We all have people from our past who rattle around the darkest corners of our brain. I have made great progress exorcising some specters in the past few years and even more progress figuring out why they were rattling in the first place. Taking memories out of dark corners and looking at them in the hard light – the eyebrow plucking light – has a way of making phantoms smaller and more transparent.
Strangely, I am most haunted by thoughts of my ex-husband’s family. I left him and they, therefore, do not like me. I get that. I understand that. I moved to Europe after our divorce to avoid facing that in Portland supermarket aisles. But even while I got, understood and avoided, I still thought they might come around eventually. A few months before my ex and I separated, I confided in my sister-in-law that we were having problems and I was considering leaving. “If that happens, I will be so sad,” she said. “But I promise I will stay your friend because I remember how horrible it felt when Fred’s family suddenly shut me out. And he was the one having the affair!” I held on to that story and thought maybe, with time, she and I might be able to be friendly. Or, more realistically, that she would someday acknowledge my existence if I ever did run into her in a Portland supermarket.
That never happened, and when my ex-husband died last year, the antipathy they had for me hardened into pure hate. I don’t know why. He died a few miles from home, on his way back to his soulmate — the woman he met shortly after I left. By all accounts he was happy when he died and I know he was riding his motorcycle as carefully as he always did. His death was an accident that no one witnessed and no one caused. A true, pointless act of fate. I grieved quite hard; even though we weren’t married any more, I had loved this man enough to marry him. I thought we would be together forever at one point. In the midst of the grieving, it never occurred to me that the coldness his family showed me after our separation would manifest itself in complete Katie negation. Suddenly I didn’t exist to them, had never existed to them, and therefore photographs of the ten years he and I were together didn’t exist either. Not that I thought I would show up in a memorial slideshow, but no pictures of the decade were shown at all. I was poison. I was the one who was dead. Even after that clue, I pushed myself back into their circle, sending each of his brothers, his sister and his mom pictures of their brother and son, from my photo albums. No pictures of me, but ones of him with his nieces and nephew, on family trips, hanging out doing his thing, both with them and alone. I thought they would want to hold onto images of him and felt they deserved them much more than I did. That same sister sent her photos back to me, unopened, with a typed note that said, “Do not ever attempt to contact my family again.”
And that is why they haunt me. Like putrid fumes, they show up. I find myself talking to them, yelling at them, explaining my side of the story to them. It’s guilt, manifest as ghosts. I don’t know if they will ever go away, but I hope they do, someday.
Another ghost in my brain is much nicer — the memory of the first man I ever loved in a grown up, nothing held back, passionate, tragic way. The love found in movies and song lyrics. Ironically, he made me the best mix tape perhaps of all time — because the songs were perfect for me, not songs he wanted me to hear. It was a fast relationship that came on the heels of my parent’s separation and my coming out of lopsided relationship with a man way too old for me. I was a mess, 23 and undamaged. He was charming, handsome, funny and he really seemed to like me. Me! He was also bipolar and a classic “At this moment” guy who does love you 100% at the moment he says it but not so much when someone else is around. I believed him wholeheartedly and allowed myself to fall, hard. It was glorious. And then it got messy and I got needy as he struggled with his own darkness and it ended in the Burbank airport with him singing me as song and me walking across the tarmac and up the stairs to the plane without turning back for one…last…glance. Sigh. I didn’t realize when it ended that I would never love that freely again and didn’t believe when I was hurting that I’d grow to have nothing but fondness for that firefly of a man. Not love, not regret, not in any way wanting, but fondness.
I so rarely get visits from that friendly ghost that I was startled when his face flashed in my head during reiki a few weeks ago. No accidents, no coincidences, especially when Spirit is active and energy is moving, so I followed up about a week later with a Facebook search, fearing the worst and wondering how, if he had died, I would know from a profile page frozen in time. He was alive (good), but clearly struggling, as his posts were filled with trauma and pain. Social media is both beautiful and disgusting — by following his retroactive timeline I learned he’s been sober for several years (yeah), that he loves where he works and who he works with (also good), that his friends are his rock (yes), that he has a band again (always good) and that his wife died last year. What the hell. What the? And why was I spying?
I knew who she was, from a very brief period when he and I were friends on MySpace, years ago. They were an epic couple and were so in crazy for each other that it oozed out of the computer screen. Their love was the third person in photos of the two of them. It was a thing of wonder and I was happy for them — how could anyone not be? Love like that makes you happy to be a human (it’s possible to find! it’s possible to nurture!). Is it weird to admit that there were times when, if I thought I was taking Tom for granted, I would focus my energy and shout my love to the mountain tops, much like they did? And it always made me feel better — and I know it made Tom feel seen. Maybe that’s what they did so magically. They saw each other.
That was nearly 10 years ago, and I hadn’t checked in on them for a long, long time. And that brings me to this post. My heart breaks for a ghost. For a man I do not know. For a couple I never met. For a woman who couldn’t stay. I cannot imagine the pain and anger of being on the other side of that death. I cannot imagine keeping up stupid social media while mourning. He is still big as life to me, still bipolar, still the ghost of the my most meaningful romantic failure, but he cannot live in my real life and mourning for him feels strangely real life to me. He is impossible to compartmentalize, even after all this time.
And that ends my stories of death and heartbreak and betrayal and grudges and ghosts. And love. It is also a story of love in all its messed up guises. The love is the light in the darkness and the only thing worth anything in all of this meaninglessness. Thank you for reading. xx