People always tell you to leave the past behind. But as most everyone realizes at some point in their lives, it isn’t always possible. The past catches up to you, or it hides somewhere in a dark closet where you find it one day, looking for a long-lost pair of shoes or something else completely benign. And then all of the sudden there it is again, having waited long for you to return.
And that’s just what I was doing, cleaning out a closet, when I began thinking of who I have been, how I got to this point in life, and of all the other lives I have lived. How funny and strange that a simple thing like finding an old sweater or shirt can trigger a chain of memories, that then start to fall like dominos in a great line through to the past.
I recalled my marriage specifically, now twenty years long over, brief as it was. We had moved halfway across the country from Missouri to New York, leaving all of our family and friends behind. I was twenty-three at the time, and my mother had died only a year before. I had married my then-husband in what I later came to see as an effort to replace her in my life, an attempt to regain that kind of loving presence.
But a spouse is not meant to be a parent.
After struggling for several months in a deep depression and having anxiety attacks, I finally went into therapy to figure out what was going on. It helped me tremendously at the time. Unfortunately I came to understand in the process what I’d done, why I’d really gotten married. And it ended up resulting in the dissolution of my marriage, first in a long separation and then inevitably to divorce.
It hurt my ex-husband deeply. It was not what he wanted. Still he didn’t fight me, he didn’t even argue much. But I remember he punched a hole in the wall of our apartment when I told him I wanted to leave and end our relationship. What he never said out loud, that one gesture said all to well.
The end of that relationship led to the beginning of another, which ultimately ended as well, which went on to lead to others. And so far–with the exception of my friendships–none have truly lasted. Beginnings and endings all tied together; the snake can’t help eating its own tail.
Inside the old house where I now live, I think its especially hard not to think of ghosts. Of the people who have lived and died here, of so many other lives that knew both joy and sadness under its roof, running over top of the floorboards, felt in between its walls.
Myself, I am now one of them. The ghost of the relationship I had living here with my ex-boyfriend is finally beginning to fade. It was a long and often sad tale, filled with choices I wish I made differently, many things left unsaid, and just as many things that probably should not have been spoken aloud.
Sometimes when I look out a window or at a piece of furniture in just the right way, I see it how it was in some distinct memory, usually an unhappy one, that then comes roaring back to life. There are still moments like that when I remember quite keenly and feel again some past fear or sadness, some argument, some night I lay awake in bed unable to sleep. And I am grateful all over again that that chapter is over.
Many times I cannot recall the person that I was in my past relationships. I can remember the facts and events of those times, the things that happened, even some of the thoughts and sensations I experienced; but I can’t feel anymore the person that I was.
And somehow I wish that I could, that it would be useful to know again, and then to better understand. Why did I do what I did? Why did I say ‘yes’, so many times when I should have said, ‘no’?
Every now and then I will reread old journal entries for clues, and I find the writing and words to be those of a stranger. How could I have felt those things, thought those thoughts, and then gone on to become so unhappy? Or if they are unhappy words, why did I go on so often to repeat the same circumstances in my life?
I think most times those are the most troubling ghosts of all, the ones that are mine, the ones that are me.
As I grow– and try to keep on growing as a person–the most painful and exhausting ones seem so far away, as if they were another person entirely and not me. As if the events they participated in happened to someone else. But they are mine, and helped make me who I am, like it or not, understood or not.
That is a life’s work I guess, trying to understand the ghosts, trying to learn from them and their existence. And in that sense too, the past never leaves. It is always a part of life, complete with its ghosts, and cannot truly ever be left behind. All it can ever be maybe, is accepted.