To the One I Love, Whoever You Are
I alternated between mourning and hope. Mourning my latest romantic failure and desperately hoping it might still work out. The self-doubts were so uncomplimentary I couldn’t share them with friends. And they were embarrassingly huge. I had to do something. Would anyone, anywhere, ever love me? I had begun to fear the answer. So I got one of those blank books and began writing:
To the One I Love, Whoever You Are
Hi. It seems a bit strange to start like this—when I don’t know to whom I am writing. But whatever your name, I know that I love you, because I’ve decided to write a journal that I will show to only one person—the woman I finally marry. It’s almost impossible to believe you’re out there. But by writing to you, even though I don’t know your name, I can be sure that whenever these words are first read, if they ever are, that they will be read by someone who loves me deeply. It brought tears to my eyes just to write that last phrase, because it is so easy to feel sorry for myself now, and to doubt that anyone ever will love me.
I know, this sounds like middle school, but I was 36. Some days it felt like the only thing between me and a break-down was this willingness to write out everything with absolutely no self-censorship. I guess I did feel like a kid—a scared and lonely kid. None of my friends knew how desperate I felt. I was popular. I was dating a fair amount. But nothing seemed to go right for long, and I was miserable.
I had been engaged once, many years earlier. But my fiancée eventually realized that I didn’t know the first thing about relationships, and she broke it off. Both sets of parents seemed heart-broken, but I knew she was right to end it. For six months I felt like I was being dragged through psychological broken glass. Eventually I realized that if I ever wanted to be loved that I could not hide myself from the pain. I had to face it straight on. I had to be more vulnerable than I ever had allowed.
Five years later I became engaged again. But long story short, my new fiancée began to have an affair. Again I was dragged through that broken glass. Coming out of it, much later, my only certainty was that again I had to risk everything. I came up with an image—from middle school?—that each time I met someone we both hid behind very large trees. We’d poke our heads out just far enough to glimpse each other, and as long as our head wasn’t shot off we would screw up the courage to expose a tiny bit more. God, how I wanted to jump out fully naked! This was when I began to write to my future unknown lover. There, in those pages, I could expose myself in safety because she would never see it until I had learned I could trust her.
Last month I shared this story with a group of friends, all of us long married. One man seemed amazed at my willingness back then to risk this. “I’d have been afraid to show the book to anyone,” he said. “If I had said exactly what I felt, I’d fear driving her away forever.”
But that was the whole point. It would test anyone’s love to see how broken and incomplete I was. But what I wanted was someone who could love me exactly as I was, someone tired of the dating game, someone equally willing to expose her own brokenness. The book would remain an embarrassing secret until I suspected that someone could love me that well, until someone was trying to decide if she could commit herself that radically.
Six months after beginning to write I met the woman who eventually would gain my confidence. We have been married now for 37 years. We both credit the vulnerability of those scribblings as one of the circumstances that opened us to a deeper level of communication. We have no secrets. We share one bank account and the same email address.
Last year Claire and I took a ten-week, 13,000-mile road trip around the U.S. Before we left I loaded 350 CDs into the car for the long open spaces. But we got all the way home without listening to one song. We enjoy each other. We have shared so much that we have a thousand things to talk about. We know each other so well, and have been through so much together, that we can have long delicious periods of silence and not worry what the other is thinking.
Claire and I are still changing. Life moves quickly from singleness to early married joy, and young children soon become adults. We are not the same as when we married, and if we had not been deliberate each day about growing together we clearly would have grown apart. Our marriage is constantly being stretched, and renewed, and challenged, and rewarded. As I said to Claire at the start, “Considering how I have chosen to live my life, I really do not have much that I can promise you, except that you will never be bored.”
Meeting Claire was not the magical end to all depression. In recent years, because I have spent much time writing about my life, I’ve come face to face with the reality that I have failed more frequently than I have admitted. And my successes have accomplished far less than I’d hoped. And, yes, I have done some things that I am seriously embarrassed about. The temptation to denial is great.
A couple of weeks ago thoughts like these woke me in the middle of the night. So I got up, went into a small, simple room in my home that has often encouraged me to deeper reflection, and began to listen long and hard. A quirky Bible verse came to me, from my ancient days of church and youth group, to the effect that in the days of Elijah there was great starvation in the land but Elijah fed only one widow.
It was as if God was saying: “Roger, I am not surprised by anything you can tell me of your inadequacy. There are no secrets. But I accept you exactly as you are. And I even think you’re kind of cool. So stop being so hard on yourself, and others.” Then I went back to bed and quickly fell asleep.
Claire says that if she had been surrounded by her circle of friends when we met, they would have counseled her against such a risky commitment. Yet neither of us ever made a wiser choice. The one essential is a shared overwhelming desire and commitment to know and to be known, without any pretense, and the willingness to try, and fail, apologize, forgive, and try again. And again. In my case, it started with an embarrassingly candid journal.