Friday, May 27, 2016

The Past Comes Crashing Into the Present

Something people in their fifties and sixties are not always psychologically prepared for is the death of friends. Maybe nobody is prepared for that.

My Wednesday started with news that an old girlfriend died last week. Even though I had not seen her in thirty years and had not been in contact for more than ten years, I was still in shock.

Part of the shock is that someone who was barely into her 60s can die, part of it is that someone who made a huge impact on my life is gone. No future contact, no new chapters in her unique life, no more catching-up stories to share. It's another reminder of how fragile and short life is. That scares the shit out of me.  And I learned while writing this that her cause of death was a brain tumor, discovered less than six months ago.

Melanie was a phone company sales rep when I met her. That job, with its conservative expectations, dress code and behavioral requirements, was a complete mismatch for her personality.  The off-hours Melanie I met was a regular customer at the pizza parlor where I was a DJ. I can still clearly see her and her friends doing the oddest 1960s-era hippie dancing to the 1950s-era oldies I was playing in the mid-1970s. She was a total free-spirit, a mismatch for my then shy, rigid, 'paint inside the lines' personality. I was a free-spirit wannabe and she eventually helped me move in that direction.

Our relationship ended when I left Louisiana to chase my career dream. It ended badly, which was mostly my fault because I didn't discuss my discussion to leave with her; I made the decision, accepted the job offer a thousand miles away, packed and left. Our relationship was destined to end anyway because ultimately we were a mismatch, but I know I could have handled it better and with more respect for her feelings.

She made an interesting decision a few years later. She left the sales job, finished college and became a high school English teacher in a small town outside New Orleans. Based on everything I've read about her online, her personality was perfect for inspiring students in a subject that usually scares or bores them.

Continuing her free-spirit nature, combined with a missionary sense of purpose I didn't see during my time with her, she gave up that fairly cushy job to teach in an inner-city New Orleans high school. She saw something in her students there that their own parents and peers didn't see, and uncovered some incredible story-telling and writing skills in many of her students. She even published some of their work in her blog and began work on a book that, sadly, was never completed.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed that school and it was never rebuilt. She eventually accepted a teaching job at the college back in the small town, helped create a national creative writing project and travelled to Europe with her now-grown up son. She even travelled alone to an Eastern European country several years ago (I forget which one) and wrote and published a book about the adventure.

Melanie is one of the people in my life who helped me break out of my own self-imposed barriers.  Our relationship was a temporary stop on my life journey but it has lasting impact and significance. We were in touch off and on over the decades but totally off since Katrina. At some point in her life she admitted her alcoholism and maybe wanted to disconnect with some parts of her past; that is a possible reason she didn't respond to my attempts to reestablish contact with her. Or maybe I just didn't have that much impact on her life.

I will say this: she told me in a letter a few years after I left that some people in that small town where we lived together still asked about me. That letter, which I still have in a box of things buried in a closet, opened my eyes to the possibility that I might have a positive impact on some of the people I've met during my own life journey.  She helped give me the courage to accept that possibility without any ego attached.

I'm writing this two days after receiving the sad news and maybe only now accepting that I'm grieving a little. I'll never see her again, never share stories or memories, never catch up. I won't be able to tell her about the incredible, wonderful life I have now, the special people who share my journey, one in particular. I can't tell her that the dreams I left her for have all come true as well as many more I could not have imagined. I can't tell her that she impacts my life to this day.

Sometimes the past crashing into the present is a bad thing.  Sometimes, like this time, it is a cause for celebration of a unique life.

Another dream I've had is to write a book. This week I figured out the title and theme. This blog post will likely be one of the chapters.