Looking Backwards

August 24, 2006 at 10:13 am (Uncategorized)

When I was fifteen years old, I fell madly in love with an older cyclist – I’ll call him Craig Bowdoin – who helped me with training plans and racing techniques. Since he was nearly twice my age, and he was a sensible and kind man, my love went unmentioned and unrequited. Instead of a glamorous older boyfriend, I got a family friend who kept an extra, protective eye on me during long training rides.

Part of Craig’s allure was his tragic past. I was fifteen, my favorite author was Sylvia Plath, and I wrote long, dark poems; so it’s not surprising that I was drawn to Craig. A couple of years before I met him, his twenty-something wife had died from cancer. She was diagnosed when they were still dating, but Craig had married her even when it became clear that she was going to die (and he would legally assume her thousands of dollars of unpaid medical bills.)

Craig was, quite understandably, pretty bitter about the abrupt turn his life had taken. He didn’t talk about his wife much, but when he did, he always replayed one scene for me. When she was close to death, she had asked for a priest and had made a final confession and received last rites. This infuriated Craig. She had broken from the Church when she was younger, and Craig felt that by returning to its embrace in her last moments, she was dying a hypocrite.

His fury didn’t make a whole lot of sense to my fifteen year old brain. Why be so angry at a priest who had done his duty and shuffled into a hospital room thick with the smell of death? Why not instead be angry at his wife’s cancer? Or the forces of fate that conspired to kill a young woman, or the doctors who couldn’t save her, or the hospital administrators that mired him in life-long debt? Why not be angry at God?

Now that I’m older and I’ve had my own run-ins with mortality and the seemingly unfair order of the universe, I can understand his rage much better. He was angry at his wife and the religion she had turned to in her final moments precisely because he could be. It’s tough to stay mad at a disease. Sickness is, after all, simply too big and too slippery to make an easy target for rage. It’s much more logical to focus on the people involved. This is why I can often forgive my disease, but cannot imagine letting go of my anger at some of the doctors who have wronged me. Sarcoidosis shows me a blank face, but I can all too easily picture the smirk of the electrophysiologist who shrugged off my fears and concerns and sauntered out of the exam room.

However, I can also see Craig’s wife’s perspective with a little more clarity too. Leaving aside questions of salvation and damnation – matters on which I have no authority or insight – why wouldn’t she return to the faith that was familiar to her? When I stand between the great yawing mouth of uncertainty that is death, I imagine I too will want the comfort of the known, the prayers of my childhood. I will want some kind of ritual to mark my passage. Wouldn’t you? I don’t think his wife was being hypocritical. I think she was grasping for traction. And returning to where we’ve been (and who we’ve been) is a way to do this.

I’ve noticed my own backward-looking glance in the past couple of years since I’ve gotten sarcoidosis. I wonder about grade school friends. What ever happened to Nicole Miller, my best friend from second and third grade in Texas? I wonder about Patsy Black, who I thought was my closest friend in the whole world for ten years, until one day, when I was twenty-four, I realized I had nothing in common with her anymore and I stopped writing to her and calling her and we vanished from each other into the ether. I wonder about Craig Bowdoin and Pam Freshney, my AP English teacher who made me want to be a writer. I wonder about Greg Karahalis, the first guy I ever kissed.

Why all this wondering? I catch myself getting as frustrated with myself as Craig did with his wife. Do I expect these people to hold some truth about me? Do I think that their sense of me will provide some traction? Logically, I know they don’t and they can’t, but the reptilian part of my brain wants someone to say, “This is who you are. You are the girl who wrote poems about lost love before you had ever known love. You are the girl who skipped classes to go write in a cemetery and then go to a Louisiana bakery and eat Mardi Gras King Cake and talk about the future. You are the girl who was afraid of being kissed. You are the girl who loved second grade so much that when you threw up in the bathroom, you didn’t tell the teachers because you didn’t want to get sent home and miss reading.” The void feels too close, and I want definitive answers. But the answers that Nicole and Patsy and Greg hold are dated. They are like old news clippings, heralding the importance of events that ended up not being essential at all.

Sometimes the keepers of our selves in the past are wrong, and we want to return to them to correct the images they hold. When I was a young woman, I saw a highly respected psychologist who shall go unnamed. I had recently undergone some extremely traumatic events which will also go unnamed, and I was sent to this shrink to help me make sense of everything. Unfortunately, this guy got everything wrong and ended up making me more traumatized and crazy than when I started. Sessions with this him were like looking in a fun-house mirror. I’d go in with one sense of myself and come out feeling damaged and broken. My time with him culminated with him telling me I’d never be able to make it on my own.

I’ve often thought about writing him and telling him how utterly wrong he was about me, my life, and my future – not in a mean or vindictive way, but rather to reclaim what sometimes feels like lost years. I looked him up on the Web the other day, and found out he died a couple of years ago from heart disease at the age of 54. I felt this immense sadness well up inside me. I could never make right this warped image of me. I could never reclaim this bit of my broken past. I could never say, “You were wrong. Look at how strong and sane and whole I have become.”

But then I caught myself and realized I was being just like Craig – looking for targets, looking for answers to riddles that never really existed. We hold our own pasts, string together a coherent narrative of self out of the disparate events that seem all too random. I know who I was, who I am. Who cares about the shrink? He’s simply an easy mark, a handy repository for all my rage from that time. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

I wonder about Craig. The last time I spoke with him, he had remarried and his new wife was expecting their first child. He should be happy. He deserves that.

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