Last week, my first love, a boyfriend from the end of high school and the first half of college, died suddenly, and accidentally, while traveling far from home. I hadn’t seen him in 15 years, but in the last 3 or 4, we talked regularly, if not frequently. I had last spoken to him in January, when I called to wish him a happy birthday. He was in China, where he would later die, working on a business deal that I’ve since learned was very important to him, and which was nearing completion at his death, but we didn’t talk about that at all. We talked about his children, and his wife, and how it sucked that he was away from them on his birthday, and how we would finally, finally (because, you see, I had resisted) introduce our families and reunite ourselves this summer.
That’s not happening.
Instead, this week, I’ve spoken to his mother,and traded messages with his wife, whom I’ve never met. I cannot imagine their grief. Or, perhaps I can, and that makes it even harder to wrap my head and heart around. I am remembering moments that I thought were lost a long ago to time, separation, or stubborn anger at the ways things ended. My husband says I can hold a grudge better than anyone. He’s right. I held a grudge against this man, because, you know, things ended badly, as they often do, though in our case, mostly because we were 21 and torn in a million different directions by our two different lives. That was hard to see at the time; it’s bright and clear with more than 20 years’ distance and the harsh light of a death.
And though we were not actively in each others’ lives any more, the truth, if I can bring myself to think it, is that I thought about him, not all the time, but a lot. He took care of me when my father died. We were deeply, headily in love. We were young, and passionate, and adventurous, with what we thought were many cares but again, with time? Not so many. We were central to each others’ lives for a brief, intense period when we were leaving childhood and becoming adults. We loved each other.
And now, I am immersed in grief that I haven’t felt since my father died 27 years ago. I remember thinking then that grief was like a tsunami, an unpredictable and overwhelming wave of feeling, but unlike a tsunami, grief often sweeps in and over without warning. And when the death also occurs without any preamble, maybe the onslaught is even less predictable. I am struggling with where to put my grief, how to label it. He was no longer my love, now just a distant friend, but there is that nagging feeling of just how important we were to each other once that rises over and over. I am remembering him, analyzing what made him special, in a way I haven’t done since I was 20: his enthusiasm, his energy, his ability to lock into and hold onto emotions, his or another’s. I’ve looked at pictures and letters over the last week that transport me to a reality that is intimately familiar and still not quite mine.
There’s no “what if” to these feelings; he and I separated when we needed to and went on to live the lives we wanted. We loved, and love, our spouses. There’s no romanticized sense of “if only”, none at all. But the grief is there, disproportionate and awkward, hard to carry without tripping, and falling down.
I am pondering this great post from The Sister Project, “The List that Helps With Loss“, as another way to process my sadness, contemplating (but not yet writing) my own list, to help with a very peculiar loss.