In the six years since Mike died, I’ve been in several relationships. None of them have really worked out, obviously. I used to think it was the natural bumping around that occurs when you’re out in the dating world all over again. I mean, it takes someone special to make you decide you want to spend the rest of your life with them. That doesn’t just happen every day. Yet, lately, I’ve wondered if maybe I’ve passed on opportunities that could have worked out quite well because I was too focused on the aching memory of the love I had with Mike–a love that was unique in its own way for a variety of reasons, a love that has grown a bit more romanticized as time has gone on.
I used to reject the notion that I’ve in any way revised my past and sainted Mike in my memory. Lately, with the introspective look I’ve taken of myself as I let go of the grief, I’ve started to realize that some of my memory has been altered to see the past in an all-too-perfect way. That’s not to say that my relationship with Mike was not what it was; we knew at the time that we were soul mates and had said so to more than a few people on several occasions. Friends of ours even noticed that our relationship was different–special, magical, a fairy tale. Still, it wasn’t perfect. Nothing is. And, sometimes, in the telling of it to others, I omit the reality in favor of the cherished vision I’ve elevated in my head. He wasn’t a saint. He wasn’t even a martyr. He was human and I loved him, and love in the absence of presence paints vivid colors over all the gray spots.
What we had was indeed spectacular in its own respects. I met him in May 1998. By July 1998, we were in love. In October 1998, he told me that someday he would like to call me “Mrs. F.” On Christmas Eve 1998, he proposed to me, just six months after we’d started dating. It was a whirlwind of a romance. I should have felt it was too soon (in fact, my own cousin, stated incredulously as he contemplated his own girlfriend of six months, “Wow. That’s fast. Are you sure?”). However, it felt right and I did not hesitate to say yes to him. This is something I could never have done had any of my post-marriage boyfriends proposed to me.
What was it about my relationship with Mike that made it so easy to commit so quickly? I’ve tried to figure this out over the last six years as I struggled to analyze how I could ever fall in love again with someone enough to want to marry him. Is it me who holds men to too rigid of a standard because I expect to feel the exact same thing I felt with a man of whom my memory is slowly fading? Or, are my expectations of a relationship still valid? Is what I had with Mike the only valid, true love that exists?
I was so young when I met Mike. Just twenty-three and fresh out of college, I was ready and determined to carve a life for myself that met all of my dream-filled expectations. To me, back then, anything was possible. Death was not even a reality to me; it was something that happened to old people. I can’t believe I ever thought like this, but youth makes you blind to many aspects of life’s realities.
I sometimes think because I was so young, I had the ability to believe in fairy tales and soul mates, and that is why it became what it was. I carried no baggage and I didn’t always see clearly the baggage Mike carried. It was easier to get swept off my feet because I believed I could be swept off my feet. I haven’t stopped believing in love at first sight, but age has made me skeptical of it. Especially since I’ve so easily fell without thinking only to wake up and realize the person I was with was so different from what I was and what I wanted to be.
Carefree. I was open to the possibilities of love whereas now my fear of loss closes me off. My fear of failure–of not selecting correctly–makes me more discriminating with my love. Why wasn’t I afraid of failure with Mike? What made me feel so confident that it would work? Was I just lucky? Could it merely have been the luck of the right person at the right time in my life? Is it possible some of my relationships since him were the right person at the wrong time?
In light of all the divorces in the world, I feel justified in discriminating to whom I give my love. The problem is, love is illogical. Love seems to require a level of impulsive fancifulness. The most romantic quality of my time with Mike was the thoughtlessness about it, the ease at which it came upon me. We didn’t know for certain if our love would withstand the test of time, but we both had faith that we would make it work.
I suppose everyone thinks like this at the beginning of a relationship. We couldn’t possibly predict how the future would change us and if these changes would later divide us. I’ve since wondered what would have happened to us when Mike, who wanted kids, finally faced my stubborn reluctance to actually have them. Would he have felt he married me under false pretenses when I continued to hesitate on having children after I turned thirty? Would this difference have broken us up? Children is not something I had a clear vision about when I was in my twenties. I didn’t know when I married him whether or not I’d ever want to have kids and it didn’t seem to be a deal breaker. Now that I’m older, I realize that relationships do break up over smaller differences. I was less discriminate when I met Mike. Nowadays, I try to date men who don’t want children.
So how do you balance the illogical impulsiveness of love with the required discrimination to select the right mate? What makes the right mate in the first place? I’ve got a list of things I look for in a mate, some things weighing more than others. Not even Mike had all of these qualities. The list helps me get rid of the weeds, but it becomes less helpful in my examination of the flowers. All the guys I’ve dated since Mike have fulfilled some qualities of my list, if not different ones than Mike fulfilled. Yet, for some reason or another, these relationships did not work out.
I feel like, sometimes, the answer comes down to me and my inability to let go of the vision of perfection I feel I had in my relationship with Mike. Somewhere along the line, despite all the warnings uttered from others and those I spoke only to myself, I managed to use Mike as the stick against which I measure all men. I know it’s wrong. But it’s really hard to not behave this way because what I had with him worked.
Does that mean nothing else would ever work? I don’t know the answer to that. I suppose there are a lot of different kinds of love and my mind should be open to the possibility that I could love someone a different way, under different circumstances, with different qualities, and that it could become just as meaningful of a relationship as I shared with Mike.
Mike’s shadow is a hard one for any man to live under. I know that despite my best efforts, all of the men I’ve dated have felt at one time or another that their relationship with me was darkened by his shadow. I used to think that only the man who could live under his shadow would be a successful mate and I wasn’t about to change the fact that his shadow followed me everywhere. My attitude was “love me and Mike, or don’t love me at all.” I wasn’t about to let go of my love for Mike for any other man; I expected every other man to live side-by-side with Mike. I thought that if a man loved me enough, he could do this for me. It’s occurred to me in the last couple of months that what I have been doing is extremely unfair. No one was ever asking me to forget Mike or to stop loving him. I just needed–still need–to move out of his shadow enough to allow for new, unimagined possibilities.
I may have gotten the whole love thing right once, but I still know nothing about love. I do believe it’s possible to find that one person with whom you can spend the rest of your life. I think realistically we have to accept that maintaining a relationship beyond the part that feels like a fairy tale is often very hard. I never really got to know about that hard part because, as everyone always points out to me, I was still a newlywed when Mike died. Even with the realities realized, I feel that the one thing that could continue to bind me to the same person for the rest of my life is the underlying love. If you never forget the things that drew you together–the attraction, the common interests, and that undefinable other ingredient we don’t understand–then you should be able to weather all storms. I’ve not lost all of my romantic ideals. I have faith enough to believe that it is possible. In the end, I want to find someone with whom I could still have fun with when I’m ninety-one.
The flip side of having loved a man the way I loved Mike is that I know I want to have that sort of relationship with someone again. I can’t envision a life without love; though if it never happens to me again, I know I can still live a fulfilled life. So I’m not desperate to find someone. I just want to make sure I’m not so set in my expectations that I completely miss out or deny something that could work out wonderfully. I’m just trying to figure out how to tell the difference.