After a relationship ends, you prepare yourself for hard nights missing the other person. Your friends comfort you by telling you someone else out there is even better for you, and that happiness is just around the corner. But no one prepares you for the loss of the people who come with the breakup; the innocent bystanders left in the dust. What happens to them? Friendships end and family ties are severed, all with the understanding that it would make things easier. But does it?
Last night, my sister called to tell me that my ex-boyfriend’s mother passed away— a woman who I was very fond of and close to for the more than three years I dated her son, Pete.* We were in high school when we met. Pete was the class clown, star athlete, smart and very handsome— the kind of guy any parent would dream of their daughter dating. I was a sophomore, assigned to a study hall with Pete. He sat down next to me on the first day of the semester, leaving his football buddies behind. Before I knew it, we were inseparable. We spent every spare moment together — doing homework together after school, attending our respective sports practices, and hanging out almost every night, rotating between his house and mine. On nights we weren’t together, we talked on the phone until the sun came up.We were high school sweethearts. We fell hard and grew up together. It was that kind of love.
About a year into our relationship, Pete told me he was worried about his mom, how she was sneaking off to mystery “appointments” and receiving phone calls from doctors he’d never heard of. Then one day, Marge* came home with her husband on her arm and a tube in her chest. She told Pete she had breast cancer and would begin chemotherapy and radiation immediately.
For the next couple of years, I became family to them, and them to me. We were just kids, but his mom’s diagnosis forced us to be adults, pushing us even closer together. Even now looking back, our relationship was one of my strongest yet. I was there through the hard times, when Marge became violently ill from the chemo. I consoled Pete after hours of holding his mom’s hair out of her face while she threw up on the bathroom floor, leaving clusters of her blonde locks in his palms. I helped Marge find a wig that brought out her pretty eyes when it came time for her to buzz her head. I went there every Sunday night to watch “The Sopranos” with the family, but I arrived an hour early so Marge and I could sit and chat over hot tea and biscotti. They were my second family: the one that belonged to the person I loved.
When I graduated, I went off to college and Pete took a semester off to help take care of his mother. We didn’t know how to be without each other, yet a small part of me yearned for independence. This sparked Pete’s possessive side. He became manipulative in order to keep me close, and in reaction, I began to lie to get out of plans with him, and spend more time with my friends. It got to the point where he was showing up to my dorm room unannounced, insisting I wasn’t picking up his phone calls because I was cheating on him with other guys. I wasn’t. If we argued, he would throw his mom’s illness in my face until I backed down, making me feel guilty about trying to stand my ground. The more jealous he became, the more it pushed me away. I knew that my only option was to end things.
Over the years, he reached out once or twice, and I chose to leave his emails unanswered because I didn’t feel emotionally ready to reconnect. I heard about him and his family through the grapevine. His brother got married! His mother was in remission! HE got married! Naturally, I checked out his new wife on Facebook the second I heard the news (and she’s gorgeous). I was happy for him. When James Gandolfini died earlier this year, “The Sopranos” nostalgia helped me muster up the courage to reach out and let him know I hope he’s well. He ignored me…but I guess I expected it.
I had no idea that Marge had gotten sick again. We remained in touch for about six months after my breakup with Pete. I would drop in clandestinely when I knew Pete wouldn’t be home, and I sent her holiday cards (in disguised handwriting) so she knew she wasn’t forgotten. It finally became too painful for me to keep up a relationship with Marge while trying to emotionally heal from my split from Pete. I knew that moving on from him meant moving on from his family, too. And I did move on. But my memories of Marge, and of Pete, are far from gone. In fact, every time I drive through my hometown, I think about stopping in to say hello, but never do. And now I wish I had.
Finding out that Marge had passed, I felt like I was going through my breakup with Pete all over again. I had lost Marge once before, and this was round two — a permanent round two. My heart ached so terribly for my ex and his family, that I felt foolish feeling so sad about her death myself.
At first, I found myself torn about whether or not it was appropriate to attend the services. The last thing I would want to do is make the family feel uncomfortable by attending, but would they even notice I was there in their haze of misery? Would I be welcomed with open arms? Talked about? I have no idea. Years had passed without seeing Marge, but like her son, she holds a special place in my heart. He was the first boy who truly made me feel loved, and despite the fact that I refused communication over the years, I will always care about him. He taught me to love myself, respect my body and to always be honest about my feelings, even if I was scared. He was the one who always told me to follow my heart and stick to my gut, which is why I felt confident enough to finally end things. And why I know exactly what I have to do for Marge.
I have to mourn. I will skip the viewing and attend the wake this weekend, sitting quietly in the back of the church where I can pay my respects to a woman I very much cared for. I sent Pete a private Facebook message letting him know how sorry I am for his loss, and that I’ll be at the memorial mass along with my mother, who also cared for Marge.
Mourning doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. And, really, the same goes for my relationship with Pete and all of the others who’ve followed. Breakups happen. Deaths happen. Fallouts happen. It’s impossible to move forward in life without leaving people behind, but it’s important to pay your respects for what they brought to your life. I realize that now more than ever.
*Names have been changed.
[Photo from Shutterstock]