Monday, October 29, 2012
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. -Romans 8:28
It doesn't matter how hard I try, I cannot remember the details of that day, a decade ago. It's peculiar, the way distance blurs the edges of a vivid memory until it is almost unrecognizable. If I close my eyes and focus long enough on sitting perfectly still, I can begin to feel the prickly fingers of the attack. It came quickly, not unlike the way I feel when I'm trapped in a small space, but wholly different because I was standing outside. Still, no amount of remembrance can help me place what had happened just before. Suddenly, I simply came unglued. All air caught wildly in my chest as it bucked against my thundering heart. Sucking in more before I'd released the previous gulp, I moved irrationally through a vibrant autumn afternoon. The sun broke through cloud cover and stung my eyes. Squinting, gasping, and tingling, I had the abrupt and curiously coherent thought that I was in the grips of a panic attack or, possibly, a total breakdown. Despite the transparent revelation, I could not control the persistent drumming in my ears or the numbness that was enveloping my body. Putting one foot in front of the other in automatic response proved easy enough and, in a moment of clarity, I knew that I could not--would not--do this on the main campus thoroughfare, but controlling my body had become nearly impossible. I turned, took several steps in the wrong direction, spun around, and turned again, hearing only the thump, thump of the snare, feeling only the tingly nothingness of nerves, and tasting only a warm metallic tang with a tongue that was abruptly too big for my mouth. I thought, in those few moments, that I would die right there in front of my college cafeteria if I didn't swiftly remember how to exhale.
I cannot recall where I tried to go but I know I was breathing again before I got there. Departing as quickly as it had assaulted, I was left shaking, emotional, desperate. I didn't know why it had shattered so furiously upon me, I just knew that I needed to explain this, to make sense of it. If I didn't speak it to someone, I was terrified that I'd find myself on all fours creeping around my room, focusing only on the oddly patterned yellow wallpaper.
But where, on a small Christian campus, was I to go with the newsflash that the thought of marrying my fiance had just caused an epic breakdown? Who did I tell about the streaming tears I'd shed on I-15 the previous day as I considered my future? What words would ever explain the sick twist I felt at my core when I thought about forever? What would I say? However would I say it?
In the dreary mist of a late afternoon marine layer, I found my friend. Someone I knew would go to the grave with the secret if I chose never to whisper it. We climbed the sharp, wooden steps to our theatre's musty dressing room and, with chairs facing one another, I tried to explain. Shaking, I started and stopped, unsure of how to word the severity of the situation. It was an admission that I built up so greatly she was certain I was about to tell her I was pregnant. That was, in fact, impossible and though she was good friends with both of us, she received the news calmly, rationally and with great care. She was probably relieved that I wasn't actually carrying his child. "I don't know what to do," I released. The room appeared to change dimensions around me as my eyes blurred.
Ten years on the flip side the decision doesn't seem enormously monumental. There has been a great deal of living in these passing of seasons--some of it more excruciating than the overwhelming throb that was left swelling in my chest when the attack subsided. Then, though, at 21, the choice seemed insurmountably impossible. Looking back, from this perch of early thirties, there was only one, achingly obvious, choice. Break the heart. Destroy the friendships we equally shared. Confound the professors who cared deeply about the both of us. Worry not about the anger and hurt it would bring to those forced to choose a side. And, essentially, pay no mind to the man crushed under the weight of the conclusion.
There were reasons, justifications, evidences and pieces of information that I would, in those first tender months, site to inquiring minds. Defensively, to the acquaintances who thought I'd never truly cared. Anguished, to the professor who described, in detail, the remains of the bloody heart I'd rendered useless. Apologetically, to the friends caught awkwardly between. I realize now that the explanations were irrelevant. This is not the person God has for me; I am not the person He has for him.
Then, in the wake of an onslaught of tears and irregular breathing, I'd nested on the single question. How do I know if this is who God has for me? The man had asked. The woman had said yes. The florist was booked. The dress was purchased. The lives were tangled. How then, does one decide to erase it all? How does one begin the process of untwisting herself from his arms?
The next day I found myself emancipated from classroom to hallway. As students buzzed around me, climbing steps on their way to another course, I began to feel it again, the oppression of choice. Heart crashed, head pounded. Images of a contented future rattled in my mind and were quickly replaced with visions of desolation. The two opposing pictures volleyed for space and I picked up the phone in the hallway. I have no idea who I was planning to call. Him? My parents? My friend? In the openness of a common passage all of these possibilities seem unlikely but then, I clearly wasn't firing on all cylinders.
I felt the labored breathing and I knew I couldn't break down outside again, in the middle of my whole world. By now, the hallway had emptied. I was alone with only the calm, cold walls. I leaned against the concrete, placed the phone back on its hook. Pulled it up. Set it down. And then I sunk slowly to the floor, alone, with my head between my knees. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Slowly, with the rhythm intended for breathing. I willed myself not to panic. Lifting a finger to my cradled face, I swept a tear from my cheek and stood, still staring at the ground.
"Are you alright?" asked the voice. I looked up feeling, suddenly, all imaginable horror. One person was left in this building. One person who had still to load up materials while the rest of us exited. One professor. A woman I'd only been introduced to a handful of times before taking a class from her that semester. A woman I did not know well. But I will maintain, for the rest of my life, that God orchestrated that meeting. I would never have stayed like that in the hallway if I thought a professor would happen upon me. I might have left a moment before. She might have turned left instead of right.
Flushing red, I wiped a remaining tear. Desperately, I wish that I could remember every word that God spoke through her that day--and the next. They filled me with peace and life and clarity. I told her only that I found myself needing to make a decision. I did not speak to what the choice was. A gentle smile curled kindness and her eyes filled with compassion. I was aware that she somehow knew exactly what we were dancing around. In a conversation of long moments, I recall only that she said, "This is not an easy decision. Allow yourself to think about it."
That was the trouble. I banished it from my mind when it crept in. Even after naming it in the quietness of a backstage, I found my heart angry with denial. A wedding, what a party. A fiance, what sanctuary. A lifetime, what confusion. Expel the analysis. Come what may. C'est la vie.
Think about it...
Truer words could not have been spoken.
That day I thought about it. I talked about it. I shared it with my roommate, who, whether or not she was, did not seem surprised. I spoke it to my parents. And, most importantly, I told him. That is certainly not something I wanted to do until I was absolutely sure that I was critically contemplating our future.
The revelation to him was the catalyst that started the outward turmoil, the fallout lasting, in some instances, for years. But strangely, the confession gave me an overwhelming inner peace as though I was caught in the center while the storm raged on. I spent the next day and a half discussing and praying and crying. I sat on my balcony, staring into the sparkling blue of the ocean, sun streaming down and warming my skin while my heart silently fractured within. I paced between my bedroom and the kitchen and back again, tears flowing in exhaustion through the phone line. He promised joy and I longed to believe. But more details pricked the nerves and swayed my resolve in the bitter wind that swept from the coast. Tumbling over one another the reasons raced, with alarming speed, to the end of my mind. There, in a bizarre moment of transparency, was the single thought that I did not want to break this man but that I would not decide my future based on his heart.
Next day dawned. I spent the morning vacillating between crushing pain and numbness. I went to class but learned nothing. Suddenly, education paled in comparison to the weight of life. Sitting, as professors lectured on, I evaluated every mildewed corner of my relationship. I trudged, with heavy feet, toward the cafe. I'd arranged to meet my roommate there, where she had a class with the same professor. I needed to exchange gratitude for care.
Again, I want to know the details of that conversation but am left with strikingly few. I know I thanked her for her perception and advice. I'm aware that at some point she spoke the words that eventually led me to here, ten years later. "You have already decided what you are going to do. You need only to give yourself permission to do it." My world spun with this realization, this declaration, this truth.
Delaying the inevitable wasn't going to change the state of my heart. I knew and failing to take action was crippling, blinding, suffocating. Fear held me captive and the enemy spoke taunting lies into my ear but God was there, ushering me toward the rest of my life. "Take good care of her," the professor told my roommate.
"I will," my friend answered.
That is all I remember of the tender words spoken but I remain ever grateful for the kindness shown me by a woman who knew little of my present, less of my past and none of my future. When, in utter brokenness, I didn't know which direction to turn, He put wisdom in my path. I am not entirely sure what literature she taught me that semester, a vague idea and an affinity for Elizabeth Barrett Browning are all I am left with. But she poured life truth into me and nothing is what it would have been. All has been gained.
On Halloween day I met my fiance in a parking lot at the water's edge and told him I couldn't do it. He wasn't the one God had chosen. I wasn't the one for him. Someday, when he stared into the face of his bride, he would be glad for this broken heart. Someday, when he listened long to the laugh of his new child, he would appreciate my conclusion.
The aftermath was devastating and ugly. It was suddenly clear that I had known for a very long time that I couldn't marry him. The knowledge was locked in a deep recess of my mind and I existed as though this truth was not reality. Once I granted consent to twist that rusty key and unlock the secret, it was finished. The letting go had happened slowly, over the course of a season or two. Mourning was hard and heavy but it was quick, like the tearing of a bandage. For him, though, it was acute, slow and festering so that even years later I was told stories by friends, conversations that made my heart hurt. He couldn't let go when, for me, it had been as easy (and as inconceivably difficult) as giving myself permission to pry my fingers loose.
God validated my decision swiftly. A good friend turned boyfriend turned fiance turned husband each tumbling on the heels of the prior with great speed. My husband's is a story of waiting many years for a wife. The opposite of my chronicle. I am convinced that God prepared my heart to move quickly because of how long my husband's had been still and steady. I know because, as I drove away from that parking lot on Halloween, I promised to spend the foreseeable future alone. If I know anything it's that God has a way of shaking our expectations.
A decade has passed. I know very little of what became of him but, because of social media, I know of his wife and have seen pictures of his wedding day. I knew him well enough to recognize the authenticity of his smile. I know of his two tiny sons, beautiful children, their existence hinged, however slightly, on my decision.
Two people who spent time together, who thought, at one point, that a joined future was part of God's plan were nothing more than two people meant for other things. I curl into the familiar curve of my husband's arm and sigh contentment into the space above our bed. My boys whisper together in the room across the hall. My heart spills joy. You have already decided what you are going to do. You need only to give yourself permission to do it. Permission to find this man. Permission to hold these children. Permission to live this life.
This is the gift given to me that excruciating week ten years ago; a week where I narrowly avoided losing myself completely. This is the future that I could not see as I gasped for breath in the center of my college campus. This is the life I didn't know as I wiped away hot tears in a hallway. This is life. This is it.