The loss of young first love is so painful that it borders on the ludicrous.
– Maya Angelou
As a writer (and general over-sharer), I have noticed this phenomena that occurs when I get a “topic” on my mind. Something harmlessly and lightly crosses my mind – I think “hmm, I should write about that sometime” – and then suddenly that topic is EVERYWHERE. Even when I’m not consciously thinking of it, there it is. I see things that remind me of it. I see quotes that relate to it. It comes up in conversation. Now, I don’t know if these are actual “signs,” per se (I mean, if you buy a red truck, you’re probably going to start noticing red trucks…I think that’s just life), but nevertheless, they sure make it pretty miserable on me until I just give in and sit down and write about it.
So, here I am. I have no idea where I’m going with this so I’ll be just surprised as you as to how it turns out. Like author Margaret Atwood says, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” So, I’m not waiting. I’m just gonna start talking.
I’m going to tell you about my high school boyfriend.
I know, right? What the heck?! Where’d that come from? Hey, beats me. You don’t want to climb in this head, trust me. It’s a circus in here.
Okay, maybe I do kind of know where it came from. In a conversation with a dear friend a month or so ago, I was asked how many times I had been in love in my life. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been asked that before and the first answer that popped into my head was “You mean how many times have I actually been in love or how many times have I thought I was?” Which then led me to bring up this theory that I’ve always subconsciously had but never had actually vocalized. It’s kind of negative so if you don’t like it, just ignore it. I’m not a psychologist and I’m just babbling so you can pretend you never heard it. (I also have a tendency to be wrong about things so there’s that.) But anyway the theory is this: I think we’re only romantically “in love” once in our life. And it’s only the first time. I know, I know. That sounds awful. And I’m married and my husband is reading this so I’m probably in trouble. But whatever – I honestly believe that. And here’s why. I think to be “in love” (at least in the romantic sense) requires complete innocence and ignorance. And I don’t think a person can truly allow themselves to feel the euphoria of being in love once they’ve learned what it’s like to lose it.
Let me try to equate this to something a bit more simple. My younger siblings used to love jumping on a trampoline. That trampoline was the cornerstone of their youth. If they were awake, they were jumping on that thing. But then one day, my sister Jenny fell off of it and broke her leg. Now, I’m not Jenny. And I don’t actually know what it feels like to fall off a trampoline and break my leg. But I’d be willing to bet my left lung that jumping on the trampoline was never the same for her again.
[I pause here to report that I just took a break from this blog and sent her a text. It went like this:
Me: “I have a weird random question for you. Did you still jump on the trampoline after you broke your leg on it?”
Her: “Yes ma’am! I was on one Thursday. lol!” (Jenny is 28 years old in case you were wondering…)
Me: “Sigh. Work with me here. Did it change how you felt about it though? Are you more careful now?”
Her: “I was to begin with. But I actually broke it because we had basketballs on there playing ‘popcorn.’ I landed on one and it broke my leg. Definitely haven’t done that again.”]
[Note to readers: Do NOT try that at home….]
So, anyway, there. She proved my point. We’re all big dummies and we eventually get back on the trampoline, but we sure are more careful from that point on, right? I mean, we don’t throw basketballs on there with us because…duh…that’s just stupid. Point is…we lose a bit of that old risk. That feeling of euphoria. Because we kind of know better now. We know we can break our frickin’ leg.
Okay, so maybe throwing basketballs on a trampoline isn’t an obvious example, but it works. We adjust our game after that first fall. We are never going to allow ourselves to feel that invincible feeling of “falling” again because we now know what it feels like to land.
So, back to the high school boyfriend. His name was Nathan and he was my first love. Some may call that puppy love, but I don’t know. The older I get, the more I think that childlike love was more real than this cynical adult will ever be able to feel again. I was hopeless. And so very ignorant. And oh man, our story had all the makings of a Nicholas Sparks novel. We were American high school seniors living in a foreign country. We had been best buddies before I found out I had cancer and he ended up falling in love with the bald-headed version of me. He traveled 6 hours once alone in a car with my step-dad – the guy he had just met FOR THE FIRST TIME – to see me in the hospital after a major surgery. When I had to miss the senior trip because of my health, he took me on a day-long train ride through Germany a few months later when I was healthier to try to make up for it. And as if that weren’t enough? Our prom was in a CASTLE…yes, a REAL castle…complete with my getting too tired and us going outside to sit on a bench and watch the full moon reflect off of my bald head as my wig lay on the seat beside us.
Y’all, you can’t make this stuff up. This was my life.
Fast forward to the end of our senior year though. Those two 18-year-old lovestruck teenagers were getting ready to graduate and watch their entire world change like they could have never imagined.
Oh, we had all these plans. We had it ALL figured out. In the military, your “home of record” is the state you were in when the parent joined the services. Mine and Nathan’s homes of record were just about as far apart as they could be. His? Oregon. Mine? Virginia. And this mattered because of our college plans – in-state tuition, where our extended family was, etc. So June 6, 1996, came and went. We graduated high school – such a bittersweet day – and a few weeks later, I watched him get on a plane and leave my life.
Shortly after he left, I got on my own plane and flew to Virginia to live with my dad and start college. I was in college full time and working three jobs at one point just to save money to be with Nathan. I even applied and was accepted at his university and had every intention of moving there to be with him as a sophomore where we could begin to start our life together. It was what we both wanted and were working towards. This was before cell phones and internet were a huge thing, so most of our communication was real-life letters. I still have them in a memory box somewhere. We wrote each other all the time – sent each other cards and even recorded our voices on cassette tapes and sent them to one another so we could hear each other any time we wanted. (Long distance phone calls were not cheap.) We were making it work and we were determined.
And then, just like that, everything changed.
He met someone else.
Oh, it was devastating. I felt like someone had pulled my heart out of my chest and stomped on it. I hated him. I hated me. I hated life. I hated the military. I hated our parents. I hated cancer. I hated everything that conspired to bring me to this point I was at – a sobbing, hiccupping pile of crumbled, broken-hearted mess cradling a “Dear John” letter in my lap on the floor.
I survived though. We humans always tend to make it through these things we think will destroy us.
I refused to talk to him for a long time, but he kept trying. He still sent me letters for a few years and then when email became a more popular thing, he’d email me. He tried to keep in touch but I was so incredibly angry and would either not respond, or would respond sarcastically asking why he still wanted to talk to me when he had Miss Perfect now.
He and Miss Perfect stayed together for five years, by the way. It didn’t ultimately last, but it was apparently pretty serious. As it turns out, I ended up getting married and having two kids in the interim. And my marriage was ending about the same time his relationship was. So we found ourselves unattached and heartbroken at 22 and did the only logical thing.
Tried to get back together.
But, um, let’s just say that didn’t work. Boy had those five years changed us! He had become a successful college graduate living in the big city with a business degree and a big salary. I had become a broke, divorced mom living in the middle of nowhere. Just those five little years changed everything.
Anyway, I’m kind of digressing here. That was just some extra “what happened next” info that doesn’t really play into my point. So, what is my point exactly?
Darn it. I still don’t know.
I thought maybe once I started writing, it would all become clear. Honestly, it usually does. I start with an idea, have no idea where it’s headed, and then wrap it all up with a pretty little life lesson bow at the end. But I don’t really have a bow this time. I just wanted to talk about something that shaped who I am – at least as far as romance is concerned. I wanted to tell my “tragic love story” so that maybe you might think about yours and realize that we all have them.
Ok, and maybe there is something else.
No, I don’t believe I’ll ever feel the way I felt about Nathan again about anyone. But you know what?
We were so incredibly innocent. We had no idea what lessons life was going to hold for us once we left the sanctuary of high school. We didn’t know what it was going to be like to pay bills, have kids, have real responsibilities. We had no idea what it was going to feel like to have to actually work at love.
No, at that time in our life, love wasn’t a choice. It was just something that happened to us and swept us off our feet.
But that’s not what love really is.
No, being “in love” is not where it’s at. LOVE is what it’s all about. The real kind. Love is the hard stuff. Love is saying I’m sorry. Love is saying mean things in the heat of the moment and then begging for forgiveness. Love is being hurt and yet choosing to move forward together anyway. Love is knowing that you can be yourself – the bad and the good – and they’ll still be there tomorrow. Love is knowing that you probably should have been given up on long ago, but yet you weren’t.
Love is choosing to stay.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still a hopeless romantic at heart. But I’m learning as I go. And the older I get, the more I realize that the “in love” feeling can, in fact, still be replicated. It has just shifted a bit.
I’m just not going to find it in other people anymore.
Now I have to find it in me.
That feeling I get when I watch my grown children successfully living their lives. That moment when I have been training for months and finally reach the top of a mountain I’ve been determined to run up. When I finish a grueling project at my job knowing that everything was completed because of my hard work and determination. When I hear the sound of the audience’s applause at the end of a theatre performance that I’m so proud of.
That feeling I get when I write something and then look back over it and realize that maybe I did, in fact, say exactly what I was meaning to say all along.
So if you’re one of those whose romantic “in love” moment has been used up, stop mourning it. Today. Seriously, stop it. Don’t glamorize it. It happened and it’s over – and that’s a good thing. We’re different people now and we have evolved. We don’t throw basketballs on trampolines anymore. Got it? Time to replace that feeling with these other beautiful moments of euphoria that are out there waiting for us to discover them.
There’s a lot more life out there to be lived. And so many more kinds of love to learn.
Well look at that. I guess there was a life lesson bow after all….
“You get over your first love by falling in love with something new.”
– Mo Ibrahim