Every year it creeps up on me. In late February I start feeling uneasy, not myself. I wonder if I’m coming down with something. Why can’t I sleep? It’ll probably pass, I tell myself. But anniversaries are hidden things that can seep in and seize you unaware. The light bulb goes on when my son Ben calls from Boston or D.C. or Texas or wherever he’s gotten off to and says, “Tomorrow is the day that Lauren died.” Of course.
The first time I met Lauren was in front of the library. Accustomed to awkward middle-schoolers with little to say, I was captivated by this short confident exuberant 12 year old who looked me straight in the eye, stepped forward and stuck her hand out for a shake. Introducing us was my son, also 12, and, I think, also captivated by this new friend.
I wish I could remember the next time I saw her and the next, but I do know that she became a loyal pal of my son and a participant in many of the school and social gatherings that swept the kids along from middle school into high school. We got acquainted with her parents, and our family conversation included which part Lauren got in the upcoming play or her take on Student Council. Lauren was a big presence in a small package. She was also complete and fully-realized, so herself at an age when most of her peers were riddled with self-doubt and angst. Lauren didn’t have time for any of that.
It was a normal night at our house in late winter of Ben’s freshman year. Homework was done and he was in bed early because he was coming down with something. My friend Peg called late, too late for a regular call. I asked her to repeat what she said three times because I couldn’t take it in. I didn’t want to take it in. Lauren had been in the family car, her brother driving her to play practice. He made a teenage mistake and tried to make it around the crossing gates and they were hit. Lauren was dead and he was injured. Peg said her husband had passed by the tracks soon after the accident and came home shaken, hoping no one had been in that car when it was hit. When they later got a call from a friend and learned that it was Lauren, Peg called me. She knew what good friends my son and Lauren were and wanted to save him from walking into school the next morning to face this news.
The early loss of my father had marked my life and I had so hoped my children could escape grief’s reach. As I climbed the stairs that night to wake Ben and break his life in two, I cursed the gods all over again. Of all people, why Lauren, and by extension why Ben?
Every year, once Ben calls, I go to the florist and pick out the one most vivid bloom, this year a salmon-colored rose. While the clerk adds greens and wraps it in cellophane, I surprise myself by blinking back tears. It’s been years since I did that. Lauren should be thirty this year and full of the challenge of a whole new stage of life. Like memory, grief doesn’t go away. It just lies in wait for a moment like this.
All winter they pile snow in the parking lot at the town pool. By the time March 2 comes around there is a mountain of it. I park there and walk across the street to the tree, the one where Lauren’s car came to rest. There is a permanent bouquet secured there of pretty spring flowers. All year, when I drive by I check to be sure it is still there. In the early days there were piles of flowers, which would disappear, no doubt cleared out by some civil authority, to gradually build back up soon after. Now when I see the occasional addition I smile, reminded that others remember too and feel moved to act.
I bend down to place the flower at the base of the tree and whisper to Lauren that we miss her and that Ben is fine and happy. I figure she would like to know that about her old friend. I linger a moment before I climb back over the snow bank and return to the car. My mood starts to lighten even as I think of her family who has found a way to live on, and the others who love and remember her too today. The year turns soon after, spring comes, renewing energy and hope. But it doesn’t come until we’ve remembered Lauren.
First, I loved Lauren because she loved my son. Then, as I got to know her, for being so vividly herself. And for making everyone she met feel included and important. And for making her 14 years of life just as full and complete as much longer ones. And now I love her for her legacy – to be smart and provocative and unafraid – that makes me want to be more like her every day, and to tell her story to you.
Here is what you say to your heart:
Broken is overdramatic and unnecessarily hurtful. You are not broken; bruised is more like it – alright, perhaps it’s a severe contusion if that pleases you more. You will discolor and feel exceedingly tender for a while; in fact, you’ll hurt in places you didn’t know you had. But no one has to perform open heart surgery to fix you, and you don’t need the paddles to shock you back to life. You’re still beating. You know how to mend yourself, with time. Either you’ve done it before, or it’s time you learned. Over your lifetime, you’ll beat 2.5 billion times. That’s what you’re here for, not to moon over this insult. I can’t get along without you, you know.
Here is what you say to the retreating back of your person of interest:
Goodbye. No pleading, no demands for explanations, no stalking of his/her future activities. From now on, that person is the person who used to be at the center of your life. Old news, out of date, no longer qualifying as the focus of your attention. You need that attention for yourself. He/she is best viewed from a distance, both geographically and emotionally.
Here is what you say to your mind:
Okay, snap to. What were you thinking, investing so much of my capital in this person? Healing up, that’s what you need to be thinking about.
To your guilt:
If you are implicated in the breakup, you need to deliver at least one clear and complete statement of regret to your ex. This must be done with compassion from the high road, and cannot be a backhanded passive-aggressive blame-filled slam at the other person designed to get you off the hook. You don’t get to transfer your guilt and anguish to them so you can walk away more comfortably. Guilt exists for a reason, to call you to be a better version of yourself. So take this opportunity. Say to your guilt: Teach me, let me have it, show me where I should have behaved differently.
If you are not the one initiating the breakup but suspect that you facilitated it by doing or failing to do things that mattered, fine, but don’t twist things around so that you place this whole thing on your shoulders. Also, do not expect and especially don’t demand an apology from your ex. That trivializes your experience, as if this pain could be eradicated by a few words from an outside person who no longer deserves any power over your feelings. This is a collaborative process between you and all your parts. No one else has a say except your steadfast and loyal friends and family. Do not attempt to short-circuit this process by going after a cheap apology. Whatever relationship your ex has with his/her guilt will play out outside of your view, and is now none of your business. You will never know the outcome, and don’t need to.
To your emotions:
Sure, you will be all over the place for a while. I know you can’t help it. But try for a little balance. At some point there will be a few glimpses of good feelings, like freedom and excitement for your new future that will begin to leak through. Usher them to the front and see what they have to say. In the meantime, lay off the sad music and don’t you dare watch An Affair to Remember more than once a week. There is some healing in all that wallowing, but you mustn’t to overdo it or you may end up in a trough. Instead, be the star of your own movie. Cultivate resilience; remember that you are strong, or if you are not, this is your big chance to become so. And cultivate hope. You have no idea what is around the corner for you.
To your body:
You ache, you don’t want to get out of bed, you can’t imagine getting off the couch, but do it anyway. About food, if you can’t eat, think of what used to be your most yummy treat, get some and jump in and then follow it up with a protein bar. If you are stuffing your face, put your fork down and go outside. Food can’t fill that gaping hole, but activity can.
Walk, run, go to the gym and work out. Let one of your exercise nut friends accompany you. Sign up for tennis lessons or go swimming. Either start some new activity or revert to something you loved before the person even came into your life. Reclaim your body from the relationship and strengthen it. Get a massage in order to get a human touch without any complications.
To your friends:
Take me surprising places, get me moving, tell me the truth about my worth and my prospects. Tell me what you wish you could give me. Tell me what I’ve forgotten about myself; tell me who I was before this relationship began. Don’t try to fix me up yet, but start a list of people you think I should meet when I’m ready. Don’t be surprised if I don’t want to use it. Right now, I don’t think I’ll want to risk going through this again very soon.
Don’t tell me to snap out of it – it doesn’t work that way. Just walk with me.
And to the special few: Can I call you in the middle of the night if I am having a really tough time? As soon as they say yes, vow never to do it. Unless you have to.
To your expectations:
Stomp out any thoughts that this will reverse itself and the relationship will come back to life. The chances are slimmer than slim and even if you gave it a try, you would soon remember why you needed to part ways. Everyone sooner or later suffers through this and now it is your turn. Stand up and take it.
Tear your ex off that pedestal you keep trying to construct. See him/her with brutally clear eyes, imperfections and all. Use this information to create a revised account of what would please you in the future. And erase any notions that exceptional good looks have anything to do with character and desirability. That comes from a primitive desire to show off your ability to snag a looker, which has nothing to do with your happiness. Remember the lesson of Charlotte in Sex and the City: a plain partner may be the one worth having. Make a list of the gorgeous people you know and compare them with your desired qualities. Bet they don’t match.
To your self-pity:
Scram. You will weaken me. I am a survivor, not a victim. If I am disillusioned, it means that I just learned that I was illusioned in the first place. If I was trusting when I should have been suspicious, if I was secure when I should have been wary, if I was naïve when I should have been cynical, well, that’s just me and I don’t plan to let this experience take away my nature. If I was true to myself, I will take credit for that and walk away with regret but without self-pity.
To your history:
If your hold over me from my upbringing and prior relationships figured into the destruction of this one, then I have to ask you to loosen your grip on me. I want to go on from here without hauling you around as baggage. I’ll unpack you and keep the best parts, but I’ll leave the junk behind. Don’t try to follow me.
To your mirror:
You look like hell. Look at those bags under your eyes and the vacant stare. But look beyond them. You’ll get through this and you’ll be wiser in the end. There are unexpected gifts waiting for you. You’ll see.