so well that sometimes I’m afraid I may never love another man because there’s nothing that I need that I can’t give myself.

Do you know what it’s like? To fear your inability to love?

Is that what made you what you are?

Forgiveness

A few months ago, my company held a day-long training session dedicated to interpersonal communication. Near the beginning of the seminar, the speaker handed everyone a sheet of paper and had us close our eyes. He gave simple instructions on what we were to do with the sheet of paper: fold it once, tear off the top corners, turn it around, fold it again, tear off the bottom corners. Finally, he had us unfold our paper, hold it up, and open our eyes. To our surprise, though we received the same instructions, no two sheets of paper looked alike. His point? We each have a filter that is unique to us. Given the same tools and circumstances, one person’s final product (or decision) may look radically different from the next.

This is where forgiveness begins. The more we learn to empathize with another person’s unique perceptions, and the more that we recognize that our perceptions and decisions may look equally wrong in their eyes, the easier it is to forgive their shortcomings as well as our own. I learned this at an early age.

The first time a girl wanted to fight me, I was seven years old and dragged my dad to a Girl Scouts information session in a church basement on the mill hill of the tiny town I grew up in. While my dad went inside, I joined the other girls in the parking lot. It was a warm autumn night and I wasn’t familiar with the church or the neighborhood. As I approached, the one girl that I knew rushed up to me.

“She wants to fight you,” she said, pointing to a girl who stood with arms crossed in a half-circle of girls.

Maybe it’s a small-town phenomenon, or maybe it’s a hillbilly rite of passage, but this sort of thing wasn’t unusual where I came from. Mill hill kids were known for being tough. Her name was Casey. She was slight and scrappy and – my friend informed me – had all the other girls on her side. Though we went to school together, we hadn’t made an acquaintance up to that point.

“Who?”

An hour passed while some of the girls went back and forth between us, exchanging the childish equivalents of trash talk. I can’t remember the “logic” of her dislike of me: if she didn’t like the clothes I was wearing, or the kids I was friends with, or if I had stolen her boyfriend, or if she hated me because my parents weren’t divorced and hers were. These are cardinal sins in the world of young girls. Whatever rubbed her the wrong way, I eventually did what I always did in these situations – I ran to find my dad.

He was the single male in a sea of women sitting around a long table. The speaker rattled on about the cost of uniforms. I touched his arm.

“What is it, honey?”

“There’s a girl in the parking lot that wants to fight me,” I whispered.

He struggled to listen to me and the speaker at once. To my surprise, his response was “go figure it out.” It was the first time he’d insisted on my autonomy. When I realized that he wasn’t going to rescue me, I had to come up with my own game plan, and this was one of the greatest gifts my dad ever gave me.

I went back to the parking lot, fists clenched in nervous excitement, heart pounding. I wasn’t a fighter. I was the kid who liked to draw and paint and read books. I liked to keep the peace. Two years of daycare socialized me to create relationships and make compromises, but they hadn’t quite prepared me for this. I knew, even at that age, that it was usually bad circumstances that made “bad” people, and I understood from grown-up talk that mill kids were often poorer and less advantaged than me.

There was one certainty in my mind: she didn’t know me, and therefore, whatever hurt or anger motivated her really had nothing to do with me. When the moment arrived, I walked up to Casey and her posse with my one (dear) friend by my side.

“I’m not going to fight you,” I said.

Casey’s shoulders shifted. Her arms stayed crossed.

“What?”

“I’m not going to fight you. You can hate me, but you can’t make me hate you.”

You could’ve heard the flutter of a lightning bug’s wings.

Her face and posture softened. She and her friends looked at each other, not sure what to do next. They were braced to fight and, suddenly, the threat had neutralized herself. Their hostility gave way to curiosity.

I finally exhaled.

Returning anger with kindness had been the key to keeping my body intact. It was maybe the most valuable lesson of my life. I could’ve stood my ground in defense of my ego, but chose instead to forgive a hurt I didn’t understand. In fact, the impression I made that night was so strong that Casey decided she wanted to be friends. We even shook on it. She remained one of my closest, truest friends for the next eight years.

Forgiveness is difficult because it requires putting ego aside. We often feel that the wrong done to us is a reflection of our worthiness of love or dignity or respect, when really, it’s a reflection of the other person’s perception of an infraction or slight or perhaps a need in them to control you, the situation, or their lives generally. We may also feel justified in holding into our grudges or perceptions because being right is more flattering to our egos than being wrong; it is even more flattering than neutralizing the argument by forgiving. How many bridges have you burned because you cared more about your ego than about salvaging the relationship?

The fact remains: we cannot judge people by a single decision or even a series of decisions they make in a time when they are less a person than they might’ve been. No man who hurt me was cruel or thoughtless in his entirety. No friend or employer or stranger, either. This is a truth we have difficulty reconciling, because forgiving the humanity of others means forgiving our own.

The most important question to ask ourselves when dealing with those who hurt us is: what have I allowed them to take from me by placing my self-worth in their hands?

If you look at the falling-outs or disagreements in your own life, ask: am I reopening the wound again and again instead of letting it heal because it’s more comfortable – more familiar – to be hurt than healed? And: can I forgive their perceived slight or shortcoming without feeling that I’ve lost my value?

Forgiveness, ultimately, is about you, not them. Forgiveness is understanding that, in a given set of circumstances, each of us will hold up a piece of paper that looks slightly different from the next. And it is also showing compassion to ourselves in the times when we are less than we might’ve been.

A Time to Heal

I always thought that divorce was the inevitable destination of broken people, and that marriage was the inevitable prize for people who were morally superior: intelligent, whole, beautiful, wealthy. Happy.

Now I know that neither of those assumptions is true.

That Saturday was as nondescript as any other. The night before, we had a casual dinner at our favorite barbecue joint down the street, holding hands across the table while I chatted excitedly about plans for the coming year (it was early February 2019 and he had been away for a month – working, I thought, on the new start-up). The air was thick with smoke and laughter. There were smiles and words of encouragement and tenderness. With his father finally out of prison, no debt, one business sold, and another on the rise, we seemed primed for finally getting our footing as a married couple after four years of fits and starts. He was realizing his career goals and we had settled in a small city in New England that felt like the perfect setting for the life I dreamed we would build together.

The next morning, we didn’t go through the revolving door of arguments that the weekends usually brought – those small domestic affairs that prove to be of absolutely no consequence in the light of loss. All morning he preoccupied himself with his Xbox while I chopped vegetables and brought together a pot of soup for lunch. Gunfire bounced off the walls. The plentiful sunshine warming the house was cruel in its irony. I sliced a loaf of bread, then strolled to where he sat on the couch. I leaned forward and kissed him – with heartbreaking intention – not understanding at the time that kiss would be our last.

Half an hour passed. I was brimming with contentment and what I thought happiness looked like. He began pacing between the kitchen and the living room with the controller suspended between his hands, holding it away from his body as if it was a burden he was desperate to put down. He finally threw it on the couch.

“Can we talk?”

There are moments that section off phases of our lives neatly – a diploma placed in a proud palm, a first child shrieking his way into the world – and there are others that send us careening with no steering, no brakes, and no turning back. I knew by the quaver in his voice and by the simple fact that he requested an audience at all that this was going to be the second kind.

We sat down at the dining room table. Our bird puzzled from his perch but was unable to account for how his life, too, would change. I believe the first question that my husband asked was, “Are you happy?,” but a mind in shock sometimes get the details confused. There was an outpouring of excuses, but I was deaf to them. Instead, the past six and half years of our lives flashed before my eyes.

“So what you’re saying is that you don’t love me anymore? That you don’t love me – as a husband – anymore?” He shook his head and his eyes were never more sincere.

Words failed me. What is left to say, really, when one spoken truth makes all unspoken questions obsolete?

What happened next is unclear. There was a gathering of things and the sound of the front door closing behind him. I began to hyperventilate. There was doubling over and the struggle to catch my breath. Then the mantra of hyper-focus: deep breath in, hold, deep breath out.

Of course, there were tears.

There are still tears.

There will always be tears.

I felt compelled to move, wandering mindlessly from room to room searching for answers, though I knew there were none. As I climbed the stairs, I took the pictures from our wedding day off the wall, one by one, and placed them in a closet upstairs.

I laid on the second floor landing for the better part of an hour, afraid to do more than breathe. I felt fragile, as if making the smallest move would send me shattering into a thousand pieces. An eternity passed with each rise and fall of my chest.

Instead of resorting to the self-pitying, self-bullying scripts that followed former break-ups, I decided then that I would be kinder to myself than I had ever been. That I was not the culmination of my failures or the times that others failed me. I told myself every beautiful thing that I longed for someone else to say. I filled the void that my husband left with my love and found, for the first time, it was enough. I promised myself that I wouldn’t let his decision to leave embitter my heart, and I am proudly living that choice today.

Gloria Steinem wrote that the final stage of healing is to use what you’ve been through to help others. I conceived this blog as a glimpse into my personal experience with love, grief, and healing and hope that what’s a cathartic experience for me can also be one for those reading.

If you’re navigating loss or difficult relationships, please know, above all, that you’re not alone. If you learn anything here, let it be to ask for what you need from others. Pain colors our perception in unhealthy ways. What looks like indifference is usually ignorance. No one can know you’re hurting if you hide it, and no one can help you heal if you won’t let them; don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.

The pictures from our wedding are still in the closet, untouched. My bird still calls for ghosts. I still have moments that startle me with their bitter-sweetness when I think suddenly on a joke that we shared or his infectious laughter. My reveries can quickly turn to despair or anger, and just as quickly, dissipate. I find myself growing so rapidly that sometimes I don’t recognize the person I was just a week ago, and other times, I make the same mistakes that I thought I left squarely in the past. Only now, I show myself radical self-compassion, and as a result, I am more generous in extending grace to others. There is much beauty to be had of suffering if you’re brave enough to reach for it.

Unpacking is a process. Grief leaves no rules, maps, or timelines in its wake.

The only way around is through.