I’ll Take What’s Behind Door #3

Not too long after I finished my first blog post, which was a little like giving birth with no epidural, someone sent me a message and said, “Hey, how about writing something for us single people on your blog?” I replied that I would be happy to, and I’ve been struggling with it ever since.

When you’re young and beautiful, dating is fun and exciting. You’re free to go out anytime and stay out until the wee hours. If you don’t hit it off with this one, there’s another one just around the corner. Your skin is dewy and smooth, your energy is endless, and you have all the time in the world.

Not so when you’re 50. At 50, the game is a changed one. What once was an ocean of potential lovers, has become a wading pool of the potentially tolerable. Dates are scheduled around your children’s ballgames, school projects, and job obligations. Forget beautiful, we’re just hoping for passable. Our once luminous skin is dull and wrinkled at worst; freshly exfoliated and wrinkled at best.

After a crazy work week running kids to extracurricular activities, doing laundry, and cooking (okay, full disclosure: picking up takeout) we’re just hoping to make it through dessert without falling asleep in our tiramisu.

Too often, what was once an exciting process of getting to know someone and their hopes and dreams, has morphed into spending an entire evening listening to a one-sided account of how and why, your date’s former spouse is cheating scum and now married to their former neighbor/boss/best friend/best friend’s spouse. Its torture; and suffering through the unabridged version is rarely worth the cost of the meal.

My dating history is long and storied. You know the part of your brain that made getting a Rave perm a week prior to your senior pictures seem like an excellent idea?  That’s the part of my brain that’s been responsible for the majority of my relationship choices.

For me, college was a time to focus on doing the bare minimum to keep from ending up on academic probation, regularly changing majors to avoid graduating, and a record-setting amount of fun. While other girls were settling down and flipping through issues of “Brides”, I was systematically eliminating any man who could even spell responsible. If they had Peter Pan syndrome, struggled with monogamy, or had career aspirations that included living in a hut on the beach so that they could jump on the best waves first, I was in.

While other girls were quietly scooping up the responsible, level-headed men with a secure future; I was running from them. I remember this med student, in particular. I went on one date with him. He was cute, outgoing, quick-witted, and pursuing a surgical career.  I ran from him like he was Ted Bundy. To someone like me, who had the emotional maturity of SpongeBob SquarePants, marriage and children sounded like some sad, last resort for people who lacked creativity and a sense of humor.

Many years later, when I had run out of single friends to have fun with, I married. Remember that part of the brain I mentioned earlier, that part that made the Rave perm a week before senior pictures seem like a great idea? It was working overtime. I won’t elaborate because I want you to finish reading and still think me sane. It ended, not a moment too soon, and I focused on my nearly perfect children, and insuring that they never felt like they were competing with anyone for my attention or affection.

Some years passed and, as fate would have it, I became reacquainted with a gentleman from my college days who was a genuinely nice man.  The timing was right and we began dating. I couldn’t imagine a better situation. I already knew him so I didn’t have to worry that he was some sociopath, he was handsome, attentive, and we still shared mutual friends. We lived in different cities and our work schedules weren’t the same, but I was committed.

Our relationship moved along fairly effortlessly. It wasn’t too long before I knew he was the love of my life. My heart was home. He felt the same way and over the years, we settled into a life of driving back and forth between houses and becoming a long distance family, of sorts. I looked forward to the future and growing old with him. We would still hold hands when we were 80, make each other coffee in the morning, and our house would be full on holidays. He loved me just as much as I loved him. I really believed I had it right this time.

When he proposed earlier this year, I was over the moon. He had two children and a family I had come to adore, and was clearly choosing to overlook my ever-expanding wrinkle collection and the fact that, despite my endless squats and running, my butt seemed determined to take up residence somewhere around the backs of my thighs.

Less than six months later, about a month into our 6th year together, he broke off the engagement. There was no “deal breaking” behavior; no infidelity, no lying, no substance abuse or physical abuse. He just felt that our obstacles of distance and differing work schedules were too great and he wasn’t happy anymore.

Saying I was devastated would be like saying Mother Teresa is a nice lady. I wanted to be angry with him, but I couldn’t be.  This man is a good man. He didn’t want to hurt me, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that he gave me everything he was capable of giving me.

I spent the first few days ugly crying in the fetal position, before it finally occurred to me that not everyone’s “forever” means forever. The hard truth is, if he were going to give up on us this easily, there is no way we would have ever made it all the way to the warm family holidays, and the coffee-making and holding hands in our 80’s.

You, dear reader, are going to be the beneficiary of the soul-searching and contemplation that resulted from the excruciating pain I suffered. In order to survive, I had to make sense of it all.

Life is brutal. It comes at you from all sides.  It’s tempting, you know, to think of every single undesirable trait you have when a relationship fails. I know I “go internal” when I have a problem and shut people out, I forget to return phone calls, I hate to cook, read when I should probably be talking, and don’t know how to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.  There are a million negatives to offset my wit and charming personality, and render me undeserving of love.

Here’s the thing though, every day people lose their jobs, battle exhausting, financially debilitating diseases, try to save their children from drug addiction, confess infidelity, and care for aging parents. In my world, love is what you combat the inevitable obstacles with. If I love someone, I don’t give up on them. That applies whether you are my lover, my child, my family, or my friend. “There is a solution for every problem.”  It’s my motto.  In fact, when you tell someone you love them, I believe you’re actually saying, “I will always give you the benefit of the doubt. I will stand beside you through the very worst of what life throws at us, and love you when you’re not very loveable. You will never face anything alone. I will be honest even when it hurts, and every single day, I will wake up and choose you.”  And I swear I did not rip that off from some Lifetime movie, or Lloyd in “Say Anything”. That little nugget is all mine.

When you get down to it, those married couples out there aren’t that different from those of us still looking. As individuals, most of us want similar things out of life. No one wants to die alone.  We want to feel safe, appreciated, and understood.  We want to know someone is out there who will celebrate our accomplishments, pluck us from the wreckage when everything implodes, and kick us in the ass when it’s required.

Ultimately, we want someone to share with that we can trust. The highs are that much higher when there’s someone else lifting you up; and when times are bad, they’re not nearly as overwhelming when there’s someone helping hold your head above water. Because, here it is: We are all imperfect.

Most of us go out into the world every day with good intentions. The problem is none of us are whole, so we use up our best behavior on the people we barely know and unleash the demons on the ones we love. Some of us do it a whole lot less than others, but we all do it. This is where it gets tricky, because we don’t choose WHO we love, but we do choose to STAY in love. This is where we single people differ from those couples you know that have been married 20 years.

No matter what we might think, they don’t have the perfect, blissful marriage full of sex, playful banter, and exotic vacations. What they do have are two emotionally mature people, who are doing their best to communicate their needs, and who are consciously choosing each other and choosing to stay in love each and every day.

My children are the reluctant recipients of my wisdom. I’ve told them time and again, “The good times will pass, and so will the bad. Don’t get too caught up in either one of them.” This is something people in successful relationships know instinctively….they aren’t always going to be happy, and they aren’t going to stay sad or angry. They expect the roller coaster, they ride it, and they never, ever give up. They CHOOSE to continue to love their partner.  Finding someone to fall in love with is the easy part, the challenge is finding someone who will always choose you, even when it might seem easier to walk away.

What we’re all looking for is a warrior. Someone who sees past our imperfections and the armor we wear every day, and loves us for our potential, our passions, and our own unique set of gifts.

What I’ve learned is that romantic relationships aren’t anything more than friendships on steroids with physical attraction. Aristotle believed that there are three main categories of friends:

  • Those who love you because you’re useful to them.
  • Those who love you because your company provides them with pleasure.
  • Those who love you because you’re a good person.

People who are a part of your life primarily because you’re useful to them, or your company provides them with pleasure, will always end up leaving. I don’t know about you but as hard as I try, I’m not always useful and my company is sometimes anything but pleasurable. Why? Because, I’m imperfect. Because there are times in my life I’m a dream come true, and there are times you would probably just want to fast forward through a couple of weeks.

Someone that loves you based on your usefulness and/or the pleasure you bring them, will almost always stop choosing to love you and abandon ship when they hit high seas. It’s category #3 you’re looking for; the relationships that are based on your partner’s ability to see you as a good person are the ones that last. The first two types of relationships exist when one person wants to “be loved” more than they want “to love”. They’re looking for someone to flatter them and fill them up. Real, lasting relationships are the result of two people who are more focused on the act of loving. When someone loves you for your inherent goodness, they love you through the times you just don’t have what it takes to be useful or pleasing, and their focus isn’t on what they are or aren’t getting from you. They stay focused on what they can give. They continue to choose you, even in the worst of times. While there are obvious differences in the physical properties of a parent/child relationship and a romantic relationship, the quality of the love we extend should be the same.

Just today, I read an article that a hospice chaplain wrote about ministering to the dying. She said that many people were surprised to hear that the dying didn’t talk about their religion or God. They overwhelmingly talk about love. They talk about the love they gave and received. They talk about love that they felt in their lifetime, and love that should have been unconditional but wasn’t.  Many talked about love they withheld, or never knew how to offer. Sometimes they talked about love they walked away from and shouldn’t have.

We’re surrounded by opportunities to choose love every day in our interactions with our family, our friends, and our children. I believe that every act of love leaves us more beautiful than we were before.

After a loss, our first instinct is to tell ourselves we’re done. We’re giving up. But let’s face it, there is no greater gift in life than love and the conscious commitment to choose that love over and over again. While I still catch myself at stop lights every now and again, drifting off and wondering where I fell short, I’m pretty sure that up until this point I’ve spent most of my time in relationships with men whose love was rooted in categories 1 and 2. And while my life is full of love from some amazing people, I’m still hopeful that someday I’m going to find a category 3 kind of romantic love, and join the ranks of all those couples who figured it out way before I did.

But you know, when you think about it, a full house during holidays, making each other coffee and holding hands at 80, are all rooted in giving love and goodness. Maybe, just maybe, I’m headed in the right direction.

Saving Seven

I’ve had a number of people, over time, encourage me to write a book or start a blog. Primarily due to the stories I tell about my children, Jake and McRae. They supply funny material daily.  So, about a month ago, I finally sat down and created this blog, my intention being to share my funny stories in a place where people could see them if they liked, but not have them “forced” on them via Facebook’s timeline. This wasn’t what I had planned for my first post, but it needs to be shared.

Life has a way of taking a swing at us when we least expect it. You think it’s all going great, you’ve got your ducks in a row, and WHAM. Out of nowhere the love of your life decides they’re not up for pushing through the bad times, the company you work for decides they don’t need you anymore, or your dishwasher springs a leak and floods your hardwoods. It happens, and when it does we can get consumed by it. Feeling sorry for yourself is easy.  I’ve had some disappointments of my own lately, and I was all prepared to assume the fetal position, when someone reminded me that life is about showing up when times are tough. It’s easy to show up during the good times. Everyone loves “happy”; everyone loves “easy”, don’t they?

Imagine being one of seven children. Seven children whose parents have failed them so many times, that Social Services has finally stepped in and said that the people who brought you into this world, aren’t fit to provide you basic care each day. If you’re one of those seven children the prospect must be terrifying, because this is the only home you’ve ever known. If you’re one of the older siblings, you know enough to know that you’re not going to be living with your brothers and sisters anymore. The system will split you up and farm you out, and there’s a possibility that you’ll never see some of them again. Imagine that for just a second.

If this were Hollywood, a rich white couple would swoop in and save all seven, and after some dramatic, ticket-selling moments, all seven would grow up and prosper. But, this isn’t Hollywood, it’s rural North Carolina and the clock is ticking. Would you open your home? Those of us that are responsible have budgets. We don’t buy houses we can’t afford, we don’t have children we can’t support, and we skip vacations because the money isn’t there. As a single mother, I know all about not having enough resources and saying, “no”.  I also know that today, my household couldn’t take on a cat without serious consideration, much less more children. If you know someone who would step up for seven children, raise your hand. Guess what? You can’t see me, but I’m raising mine.

On Sunday, July 19th I received a text message from one of the men I work with.  As a little benefit, I manage in-house savings accounts for them and he was requesting that I send him all he had.  His wife’s sister and her husband were losing their children and he and his wife weren’t about to let them become part of the system.

David and Charlene are people that have done everything right. They are hard workers, are active in their church and community, and are working hard to raise two teenagers of their own. They are kind and they are good. They, like most of us, pay their bills and try to put a little back for unexpected emergencies. They do not live in a McMansion with multiple guest rooms, but they came up with a plan; David and his wife would take four of the children and David’s mother-in-law would take three. David and Charlene’s children went from having rooms of their own to graciously sharing their space. David and Charlene went from parenting two teens to adding a 14 year old, a 12 year old, a 3 year old, and a 1 year old. Charlene’s mom went from an empty nest, to parenting a 4 year old, a 7 year old, and an 8 year old.

The children came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No one had bothered to take the time to potty train the 3 year old or teach the 7 year old to tie his shoes. Someone had taken the time, however, to tell the 14 year old girl that she was worthless and ugly, as often as possible, so she arrived without any self-esteem. I can’t talk about her or think about her without crying. Seriously crying and I don’t do that often.

Your parents are supposed to be your soft place. They’re supposed to be the people who believe you to be better than you even are. They aren’t supposed to chip away at your soul every day until someone else takes the knife away.  In so many ways, our parents are a mirror that we look at as kids to see who we are and what we’re capable of achieving. This 14 year old child has been looking in that mirror and seeing nothing. Charlene tells me that they’re working hard to build this young lady up. She’s learning that she does look pretty when she dresses for church and that she has capabilities in school that she never dreamed she could have.

David has taught her that it isn’t acceptable for a man to call her names like “bitch”. For the first time, she’s getting to see what a gentleman is, so she will be able to recognize them when she’s ready to date. I wish I could tell her 50 times a day for the next 10 years that she is beautiful, that she is smart, and that she is worthy of love and respect. But I know that even if I could, it would never be enough to completely undo that damage. Within the first week of their arrival, this young lady thanked Charlene and told her that she felt safe for the first time in her life. Think about that. At 14, she feels safe for the first time in her life. All seven children have many challenges to overcome. I could fill page after page with the simple things that the children have never been taught or shown. David, Charlene, and Charlene’s mother are working together to help them catch up in school and in life. They have a long road ahead of them.

Here’s the thing, it would have been easy for these people to say no. No one would have faulted them. They could have listed 100 valid reasons this was more than they could handle, but they looked for a way to say “yes” instead. They looked beyond the financial burden, the loss of personal space, and sleep and time. They stepped up when it wasn’t the easy thing to do, and I’m sure they have days when they look at each other and say, “What were we thinking?” So often, the right thing isn’t the easy thing. In my book they’re heroes, pure and simple.

It’s been said that, “Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the ability to act in the presence of it.” Action isn’t without risk, but with risk comes the possibility of reward. If you always stay in your corner and play it safe, you will never grow spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally. I’m trying really hard to watch and learn from my friends because I know I have plenty of room left for growing, as do my children. These kids haven’t had many opportunities to feel “special” in their lives, while my two get to feel special every single day.

So my kids and I sat down and discussed it. We discussed how, every year at Christmas, they agonize over coming up with a list of items they want. They have everything they NEED and they know it. Although we don’t have a big budget at Christmas, they readily agreed to picking a few items they could put to good use and directing the rest of our budget toward making sure that these seven children had a Christmas they could remember.  I feel certain that this won’t just be a great Christmas for these seven, beautiful kids who are full of promise they haven’t even realized yet, it will be a great Christmas for my kids too.

If you’re reading this, you’re one of my friends. We would like to invite you to make a difference too. I really want to show David’s family and these children that they have a village behind them. For the record, they don’t have a clue what I’m up to and I hope to keep it that way. If you feel moved to participate, email me at rstephens2@windstream.net and I’ll be sure to include you in our plans. Thank you for reading. I’ll try to deliver something funny next time. I promise.