After my mom passed away, I helped my dad move out of the house they shared for over 30 years. I spent a long weekend cleaning out boxes of belongings I had in their home since my childhood. Everything from dolls to books, albums to jewelry -- it all had to be sorted through and either shipped to my home in Los Angeles or thrown away.
While going through boxes in my parent's basement, I stumbled upon a folder filled with photos and letters from an ex-boyfriend. He and I spent my 29th and 30th years together. I was quite smitten with him and from what I was reading in the many letters we exchanged back and forth, I saw that he was pretty smitten with me, too.
I was a touring stand-up comedian during our relationship, traveling for months at a time. Because of my grueling schedule, we spent long periods away from one another and had to find creative ways to keep in touch. This was in the early '90s, before texting or emails were around. In fact, cell phones were still a luxury and cell phone minutes were priced at a premium. So to save money while doing our best to keep our relationship alive, we did most of our communicating by fax. And we faxed A LOT. Sometimes three to five times a day. Most were innocent, "How are you? I'm fine." kinds of faxes. Others were written in a secret code we developed so no one could decipher our private words to one another. We drew pictures. We made diagrams. We traced our hands to put on each other's hearts. And we wrote until our fingers were numb. Hundreds of pages were transmitted over telephone lines. Thousands of sentiments were shared. I cherished these notes. I kept every correspondence, photograph, flower petal and love note we exchanged during our almost two-year relationship.
And here I was, almost 20 years later, on the floor of a musty basement thumbing through a water-stained box, digesting every word he wrote to me as if it was the first time I was reading it. Stacked by date, the correspondence chronicled our relationship from Day one through to the end. Starting with a greeting card and ending with a diary entry, I stepped out of my own life and stepped into a love story between a young man and a young woman who tried their best to keep their relationship alive while the girl traveled the world. Once I started reading, I couldn't put the letters down. I read for two hours.
The boy wrote:
"It is with great anticipation that my ears perk up when the ringer on our fax machine goes off. As you shall see, the fax machine is almost within arm's length of where I sit, so I hear it every time it rings, and I just have to smile."
The girl responded:
"I always look forward to finding my message light on and a fax from you in my box. Still miss you."
The boy wrote:
"I think about you all the time. It's been barely a week since I saw you last, but it seems more like a month."
As the pages turned, the boy and the girl met up in the Cayman Islands, Florida and Montreal. Love blossomed. Hearts bloomed. But as the relationship progressed and time apart started wearing away at the sheen of new love, the tone of the letters changed.
The girl wrote:
"I tried calling you a couple of times, but the machine came on. I didn't want to leave a message because I didn't want you to think you had to call back."
The boy wrote:
"Don't be dismayed if I don't always return your phone calls. Sometimes I get home too late, and I don't want to wake you."
The girl wrote:
"You're not seeing someone else... are you?"
The boy wrote:
"You have to trust me. I'm not going to start seeing other people until we're able to discuss this in person."
The girl wrote:
"Don't bother picking me up at the airport. I have a ride."
Eventually, the girl ends up back in Michigan where the boy -- not able to deal with the constant absences and insecurities of the girl -- breaks up with her, leaving the girl curled in a ball on her kitchen floor, being rocked by her mother as her hair becomes soaked with tears.
As I read the early words written by the boy, I though, This guy was PERFECT. He was eloquent and funny, kind and loving. Why didn't the girl ditch her comedy career and stay at home to make a life with this boy? Why would she doubt his obvious love for her? Why didn't she trust the words he wrote to her? Why did she let him slip out of her life? I was perplexed as to why anyone would pass up such an obviously loving relationship in favor of a rocky road in the entertainment business. And that thought stayed with me for days, and months afterward. I just couldn't reconcile the way this story ended and knew I had to do something about it.
Three months after I read those letters, my heart ordered me to get in touch with him to try to right history a little bit. I debated whether or not this was a good idea. With nearly a quarter century between the time these letters were written and the present, he had married, I had married, he had two children, I had five dogs. Our lives were set. Would contacting him be inappropriate? Was I crossing a line? Was I out of my mind for even thinking my words would in any way matter to him after all these years? What if his wife saw the email? How would I feel if an ex-girlfriend reached out to my husband to right her own wrongs? Would I be hurt? I looked at it from every angle, but something deep inside me kept telling me that I had to contact him. My intention wasn't to disrupt our lives or try to rekindle the relationship; I simply wanted to tell him what he had meant to me then. To tell him how much I appreciated him and what a stellar human being he was. I needed to tell him that I messed up.
So I sat down and wrote an email, much like I did years before when penning a fax to my love so far away. I told him he was one of the good ones and that I was happy he was a memory in my life.
Days ticked by as I impatiently waited for a response. Nothing came. I was certain I had somehow offended him. After all, had the tables been turned and had I received an email from him, I would have written him back immediately. Ignoring Don Miguel Ruiz's Third Agreement to "Never Make Assumptions," I flogged myself for, once again, messing up. At once, I was transported back to a hotel room in the Cayman Islands, staring at the light on my phone, waiting for it to start blinking, signaling the receipt of a fax at the front desk.The light wasn't blinking. The heart never forgets. I had sunk to a new low. It took everything I had to try to forgive myself for reaching out to a past I should have left alone.
It was five days before Christmas. Just settling in to an episode of "Grey's Anatomy," my phone dinged, signaling the receipt of an email. I glanced down nonchalantly and there it was in my inbox. In bold black letters, I saw his name. I was finally able to exhale the breath I had taken weeks before when I hit that send button. He wrote back. He didn't hate me, after all.
My eyes darted through his email, line-by-line. In it, he thanked me for my words, shared a few of his own, told me what he had been up to in his life, asked me what I'd been up to in mine and ended his email by saying we'd speak again. I felt happy and light and satisfied that a circle had finally closed. That I was able to seal this chapter of my life with kindness and love. I think he felt the same way. I meant to send a thank you in response, but life got in the way. And once again, days turned into months and it was nearly a year later that I saw his name on a Facebook post written by his sister. This time, my heart stopped completely.
"Michigan men killed in Minnesota plane crash were on hunting trip."
As I quickly scanned the post, I saw notes of condolence from friends to his sister. Barely able to breathe, I reluctantly clicked on the link to the headline, saying to myself, No, no, no... please tell me no. The first paragraph was like a quick jab to my chest. He, his father and another man were killed when their plane crashed into a field the night before. He was gone.
"Oh my God." Tears poured from my eyes as I pounded my bed, unable to come to grips with what I was reading. How could this happen? How could it be? He had a wife and two small children. He had a perfect life. How could God take a person like this away?
Selfishly, I realized I would never be able to speak with him again. That last email from him would be our last correspondence. A final letter to add to the pile and put back in the box. Why didn't I respond to his email? Why didn't I say thank you? Why didn't I acknowledge the things he said to me? Then I remembered his final words:
"Please don't have regrets. It's best to just remember all the good times. Although it sure would be nice, no one has a "crystal ball," as you put it, so it is impossible to know how things will turn out. We just have to make what we think is the best decision and move forward."
Sadly, we now know how things turned out. My heart breaks for his wife and children. For his mother who lost not only a son, but a husband as well. And for his sister who I loved dearly. I'm thankful, though, that I listened to my heart and that I reached out to him when I felt that overwhelming urge to do so.
Don't hesitate in telling those in your life what they mean to you. If there's someone in your life you haven't spoken to in awhile, reach out. If you had words with a friend that you never got around to apologizing for, extend your olive branch. Finish unfinished business. Don't let things fester. A clean heart is a clean soul. And most important, don't ever let the words "I love you," remain on your tongue. Because you never know if it will be your last chance to share them.