The question is: What remains? Of an event that was of such prime importance, what endures in our life?
My years of loyal practice did not let me retain my proficiency in playing a guitar or table tennis. I had lost the skill, though fragments of the know-how might have lingered. I asked myself: What had remained?
In table tennis, the joy of learning from masters and playing against wizards had faded, but I had learned the heady thrill of competing and, more often than not, coping with the pain of losing. Playing in a band taught me, in a way I could not have imagined, the real meaning of coordination. Even more, my ears learned the difference, even for a folk song or movie tune, the difference between good music and really good music.
Building a relationship with another person, or even living with him or her, is a much more important affair. When it ends, do we retain anything of value?
Recently I attended the graduation ceremony of a young person whose parents I have known for years. The parents, Michael and Abigail. divorced some years back, and Abigail attended with her current husband and Michael came with his new girlfriend. As we sat together after the ceremony, unaccountably I felt a great sadness seeing Abigail and Michael talking to each other, amicably but distantly, like polite neighbors. I remembered the time when they started seeing each other and dreamed of living together and the many years they lived together and had children. Is this all that remains? Courtesy and quiet conversation?
I spoke to Michael and Abigail later, independently.
Michael isn’t a loquacious person. Eventually he volunteered, “I felt angry and humiliated when she left me. It was no comfort that she wasn’t leaving me for another person. It made it clearer, in fact, that she would have no part of me. But you can’t be angry all the time. It came to me that she had struggled -- and, in fact, had had problems. I was a large part of the problem.
“So, four years down the line, when she told me that she was to marry someone, I sincerely wished her well. I had briefly met the person, and he seemed a decent person. I wanted them to find the happiness that had eluded us.”
I am more comfortable talking with Abigail, and she was more outspoken.
“Michael was a special person for me, for a long number of years. I had a difficult time with him at the end, but he still remains special for me.”
She looked at her present husband and added, “I do not regret my decision to leave the marriage. It was the right thing to do. I was not happy, and there was no way I could be happy. No matter. Michael will always be a very special person for me.”
I remembered my discussion, some years earlier, with a couple both of whom are well-known practicing psychologists. They had each divorced their spouses after a failed marriage and met and married years later.
“We did not know better then. Our marriages had seemed burdensome, and we decided to end them. Our spouses were decent people, but our relationship had seemed irrecoverable and hopeless. That’s the way the cookie crumbled.
“Now, having counselled scores of couples and seen their problems, we feel perhaps those relationships weren’t so ill-fated after all. Probably those marriages could have been saved. One is never sure, but it is possible. We just didn’t know better.”
Many leave one another in acrimony, at least distaste. Fortunate – but sadly few -- are those whose relations end on a pleasant note and they can go their way with something to treasure.
We cannot all play guitar or good table tennis all our life, but we can treasure what we have loved and learned.