Day 29: the night of your 21st birthday
That was a LONG time ago. I’m surprised by how dim a memory it is. I’m amazed by how the events of adulthood — marriage, children, career — can blur the memory of the very beginning of that adulthood. I don’t remember most of my birthdays, really.
I do remember some of the circumstances surrounding this event, though.
I turned 21 in 1989. That day in early June, the Ayatollah Khomeini died. That day was also the beginning of the the brutal enforcement of martial law in Beijing. Within a year after my 21st birthday, the Berlin Wall fell (11/9/89) and Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years (2/11/90). The world as I’d always known it was changing. As I was turning 21, I entered a new phase of life in a world that was brand new in so many ways. It was a time of infinite possibilities.
Seven months before my 21st birthday, I got engaged to my beloved husband, John. It was just after I’d voted in my very first Presidential election. It was 1988 and I’d cast my vote for Michael Dukakis. We all know what happened…
So, I approached a milestone birthday as an engaged woman in turbulent times. I’d just finished my 3rd year of college at Oberlin and I was looking forward to spending the summer at Meadowmount Music School in (far) upstate New York.
There’s a little more to the story.
John was not the first man to ask me to marry him. That distinction went to someone I’d met and fallen for — hard — the summer between high school and college. That relationship had changed me in really important ways, and I was sad when it and the summer ended. The following summer, we met again and the relationship resumed. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in love, but this relationship was intense and passionate. He was two years older than me, and much less of a wandering spirit than I was. For him, life was simple: go to school, meet a girl, fall in love, get married, get a job, live happily ever after. At the end of the summer, I had to return to school and he was staying put. I didn’t know how to merge the life I had at college with the life I had with him, but I tried to hang on despite the distance. We talked almost every day.
Then, one day he asked me to marry him. He had already turned 21. I was only just 19. I completely freaked out, and I stopped calling him. I dodged his calls. I just couldn’t say what I knew I had to. I knew it would break his heart. So, in the boneheaded play of the century, I started dating someone else. That was how I ended the relationship. I was young, stupid, and scared out of my mind. I ran rather than talk about it.
I came to find out that just a few weeks later he met someone else. They started dating and it became serious. When I screwed up the courage to finally call and apologize, I got the cold shoulder. When I saw him for lunch a couple of months later, I got two shocks: he was joining the army and he had asked her to marry him — the night before. I deserved every bit of the pain that news caused me. He threw it all in my face and then rubbed it in. I had never known him to be cold or cruel, but he was both that day. I couldn’t be angry with him for it. This was his response to what I’d done and I’d earned his wrath. So I took it.
John and I were engaged less than six months later.
Fast forward to the spring of 1989. Within a few weeks, I received two things in the mail that rocked me back on my heels: an invitation to his wedding, and a letter from him sent from boot camp. I had assumed that the wedding invite was the final fuck you flourish meant to hurt me. The letter told a different story.
He was lonely and scared. He was worried that he was making a mistake by getting married. He wanted to talk to me.
He wanted to see me.
My heart was beating like a drum and my head was exploding. There was no way I could see him again. I couldn’t do that to myself, to him, to her, or to John. If we saw each other, everything would be an enormous emotional mess. No, I couldn’t do it. No. No matter how much I may have wanted to reach out to him, I knew it was dangerous and foolish.
I never answered the letter. I put it and him away, presumably forever. There was only one thing left for me to do. I had to survive his wedding day. I wasn’t going, of course, but the day would be a difficult one. It was exactly one week after my birthday. We had spent his 21st birthday together, as well as my 19th. I spent my 21st birthday doing stuff I don’t remember now. I’m sure it was a lovely day, and I suspect that I spent it with John. There were other things on my mind and my life had gone on. I had moved on.
The day he got married, it was clear to me that I had not moved on. I spent that day alone in my room, crying like a baby. In my mind that part of my life had been over for a long time, but the last piece of my heart broke for him that day. It was over and there was no going back.
I cried all day and then I was done. It was over.
John and I married almost three years later, ten days before I turned 24. We’ve been married nearly half our lives.
About 21 years after I ended that relationship, we got back in touch through an odd set of circumstances. I had tried to find him over the years. I needed to apologize. I finally got my chance. I am forever grateful for that. I did not want to carry that around with me for the rest of my life. It was generous of him to listen to me and allow me to set that burden down. It was even more generous of him to forgive me. What a blessing that was.
Looking back, I can see how much I didn’t know at 21. I was smart in an academic sense, but I was so innocent and naive in the ways of the world. I did so many stupid things. I used to have many regrets from that time. I have learned to let regret go. I have learned to forgive 21 year old Lisa as I can clearly see her now through my 47 year old eyes. My life was all ahead of me then, and I had no idea what that meant. I wish I could talk to young Lisa and help her understand how much life would mold and shape her over the years. I wish I could hold her close and kiss her tears away. She had so much to learn.
None of that was on my radar at 21. It was just a birthday that told me I was adult now. It was so important then. It seems so silly now. Perspective is a wonderful thing.