The Reconnect

I have been visiting with My Former Life these last few days.  Going back through my stories of various people and places, wrapping them about myself like a warm blanket to keep me company.  It is comforting to me to reconnect with people who were so incredibly significant in my life at a certain moment in time.  In some cases, it is the only place possible to do so.

In other cases, this blog has motivated me to reconnect with people from my past.  I’ve done so most recently with one of my former high school teachers.  Mr. V.  He was probably my most significant influence during my senior year of high school.  A year so full of torment and drama that I actually attempted suicide a week before Christmas that year.

To be honest, if it weren’t for Mr. V, things could have gone very differently for me during my final year of high school.

His class was a favorite of pretty much every student in it.  To earn his praise was the highest form of compliment, and earned you respect from every student in it:  even those who didn’t care much about school cared what Mr. V thought.  He pushed us.  He was tough, had high standards.

But he also cared.  You knew he cared.  You knew he was paying attention.

He was one of the first adults in my life outside of my family to truly believe in me.  I take that back, there were probably a great many that did.  There was something about his method, his way of letting me know that:  through quiet comments in my papers or my journal, through conversations after school, through his lessons that not only taught us about prepositions and sentence structure but about life.  His affirmation, his respect, when everyone around us respected him so highly, was huge.  It made a difference.  It put me on a different path.  He helped me finally start sowing the seeds of my own self confidence and belief.

Someone had mentioned him in passing on my Facebook page and I thought about him again.  I did a quick internet search and it wasn’t long before I found his Facebook profile, full of the same passion and energy about world events and life that he gave to us in class.  I thought about it for about twelve hours and then in a fit of reckless abandon, I sent a Friend Request.

I immediately regretted it, but somehow couldn’t pull it back.  I didn’t see any mutual friends in his friends listing, so I worried.  He probably didn’t accept former students into his circle.  Was it weird to think that he would remember me?  That he wondered where my life had taken me?  What if he didn’t accept it?

Days passed by and my fears seemed to be coming to fruition.  Nothing.  No acceptance.  I resigned myself to understanding that I wasn’t that different from every other student.  He might have been a standout for me, but after thirty years of teaching it was foolish for me to think I’d been a standout to him, who had taught thousands of kids, all with struggles and challenges of their own.  I wasn’t that different.  I wasn’t special.

And then, four days later, the notice came.  He’d accepted my request.

Just like that, reconnected.  With someone who made such a difference in my life whom I have always wondered about in the twenty six years since.  Reconnected.  Knowing all of the unknowns.  Knowing that he did remember me, that I made a difference, somehow to him too, all those years ago.

I’ve been enjoying my walk backwards these last few days.  Back through time.  It’ll pass, as it always does, but for now?  Having that one more piece of my lost puzzle of my former life back in place?  It’s priceless.

Put Your Head Down and Focus

As anyone who has read this blog for more than a minute knows, I’m no athlete.  Field day was my least favorite day in the school calendar year; I was a scholar and a musician.  I got my geek on and enjoyed it, all the way through school.  It’s why I became a teacher, I loved school so much.  When I think of most of my favorite people in my life, outside of my family (not that all of them count amongst my favorites….), most of them I either met while I was in school or were involved with school somehow.  Well, except Rick Springfield, but otherwise the statement stands.  It’s no accident that most of my husband’s family are teachers; I immediately felt a kinship with all of them.

In fact, I was so nonathletic that when I wanted to become involved with the track team in high school, the only option available to me was the manager role.  Coach Tymrak (hey, didn’t I mention him in my last post?) was polite and all, but me and my short legs just weren’t going to be an asset to his team. In fact, I ended up bailing on the position because it made me just so damn uncomfortable to be around all of those people in such amazing shape (again, see my last post regarding my insane ability to compare myself to EVERYONE and not in a good way).  My favorite quote of all about running came from the 1980s flick “Real Genius” and went like this:  Q:  “Do you run?”  A:  “Only when chased.”

But listen…my inner high school athlete wanna be is kind of cheering these days, because guess what?  I’m a runner.

I’ve been attempting to run since last September.  I started off slowly with the Couch to 5K program.  I was religious.  I was diligent.  I told all of my friends so I couldn’t be let off the hook.  When one asked me how far I could run, three weeks into the program, I sheepishly answered…”Um, about three minutes.”  Because honestly, the program builds you up so slowly that that was the furthest I’d gone without stopping at that point.  And I was proud of it, because I’d never been able to run before, in my life.

I kept going.  I finished the program in November and ran my first race.  This was the critical juncture, because I knew that lots of people just fall off the grid at this point.  They finish, they do the race, they’re done.  They don’t know what to do next.  How to proceed.  How to keep progressing.  But I told myself that wouldn’t be me.  I signed up for another race to keep me in the training loop.  And then another.

I’m not going to lie.  The three races all kind of sucked.  It was hard.  It was still really hard, even after I’d done two of them.  Wasn’t it supposed to be easier?  When was I going to hit that easy groove people tell you about, and get that runner’s high?

I decided to start a new program.  Bridge to 10K.  I never had any real desire to run 6.2 miles, and certainly not in front of Other People and all, but what the hell.  The program would keep me going and force me not to stop.   The six week program ends when you can run an hour straight.  A freaking hour.  Sixty whole minutes.  That’s insanity, right?

Today, I did it.  I ran for 60 minutes without stopping.

There’s a moment that happens for me, in these long runs, usually somewhere just before the halfway point, where I want to give up.  It’s hard, too hard, and I want to let go.  I want to walk.  I want my heart to stop racing.  I want to stop sweating.  But somehow, I force myself to slow down, lose myself in the music piping through my earbuds, and carry on.  And always, always, in a few minutes, things seem easier.  And before too long, there’s only ten more minutes, or five, or two, and I know I’m going to make it.  I’m going to have run sixty minutes, over five miles.  And that knowledge is amazing, liberating, enlightening.  Running is just like every hard thing I’ve ever done.  It’s awful, it’s difficult, it’s something you think you can’t handle.  But you put your head down and focus, and you do it.  You get through it.  And you’re better for it.

So, look at that.  I’m a runner.  Take that, Coach Tymrak.

Knocking On the Door

It took me several days.  Days of mulling over the what ifs and the if onlys and the why the hell nots.  I looked through the window online a few more times, trying to envision my friend Dennis and what his life would be like now.  He’s older, of course.  Would he have grandchildren?  I was sure he’d retired from teaching already, and clearly was making music in a band.  But what else?  What else?

I went back and reread all of what I’d written about him here, trying to form in my head his possible responses if he heard my voice on the other end of the phone.  In every case I couldn’t imagine him not wanting to catch up or talk to me; we’d left things on very good terms.  In fact, truth be told, it has been me all these years that has stopped keeping in contact;  I guess I had never been quite sure how to merge a part of my former life into the new one I was trying to build for myself.  My marriage, my pregnancies, my children….did I really want to muddle that all up with someone whom I’d loved once upon a time?

But then I realized, the love part of it, the romantic love part of it, was only a small piece of the puzzle.  If the puzzle was the entirety of what Dennis had meant to me and his place in the story of my life, the part where we were involved with each other was just the top right corner.  The rest of it was a wonderful care and concern of a man who saw a young girl in harm’s way and did a million little and not so little things to make sure that harm didn’t take her into its dark being.  He held my hand as I cried over my absent father, my abusive brother, my crushing insecurities and my suicide attempt.  Later he offered a shoulder as I navigated becoming a single mother at age 19 and my mother’s cancer at age 21.  I wondered, sometimes out loud to him, what on earth he received on his end of the relationship; it felt often like I was taking, taking, taking.  But somehow, he never made me feel anything less than a valued friend, a person important to him in the most equal sense.

And when I added all of those things up, I couldn’t think of any reason not to open the door.  So yesterday afternoon, with my heart racing, I picked up the phone and dialed.  He answered the phone, and it felt as if the 13 years we hadn’t spoken to each other hardly existed.  The conversation was easy and genuine, the casual back and forth banter that I had always loved between us.  My curiosity slowly ebbed as he talked about his life since we’d last been in touch.  He admitted to thinking of me and consulting Dr. Google as well when his questions had reached a critical level a few years back.  His chuckle at hearing about my Rick Springfield adventures sounded exactly the same as it was twenty five years ago when he read the essays I wrote about that far away rock star.  “I wasn’t at all surprised to find that you’d found a way to him,” he laughed.

An hour and twenty minutes later, I looked at the clock and realized it was likely time for me to hang up and let him get on with his day.  After all, my children would be home soon and there was plenty I needed to do as well.  We exchanged email addresses and promised to connect in person the next time I go out to visit my family.  Just like that, the conversation ended, and I went about my daily tasks of children and cooking and chauffeuring as if nothing had changed at all in the world.

But something is different, of course.  Something is very different.  A piece of my former life, the person I used to be, a piece that had long since gone missing and left a tiny hole in me, was put back in place.

It feels good.

I’m glad I knocked on the door.

 

Looking Through The Window

I don’t know what made me think of him last night.

R is out of town, as he often is, and I was having myself a little Grey’s Anatomy marathon on my computer.  Me, myself and a bottle of wine hunkered down after the children went to bed, and I fantasized about happy endings with my own personal McDreamy.  I know you’re reminding me I’m married and all that, and you’re right.  I have my own real life version of a happy ending with a good man.  That being said, I know that it’s TV and it’s not real, but sometimes it just is easier to imagine that had life taken this turn or that turn that I living a completely different life with an insanely handsome man who knows how to use hair product in addition to being sensitive to my dark and twisty needs.

When I opened up my computer screen this morning, my internet browser screen was still open.  And I realized that I had drunk Googled a few people in my wine induced haze late last night (I also woke up wearing my jeans and the turtleneck I’d worn all day yesterday; don’t judge me).  Thank goodness I hadn’t drunk Facebooked or worse, drunk emailed, or the grandaddy of them all, drunk dialed.  Although I’ve already done that with this person before.

I’d searched for Dennis.

I don’t know what made me think of looking for him last night.  Maybe it was because the episode I was watching (Season Finale of Season 4 in case you’re a fan) had to do with kids in high school.  Dennis defined my high school experience, my kind English teacher who gave me the attention I craved while nursing the wounds (both literal and figurative) that forced my family into lockdown during my teen years.  I harbored a not so secret crush as I lobbied to be his favorite student during my high school years and his over achieving mentee during my college ones.  As we transitioned from teacher student to colleagues, our relationship changed as well, eventually turning into an affair.  I swayed dangerously back and forth between guilt and full on life fulfilling love until I forced myself to stop seeing him.  We remained friends and kept in touch sporadically until I moved away from my hometown in 1999; I haven’t contacted him since.

I think about him though, sometimes.  And in these days of 21 century technology, that means I consult Dr. Google to see if I can find him.  A phone call after all of this time seems so intrusive, but I always think that a casual email would be a fine way to reconnect.  Or a Facebook message, as so many have done with me over the last few years. And each time I have consulted The Big G, I find bupkus.  Nada.  Nothing.  Not even a random comment on a message board.  Which seems odd to me, always, and then I go back to my life and don’t think about it again for weeks or months or longer.

But for some reason he popped into my head last night.  And when I opened up my computer this morning, I saw something different.  I saw his name listed on a cover band website.  The name, an unusual one, was right.  The location was right.  And sure enough, there were photos.

It was him.

He looks about what I’d expect him to look like 13 years after not having seen him; he was 22 years my senior, which puts him now in his sixties.  He plays guitar.  There are photos of him singing, playing, in a recording studio.  There he is, alive and well, and living life…just like me.  One of the photos is of him and his wife, sitting together after a gig.  Smiles, his arm around her.  Happy looking.

I’m glad he’s happy.  And frankly, I’m glad he’s still married.  I’m glad he is still that good but flawed human being.  At least I think he is.  I don’t know, of course.  And that’s the rub.  Because now I’ve seen him.  And now I want to know things.  Like if I was the only one or were there others after me.  Or if he ever told his wife about us.  Or if he now thinks what we had was a mistake.  Or if he randomly Googles me from time to time.

Which is all insane.  Because all of that, it’s all about me.  He’s gone on to live a good life; so have I.  I don’t need his validation and approval and attention anymore.  These days I know who I am and I am (mostly) secure in my self worth and place in the world.  Why do I need to hear that he remembers me?  And thinks well of me when he does?

I can see him now, through the window.  A one way glass, he doesn’t know I can see him.  But I can.  I can see where the last thirteen years have brought him to in his life.   So why I am I struggling with this?

I can’t decide if it’s enough to just look through the window.

Part of me wants to knock on the door and see what happens when he answers.

Why isn’t it enough just to look through the window?

Not Quite the Fantasy

I walked alone out of the banquet hall, gathering my shawl around me against the chilly Michigan October evening.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I had expected out of my 20th high school reunion.

I had gone for many of the same reasons that I had gone to my five year one:  to prove something.  That despite having gotten pregnant at age 18 by a boy we all had gone to school with, I had survived, even thrived.  I had wanted to brag about my wonderful boy with the full scholarship at a good university; I had wanted to talk about living near New York (even though we hardly ever went); about how I had worked with someone famous.  But mostly, I had wanted to go to see if Joe would finally have the nerve to show up.

I had spent much of the previous year fantasizing about how the meeting would go.  He would be across the room in the dim light, and spot me in an instant.  After small talk with various people, if he hadn’t come over to me yet, I had decided that I would be the brave one and approach him.  I would tell him that it was all water under the bridge, a long time ago, that we had all made mistakes, but that I was never sorry for what had happened.  That I had never spoken anything but highly of him and his family to Zach, and that someday I hoped he would find it in his heart to forge some sort of relationship with his biological son.  He would be at ease then, and we would sit down at a table, each of us with a drink in hand, and talk of our spouses and our children and our new lives.  And then we would leave separately, each of us glad that we’d finally closed the open wound that we’d each carried around for twenty years.

But it never happened.  I looked around ever corner for him for the first hour of the party, until I resigned myself to the fact that my fantasy was never going to come true. One of Joe’s friends from high school was there, though, the one who had told me that Joe was never planning on being a part of our lives a few months after Zachary was born.  A version of my mental scenario played out instead though, with Dean instead of Joe.

I could see he was fearful and awkward about approaching me.  So an hour and a half and two vodkas into the evening I walked up to him and shook his hand. I kept the small talk light, asking about where he was living (with his mother), what he was doing (currently painting houses even though he’d been a gifted piano player) and was he married (the answer was confusing at best).  He never asked me about my own situation, and certainly not about any of my children.  I moved on and spoke to the salutatorian to my valedictorian (he’d gone onto be a pediatric oncologist).  I ate dinner with two girlfriends I’d kept in touch with who had also come in from long distances. I had warm conversations with those whom I’d shared classes with and band concerts.  I smiled and laughed and chuckled at the girls who never spoke to me in high school still avoiding me this evening.  So much had changed, so much had stayed the same.

Finally, near the end of the night, Dean approached me again.  He clearly had much more alcohol in his system and was feeling braver, because he immediately laid into me about how I’d put him in such a terrible position all of those years ago, asking him to be in the middle of Joe and myself. How’d I’d asked him uncomfortable questions and made uncomfortable requests.  I was rather shocked by the level of anger he clearly still held against me.  I wanted to argue with him, laugh at him, yell at him.   His life was uncomfortable?  Try raising a kid alone and then having your sole source of support die of cancer three years into it.  Try having every single aspect of your life irretrievably altered for the rest of your life.  I wanted to shout, cause a scene, make him realize that everything he’d believed for the last twenty years was a lie.  That I was the victim, not him and certainly not Joe.

I stood there, looking at this sad reflection of the boy who had had so much promise, and just shook my head.  I didn’t need closure with this person; I didn’t need to say or prove anything.  Even with all of the opportunities in the world, here was someone who had stayed exactly where he started, blown every chance.  And I, who had so many obstacles thrown in my way, had grown up, moved away, built a new life.  A good life.  Not a perfect life, but a life I was proud of.

“It was a long time ago,” I said to him.  “A lifetime ago.  I’m sure we’re both very different people now.  And I’m really sorry, but I am going to have to get going now.  It was nice to see you again.”  I gave him a hug, holding my breath so I couldn’t smell the stink of alcohol and cigarettes, and left the reunion.  I walked out to my grey minivan with the Connecticut plates alone, and turned the key in the ignition, trying to remember the way back to my sister’s house.

I drove slowly, replaying the evening in my head as I wandered down the roads that had been my life all those years ago.  It just goes to show you, I thought, that life is so much more than what happens to you.

It is how you handle what happens to you.

 

Z Graduates

I looked around the table, my eyes shining with tears.

Z had gone off with his friends to dance.  He had a large group of about twenty friends who had all banded together and asked their parents if we could reserve a room at the local country club for their post graduation dinner.  There they all were, an upstanding group of young men and women, all posing for photos with each other and looking happy.  Some were coupled off, some were not, and they were all easy and comfortable with each other.  They looked so beautiful and hopeful, and I just couldn’t believe that this was the life I had been able to give to my son.

Around the table were all of the people who had helped me give it to him, minus one, of course.  My mother would have loved to see the only grandson she’d known, her first grandchild, on this special day.  I missed her terribly as I’d watched him walk onto the football field in his red cap and gown; like my own high school, the boys had worn red and the girls had donned white caps and gowns.  Z looked very much like his biological father Joe had on our own graduation day; we had been dating then, and inseparable.

I looked around, slowly, one at a time, at those who had traveled to be here for my son today.

My sister, who had flown in from Michigan.  After our mother had passed, she had stepped in to help me with childcare whenever I’d needed it.  With me being a teacher, it wasn’t as much as you’d imagine; but there were still days when snow fell or there were training sessions in the summer, and she’d been a constant source of support.  She’d babysat while I dated my now husband, when I wanted to go out with my girlfriends, when I wanted to feel closer to what a normal twentysomething woman would be, rather than the single mother that I was. Z looked at her children and her family as second only to our immediate one.

My father, who had flown in from Florida.  The man who had originally told me I‘d ruined my life by becoming pregnant out of wedlock at age 18, and who’d begged me to abort the pregnancy.  Later, though, he fully accepted the pregnancy and actually served as my Lamaze partner for the birth.  He too had babysat whenever he was asked, had helped me find my first teaching job and had served as the Important Man in Z’s life even after I’d met and married R.  He always spoke with pride about his grandson, and they shared a clearly special relationship.

R’s parents, who had driven all the way out from Michigan, having just arrived hours before the graduation ceremony.  From the very start, they had embraced Zach and I with open arms.  When I thought about what they must have thought about their thirty year old son bringing home a twenty five year old woman with a six year old child; I could imagine, with Z older now, me being far more judgmental than they ever were.  On the night of our wedding, R’s father had stood up in front of the entire reception and called Zach his grandson, and an excellent “bonus” to gaining a daughter in law.  Even as their biological grandchildren had started arriving, I never saw any difference in the way they treated my younger two versus Zach.  R’s father had served as Z’s sponsor for his Confirmation in the Catholic Church.  They were his grandparents, plain and simple, no matter the biology.

And finally, R.  R, who also had accepted Zach and I as a package deal from the start of our relationship.  Who had worked hard to ensure we would be able to provide for this day, for Z’s college education, even though biologically Z was not his own child.  Even when we’d had our rocky times and separated, R made sure to call Z and show up to parties and occasions.  We didn’t always agree on how to parent, but we always agreed that we were both Z’s parents; he’d never once said anything like “Well, he’s your son, not mine” to me.  It was R who had instilled a love of ice hockey and soccer in Z, who had spoken his fluent Spanish while Z was trying to learn it in high school, who had ultimately helped Z choose the university he would attend (“Do you want $200,000 of debt when you graduate or zero”?).  There was so much about who Z was now that was so closely tied to his experiences with the only father he’d ever known; I couldn’t imagine him any other way.

Life could have been very different for Z and I, I thought as I looked around the beautiful room of the country club where we now sat.  If I hadn’t had the support of my family, if I hadn’t been so accepted by R’s family, if everyone surrounding my son didn’t embrace education as a priority, he wouldn’t have graduated with top honors from an excellent high school with a full scholarship waiting for him at a terrific university.  I thought back to all of the different forks in the road, when I’d made a life altering decision.  Any one of them could have changed the way today was, how it turned out, how he’d turned out.

I might not be totally satisfied with my current place in life, or all that I’d accomplished.  But one thing I knew for certain.  I couldn’t be more proud of the work I’d done as Zachary’s mother than I was at that moment, surrounded by everyone who loved him, celebrating the amazing young man he’d become.

A Different Path

“Mom, look at this.”

Z handed me an envelope.  It was oversized, and the return address was the University of Pittsburgh.  He hadn’t opened it yet.

Helping Zach apply to colleges last fall had been an overwhelming experience for me.  It was a constant series of flashbacks to my own time doing the same thing.  In some ways, it was all so similar to me:  my son and I were so similar in our academic performance.  He had earned stunningly high grades and SAT scores, as I had.  It left the choices so wide and vast as to where his life would begin, as it had for me.

When I had sat down to choose colleges to apply to, I remembered the experience being a solitary one.  Neither one of my parents had ever sat down with me to choose; the ones I’d applied to had been choices of familiarity coupled with random choices based on location.  I had known that my mother couldn’t really afford an out of state choice, but on a whim I’d applied to Boston University and Tulane mostly because I’d always wanted to visit New Orleans and Boston.  My in state choices were again chosen based on my heart, not my head.  I’d applied to Wayne State just to see if I could earn their Merit Scholarship (I did), Michigan State because I was familiar with it from dating Ray, and Calvin College because it was in Grand Rapids, where my extended family had once lived.  No counselor at school had mentioned perhaps I should apply to the University of Michigan based on my grades and scores.  In the end, I’d gone to school where my best friend and boyfriend had decided to go to school.  My college choice was wrapped up in emotion; when it came time for Zach to consider his choices, I vowed he would not repeat my own mistakes.

We’d purchased US News and World Report “100 Best Colleges” tome, we did research.  We attended meetings held by the guidance department at Z’s high school about how to choose a college.  We visited some of the obvious choices, something else I’d never done when considering my own options.  In the end, Zach applied to seven schools:  Yale (because it was so close he couldn’t help himself, even though we knew we could never afford to send him there), Penn, University of Delaware, University of Connecticut, University of Michigan (I was no longer biased against it), Rennsaeler Polytechnic, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Pitt was the odd man out in the grouping.  While all of the schools were rated well and had good programs, Pitt stood alone in the middle of our two geographic target areas:  east coast (where we currently lived) and Michigan (where we used to live but still had family).  I had been surprised when Zach had decided to apply there; they had been sending him literature ever since he rocked out his PSATs.  The slick brochures touted all of the great advantages of attending an urban university; its close proximity to other great schools such as Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon; its top rated Honors College; its fantastic sports program.  The sports program was important to Z because he planned on continuing in a collegiate marching band; having a strong sports program meant by default a good marching band.

“Well, it’s a big envelope.  That’s encouraging.  It doesn’t take a lot of paper to say you’re not in,” I offered.  “Do you want me to open it?”

He shook his head and held out his hand.  I handed back the package, and Z tore it open, leaving ragged edges at the top.  I hoped he hadn’t ripped any of the papers inside.  He read over the cover letter silently, his eyes scanning the page quickly.  I saw him go back and reread a section, before he looked up at me.

“What?” I asked.  “I can’t stand it, what?”

“They offered me a full scholarship,” he responded.  “Look.”

My heart fell to the floor in relief.  A full scholarship.  No matter what else happened, no matter what, my son was going to get his college education, and we would be able to afford it.  I could feel the emotion welling up in my chest.

“Congratulations,” I whispered, and reached out to hug my son.

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