Had She Stayed – III

My life went on with its own series of awkward and painful events, some self-inflicted, and others that were completely out of control.  I attempted to start a few relationships in the coming months, most were merely exercises in frustration, while one was genuinely serious.  This one, serious relationship collapse, predictably, as I hadn’t taken the time to process what I was actually going through; I hadn’t taken into account any of the settings and situations that would trigger me, nor had I yet learned to appreciate the patterns of behavior that I’d established. A few months of attaching and detaching in quick succession left me more and more rooted in these patterns, before a brothers’ death stopped me in my tracks. This event unlocked a layer of grief that I wasn’t even aware exists.  The irony of losing brothers at such significant turning points in my life only highlighted how little work I’d actually done. The summer of 2012 would be nothing more than an exercise in grief.  Days of stumbling forward with this new chasm to overcome; there was an estate to close, a memorial to present and pain to sit with. Hours of confused and drawn out conversations. Minutes of uncontrollable sobbing, only punctuated by gasps for breath that were momentarily lost. Out of this grief I was able to recognize the worst of my behavior and see how I had used attachment and external validation to gloss over the grief that I’d experienced in the past.  I vowed to not repeat this in the wake of Steve’s death.  I vowed to stay detached, or at the very least I vowed to be more honest about this new grief and accept it, take it in wholly instead of deflecting it.  

A mystic dawn – ISO 200 • F/4 • 1/50 sec. FE 24-105G – 50mm

This actually worked.  From October 2012, through the summer of 2013 I was able to accept one person into my life, and I was able to be honest with her. I was able to share the grief I was experiencing, but also share happier experiences. But not completely.  While I was able to say and do many of the right things, some of my thoughts were not as honest. Where she tried to lean in, I started to withdraw.  I began to see that pattern re-emerge, the pattern of wanting to place my grief somewhere else, to find a distraction for it, instead of a process through it. Then, in the strangest of patterns, Janine reappeared. I couldn’t have scripted this. The irony of her entering back into my life should have been more alarming to me, but I took it differently.  I took it as an attempt to complete something. Janine reached out initially to offer condolences, but in the conversations that grew out of that, she shared that she was now divorced. The question that had been answered for her two years prior was that the marriage had no real purpose anymore. Without the addition of having a child, there was just nothing to sustain the marriage. It had been a stretch, a compromise in her mind, and she no longer had the energy to continue breathing life into it. So she’d moved on.

Why I was her answer to the question I still don’t know. She admitted that she had to have that compatibility question answered. Now that it was, Janine felt she could return to another question, a question about me, a question about us. The only problem was that I wasn’t even being honest with myself, much less her. What ensued was a couple of months of my old pattern of behavior. If I could get attention from one person I would, and when I craved attention from someone else, I would head to them.  This wounded duck game seemed to satisfy everyone in the short term. I could be one person for Janine and another for Katie.  After all I’d been “honest” with Katie from the start, in October of 2012 when we’d met.  So, these parallel relationships might just work, they might just be sustainable. But I kept my stories closed. While Katie might have said she was comfortable with this arrangement, I never gave her the chance to agree or disagree with it.  I knew from her history and our conversations that this was absolutely unacceptable for Janine. Hence, I kept it all to myself. 

There would be trips down to the valley to spend time together. There would be trips in other directions, too. In this period of time I decided to move away from Bailey.  I found the 100 miles of driving a day too demanding.  I missed my friends.  I missed the convenience of shopping and travel, and I didn’t want to add another burden to my sons. As much as we enjoyed the space that the house in Bailey provided, it just seemed more burdensome for all of us. So, I sold the house and moved back to the city.  In this time while I got closer both physically and emotionally to Katie, I continued to communicate with Janine. She was content keeping her distance, she had many emotions in her own life to work through, and in this time while we “talked,” we no longer made any effort to see each other. With the Spring of 2014 evolving, I found I was making time for Katie, but I still could truly let her in.  I kept making decisions that were “just for me,” and rarely offered to share my deepest thoughts with her. When the opportunity to travel that summer came along, I completely excluded Katie from any of it, and went so far as to quit communicating entirely as I headed off on this trip, throughout the summer and well into the fall. I attempted some very haphazard dates in this period of time, but quickly realized that I just wasn’t’ ready, and more significantly that I was still drawn to Katie, and not completely understanding why. So it only felt right to finally say goodbye to Janine.  It was November, an uneasy coincidence, and in a surprising and stilted conversation I said that instead of maybe this being our moment for reconciliation, may this was finally the moment to let go. Stifled tears and grief echoed across not just our phones, but 26 years. We were both finally free to pursue something with each other, after all of the pain that we experienced the first time, it not only seemed that we had maybe earned, but that we deserved to be together, finally happy. But I blinked. I couldn’t hold her gaze in the same way I could all those years ago. It seemed that in my mind, in that moment we were better off being free from that past, that history. Instead of being together, we just needed to let go. 

Katie and I would continue on for another problematic few years. 2014 ended well for us, but 2015 continued in an on and off pattern that would drag out far longer than it should have. Yes, there were many laughs, and much joy shared, but I could not commit. I could not fully invest in her, in us.  My patterns returned, by seeking an external validation punctuated the starts and stops we experienced. It wasn’t until the fall of 2018 that I finally came to terms with my behavior, why I was doing it, what purpose it served, and how I might actually change it. Changing meant cutting ties, cutting ties with Katie, cutting ties with that thing inside that felt compelled to reach out, that tried to validate itself by external affirmation.  

In this time photography became more and more important to me.  This meant trips down to the valley.  I would often find myself in Salida. It’s a beautiful town and setting, and it has restaurants and breweries that I regularly stopped at, places I felt comfortable in and started to build up new relationships in. I would like to say that I could easily pass through and not think of Janine. But that is not even remotely true.  It’s still difficult traveling into and through this place without acknowledging her presence. 2019 was a year of intense solitude, coupled with incredible travel opportunities – New Orleans, Albuquerque Balloon Festival, Chicago, Hawaii, and thousands of miles all over Colorado.  Photography became the thing that I would identify with most, to the point where it was less about going out to take photos, and more of labelling myself AS a photographer. I felt incredibly accomplished, and confident, so much so that I explored more gallery opportunities, and one of those exhibits would be in Salida. Then 2020 arrived and I don’t have to go into how chaotic and disruptive living through a look-down is and how completely overwhelming it was to remake every piece of school work to present and teach in an online environment. Photography became a haven, sneaking out for Milky Way captures, super-moon shots, and early morning inversions. If I thought 2019 was a year of solitude, 2020 became the year of isolation. Like most everyone travel was greatly restricted, yet there were a number of highlights. Andrew’s wedding, seeing Tanner briefly for the wedding after his move to Chicago, an abbreviated trip to Michigan and time with Andrew rebuilding a car for Tanner.

But there was one more opportunity to travel in the state, that photo exhibit, that would take place in Salida, would begin in September, and run through November. For a week in late August I organized the images and prints I wanted to display, wrote and edited descriptions, and wondered about Janine. I wondered if she would see this work. It would be in a public space, one she was likely in normal times to visit. I wondered how she was. I wondered how remote and hybrid teaching had impacted her work as an art teacher. I decided to reach out, to let her know about the exhibit. I didn’t want it to surprise her. I wanted her to have knowledge of my presence, without being caught off guard. It was a simple email, essentially an invitation to see it, without any pretense or attempt to connect beyond that. She replied with a simple note, thanked me for being thoughtful and assuring me there was nothing malicious between us, and that she would try to see the work if time allowed. Another month passed by and a note popped up. She was complimentary about the work, thanked me for thinking about her and wished me more success. And that was it. 

Autumn 2020 was a very different fall – It wasn’t full of changing aspens, or floating balloons, but one of investing time in my sons. That one gift that I had been gifted that Janine had missed out on. I came to Colorado in my early 20s, a little confused about my life’s journey, but open to the possibilities of a fresh start, new opportunities, and anxious to take in a new set of sites. It took until my 30s before I could really explore the state again but this time it was with those two young sons. And, by the time my 40s were in motion, most of my life had been undone by death, divorce, and the delicate art of letting those two head out into the world on their own.  Now, mid-way through my 50s with a career quickly winding down the reassessment of setbacks and accomplishments finds a pile of information that might be best left alone. 

Had she stayed, none of this life would have existed. The messiness and the joy, they are equal parts of the good. Six months passed, and the world is on the verge of returning to normal. I’d traveled back to Salida to retrieve the work, and to an extent my pride. On the way down I took the time to shoot from some of my favorite spots. I explored some new locations after picking up my work, but mostly knew that I needed to get back to Denver, even if school was fully remote, there were things I needed to do to be ready for a Monday with my students. But the enormity of what was now in my past was unsettling to say the least.  32 years of “what if” were now answered. Why had I allowed my expectations to run in that direction? Why had I not resolved that loss 32 years ago? 

Much like the overlook, which sits above the Arkansas River and gives a commanding view of Mt. Princeton, maybe it is important to revisit our emotions and memories. When there is time to reflect, there is time to appreciate. Revisiting memories and locations tends to evoke the positives in a situation more than the negatives.  I’ve watched storms wash over the mountains from here. I’ve witnessed sunrises, sunsets and even starry nights. I’ve been on top of those peaks, and lost in the aspen groves and pine forests that circle their slopes. This has been a sight of new discoveries and comforting familiarity.  Watching nature cycle through its seasons may be our most practical antidote to the emotional rollercoaster we all have to mount; following the excitement and anticipation for these changes, while accepting the unknown flow of this metamorphosis, consolidating the experiences into a set of lessons and memories which can punctuate our internal journey. I keep circling around photography at this stage, as a way to explore, create and to an extent connect.  In that vein, photography has gained more value, as it not only “gets me out of the house,” it seems to help me with reestablishing the connection that has been missing the most, the one with “me.” 

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