It was the kind of Facebook message no one wants to get:
They say Facebook is most used by men looking for old girlfriends ...
This was, of course, from an old boyfriend, one I hoped never to hear from again.
As this kind of message goes, it wasn't so bad. He was happily married, with two children, and obviously wasn't looking to rekindle anything we'd extinguished more than 25 years ago.
Still, I was wary.
Let's just say that neither of us was at our best as a couple. Our story included alcohol abuse, infidelity, an arrest, dropping out of college and, to top it off, an STD. Although we once planned to marry, I broke away (badly), married someone else and eventually moved to a different state.
I'd revisited our sordid tale a few years prior, excavating my early years in the rubble of my second failing marriage. In the version of us I saw then, he was almost a monster. And that I'd loved an almost-monster — well, that was just proof of my own defectiveness. (If you could even call it love, which I was pretty sure you couldn't.)
I responded carefully. We traded a few brief messages. It was OK, nothing creepy or uncomfortable. His family, his work, his friends were all evidence that he was no longer the guy I'd known. I friended him, thinking I'd put the past to rest.
A few months later, however, the past rose up again. He posted a picture of himself from those years we were together, and I saw once again the young man I'd cared for (loved?) so desperately.
What I saw most clearly? How very young he had been.
In his eyes and smile, I saw things about him I'd buried under the memories of various hurts — his energy, his optimism, his good-natured laugh, his never-ending appetite for fun.
The guy in that photo was no monster.
My earlier narrative, with its cardboard antagonist and one-sided conflicts, collapsed. The guy in the photo was just a kid, trying hard to feel good in a life that too often didn't, floundering in his attempts to become a grown-up.
Seeing him that way, I could begin to forgive him. I could begin to believe a different version of our story, one in which he was not callously cruel and I was not stupid and weak. My anger — at both of us — collapsed, too.
I wrote a real message back, thanking him for helping me view our history from a different point of view, for giving me the gift that forgiveness always is.
If the story ended right there, it would be a good one. But it didn't.
As I learned last winter, he was ill when he first contacted me two years ago. This spring, he sent another Facebook message:
Not doing so well, Rita ... just got out of the hospital. Back home, but now hospice is here. Please keep in touch.
I wrote to his wife that afternoon, and a week later, my husband Cane, his daughter and I were on the road, going to visit my dying old boyfriend.
It was a beautiful, painful day.
Back in the landscape that will always be home, we talked about all kinds of things, and nothing: the work we'd done, the places we'd traveled, the houses we'd bought, the people we once knew. His wife, perfect for him in ways I never could have been, made a lovely lunch. Our girls played together. We tried, in the space of a few hours, to build a bridge of words that could carry us from who we were 30 years ago to who we are today.
But once again, it was a photo that transported me.
This time, it was one of me, retrieved from a box he'd labeled "The Ex Files." In it, I look just like my son, who is 15.
I could see that as much as I was trying so very hard to be a woman in that photo, I was more child than anything else. I set it aside quickly, hardly able to look at it.
Later, alone at home, staring at it and all the other photos he'd given me, all I could do was cry — for the young me, for the young him, for so much of how I spent all the years hating both of us. I cried for how cruel life sometimes is. I cried for the loss of those beautiful bodies we once had and all the things we squandered. I cried because it was such a relief to finally forgive the young girl/woman I'd been.
That first Facebook photo allowed me to accept the earlier me, but it wasn't until I saw my son's cheek in the curve of my own younger one that I could forgive her. How could I not? How could I keep holding that girl to a standard I would never hold my child to, expecting her to know things she couldn't possibly know, especially about love?
Because — yes — I had loved that guy: that reckless, impulsive, wounded guy. I still love him.
"Was it weird?" a friend asked, "having your husband and his wife and all of you there together?"
Of course the day was weird, but not in the way I think she meant. The day was so much about reconciliation and acceptance, there was no room for any kind of jealousy or fear.
As I later wrote to his wife, for whom I am so grateful, love and relationship are two different things, and our few defined relationships (friend, lover, husband/wife) don't encompass the myriad ways we can love. So, when relationships end, we tend to think it means that love has ended. That's the only sense I could make of things when we separated, anyway.
Now, however, I know how mistaken that thinking can be, how it may well have been that we separated because of love, not lack of it. I can now see in our painful tale a cord of something good and pure running through it, making it one with a beautiful, if heartbreaking, ending.
I now know, too, that we sometimes make our stories unnecessarily complicated when really, each of ours is quite simple:
We are born; we love; we grow older; the more we love, the richer the growing older is; we die.
Who and how we love doesn't matter nearly so much as that we love. In the end, whenever it comes, that's all that we'll really care about.