Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Life's Story

When it's been four years since something happened, you might assume that all of your friends know about it. Obviously, over time, you're going to make new friends and you find yourself telling the story again... and again... until the narrative is clearer and it gets easier to tell. The details have been rehearsed, you don't get suckered into tangents and, most importantly, you know when to stop.

After four years, this is how I'd gotten with the story of Stan's death, our sometimes complicated relationship and the information that came after his death - namely that he was probably planning on proposing just a few weeks later - that makes the whole story that much more heartbreaking for most people.

For me, however, that's what makes me angry. But I don't usually get to tell that part of the story anymore. Because when I tell the heartbreaking story, it's to new people in my life, people who didn't know Stan, people with whom I'm not ready to be quite that honest.

But a couple of days ago, a friend I've known for years, who has been a part of my social circle in Las Vegas since before I ever moved here, who knew Stan long before he and I met, said something interesting to me. She said that she was sorry, that she hated to admit it so long after the fact, but that she never really knew about my relationship with Stan and would I mind telling her about it.

So I did. And I found myself talking about the things that I usually hold back. I told her these things because she actually knew him as a real person with fears and weaknesses, not as a military hero who bravely put himself in harm's way to ultimately save the lives of others. She knew him as someone with complicated relationships, not a shadow who loved me therefore we can only assume we would have lived happily ever after, if only he had lived. (Yeah right.)

So, I told her about the ways he made me angry, in life and in death. I told her about the ways he broke my heart, in life and in death. There were the lies of omission he clung to to save his own heart and subsequently confused mine. There were the assumptions he made to simplify his own feelings and subsequently complicated mine.

I told her how all of these things are caught up in the reasons why I can't trust anything a man either does or doesn't say to me now. Because just like any relationship, whether it ends with crying and slamming doors or a reasonable conversation and a hug, or a roadside bomb and a blast, the experiences within that relationship affect our behavior in every relationship thereafter.

Just because somebody dies doesn't forgive all of the mistakes he made when he was alive. And just because somebody dies heroically doesn't in any way make him a saint. And the people left behind shouldn't have to feel that way or even pretend to feel that way. And I shouldn't have to tell his story that way. But it's hard not to when talking to people who didn't know him. Because people who didn't know Stan when he was alive want to see him as a symbol of patriotism, bravery, strength, masculinity - and most heart breakingly - lost love.

It was a relief, after all this time, to tell the story to someone who did know him. But then I found out how well she knew him. She said, "I don't know if you knew this, but Stan and I dated." In fact, I didn't know this. Stan, after all, was very private about his emotions, which was one of the things that broke my heart. So, it's not surprising that he wouldn't have told me that he had dated someone I was also friends with.

But what was surprising is that it didn't hurt me that he had never told me. Maybe if I had found out right after he died, or even while he was still alive, I would have been upset, jealous even. But four years after his death, when I've been able to sort through all the various levels and directions of my anger, frustration and heartache, this didn't bother me at all.

What did bother me is this: she told me that they were never really a couple, they just "hung out" (her words) for a few months. But when she told him that she'd rather just be friends, that she broke his heart and he started using drugs. She told me that she still, to this day, feels terrible that she hurt him like that.

This bothered me because it meant that he wasn't honest with her. When she told me this, I was able to place the time frame when they would have "hung out." It was one of the times Stan and I were "off again" in our long "on again/off again" relationship and I was also "hanging out" with someone else. The heartbreak and drug use that she saw as a result of her breaking things off with him, had much more complicated roots than that. Much much more.

I told her that she should forgive herself and that I was sure she really didn't hurt him that badly, plus he was not the type of person to ever hold a grudge towards someone else. I should know after all the times he and I forgave each other and reunited.

But this conversation and my friend's admission just reminded me all the more that loved ones who pass on still leave behind all of the emotions they made other people feel. People want widows to remember the "good times," but it's just as valid to remember the difficult and complicated times, too. Dead people - even those who die heroically - were still people: humans with human frailties who made as many mistakes and caused as much heartache, anger and frustration as anyone else during their time on earth. And that's part of the story, his story, and it should all be worth telling.