Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Teenage Heartbreak

I haven’t posted anything for a while because I figured there were only so many stages of grief that people would be willing to read about before overload set in. This past week, however, my concern has shifted from my own grief to that of my 18-year-old son, who has just gone through one of the unfortunate rites of passage of adolescence: rejection by a girl.

Jeremy is a sweet, good-natured, extraordinarily talented boy who also happens to be shy and self-conscious. He will, I know, develop into a poised, confident adult by the time many of his more self-assured classmates have begun to fizzle and burn after crashing against life’s more bitter truths. I also know from experience that that may take a long, long time, and I don’t envy him the years in between, because they are likely to be lonely and frustrating.

What I do remember—and what I’m going to keep trying to explain to Jeremy—is that at his age, if you’re shy, artistic and unathletic, there are going to be basically three types of girls. There are the popular girls who never notice that you exist. There are the friendly girls who make you so tongue-tied you’re lucky if you can begin a coherent sentence in their presence, let alone finish it. And then there are the really mean girls, and given that the likelihood of your ever having a conversation with either of the first two types is nil, these are the ones you are likely to encounter first.

Jeremy just met one of them. He has, of course, been having a horrible senior year. Sure, he got into Baylor and was courted by several other colleges, sang at NATS (don’t ask), has been a part of two outstanding choirs and nearly made All-State. His mother also died two days before Christmas, and that tends to cast a pall over everything else. (If you didn’t know this, a pall is something they place over the casket at a funeral in commemoration of the departed’s baptism. It’s an apt metaphor.)

So I was as pleased as punch when Jeremy got home from work the week before last and told me and Jennifer that a girl he worked with had asked him to the prom at her private school. See, I knew there was no way Jeremy would ever get up the nerve to ask any of those friendly girls to go anywhere. We seem to run into them everywhere we go, and they usually give Jeremy a big smile and greet him warmly. As I well remember, the natural, pre-programmed reaction of a shy, nerdy guy (let’s just use the abbreviation SNG) to such overtures is profound embarrassment accompanied by a desperate desire to be anywhere else in the world as long as it can get you out of having to come up with something to say in response. Yeah, it is that bad.

But my SNG had been asked to the prom, and had said yes. Since she went to a private school, she had to ask him, not vice-versa. But Jeremy now told me, with no little satisfaction, that she had been acting like she liked him for some time, and that he had been thinking about inviting her to the prom at Midway, his own high school. Since I was once an 18-year-old SNG, I know perfectly well that all he would have ever done was think about it. The chances of him actually asking were nil. But she had asked him.

Then he came home from school a few days ago and showed me a text message he had received from his prom date, indicating that she was suddenly having second thoughts. He didn’t know anybody at her school, and it might be awkward. They were polar opposites: she outgoing, he painfully shy. I pretty much told him to text her back that all of that didn’t matter; he wanted to go to the prom with her. To my great parental pride and satisfaction, he managed to get off several such messages in a row, showing entirely proper interest in their “relationship” and indicating that he wanted to continue it, despite her newfound doubts. My boy was doing brilliantly.

And every one of his messages was rebuffed with more “idk’s” and “Well, ums…” and so forth. So I did what any good father would do under the circumstances. I wrote an email to her father, telling him that his daughter was taking unfair advantage of a wonderful, generous and caring boy who had just lost his mother, and that her repeated rebuffs had reduced him to tears such as I hadn’t seen since the week his mother died. Her father wrote back and assured me that he had had a significant talk with his daughter, who tended to say things she really didn’t mean, and that he could assure me that she and Jeremy would be going to the prom together. That message came in to my cell phone at about 11:00 at night, and I literally wept with relief and gratitude.

Then yesterday she dealt the coup de grace. Once again by text message, she bluntly informed him that she had gotten back together with her boyfriend and that she and Jeremy were history. This time he managed to stammer back a few incoherent responses, which was more than I would have been able to manage at his age, and she repeatedly and coldly snubbed him.

So here I am having watched the inevitable mean girl twist the knife in my poor boy’s heart, wondering desperately why he still can’t untie his tongue sufficiently to ask one of the nice ones to the prom with him. Unfortunately, I know the answer. After this experience, his tongue is now so firmly and emphatically tied that it will probably be a couple of years before he looks seriously at a girl again. I hope that’s not the case, but yeah, it is that bad. I remember all too well.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


There is a kind of loneliness that relates not to immediate circumstances but to habits of life. At 56, I have learned to be present to myself and to enjoy my own company. I would not hesitate to eat at a restaurant or even take a vacation by myself; in fact, there is something marvelously seductive about the latter prospect. Right now I am savoring a Saturday evening at home while both kids are at work. I don’t mind being alone.

I felt great sadness, though, when I read a recent article in the New York Times: yet another in a seemingly endless series of examinations of my well-known cohort, the baby boomers. It seems that a lot of us are deciding to enter into old age more or less permanently single. The most frequent reason is divorce, and the prospect of a solitary old age apparently appeals more to many of us than that of one spent in an unhappy marriage, or in a marriage of any kind.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but feel the painful irony of my own situation. I had a wonderful marriage, and I had assumed (perhaps against reasonable expectation) that Barbara and I would continue together for a few more decades. Among the texts read at our wedding was one from chapter 8 of the Apocryphal book of Tobit. As Tobias prepares to take the repeatedly widowed Sarah as his wife, he prays “that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” We chose this text for an obvious reason: Barbara had been widowed once, and we were asking, as Tobias was, that she not be widowed again. In that sense, the prayer was fulfilled. I notice now that the entire text, which begins by calling for God’s name to be blessed throughout creation and ends with the couple saying “Amen” together, resonates with the familiar Hebrew prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish, and I prayerfully rejoice that I remained with Barbara until her death did us part.

But I also cherished the idea of growing old together with her. Nothing could seem like a more appropriate fulfillment of a life spent in mutual devotion. The bitterness of old age would be softened by the timely maturing of our long-held love. I have always wept at Richard Strauss’s song Im Abendrot, in which the octogenarian composer sets Eichendorff’s poem about an elderly couple facing the evening of life together. (O weiter, stiller Friede! So tief im Abendrot. Wie sind wir wandermüde—Ist dies etwa der Tod?) I wrote in my last post of the sense of purpose I receive from knowing that I helped Barbara to fulfill her dream of having a family and children. That doesn’t keep me from aching at the knowledge that I will miss that final chapter.

As Barbara and I were forced to work overtime to continue to share our most painful emotions, we became experts at intimacy. We had laid the groundwork for that expertise during our years as presenters for Lutheran Marriage Encounter, when we led weekend retreats to help married couples develop their communication skills. For us, though, it came to fruition during the years after Barbara’s deafness made it impossible for us to continue in that role. Without it, I doubt if we would have been prepared for the challenge of completely redefining the terms of our relationship. As it was, we continued to prioritize our marriage, even as it meant shunning more and more outside social contacts that her deafness had rendered increasingly futile.

Without her, I am lamenting the absence of something that I know many couples never achieve. I am used to sharing deeply, and I have no-one to share with. This is a permanent problem, just as it would be if my hands were crippled by arthritis and I could no longer play the piano. For a non-musician, the arthritis would be an inconvenience. For me, it would be a kind of death.

I have already been told, by quite a few people in various direct or indirect ways, that I am still young, that I am still attractive, that I will no doubt find love again. Since I have no desire to face old age alone, I will acknowledge that they may be right, although at present I can’t even imagine what that would be like. The hole in my life feels unfillable, the non-circumstantial loneliness like a permanent but unmeetable need. When that no longer seems true, I suppose I will have reached what grief counselors like to call my “new normal.” For now, any kind of normal still seems a long way off.