I didn’t believe Mark when he told me he was through waiting for Ruth, but he believed it enough to write a song about it.
He sent me a copy of the demo seven years ago. It was a good start for what could have been a popular country song, because it was filled with the angst of saying goodbye to someone who had caused grief and confusion. It expressed feelings that everyone has experienced at some point.
The verses were full of anger and hurt. He was putting his love for Ruth in a hole and burying it. He was done with her “silly games” and her “selfish needs.” And the chorus ended with, “You’re not gonna break my heart; I’m sayin’ goodbye.”
Mark and Ruth went their separate ways. Each one of them made decisions based on the assumption that things were over for good. Each had his or her own reasons. To protect each of them, I won’t say more than that here.
Mark lives a thousand miles away now, but I had dinner with him this week when he came to town. It turns out I was right not to believe his wounded heart when he swore he was finished with Ruth.
Listening to Mark talk about his feelings — which he tries to repress every day in his normal life — was gut-wrenching for me. I felt awful for the two of them and his story resonated with me for personal reasons. But I’ll talk about them first — or at least as much as I can say without saying too much.
I wanted Mark and Ruth to end up together 10 years ago. That’s what he wanted, too, but he never actually asked her to marry him. Ruth had been very critical of some of the ways in which Mark had managed his life. He had himself deeply in debt and he was clueless about how to fix things.
Ruth cared deeply about him but wanted someone who ticked off more of the mental boxes she had in her mind. She wanted someone with more prestige, more money and more prospects. She wasn’t greedy, but she was practical and thought those things would matter.
Mark’s life was a mess — which he knew — and it would take him awhile to turn things around. Ruth wanted someone more impressive and more successful. She wasn’t eager to commit to Mark. And Mark was scared to throw himself into an all-out pursuit of a woman who he felt certain would eventually reject him as not good enough.
Today, they’re both 10 years older and wiser. Each regrets decisions they’ve made. Both of them are more clear about their values. He’s finally the success she wanted him to be, and she finally believes that shouldn’t have mattered so much to her anyway.
But because of decisions they’ve both made — decisions both of them regret — they can’t be together today.
Much of my own experience is very different from Mark’s story, but there are enough similarities to make me a little sick at my stomach.
I fell in love with someone and had to leave her behind, too. It’s complicated to explain without saying more than I should. But the part I identify with is the struggle to bury love and demand that my heart to be done with someone.
If someone has hurt you and rejected you — directly or indirectly or passively or in whatever way — it’s a blow to your pride and it leaves a deep and lasting sting. When you can’t take any more of the hurt, you have to walk away — just for the sake of self-preservation — and it usually comes with the self-deception that the hurt is so great that you can quit loving the person.
But if you really love someone — if you have the rare sort of connection which is worth fighting for — the self-deception can’t last for long.
Mark has gone back to his life a thousand miles away from here. He goes back to a world where nobody knows that Ruth exists. He can’t talk about her. He can’t talk about his feelings. But for one night this week, he was able to talk openly with someone who knew him well enough to know how much he still loves her.
As he flew back home, I was left thinking about how little his angry desire to escape loving Ruth did for him. And I found myself wondering how things might have been different if he had been willing to say — back then — “Look, I want you and I’m willing to do whatever I have to do for you to accept me. Will you marry me?”
Things still might not have worked out for them. I think they would have, but I could be wrong.
And as I mourn for what could have been a happier life for both of them, I’m left feeling remorse for myself. Did I do all I could have done with the woman I loved — and love? Would anything have been different if I hadn’t walked away to preserve my own sanity?
I can’t answer that question. Nobody can. But I do know that when I’ve told myself that I can bury love and force myself to leave it behind, I’ve been lying to myself — just as much as Mark was when he wrote that song.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Real love doesn’t die. But real love that won’t die can be a different sort of heartbreak for those whose decisions leave them a thousand miles apart.