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Live And Let (Old Behavior) Die

Live And Let (Old Behavior) Die
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Photo: Courtesy of Clapham Picturehouse

BY LORRAINE DUFFY MERKL

Sometimes, someone else’s death can force us to, not just evaluate, but change our own lives.

This is the theme of a movie and book that have both just crossed my path and reminded me of my own brush with the passing of a former love.

The film is called 45 Years. It’s an indy that was in a few art houses a while back, but is now out on DVD.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play “Kate and Geoff Mercer,” who are on the cusp of their 45th wedding anniversary, when Geoff receives a letter telling him that, after five decades, the body of his long-ago lover, Katya, was discovered in a melting glacier. Kate sees how the news affects him, and begins “to smell Katya’s perfume” in every room. She wonders if for all these years she’s been a substitute for this other woman and questions whether her marriage has been a sham.

The book is “I Almost Forgot About You,” Terry McMillan’s latest novel, whose main character Georgia Young, a successful Francisco Bay area optometrist, hears that a former boyfriend has died.

She’s inspired to reach out to a handful of exes to see what became of them, but it turns into a journey of self-discovery and second chances.

My experience was not that kind of game changer, but it was beneficial just the same.

I joined Facebook in 2009 and started to friend and be friended by people from grammar and high school, as well as summer camp. After decades of distance, I welcomed them back into my life – finally having let go of childhood grudges or cares about whom sat at what lunch table. The exception was my childhood friend-cum-high school/college boyfriend, Tom.

We’d been friends since I was in 7th grade and he was in 8th. We started dating when I was in 11th grade, until I ended it in the middle of senior year in college.

As my academic life was winding down, I was very excited to begin my professional one. Because my relationship with Tom could only be described as rollercoaster, I didn’t want to bring that baggage with me into adult life. I wanted a clean break, but he had other ideas. He let me go for several months, then phoned to congratulate me on my graduation. Our called ended with his salutation: “We’ll keep in touch.” I responded, “Yeah, sure,” knowing that I would not.

The following Christmas he sent me a card. I did not return the gesture and never heard from him again, until an awkward meeting seven years later in a Hallmark, which he initiated. I was polite and listened to him update me on his life, yet so anxious to get away from him, that I scurried off without offering my own news, the biggest being that I was engaged.

Two years into my Facebook membership, feeling happy that I reconnected with pals from my youth, I was ready to accept Tom back into the fold. I could not find him on the site, or on the internet in general. I put it out there on FB, with a rather whimsical, “Hey you guys, what’s up with Tom?” but no one answered me.

As persistence is my middle name, I started private messaging people and eventually someone reached out to break it to me that Tom had passed away a few years prior.

For a couple of days I embarrassed myself by carrying on like a grieving widow and even wrote a tribute for Facebook, but thought better of hitting the “post” button. I rather quickly (thank goodness) came to my senses and realized that although I was sorry he had been taken by cancer so young, I didn’t know him anymore and had no right to act as though I did. Also, it was now old news for people who had already mourned the loss of their friend; I did not want to continue stirring up their pain.

The situation did not make me question my marriage as in 45 Years or go searching for a new life as in “I Almost Forgot About You.” It did make me acknowledge how I always dealt with people; like Heidi Klum used to say on Project Runway: “You’re either in or your out.”

There’s actually a term for this called Black & White Thinking. I did some research and found out in a nutshell: for a healthy emotional life we need shades of gray.

It was a hard habit to break, cultivated over decades, but I didn’t want to spend the second half of my life being as inflexible and unforgiving as I had spent the first part.

I can’t say that I’ve mastered the art, but when I practice what I now preach, I experience a calm I never enjoyed as a younger woman.

Tom was not only a little older than me, but always somewhat more mature. I wish he’d lived to see that I finally caught up.

 

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Lorraine Duffy Merkl
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels BACK TO WORK SHE GOES and FAT CHICK, for which a movie version is in the works.