“I am not what I seem,” was a line spoken multiple times in the 1965 film “Help” starring the Beatles. It’s no surprise that it should be easy for me to access that relatively obscure line, as the first day the movie was released, my friend Fern and I went downtown to the Woods Theater in the Chicago Loop in the morning and sat through it more times than I can recall. In those days, the movie just scrolled round and round while you stayed seated without getting charged each time you watched it.
The other day, I was pruning branches in preparation for winter when Ticket to Ride off the Help soundtrack came through my headphones. After a note or two, I was immediately transported into the movie. I remembered all the music and a good portion of the dialogue which I practiced so often with Fern and my younger sister, that it’s finally become part of my commonly used vernacular, like so many other lines from books and movies that made an impact on me, getting stuck in my head. Michael and I shared a lot of conversational shortcuts comprised of that kind of stuff and passed them on to our kids, who for years, were parroting lines from sources about which they had no clue. However, that line about being someone other than who she appeared to be came to mind for a reason other than a reminiscent song lyric.
For all these Covid months, I’ve spent many long hours by myself, and like many people, I’ve been reflecting on where I stand at this point in my life, and who I am. Long ago, my family reinforced the view of me as a sunny-dispositioned, gregarious type who did well socially, was very loving and generally, an extrovert. That role was easily accessible for me, like a roadmap defined by a mixture of who I appeared to be from birth and who I was expected to be through life. Luckily, stepping into that character wasn’t much of a stretch. For the most part, I was a happy, affectionate kid. I was physically cautious. My parents said I was careful from the beginning, hanging onto things when I learned to walk for months longer than required, staying close to them and listening to all their warnings and precautions. Mentally I was brave, kind of sneaky, and pretty good at figuring out what I needed to do to be perceived as good and to be loved. So that was my path.
I grew up to be a big talker, quick on my feet and sometimes sharp-tongued as accompaniments to being affectionate and loving. But often that style wore me out because, surprisingly enough, I’m also an introvert. I always traveled inside my head, trying to understand who I was, what I was doing and how to make sense of how I fit into this world. Despite all evidence to the contrary, what seemed to be a relatively smooth ride for me through life wasn’t. My journals are packed with evidence of my insecurities and a strong sense of isolation from others. I was constantly holding back and observing myself. I often felt I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was remarkably insecure about my appearance and decided I’d better count on my mind to get me through this world rather than depending my looks. In retrospect, I’m glad I chose that focus even though initially, its inception was unambiguously from a weakness rather than a strength. For years, even when complimented, I never developed confidence about that part of myself until finally, within the confines of my life with Michael, who I trusted and who made me feel able to be myself, I finally felt beautiful. I was always in search of that safe haven. School, career aspirations, success as defined by our society, were irrelevant to me. I wanted to feel secure, comfortable, accepted and loved. That’s it. My life goals. Miraculously, I found that space. Once settled, family and work flowed from that solid core inside me and I steadily grew stronger, truly on the inside as opposed to the front I presented to the outside world. Interestingly enough, despite Michael’s death, I go back into that deep reservoir of internal resource, built and sustained over decades, still the place from which I’m drawing the strength and energy to cope with this strange time of rampant disease and unheard of political disarray.
We live in a time of pervasive technology. I feel its drawbacks and benefits simultaneously. As a single person still adjusting to that status, I’m a participant in online life which gives me a sense of community and connection. Although social media is a strange place, I have a Facebook account. I also have an Instagram account which I use primarily to follow nature photographers, news outlets, and a few celebrities like my favorite, Roger Federer. I guess I don’t really understand how the platform works because although my account is private, I get a steady stream of “follower” requests and messages, 99% of which are from men who seem to think that based on my profile photo, they can write provocative notes and suggest that we become friends. I have no idea how to process a universe that works in such a peculiar way. I’m going to change my picture to an inanimate object instead of a smiling me which will eliminate whatever this method of developing a relationship is in the ether world, a method that makes my skin crawl. And yet, the other day on Facebook, when a friend posted a video of a Jefferson Airplane song which elicited a comment from another male friend suggesting that I bore a strong physical resemblance to Gracie Slick, I paid attention. Really? Me and Gracie Slick? I actually looked her up for photos from back in the day and put us side by side. Although I hardly think we were twins, I could sort of see what he meant and was simultaneously flabbergasted and flattered. Almost 50 years later, I see that the negative impressions we carry about ourselves from childhood are our companions for life, no matter how well things do or don’t turn out for us. A bit of unusual vanity which I rejected long ago. So like most people, I vacillate between the parts of myself I like best and the ones that remind me of my weaknesses and uncertainties.
Right now, I’m pondering what happened to my social world, the one that exists, or at least used to exist in real life, not the virtual one. The years before Michael’s death were consumed not only by his illness, but my mother’s physical and mental decline and death. I worried about whether my body would hold up under the pressure and relied on my mental strength to get me through that impossible time. As Michael’s health declined, he was desperate to stave off death and my job was to support him in that effort. Life got very small. Our last months weren’t anything like those moments you see on television, when the dying person comes to accept the inevitable. Although he was confused, he wanted to stay alive more than anyone I ever saw. And he wanted me to help him and to be his gatekeeper, seeing no one, trying to hang on to himself despite the impossibility of his situation. Every now and then, he’d say off the wall things like, “let’s move to Oregon and commit suicide together.” That would be followed by, “no, you have to stay alive for the kids.” Or on occasion, when reality crept into his mind, he’d simply ask, “what the hell are you going to do when I’m gone?” And I’d think, I wish I knew. During that dark time, our social world fell away. Michael saw one friend one time during the last 5 months of his life. Initially he wanted those last days to be just the two of us but he finally realized I’d at least need our kids to be around and he wanted them too. He was calling the shots and I was going to support him until the end. No one knew what was going on here but our little family. We were not what we’d seemed. But that didn’t matter at the time. I was going to give everything I had to my life’s partner. I have no regrets. What I didn’t know, however, was that there was no space-holding for me in the pre-sickness social world. People moved on. I became partner-less. Odd person out. I don’t think there was some deliberate intent to isolate me from what was “the before.” Things just changed.
I worked to create structure for myself. I swam every day. I took classes. I joined a book club. I started a blog. I made lists of tasks that needed to be tackled around the house, in the garden and the garage. I spent time with my family. I had my knees replaced. I traveled when I could. I made a few new friends. For the most part, I think I’ve done fairly well. But a part of me is separate and apart from others. That was even before Covid came along. I couldn’t find my way back into the life Michael and I shared with other people. I’ve come to believe that’s the way of things. Many relationships have a shelf life. For all kinds of reasons, where intimacy once existed, there are now hollow spaces. For a time, I was sad and mournful about those losses. But I’ve gotten past most of those feelings. I feel somewhat disappointed. But I recognize that my external presentation has primarily been one of strength and confidence. The needy parts of me aren’t generally visible and thus won’t be addressed by others. And what’s true is that what I’m missing isn’t likely to be filled because that empty spot is Michael’s place. Going on four years after his death, I’m still writing him letters that help me purge myself of the thoughts and ideas which need to spill out to keep my head from exploding. His job was to be my listener and he keeps that vigil, albeit silently.
I don’t have the same patience and tolerance that I used to have and even less drive to win back the friendships that have faded away. I have energy to put toward the ones I still have. I also am working toward reconciling the fact that I’m more likely to give than take in any relationship. I’ve found that imbalance disappointing in the past but I recognize that the way I’ve projected myself outward has set up that dynamic. If you never acted like you were in need, you can’t be disappointed when people think you don’t have any. As I stated, I certainly haven’t always been what I seemed. I got used to being known by Michael in the most complete and remarkable ways. He most often required no explanations from me about any of internal workings. That is life’s great gift for me. So I’ll try to keep remembering that as I go forward. What’s ahead of me is a lot less time than what’s behind me. I’m going to be judicious about how I spend that time. Life’s priorities change, suddenly getting up in your face like a huge surprise. But as with time-lapse photography, if you look carefully, you can see the subtle shifts you might not have noticed when they were happening. Certainly the pandemic has made that clear to me. Yes. I’m definitely not what I seem. I suspect that most people aren’t what they seem either. Being out front all the time is pretty scary. But I’ve learned some things. Right now my self-perception is more important to me now than it once was and I’m going with that into what’s left of my future. I had a chance to see someone claw and scratch to stay alive to do what was so compelling in his life. I’m going to honor Michael’s valiant effort by doing my life the way he did his and let go of what I can’t change. The only control I have is over myself. If I’ve learned anything during this lockdown, it’s that I want to stay aware and be the best version of myself. Put away the negative people, be who I am and have no regrets when it’s all done. Trying to always be as I seem, no matter what. New life goal.