Gonna do something a little different today. I don’t often share personal stories, as you all know, but for the past week I’ve been coming to terms with a somewhat major recent event. I’ll do my best not to overshare because I don’t want to air any dirty laundry here, but I feel the need to get some things off my chest. I hope none of you mind. I haven’t changed any names, and I left out a lot of specifics. It’ll become clear later. Anyway, onward…
On March 18th, I found out an ex-boyfriend of mine, Joshua Lucas Pock, died of brain cancer on Valentine’s Day at the age of forty-five. He’d suffered with it for almost fifteen years. When we reunited about three years ago, Josh told me he was in remission, but after watching him for a bit I wasn’t so sure. Everything he did was so deliberate. Even something as simple as reaching for his car door handle appeared to require tremendous willpower.
Josh and I had a long history together. We went to the same high school, although our graduating classes were two years apart. We went to the same church. We went to the same junior college, where I would accidentally-on-purpose meet up with him outside of the science building.
I was smitten. Him, not so much. We’d have lunch in the park and he’d talk about a girl we both knew from church. I think he only hung out with me because I was around, not to mention this other girl merely seemed to tolerate him. Still, Josh kept calling me, and we started going out sometimes. When he transferred to a university six hours away, we e-mailed and wrote letters constantly. I liked that we talked about real things like the Bible and art and music instead of whatever our classmates were into. We inspired each other to think and laughed at jokes no one got but us. It was all very friendly.
Except that friends don’t usually kiss, and twenty-three years ago I got my first one from him on the dome climber at the elementary school playground. Josh and I were officially an item in a week, and officially broken up two weeks after that.
Things weren’t truly over, though. We kept writing. Three years later we were back together. We were having dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, and in the shadow of one of Gwen Stefani’s concert outfits Josh told me he wanted to explore the possibility of marriage. We were official for five months that time.
My relationship with Josh was intense. It was the proverbial agony and ecstasy because I never knew where I stood. He was endlessly cryptic when he talked about us, but he also dangled hope like a carrot. He didn’t want to hold my hand in public because he didn’t want people to know we were going out, but in private he could be like an octopus. He’d make us split the check at dinner right before spending twenty dollars at the Dollar Tree. We’d go hiking and he’d wander off by himself, leaving me to wonder what I was doing there at all. Josh used to drive my family and friends crazy because he would get on my case about stupid stuff, like the length of my hair or how long I prayed before a meal. My mom almost kicked him out of our house once because she got so ticked off at him.
The endless swinging from good to bad always made me feel like schleprock, but then we would have a great conversation outside the teepee in Josh’s backyard or share a romantic moonlit kiss. It was exhausting, but I let the good outweigh the bad. For a while, at least. Fortunately for everyone’s sanity, I ended the relationship because I couldn’t take it anymore. Josh went on a year-long mission trip to Haiti a month later, so there was that.
In a lot of ways what I went through was textbook emotional abuse. When I heard that Katy Perry song, “Hot N Cold” on the radio for the first time, it was so spot-on I thought for a minute she’d been reading my old diaries.
Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely loved Josh, and I thought it was mutual. I had sympathy for him as well; Josh had bipolar disorder and took lithium. I kept hoping what was good about our relationship would win out, that maybe Josh would stop being cryptic and really show that he loved me. As time went on, though, I started wondering if his actions stemmed from something else. Carrie Fisher had bipolar disorder, but as far as I knew she wasn’t mean to anyone.
After that second breakup Josh and I wrote occasionally, but things were never the same. He felt guilty about how he had treated me, and I couldn’t trust him again. We grew apart, eventually marrying other people and having kids, but because rural area and close circles, we would still cross paths from time to time. Usually right before some big transition in one of our lives, because that’s how we seemed to roll. I don’t know why. It just was. I saw him once when I was five months pregnant and couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. That’s quite a feat for a pregnant woman.
Funnily enough, a few years ago my son took some enrichment classes on Fridays at what used to be his school’s extension campus. It was in a business park, and while he was in class I would go to the building next door, where there was a lounge and a cafe. My parents would meet me sometimes and we’d hang out, or I’d take my laptop and use the public wifi.
A few weeks into the semester, I went in there to find Josh, of all people, at the cafe, where he was setting up a tab for his dad’s company. Yeah. In that building.
My jaw dropped. It was so Casablanca. Of all the office space in all the towns in all the world, my ex-boyfriend’s work just happens to be next door to my son’s school. It was one of those things people say can’t happen, but it happened to me.
Once I got over my shock, we talked. Josh told me about his wife and kids and about his cancer. I told him about my husband and son and the various disabilities we deal with. There was a softness in Josh’s eyes that I had never seen before. When he smiled it looked real and not forced. He was a changed man.
Still, there was some awkwardness. Josh would come halfway downstairs, see me, and rush back up. Most of time he would scurry past. I tried sitting where he couldn’t see me, which seemed to help. Eventually, we did talk about what had happened. I was able to tell him I forgave him and that we were OK. Josh asked if he could give me a hug, which he had never done before, and of course I said yes. Over the next six months or so I saw him a few more times, but we never talked again. It didn’t matter; everything had been resolved. Sadly, towards the end of the school year I noticed Josh’s health seeming to deteriorate. That was two years ago.
Even so, learning of Josh’s death was a shock. I was puttering around our local paper’s website, not looking for anything or anyone, when I saw his name in the Obituary section. The obit was barely a blurb, but all the details fit. It was definitely him. My blood ran cold. I sat there stunned, and then started Googling Josh like crazy to see if there were any more details.
Yeah, no. Aside from an almost empty Caring Bridge page, there was nothing. Not even Josh’s dad’s company had any kind of press release or online memorial. I found Josh’s LinkedIn page, but that didn’t have anything about his death either. It didn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel real today. I guess I’m still in shock.
My mom was full of condolences when I told her about it. She told me how she felt when her own ex died, even though it was years after they broke up. I think he was older than Josh at the time, but it’s the same sort of thing.
Since calling my mom, I can confirm that grieving an ex is to be in a weird sort of limbo. Psychologists call it disenfranchised grief, but it’s not talked about too often (or ever) because ongoing relationships naturally take precedence. However, the brain will react to the news in much the same way, although they say it will be more intense if the breakup is recent. It’s pretty common for old feelings and memories to surface, even if they’ve been shelved for years.
Heh. Josh and I broke up twenty years ago. That’s a long time. We both moved on, we both have loving spouses and half-grown kids. All of a sudden, though, I see a jar of shells he brought me from Hawaii in a new light. After decades of pleasant apathy, I’m suddenly remembering when and where he gave it to me. I hear sprinklers and think of the time the sound of one made Josh just about jump out of his pants. We went to see Men In Black and Batman and Robin together. I remember how Josh had a thing for movies about people with multiple personalities or who were eccentric in some way (one of his favorites was Blast From the Past). I still have one of two friendship necklaces I bought for us years ago, and lately I’ve wondered if Josh kept the mate. A Beth Nielsen Chapman CD we used to listen to, Sand and Water, now seems ironic: Chapman recorded it after her husband died of cancer.
It’s all so surreal. One minute, I feel like part of me has died, and the next I feel like an interloper because I’m not Josh’s wife or currently close to him. Social distancing isn’t helping because I have too much time to live inside my head. I don’t like it. Ergo, I write and pray and do laundry and work out and supervise my son’s education and joke with my husband to stay on top of emotions I may or may not be entitled to.
The sites I read advised finding closure. You’ve suffered a loss. Allow yourself to grieve. Go to your ex’s funeral. Talk about your feelings. Seek professional help if necessary. Create a memorial to your ex by planting a tree or making a charitable donation in their name.
Well, Josh’s memorial service was about a month ago, so no closure there. His obituary didn’t say whether he was buried or cremated, so visiting a gravesite probably won’t happen. I haven’t talked to his family in years, and I’ve certainly never talked to his wife and kids, so sending condolence cards is kinda out of the question. I wish I could, because I feel terrible for all of them, but I don’t even have their addresses.
All I can do is remember. While I can’t live in the past, I can allow it its due. And I can share that past with people who might learn from my story. Heck, that’s what I’m doing right now.
The most important thing is that we’ve both been freed. Me of all the hurt from our relationship, and him from his own mental and physical pain. God allowed me the chance to forgive Josh and for both of us to heal. What’s more, while I feel like part of me died with Josh, I also carry him in my heart, and nothing can take that away. It might sound corny, but I think it’s beautiful.
Plus, there’s a kicker in all of this: I know I will see Josh again in heaven. Maybe we’ll high-five each other and I’ll give his wife a hug even though we never met in life. All the junk we and our families went through will seem like a distant dream, and no one will have to say goodbye to anyone ever again. There might even be a backyard teepee somewhere just waiting for some good conversation. I wouldn’t be adverse to s’mores, either.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no mind has ever conceived’–the things God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-11)
Until heaven, I will love on my family and everyone I meet, doing my best to obey God and seek His will. Josh and all my dear ones who have gone ahead are waiting for me.
Rest in peace, Josh. I’ll always love you in my own way. I’ll never forget. Be seeing you.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope you’ll come back Wednesday because some of that writing I mentioned is going to be posted. Stay safe and well, all…