There's an angel in my life

This woman I've known for 33 years appears and disappears at all the biggest moments.

Published April 24, 2009 10:35AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 50-year-old guy with a pretty good life. I have a wonderful wife I love intensely, and a teenage boy and a teenage girl, both of whom do me proud. Although my employment situation has suddenly become fluid, having spent much of the '90s putting my wife through pharmacy school means that our finances are solid. I have little to complain about.

My problem? I have become obsessed with a woman I met 33 years ago. The good news is that there is a reason for this. The bad news is that it'll take some explanation.

Forty years ago, my family moved to a small Wisconsin town. Within a couple of hours of meeting my new classmates, they handed me back my head on a platter. It's an old story, so I don't think you need to hear the details, with a single exception.

My attraction to girls was problematic. Since my classmates insisted I was gay, dates were impossible. In ninth grade, I chased away a perfectly marvelous seventh-grade girl who had developed a crush on me (and who had no idea how miserable I was). I hated myself for doing it, but the alternative would have been worse. I confirmed this a couple of years later when my attempt to establish a relationship was ruined by the mocking and derision of my classmates.

As an aside, my parents refused to recognize that I had a problem, and offered no help whatsoever. I came to terms with that a long time ago.

By the time I graduated I was completely screwed up, and I knew it. But I also had a new job and, for the first time in a long time, control of my life, which was an improvement.

That's when I met a girl I'll call Carla. She was decidedly different from anyone I had ever met before. In fact, our first conversation was all about her sex life. The gist: She loved having sex with her boyfriend and didn't get it often enough. Keep in mind that at this time I didn't even know what an organism was. Exploring my sexuality wasn't my highest priority. Keeping my sanity was. It was a strange conversation, but at least it was real (also a new experience for me at the time). Not long after that, a group from work decided to go dancing. I went, although it would be a first for me, because I felt I had to put myself out there, even if I made a fool of myself (which I would do many times during those years). Carla came too, and decided that we would dance together. I had no idea that one person could treat another one so well. It wasn't so much anything that she did as it was her attitude. She wasn't just out to have to fun, she wanted me to have fun too. She drew me into the experience. At one point, during a break in the music, she looked up at me and announced she was going to kiss me. It was very chaste, and given our previous conversation, I didn't read much into it. But, as you can imagine, it is a cherished memory for me.

Much to my delight and surprise, she kept wanting to spend time with me. At the time, it seemed very innocent. We did things she liked doing -- golfing and ice skating, for instance -- and she never embarrassed me even though I had never done any of these things before and didn't do them well. I was very awkward around her. Once, she took me horseback riding (she owned one and this was a passion for her) and, when I got up in the saddle behind her, I found I was unable to put my arms around her waist. It didn't seem right. That lasted until I bounced off the back of the horse. Another time I missed a date because I got into a fender-bender on the way there. I was concerned she'd be angry, but when I saw her she had two questions for me: What happened? and Are you OK? Concern and compassion were not things I was used to receiving. Throw in the fact that she was very attractive, and I was more than just a little infatuated.

Then she dropped a very loud hint that she thought I'd make a better boyfriend than her current one. Even at the time, it made a lot of sense. Our personalities meshed perfectly and I knew she saw and respected the qualities I liked about myself. We had spent a lot of time talking, and I knew the vision she had for the future. It was something I could have bought into. She had the stronger personality, but she respected who I was. It even explained the attitude of her parents, who really liked me.

I couldn't. I knew that her relationships were intense and physical, and I was far from ready for such a commitment. There were no scenes. I just didn't react the way I should have. She quit work, and we saw less and less of each other, though we never completely lost contact. Then, about five years later, she called me, told me she had broken up with her boyfriend, and would I like to come over. I knew why I was being summoned, but it didn't go well. A couple of weeks later, she told me she was getting married. I've always felt that she hadn't really broken up, but had come to a point in her relationship where she either had to dump him or marry him, and she couldn't do that without resolving her feelings for me.

I am, and always have been, OK with what happened between us. She never did anything to me that really hurt me, and a lot that made me feel better about myself. I recovered and built the life that I wanted. Carla became a very pleasant memory, and I occasionally would think of her and wondered what happened to her. And I have always been grateful for the kindness and generosity she showed me. My life was enriched because I knew her.

About a year ago, I thought of her again, and it occurred to me to see if I could find her on the Internet. Much to my surprise, I did. Through her own words, I even have a rough idea how her life has gone. She's had her share of difficulties, but she's also achieved some of her dreams. She appears to have a pretty good life.

As you've probably guessed, the thought of contacting her (I can access her address and phone number) and telling her how grateful I am for the help she gave me has caught my imagination. I know she doesn't know the whole story, and I'd really like her to know.

I am, however, terrified of contacting her, for several reasons. First, I am concerned about reinserting myself in her life. Her 20-year second marriage broke up a year ago and she's living with another guy. I don't want anyone to get the wrong impression. I have the love and support I need now, and this is not about rekindling an old love. You should know we live a thousand miles apart.

Nevertheless, I find my feelings about this are deep and powerful. The tale that I have to tell her is very painful, and simply telling the story is extremely emotional. Throw in the immense gratitude I feel toward her, and I'm uncertain if I can even get through the conversation.

You should know that I told my wife this story, and she understands and supports my desire to talk to Carla.

So I find myself stuck. I can't get the thought of talking to her again out of my head, but I lack the courage to initiate a very difficult conversation. I'm not sure what to do.

Grateful in Colorado

Dear Grateful,

One thing we can do for people who have come into our lives like angels and have provided us with things they perhaps did not know they were providing and we did not know we needed is we can tell them, finally, the whole story, the whole bumpy, textured, detailed narrative, such as you have begun to do here. We can in that way show them what a huge part they have played in our lives. We can give them that story as a gift.

I know how strange this may sound. We do not value stories as we might. We often fail to honor stories. So honor this story. Honor her place in your life. Show her that you recognize her value to you at these pivotal moments. Do this by giving her the story.

How will you do that? If you are not accustomed to spending long periods of time writing, then perhaps it will help to buy a digital kitchen timer and set it for periods of 15 minutes or half an hour and begin that way. I would very much like to see you recall the conditions of your life in more detail, at those times that she appeared before you. Those conditions are what made her presence so valuable to you. You mention in general terms a hard time at school, and other difficult moments. I suggest you sit at a desk with a timer and quickly write down the bare details of those times. Then, over a period of a few days or weeks you can sift through it and see what details are important, and craft the final tale.

I note that in telling your story to me you use the word "explanation," and I think that tells us something about the low status that "story" has in our culture. We are not a "story" culture; we are an "explanation" culture. I'm not getting down on you for how you told the story. I think you told it beautifully. I'm trying to honor the story and at the same time to take note of the cultural habit we have of relegating "story," this sacred thing, this essence, really, of our whole lives, to the status of "explanation." When we launch upon a tale we are always conscious that listeners expect it to be an "explanation." I note also that whenever we part from the empirically demonstrable in this culture of explanation we risk being branded as less-than serious, or New Age, or woo-woo, or crazy or as a charlatan. And yet I say, with utter certainty, that I sense a great deal more in your tale, and I urge you to write it out.

As you write, you will "enter more fully" into the situation, not knowing exactly where it will lead or what you will say or what she will feel, or why she has been in your life from time to time all these years, or what she may want from you. You contemplate what she means to you, and how grateful you are that at a certain point she entered your life and gave you grace and compassion and confidence when you needed it most, and pointed you in a certain direction. You will contemplate the fact that she is one of those spirits we encounter in life who are helpers or incarnations of goddesses or manifestations of our own dreams, or answers to our prayers. (Quite probably, we are also helpers to them, unknowingly giving them exactly what they need at a certain time in life when they, reciprocally, do not even know exactly what it is they need. This, I think, is how we end up at the age of 50 with certain seemingly disconnected but powerful impressions and memories: A transaction of mythic power took place whose full significance remained unconscious, and so it continues to reverberate throughout our lives; thus this person, through seeming synchronicity, continues to reappear at vital nodes of our story.)

So I see you sitting in a window somewhere and looking out over a town square and thinking back to how things have been and how things turned out, and it has a melancholy note to it, even if you are in Colorado looking out over vast, pristine snow-topped mountains, and in sitting and thinking it through maybe you venture a little outside the functional paradigm and view your life in a mythic way; our lives are stories, after all, not accomplishments or accumulations; by 50 a life acquires symphonic overtones and reverberations and reiterations of theme.

This person has a very specific purpose in your life story. In a practical sense, we know that she also has a completely separate life. But that life is not relevant to you. It is the role she has played in your life that matters to you. To you, she is a character in your story. We interpret and give meaning to our lives the way we interpret and give meaning to literature, assigning purpose to the actions of others, and making them into characters of a sort, characters who have a specific purpose and meaning within the context of our story.

But we do not often have the pleasure of learning precisely what part we have played in the stories of others. So it is a true gift to be able to tell someone how, at crucial moments, they gave you something of real value.

Where is this leading? It is leading toward an appreciation of your story, and of her role in your life. Your story is being moved forward toward a sort of conclusion and tying-up. This moment is like a denouement.

Thinking about people from your past? There's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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