2015년 1월 1일 목요일

Remember You by All the Love You Gave Me

This morning, still in bed, I got a message from a friend that GD had passed away a few days ago. No details, just a short report of what she heard from someone. What the hell does it mean that a healthy person of 45 "died suddenly"? On Monday, December 29, 2014, as I learned later. My stomach turns. Not grief, but utter disbelief grips me. But does an ex-girlfriend have a right to grieve over the loss of a man who all but cut her off and got married?

My head is clouded with all the things that I said and did which might have caused him pain and unhappiness. Oh dear, they aren't few. I wish I didn't remember some things at all.

I disappointed him once, and nine years later I failed him again--or we failed each other. The first breakup was mostly due to the circumstances: I had to leave, and as we could not manage over the overwhelming physical distance between us for many reasons, I gradually gave up. The second time around, I was the one who wanted to revisit that margin of possibility left unexplored between us. The first breakup hadn't soured our mutual fondness and we were still good friends who knew each other intimately. Turning 40 and getting nowhere near happy with any man, I longed for some comfort, fun, and familiarity. I knew he still had a soft spot in his heart for me. Settled in more comfortable places in our lives, we gave it another shot. For over a year, I really did what I could, traveling the distance twice, talking to him on the phone almost every day, trying to sound out all the potentials of that relationship. However, whereas a long-distance relationship with extended periodic separations perfectly suited me, he dreaded its attendant dangers. Though he enjoyed having our lives reconnected so closely, he was wary of investing fully into that reconnection. I was willing to divide my life, but to my frustration he refused to budge from his own comfort zone. Aware of his painful recovery from alcoholism that followed the disintegration of our first relationship, I couldn't blame him. My long-distance scheme was proving unfeasible to him, and his wish for me to discard my own life and move in with him was just as impossible. In a strangely passive aggressive stance motivated by his distrust of my feelings, he was refusing to revise his set pattern of life for me, while waiting for me to give in entirely to his own terms. But that uncertainty and reluctance of his wearied and disenchanted me in the space of a year, and my growing disenchantment ironically justified him in his doubt of me. Disillusionment and fatigue made me see in him things that I did not want to see, and drew out my own foibles. It was a strange breakup, for I am not sure I was the responsible one. I broke it off but I felt rejected, for it was actually he that would neither have me as I was nor bring himself to the halfway point between us. But he resented it bitterly. He became touchy and defensive even with Kim, who initially had introduced us. As his resentment and anger got compounded toward both me and Kim, he dropped his friendship with Kim, too. But I don't regret having tried the second time, because I really did do my best, which frankly I didn't the first time. On his part, though, I could see why he was so angry. Perhaps he felt that I reopened the scar that took time to heal, only to leave him wounded again. 

He didn't defriend me but I knew he left me barely hanging at the tail of his "folks who are practically dead to me" list. I never told him but the second breakup was a bitter one to me as well, for I was sorely disappointed at the failure of what then appeared my last resort. Even now I would not be too surprised if it should prove to have been my last chance at a tolerably 'normal' relationship. If I could not form a committed long-term relationship with a good man who loved me, if my best shot wasn't good enough for him, doesn't it mean I'm hopeless? It was not a pleasant notion and, tough as it was, I had to come to terms with it. 

Over a year later, while in chemotherapy, I got back in touch with him. I knew that he had just gotten into a new relationship and that I had forfeited his friendship, but I wanted to tell him myself, because he was still someone who mattered to me, who I wanted to spare the awkward unease of hearing secondhand of my illness. Maybe a strange thing to do, but an uncertain prognosis made me imagine the worst. It wasn't to everyone that I wanted to spread the cheerless news of my breast cancer and its dark implications. Little had I expected such a cold shoulder from him, though. He bluntly expressed his regret. A non sequitur update about a friend filled the rest of his terse reply, in which he mocked this friend who he knew to be my special favorite. The anger was naked in this email, and it was upsetting that even a critical illness could elicit from him no other emotion than anger for me now. I wasn't exactly expecting him to fly over to my side in tears. But a stranger would have expressed warmer sentiments than his. He had reasons to be angry and I probably shouldn't have written him at all, cancer or no cancer. On the other hand, I felt all right about letting him know. He had dodged a bullet there. Since he ended up evading the shitty lot of dealing with a cancer-ridden girlfriend, wasn't it all for the best? I wouldn't have minded if he had secretly gloated over his narrow escape, not that he was the type who would. Although using my cancer to wriggle my way back on his good side wasn't my intention, his coldness was hurtful. A lasting friendship with a man whom I broke up with twice was a selfish fantasy, and that was where our communication ended. That was December 2011. The following summer, I saw the photos of him in Jeju Island. He married that new girlfriend the next spring. I remember seeing those photos on Facebook in silent wonder: how was it possible for him to go so fast and far with this woman, when he wouldn't travel anywhere for me? The answer was obvious. She wasn't me and she must have loved him in a way that made him go far and wide. And he must have loved her in that way too, whereas his love for me was mostly a source of anxiety. It wasn't jealousy that I felt. I was a little chagrined, but his new-found love and subsequent marriage gave me a sense of relief, too. If things turned out nicely despite the damages I might have done him, then surely I no longer had to feel too bad about having been the bad guy in our history?

The sense of guilt cannot be dispelled though, even when I know that I, we, did what we felt compelled to, true to our needs and desires. People love, hurt, and break up all the time, and as Kim says, it's a normal emotional passage between real people. It would be a terrible presumption to think that I was some sort of femme fatale or even a semi-trauma in his life, after all. But we all know of our secret emotional bookkeeping: sometimes you give more than you get, and other times you get more than you give. This bookkeeping, albeit nonsensical, at times issues mandates that are hard to ignore, and I cannot shake off this feeling of owing something to him that I can never repay. It is too bad that I did not try to reconcile with him. But it was clear that he had no intention to do so. Whatever sense of guilt and regret I have would have quietly dissipated in time, had he lived long and prospered. In the end, it all boils down to my own difficulty in accepting a good person's tragic premature death. Mortality is painful, because there is nothing anyone can do about it and there is no getting used to it; no possible way to stomach this helplessness calmly, and no right way to react to it. In a sense, guilt may be a living person's way of translating this unbearable, inexplicable pain into something more manageable. 

Life is absurd. My breast cancer is absurd, but GD's death is even more so. I thought by now I've gotten familiar with my vulnerability to the random violence of life and death. When I am busy hardening myself against the weight of my own vulnerability, the mortality of someone else, someone who was once very close to me, hits me in an unguarded spot. It is selfish to be bitching about my own living aches when GD is dead and gone, but it does hurt. Perhaps that is why the living get to hog the attention when death descends upon us. Friends send me separate messages of sympathy and consolation. I deeply appreciate their concern and am encouraged that I am not alone in this muddle. But I remain unsure if an ex-girlfriend has a claim to their condolences, especially the one who bred considerable pain, anxiety, doubt, frustration, and anger in the heart of the deceased. Maybe they offer their sympathy because they know the guilt of a bad ex. 

I am not the bereaved one. There is the wife, the poor woman whose heart must be rending at this incredible death of a loving husband. Weird as it sounds, I'm glad he had a wife who will grieve for him. I wonder if it is horrid of me that I do not feel entitled and would rather not grieve. I would like to find consolation in that GD was finally happy, at least happier than I was, in the past two or three years. He must have been happy with her--I want to believe, for his sake and also for my sake.

GD would often surprise me with his recollections of minute details from our earlier days together. If not as many, my memories are also plenty. I remember how shy he was the first time he took me out, I remember that house-brewed beer in that restaurant. I remember all the places we went together. I remember how worked up he would get about the upcoming departure every time I had to leave, how attentive and protective he was whenever I was upset. He loved my cooking, and I enjoyed messing with his scarcely-touched, top-quality kitchenware. I would make fun of his food-greed, but in fact his bad eating habit worried me. I remember the tiny red birthmark on his wrist and the childhood story he told me about it. I remember him trying to feel my heart beat for no apparent reason. Some of my eccentricities annoyed him to no end, while some of his drove me crazy. But no one was as openly affectionate in his everyday dealings with me as he was. No one I dated made me feel as pretty as he did. I know he loved me dearly, and I was ever so thankful for his tenderness and good heart. I really hope he left this world with only kind memories in his heart and sweet images in his eyes.

G, I thought I was likely to die before my friends. You upstaged me there, honey, and what a sad surprise it is. My heart grows heavy when I imagine how unfathomably lonely you must have been at that absolute final moment. Death must be lonely, for you go alone. I hope you're in your happy place now. I miss the time we spent together in that firehouse loft of yours. We had fun there, didn't we? I am sorry I couldn't give you all of my heart then, but I am happy to have been responsible at least for a small portion of your happiness. Do you know that I left a few bobby pins in the guest room bedside table drawer in your house near the park? I left them there, knowing that I'd come back the next summer. I forgot to take them out the next time, though. I think unconsciously I wanted to leave a little trace of me there with you, wanting not to disappear from your life altogether. I never wanted to stop being your friend. I am happy to have been your first real love, and I am sorry to have been such a pain to you. I am sorry I teased you so much, but I never meant to hurt you. I was frank with you, and I'm glad you told me you knew it. We know things about each other that no one else does, and that intimacy means a lot to me. I know you always had your own aches and darknesses that you found hard to bear. May your soul rest in peace now. Though I can't have been that important to you in the end, please forget all the hurts I gave you, and remember the good times we had together. I know you were generous and patient with me for a long time. Thank you so much for all the love. I'll remember you by the love you gave me. But dear, why did you have to go in such a hurry? I would rather have you hate me and stay angry at me alive than remember me fondly in death. I still have that little spider man that I forgot to bring you last time. What am I going to do with it now?

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