Eight months ago yesterday, I buried dried roses in my yard, the soil moist with hot tears. It was a cathartic gesture, using the remains of a broken relationship as fertilizer to enrich my garden bed. Break ups often amount to no more than memories we don’t know what to do with now. I just needed something good to have come from all that time with him.
In college, I wrote a poem about a girl filling a shoebox with ticket stubs, photographs, and dried flowers, and then filing the box in a closet alphabetically between other boxes with other boys’ names. I use it to teach imagery and analogy with my sophomores, though I rarely reveal myself as the author. At sixteen, they get it. They resonate with the line, “Too good for garbage cans, but nothing just the same.” They see how the closet of shoeboxes symbolizes the storage of memories in our minds.
When I myself was sixteen, I wrote an essay for English class about my first real break up. At their age, I could name the heartbreak, likening it to hitting a dead end on a road trip: “I hated to have travelled all this way with him and have nothing to show for it.” That same sense of anticipated loss has happened nearly a dozen times since, with significant others and with friends.
As teenagers, we feel the full depth of our emotions, having not yet built the protective walls from bricks of experience sealed with mortar of regret. My yearbook student Young Beauty blogged about my blog last week, saying she likes reading about my experiences because she can see that everyone goes through things and the “feelings we have now will never go away.”
Young Beauty finds comfort or reassurance in the knowledge that no matter our station, our rung on the social ladder, our age bracket, or our bank account balance, hardship is common to the human experience. A revision to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might even reflect hardship as a necessity (if only to make us truly human and stir the waters of empathy).
Our fear of certain pain in the anticipation of loss in active or passive avoidance of any trajectory that knowingly puts us on a path toward hardship most certainly halts us all too often to inaction. We remain in toxic or debilitating relationships out of that fear. In my first relationship after my divorce, I couldn’t really see a future. There were too many hurdles to clear. But it had been just barely two years since I filed an entire decade away into a shoebox with my ex-husband’s name.
I didn’t want to do it again.
Who does? My kids get it. Hardship is common to the human experience. Young Beauty gets it. The battle to overcome hardship unites us. We seek advice. Someone clever gets us to admit, “I don’t want to let him go because there might never be anyone else.” That was when I took that relationship right up to the dead-end sign and said, “The journey is going to be different on the way back.” And I walked on alone.
It was weeks later that I found out about the cheating, the discovery that landed my friend Angel and I in the dirt, in the dark, planting dead roses. I had to make another shoebox, but those flowers wouldn’t fit. Experience and regret built plenty of walls for me, but the promise of love and belonging chips away at them. Given long enough, the walls are down completely before the heartbreak begins.
If there were shoeboxes in my closet, they’d have girls’ names, too (because women know how to break a friend’s heart like a professional). In high school, my best friend stole said first boyfriend. In college, my best friend ended our relationship in an email. In my twenties, my best friend turned out to be a pathological liar. Perhaps I should be grateful that in my thirties I’ve moved too much for any new girlfriend to completely disarm me.
I could hear myself at sixteen, every time, “I hated to have travelled all this way with him and have nothing to show for it.” I’m not sure why it never occurred to me in any relationship’s end before this May night with Angel in the garden that there was always more than nothing. From every one.
From this one there would literally be fertilizer for my plants, but figuratively so much more. While burying the relationship remains in the garden, I was planting promise, hope, and expectation. I wanted something good to come of my time with him. And it did. I knew that there was either someone better or I would be better off alone. I could see my future without him, free to plant new flowers.
Four months of online dating was about all I could take, and I’d almost concluded alone was preferable after all. When I was a teenager, I didn’t think any guy existed that was better than my brothers. They had it all. They were smart, handsome, athletic, popular, God-fearing, and cool. The total package.
This summer, wading in a sea of dating profiles, that seemed to ring only too true still. My brothers have matured into intelligent, agile, brilliant, God-fearing, and cool men. Are there any single men of that quality and caliber left?
Right now, it matters that there is one. One might be all it takes. Charming had two dozen red roses delivered to my classroom at school last week. His note reaffirmed the creative wit I’ve come to admire. The unexpected gesture left me somewhat giddy, and it was difficult to resume my lesson as I attempted to contain the smile that threatened to overtake me at every bullet point change.
In a series about relationships at church earlier this month, my pastor preached a sermon about dating. He emphasized that when dating, you should make the other person better, and that if a relationship ends, you’ve still improved the other person’s life.
Charming has already done that with me. I see growth in that fertilized garden now, eight months later. When he opens my car door, he reminds me to expect a gentleman, not hope there’s still one left. For the first time in my life, I’m dating a man like my brothers. And if this ends in a godly manner, then he’s left me better. My expectations will be to hold out for a man of that quality and caliber.
Men like my brothers and Charming aren’t raised on commercial farms. They’re a commodity. I understand that Charming is a limited edition that found its way into my hands, and I will cherish it. He was, perhaps, sowing some seeds of his own in my garden with those roses.
The vase on my dining room table remained empty for eight months. When I suggested back then that I buy some fake flowers, my mother replied, “No. The REAL flowers are yet to come. Save their place.” Charming’s roses now fill my dining room with promise, hope, and expectation.