For days now, I’ve been haunted by an unexpected image from the past — a moment, a night, an argument, a year — and I’ve come looking for it. I really don’t know why.
This was the place, but it was a time long ago. I’m on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham. We sat in my old red Volkswagen in this parking lot and talked about our relationship — our past and whether we had a future.
She was my first serious girlfriend. We dated for three years while we were in college, mostly in Tuscaloosa when we were both students at the University of Alabama. The first year and a half were very happy. We got engaged and happily planned a future together, but something happened.
I realized she wasn’t the right woman for me and this made her very confused. I don’t blame her, because I didn’t make much sense. As I pulled away from her, she tried harder and harder to pull me closer.
By the time we sat in my car that night, we were both miserable.
I woke up a few mornings ago with this night on my mind. I don’t know whether I dreamed about it or if something else dredged it up. I just know that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind for days. Something in this memory points me to something that still matters. But what?
As I sit here in this very same parking lot many years later, I realize what I want to ask my younger self. It’s a question I’ve asked before but I’ve also avoided.
Why didn’t you just let her go?
I knew by that night — and even before that night — that we shouldn’t have a future together. I was very unhappy. She was very unhappy. But every time we neared the point of splitting, I wouldn’t let it happen. I did the same thing that night.
I had reasons to stay with her. Well, didn’t I? I guess I did, but I can’t remember now what they might have been.
As I sit here, I know the reason, but I haven’t quite wanted to acknowledge it. I was selfishly holding onto her because I was afraid of what the future would be without her. I didn’t want her. I was certain of that by this night. But without knowing what the future held — and without knowing who else might love me — well, what if this was the best it would get for me?
I held onto something that had become terrible because I was terrified about what came next.
What if no one else loved me?
What if I ended up alone if I let her go?
What if this horrible unhappiness for both of us became even more unhappy for me — all alone?
As I look at that night and at similar things I’ve done since then, I realize I’ve let fear prevent me from letting go of things which no longer made me happy. I realize that in doing so, I’ve delayed my own happiness and I’ve also hurt a few others by holding onto them and giving them false hope.
My fear made me hold onto this woman that night long ago when I should have let her go. My fear of the unknown — and of being alone — also caused me to hold onto another woman years later as a “backup plan” when I knew she was wrong for me.
It was selfish. It was foolish. It was motivated by fear. I was wrong.
But as I sit here on a cold November night — it was cold that night, too — I suddenly realize that maybe I know why I’m here. Maybe I know why I keep thinking about this lately.
Maybe I’m finally ready to let this night — and let that way of living and thinking — go completely, because I’m no longer holding onto things which are wrong for me.
Here’s the thing. Maybe I can finally come back here and look at this so clearly because I’ve finally put that way of thinking behind me. I feel a sudden sense of understanding, but I don’t know how to explain it.
I was afraid of letting that woman go because I was afraid she would move on and not really care. I was afraid no one else would love me. I was afraid of so many things. So I held on.
I recently had to let go of something — someone — who I wanted very much. With her, it wasn’t that I didn’t love her anymore. It wasn’t that I had decided she was wrong for me. It was because she wanted to sit on a fence and not make a choice. If I had still been living in that old frame of mind, I would have let the stalemate continue forever.
I was terrified of letting her go, but I did it anyway.
You know that horrible cliche about letting something go and seeing whether it returns? And if it doesn’t return, it was never really yours anyway? Yeah. That one. It’s trite, but there’s a lot of truth in it.
On that night years ago in this parking lot, I couldn’t let go of someone I no longer loved, much less someone I might have actually loved. I was too afraid. I was too immature. I was too selfish.
Maybe I’m here to realize I’m not that terrified young college student anymore. Maybe I’m finally ready to acknowledge that I can live with the fear — the uncertainty, the darkness, the loneliness — of letting go of one thing in order to make way for something more healthy.
I don’t know what my future holds. Maybe the love I released will return to me. Maybe. It seems terribly unlikely. (Of course I still love her, but my love isn’t enough.) Or maybe there’s someone else who will take her place. I just can’t know.
But as I look back to that night long ago, I know I’m not the scared kid I was. I know I’m not going to hold onto something that doesn’t work. I know I’m going to insist on being treated with love and respect — and I know I’m going to give the same to someone else when she deserves it.
I don’t resent my past self. I’m not angry with him for his poor decisions. I’m grateful for all the pain he endured to bring me to this day — when I know the only reason to hold onto a woman is if she’s going to hold onto me in the same way.
So maybe I can finally leave this place behind for good.