“I don’t want to do this, but I have to,” he said. “Maybe at least you’ll get a book out of it”…
I was numb, silent and unmoving. He held me tight for a minute, and then the taxi arrived. I watched him roll his suitcase down the driveway, greet the driver, get in the backseat. With the interior light on, I could see his strong profile, resolute, staring straight ahead. The light went off and I couldn’t see him anymore. I wondered if, in the safety of darkness, he allowed himself to turn and have one last look at me. I wondered what he saw if he did – a woman standing in her nightgown in an open doorway at 1 a.m. Hollow eyes, wet cheeks, arms hanging limp at her sides. A woman he loved? A woman he hated? A woman he already felt no connection to anymore? The car started to roll, I could hear the sound of the engine become more faint, and through the leafy oleander bushes I could see the white taillights begin to disappear down the street. At any moment I thought they might turn red as he said, “Stop! I changed my mind.” But they continued out of view. At any moment I thought the sound of the engine might grow louder as he said, “Turn around please! I’ve decided not to go.” But the night was silent except for lonely calls of birds, and the only light was the vast ceiling of tiny stars in the sky. Stars that have seen it all.
I’m a teacher. I teach health and human sexuality. In my human sexuality class that week, we’d studied Erick Erickson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. We discussed how the things that happen in our childhoods can impact us for the rest of our lives. How the unmet needs for safety, attachment, industry and self-esteem can leave us so damaged that we are unable to succeed in life, or unable to form healthy bonds. The worst of it is, we have relationships anyway. And if we come to our partners with the voids left by those unmet needs, the relationships are likely to either continue horribly, or end terribly, compounding the wreckage. It’s amazing any of us makes it out alive. And the truth is, none of us does.
The message of Erickson is that at each stage there may be attributes that we didn’t get, tasks that we couldn’t master. Because our parents weren’t perfect, because they did it the way it was done to them. They had holes in their development that were already visited upon them and which they visited upon each other and us, however much they didn’t mean to. Raw, sore holes with jagged edges and unhealed infections. And then we inherit their wounds and bring them to our lovers and children. ‘Gifts’ that keep on giving.
It sounds hopeless. But I have to believe that there is hope. The only solution I know involves work. The work of healing ourselves, filling those holes. The work of tending to those sore, ragged tags of emotional gangrene. It hurts. And it can be ugly. It can mean picking off scabs, making them bleed again, sometimes letting the poison pus out. Magic can’t do it. Only work.
Work can mean different things. Counseling, and sometimes medicine. Spirituality. Meaningful labor. Volunteering for those less fortunate. Choosing good people to be our friends and lovers. Healthy care of our bodies. Nurturing touch. Talking. But the healing has to fit the trauma. If one did not attach properly with his mother, then throwing himself into work is not going to fill the hole where that very first of loving bonds should be. If one were abandoned by her father, then ministering to others is not going to give her the sustenance she has most needed throughout her life.
My lover, who left just last week for the final time, is very smart. But he is not smart enough to know that he needs to do the work. He runs. Even when he stays here.
I’m no genius. But I will be heading back to counseling. Because learning and then trying are what have brought me the farthest in my quest to be a better self, friend and partner. This was the second time we tried to make our relationship work. I’m not proud of how I handled things the first time. But this time I studied my own injuries more carefully, tended to them a bit more mindfully, and made conscious choices. I think I did my best. And I have to live with the outcome. Because calling him back again when he hasn’t done the work would only end in the same way.
It still hurts, though. Just like in the songs, everything reminds me of him. The restaurants we ate in, the house projects we worked on. Nightclubs, camping trips, hikes, pets. Earthquakes and rainy days. His laughter, his anger. The bed we slept in. His voice in my ear, my soft moans.
I know it will take time, but eventually the hurt will fade, molecule by molecule, like the lights of his cab slowly driving away.
I know because the stars that have seen everything tell me it is so.
In Licking the Spoon, my book in progress about food, sex and relationship, I discuss how the wounds of childhood sabotage our intimate connections, as well as how to find pathways to recovery.