In part two of a three-part series on ESSENCE.com, Patrick D. Shaffer, author of the forthcoming book “Love Again,” talks about observing love in others and how those images help us all to love ourselves again.
Men and women care for each other in different ways, no one way is more valuable than the other. One of the defaults of caring for people, in whatever way you do, is that sometimes those are the same individuals you have to say goodbye to. When we love ourselves properly, we learn to say goodbye to the person we used to be, which can be a painful enterprise when we have defined ourselves in light of our past relationships. In my life I’ve said more than my fair share of goodbyes to people I loved dearly. Sometimes I’ve had to say it when it was absolutely necessary for both of us. Other times, I said it when I didn’t want to, but there was nothing else left to say. When, through love, our hearts and lives touch we are left with great impressions on our souls that cannot be and should not be erased. I have embraced this truth: Goodbyes are a part of life, love and an undeniable part of mine. However, I feel there is something simultaneously liberating and unnatural about saying goodbye. Death is the uncontrollable goodbye. It is perplexing and confusing, throwing our equilibrium off because it occurs singularly within the solidarity of our own hearts leaving us never able to become comfortable with the way it makes us feel. When we say goodbye, we are pained, not always because they are gone but we mourn how we felt about ourselves when they were near to us. When that is taken away, we are left alone, not knowing how we really feel about ourselves or if we even love ourselves. Many have said, divorce is worse than a death and though we mourn divorce like a death it is unequally different. There are transferable emotional states of being that are common with death and divorce. But divorce is harder to conceive than death, because it is a betrayal of your own soul and a feeling of failure that rests at the deepest part of us. Divorce is a “graveless” death because the two souls still live and breathe. What is dead through divorce somehow lives between two people who now must move on. I hated myself after my divorce, I hated my life. I was 22 when I got married; I never planned anything in life that wasn’t centered around my wife and my family. I learned that divorce is not just the cessation of a relationship but the death of undiscovered hopes and unfulfilled dreams. Marriage redefines you in silent ways; it changes how your life expression is given to the world around you. You become comfortable living as a reflection of your relationship; some people become dependent on it. I was 27 years old when I was divorced. I didn’t know who I was before marriage, then marriage redefined me (with the job only half done) and now I’m staring the big 3-0 in the face and I couldn’t tell myself who I was because I didn’t know. My 20s had been so volatile and unsettling, emotionally violent even. I was exhausted and I didn’t know how to put myself back together again. Strangely, in the pastorate I have the pleasure of meeting a lot of people with different stories, lives, histories and loves. One couple in particular gave me some of the pieces I was missing to put myself back together again, I was supposed to be caring for them but their love helped me heal. One day I had the privilege of meeting a man named Edward Mitchell, everyone called him “Killer.” Killer and I never had a conversation, because I met him through his wife. When I met Killer he was in the last stages of a courageous fight against cancer, he was very ill, unconscious and bedridden. His wife Sandra absolutely adored him, it was through her memories that I began to draw close to Killer. Her vision of herself was intertwined with his love in ways that almost seemed unreal. As we spent hours sitting beside his bed, Killer was unaware that we were even there, she began to tell me about their teenage courtship, living in rural Mississippi through the Jim Crow years, coming North to get jobs, settle and raise a family. Sandra told me of family trips, struggles with their children, burying their own parents and now their empty nest. She told me of the trips around the world they had planned to take before Killer got sick, and now she was pondering what it would be like to live without him. I began to hear his voice through hers; a voice I imagined was boisterous, deep and strong yet tender and loving. I listened to her and heard how clear his laugh was and how full his love for his wife remained. As Sandra spoke of her love for him, he lay in quiet repose but I felt as though in my mind I could hear him speak of the love he had for this beautiful woman. She spoke of her love for him but I knew he loved her so much more. Their love had led them to this hospital room, where she never left his side. I imagined when they married that they didn’t have this scenario in mind. When you marry someone maybe in the back of your mind you try to imagine what “for better and for worst” means but we never really fully do. Yet, they were here and she was doing the best she could to cope with the realities of her love and life. Her love for him was so strong I could feel it. If love alone was the cure for his sickness she had enough to make him healthy again and yet in this moment, her love for him was not the answer to the predicament. One particular day, I stopped by the hospital and came to his room only to see it filled with a lot of the things he loved: pictures of his children and grandchildren; him on a boat fishing with friends, he and Sandra on a cruise in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses. On the wall, there was a hand-written banner that said “Happy 50th Anniversary Edward and Sandra.” They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary while Killer was in the hospital, hooked up to machines, because it was important to her to celebrate their love for each other even if she had to do it alone. It was touching to witness and a few days later Killer passed away. Their love made me jealous; I wanted what they had but couldn’t imagine having it and losing it. Grief is the price you pay for loving someone. If you never want to say goodbye to someone never say hello. I had always thought that their love story only happened in movies like “The Notebook” but their love was real. I just wasn’t convinced that I could have my own love story. But by watching with my eyes and listening with my heart their love taught me that if I was to have any shot of receiving love in my life it was going to start with me loving myself, the most challenging choice of all.