Rafael, the custodian of the building next door, is a friendly seventy-something year old. I usually run into him whenever I’m walking the dog, sometimes twice a day. Our conversations tend to be casual—weather, complaints about management, etc. From what I’ve gathered he’s been married to the same woman for more than forty years.
Two weeks ago he mentioned needing to visit a friend in Coral Gables and not knowing how to get there. I remembered us talking about my daily commute there for work. I figured at his age using is phone’s GPS could be tricky. I pointed the way and was about to say good night when his face lit up, his lips pressed for a long minute before confessing the truth.
He was going to visit his first love, the woman who shook him to the core fifty years ago, the one who got away. He’d just found out her whereabouts and couldn’t wait to see her in person. I found it odd he’d tell me this. After all, I’d met his wife once in the lobby. They seemed like a couple glued together by life’s struggles and years of dependence on each other. Not knowing exactly what to say, I pretended to be happy for him, but gently reminded him that nostalgia could be deceiving in the end. It’s the strangest thing ever, having to offer advice to someone who should be old enough to know better.
A few days later I saw Rafael again. When I asked him how it had gone, he shook his head and a shrugged. I understood… Not what he’d hoped to find. But this morning he spotted me from afar and immediately approached me, ready to spill the beans. He explained that the reason why he’d confided in me is because, physically, I reminded him of this young love of his. He was reminded of her the moment he met me, and to his surprise, shortly after, he received news of her being in Miami. I was taken aback by the many contradictions. In one sentence he spoke about how dumb it would be to leave his wife for his old flame, and in the next he’d describe how, for years, the first and last thought of his day had been this other woman.
I put myself in his shoes.
Most of us currently have or have had a platonic love that gets more and more embellished as years go by. It acts like a blindfold, keeping us from seeing what’s right in front of us. It’s our soap-opera love, our if-only love, our it-was-never-meant-to-be love. And some of us have identified so strongly with this emotion that we fear we’d lose our sense of identify if we let it go.
I had it too, and carried that emotional bomb in my heart for many years. Not knowing what to do with it, I began to write. It’s what I do with emotions that don’t have any room or space in my life. I put them down on paper or decorate the blank screen of my laptop with it. Once I assign them a physical place, I can begin to transform my relationship to them. And if I’m ever in need of finding an old feeling, I know where to go.
This isn’t a bullet-proof method. What works for me will most likely not work for Rafael. But I returned his honesty by reminding him to count the blessings God has granted him throughout his life. A forty-year-companion is not only worthy of our devotion and faithfulness, but it deserves our first and final daily thought. It’s not about guarantees. It's about learning to shed the lies we tell ourselves. Coats and coats of lies.