A Question by the Sea

view of Italian roadThe cursor blinks tauntingly at me. My page is blank. On the horizon, the sun is rising over the Mediterranean, beginning another impossibly beautiful day. In the distance a woman calls to someone in a language I can’t understand. A man yells back a curt response. On the road below my balcony, a scooter flies by, nearly colliding with a semi-truck that is much too large for the road space. The sky and the sea stretch endlessly before me, competing with one another for the prize of “most brilliant blue.”

I close my eyes, feel the sun warm my face. “I can do this,” I tell myself.

It’s 2014. Despondent and in need of drastic action to correct my life’s course, I’m on a three-month sabbatical from work. I’ve traveled around the world, visiting new and familiar places, working my way through a writing program designed to help me uncover past patterns so I can use them to outline my desired future. Things had been going reasonably well, I was nearing the end. Through weeks of emotional exhaustion, brutal honesty with myself, and an intense commitment to writing, I had completed every piece of the program with the exception of the question that troubled me, “Describe your ideal mate.”

With another sip of coffee, hands poised to type, I let my mind wander back in time, three years earlier, to the darkest period of my life. The time that makes this question hard to answer.

“I want a divorce,” he says. “I don’t see things changing for me and I can’t keep you in limbo as I try to figure out my life.” The words hang in the air. I hear a clock ticking in the distance, mocking as it marks this moment in time. “How odd,” I think, “I don’t remember owning a clock that ticks.” I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding.

Part of me knew this was coming. We had danced around the topic for a year, always stopping just short of a decision. We’d had this exact conversation before. A few times.

“I’ll figure out the paperwork, get it to you to sign,” he says standing and moving towards the door.

I nod once, staring into the space he just left. I focus on the grime on the window, visible now that he’s moved. Willing myself not to cry, I pick out the shape of a rabbit, then a clown.

“I’m sorry. Really. This isn’t how I expected life to go,” he says softly.

“I know,” I whisper back.

I can’t turn and face him. It’s too hard to watch him walk away. I straighten my spine, using my last ounce of strength to stay upright as he leaves.

I hear the basement door close, his truck start, and the motor’s acceleration as he pulls away. I listen as it retreats into the distance, wanting to hang on to the last familiar sound before facing the new world around me. In its absence a thick silence descends. The window grime clown changes back into a rabbit. A tear slips free. Then another. “Is the rabbit crying? Wait. No, that’s me.” The thoughts tumble, each one odder than the next until I let the truth in.

It’s really over.

I collapse on the couch, letting the sobs long held inside flow. Their escape allows space for the darkness to descend.

Darkness that will stay with me for years.

balcony tableBack on the Mediterranean balcony, I let my mind wander to that memory. I relive the way it felt, the details somehow unmarred by the passage of time.

My thoughts drift to a time one month later when with a final signature, I sign away my marriage and with it my sense of self-worth, ushering in three years of listless drifting as I struggle to rediscover who I am.

Moments from those years flash in and out in quick succession. I let them run free, seeing where they take me. I journey through times I turned to God then alcohol, cycling between the two as I sought answers or relief.

To moments I cried myself to sleep, crumpled in the fetal position on the floor, certain I had no strength left to continue another day. To days when I couldn’t get out of bed, overwhelmed by the energy it would take to fake my way through the day so the world felt comfortable around me.

I relive moments under the vast Montana sky as I lay in my hammock, hummingbirds fluttering about my head, strangely interested in the sound of my tears.

I reluctantly follow my thoughts to the face of a man I dated after, desperately seeking evidence I was lovable. A man I traveled to the other side of the world to forget. A man who reinforced my belief I deserved nothing more than to be used, cheated on, and left behind. A man who kept my heart broken.

Ideal mate?” I ask myself, “Is there such a thing? Love causes so much pain.”

I scroll past the question, slightly uncomfortable leaving a portion unfinished.

I hesitate.

Scroll back up.


The cursor blinks in the space where my answer should be.

“Yeah, but…what if?” The question filters up from the farthest corner of my heart, lingering. I gaze out over the sea, spot a couple of birds flying by. I’m torn between self-protection and hope, at war with myself.

I’m tired of being sad. I’m tired of love hurting. If I avoid it, never let anyone in, I can ensure that won’t happen. It’s safe,” argues my mind.

“Yeah, but…what if?” whispers my heart.

The question catches me off guard. My heart had recently joined forces with my head on this issue, what was happening?

“What if?” my heart persists.

 “What if what?” logic snaps back, “You know, whatever. It’s your funeral. Besides, it isn’t as if by writing it you actually have to do let anyone in, it’s just a silly exercise.”

 With little to draw from, I start. Grudgingly at first, describing someone the complete opposite of everyone I had known.

My ideal partner would love me unconditionally. He would care about the things that are important to me just because they were important to me. He would love to travel with me. He would share a compassion for the poor and have a strong sense of justice.”

“Be more specific,” my heart chimes in. “What do you want? No one will read this. Tell the truth.”

I dig deeper and continue on, describing someone so perfect for me I would have to be in a Disney movie for him to exist.

He would open doors for me and help me with my coat. He would be tender and affectionate. He would treat me as though I was the only woman in the room, having eyes only for me. He would have a healthy relationship with alcohol. He would be comfortable with people and also alone. He would be smart, able to engage in intellectual conversation. He would be successful in his own way. He would be comfortable with what he contributes and not be threatened if I make more money than him. He would not take advantage of that either. He would admit his flaws and what he has learned from hard times in his life. He would be honest, real, raw, and confident.

I write. Then I forget about it.

I return home from my sabbatical and find myself sucked into the same behaviors, repeating the same patterns, unable to maintain the clarity of my time away in the midst of real life’s expectations. My friend despair creeps back in as I work hard to convince myself I’m happy. Despite a profound life experience, nothing feels different.

With one tiny exception. On that balcony, I let my heart write what it yearned for.

Maybe that’s why, one year later, while most of me worked overtime to keep Kris at arm’s length, one small piece looked out from behind the wall I’d carefully constructed around my heart and recognized him. Recognized him as the one I had written about. The ideal man I didn’t believe could possibly exist.

He was real. And he had found me.

Life hasn’t been all butterflies and roses since then. I continue to struggle with feeling unworthy of unconditional love. A sharp word of criticism spirals me into dark places in my head, where I easily beat myself up for perceived failings. My history and the scars attached to it travel with us as we build a life together, part of the baggage I carry.

But as we work together to heal my wounds, I begin to see my baggage and that season of time differently. Instead of being the end, it provides a stark contrast to this happier season, making its brilliance brighter and sweeter.

Recently I stood on a mountain roadside with Kris and his kids, twisting a decoder ring they claimed to have found. Its message actually written for me, “I love you. Sara, will you marry me?”

For the briefest beat the last six years replayed in my mind, moments and memories flashing in quick succession. Overhead a bird sang as I looked at the man who waited so patiently while I healed my heart, tenderly nurturing me along the way. I realized over time I had sewn all those painful moments into a beautiful tapestry. Into the woman I was designed to be.

The years hadn’t defined me, they had refined me.