I learned of some tragic news recently, and the more I think about it, the angrier I become. Look, I fully understand that sometimes people suck. The real issue is when people you should be able to trust, who should be staunchly in your corner, fail you miserably.
Important preface. Two things, really. First, I’m angry because of people I barely knew, let alone trusted (so breathe a sigh of relief, it’s not you) 🙂 And remember, I’ve recently had to come to terms with the fact that life is really short, so I’m no longer concerned about what anyone thinks of me or the things that have happened to me in the past. Sorry, not sorry. 🙂
That all said, why am I so irritated? I’ll tell you because it actually gives me a chance to share something it taught me.
As you can imagine, facing a progressive, incurable disease necessitates some refocus. With this mindset, I have been spending an inordinate amount of time wrapping up loose ends. I’ve also been going back through tons of old mementos (you’ve been warned, much more to come there…) plus docs and notes and cards I’ve kept over the years. My lifeboxes, as I call them.
In going through these boxes, I found several letters and cards from an early high school girlfriend (yes, again, I tend to keep stuff). She was someone I hadn’t thought of in years. We dated for less than a year, had a ton of fun, but unfortunately, it ended badly. Curiosity, which is a potentially troublesome human nature, (I hear it’s even worse if you’re a cat) 🙂 got to me and I thought I’d see how she had made out in life.
I was shocked to find out that she is dead.
She actually died in 2003, at age 37. This was the very first I’d heard of it. My first emotion was, of course, deep sadness. I remember her as a kind, wonderful, fun-loving person, beautiful inside and out – and 37 seemed so young.
Then I became increasingly angry, as I thought back to the end of the relationship. Hear me out…
My girlfriend had a troubled family life. Maybe troubled is too strong of a word, but it was definitely not the most stable situation. She lived with her dad, and while that relationship was strained, stepmom was evil incarnate. This woman made Cinderella’s stepmom seem like Aunt Bee. And sadly, this woman also had a wicked spell on my girlfriend’s dad.
The step momster imposed a strict lockdown of anything fun, enforced by the often-repeated threat to ship my girlfriend to out-of-state relatives if she didn’t comply. That’s a powerful weapon against a teenage girl with tons of local friends and a social life built around this community.
One day after school we were just chilling (no, not ‘Netflix and chill’ sheesh) at her house, watching TV (in the living room, with a sibling present, nothing nefarious going on, I might add), and the stepmom pulls into the driveway. The girlfriend freaks out, scared to death that this is it, she’s going to be exiled to Timbuktu. I honestly can’t believe it would really amount to that, so I suggest that we just talk to her. I mean, I think I’m actually a likable guy (for a teenage boy), I can talk “grown-up,” and maybe I can somehow connect with Lady Tremaine. But the girlfriend begs me to leave, and so it’s quickly out the back door and over the six-foot fence I go (remember, I had good hops back in the day).
I’m back home later that night when the girlfriend calls. I can tell she is distraught, her voice is trembling, you can just feel the fear in her every word. She tells me Cruella wants to talk to me. Of course, my first thought is “awesome, we’re going to get a chance to get to know each other better. Maybe she wants me to come over for dinner.”
NARRATOR: “At this point, it’s obvious Mitch thinks a little too highly of himself… and the boy sure is somewhat naive.”
No! The girlfriend tells me stepmom wants to know if I had been at the house (like it was in violation of an international lockdown protocol or something). She begs me to say I was not there. I’m struggling here. Conflicted. I don’t want to start off the relationship with the somehow overly powerful stepmom based on a lie. That’s not my style. And honestly, I can’t imagine someone so callous as to exile a decent 16-year-old young lady (with good grades, no arrests, and obviously a great taste in boys) 🙂 to nowheresville. All those concepts ran so contrary to everything I knew growing up.
As stepmom comes to the phone, I took a deep breath… and I told her the truth. Yes, I had been over there. We were just hanging out. Everything was fine. When I was finished, I was certain that my polite and respectful tone, and the truthfulness of my statement, would win the day.
Sadly, I have never been so wrong. Almost immediately thereafter my girlfriend’s worst fears come true, as stepmom played Judge, Jury, and Executioner. Verdict rendered. Exile it is. And to my incredulous disbelief, dad not only failed to step in as defense, but never even bothered to appeal the verdict.
My girlfriend was indeed banished to distant, out-of-state relatives. Unbelievably, I never saw her again.
Maybe my expectations of the stepmom were too high (just maybe? sheesh), but I was raised to expect some basic human decency out of people, and this woman was astonishingly devoid of any semblance of decency or compassion.
More importantly, I expected the dad to protect his baby girl. To come to her rescue. To intervene on her behalf. He could have negotiated a peaceful settlement. If need be, there were many potential punishment options that would have sufficed, short of this nuclear proliferation. But he chose to let his daughter, the fruit of his loin, his flesh and blood, twist in the wind.
I was truly shaken. Not just my faith in humanity, or at least in adults, but moreso because of the knowledge that I could have prevented this travesty by simply telling a lie. I really struggled with the thought that it was my fault, I did this to her. I was angry, I was sad, I was confused. I was 17. Adults had punished me, both of us, for telling the truth. For telling the truth… let that sink in. It was actually one of the very few times in my life that I have felt what some would call depression.
In reflection, there was a silver lining. From that day forward, I swore that someday, whenever I had kids, I would never treat them with the lack of love and respect that I believed my girlfriend was shown by her dad (and I’m not going to even reference what I swore about that other person).
I swore I would promise my kids, no matter what, that if they told the truth, the worst-case outcome, while it might still be quite unpleasant, would be exponentially better than any lie they may have cast.
I swore I would trust, but verify. I swore I would respect, but discipline. And most importantly, no matter what, I swore I would love. Some days it might be a tough love, but love, with some compassion and an understanding of what it is like to be young, would always be there.
I pray that my former girlfriend is now at peace. I pray she is where she will finally be loved unconditionally, as she deserved, but sadly failed to receive, from the people who should have offered it most.
Although I may have had my share of struggles throughout my parenting journey, I simply pray that I have fulfilled my commitment, from long before they were even born, and it was, indeed, different for my kids.