The things that come back to you

It was a funny night last night. Rigby was unwell and throwing up, it stormed for a while outside, and later when I switched off the light I couldn’t get to sleep for ages.

After a month or two of sleeping very well, the last few nights have been ordinary. Last night I felt unsettled and restless. I felt it in my stomach as if there was something unwelcome I should be aware of. It teased at me. Naturally, it leads one into reflection.

What thoughts it leads too is an endlessly fascinating subject to me. How does one thing get linked to another? Why does a general sense or feeling call up something seemingly totally unrelated? Is it random? Or is there some true sense to it?

Life has random elements, but I’m generally inclined there is some meaning to it, even if obscure. In this case, I suspect it’s not the details of the thing that matter, it’s the feeling they engender. What is recalled is not the facts, but the emotion. Today’s emotion resonates with an emotion in the past, and what follows are the thoughts associated with it. So I reckon.

What I remembered was a seminal moment in my life many years ago.

I’d been in love with Berni and for about 3 years we’d been on and off. She had wonderful qualities, a mighty heart, a generous spirit – but she also struggled often. A shocking episode abroad with a man had left her with trust issues, and poor self-esteem. At its best, our relationship was vibrant and happy. She had a great sense of humour and took great pride in giving me a rollicking hard time. I thought we would marry, and in fact, I recall one day sitting down with her to map it out. But then, for seemingly no reason it would become hard. It was the cycle of the moon, every four or five weeks she would plunge into despair and I would hang on for dear life. It was very hard and I used a lot of my energy trying to reassure her and make her feel better about herself and about me. That makes me sound noble, but on reflection, I doubt I was as good as that. At times I was exasperated, even angry, sometimes I felt despair. I loved her though and though we must have broken up ten times over the years we made up nine of them.

This story is about the last time when we failed to. I remember it was like yesterday. It makes me so sad and the thought recurs to me all the time – what if things were different? What if I’d done this instead of that? We might have married, who knows, but more importantly she might be alive today.

I always felt as if I was working on Berni. Over time I felt as if her default mood had improved to the extent that she could hope to be properly happy. I remember the day she told me she trusted me. That was such a big moment. I felt as if most of the hard work had been done and we were happier than we’d ever been.

But then I heard about a skiing trip she was going on the next weekend. I had no problem with that except that she hadn’t told me – I heard it from someone else. I felt a little put out and wondered if I was justified. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it but it sat in my stomach like an undigested meal. In hindsight, I can see it was another attempt by her to assert her independence, but I don’t know if I recognised that then.

I didn’t do anything at first, but coinciding with this she had begun to withdraw again. I was so sick of it, especially now when I felt as if we might be past it. I understood – she couldn’t be hurt if she didn’t get involved, but I was a part of that and she – she had to get beyond it if she ever hoped to be happy.

It was a Wednesday night in the middle of winter that I got in the car to drive to her place. I wasn’t sure what I was doing or if I was right. I wanted to talk to her about what was going on but feared that might be the worst thing to do. I was unsure, but the whole thing was taken out of my hands.

I parked outside her home and sat there for 5-10 minutes just debating the pros and cons. 50/50 I would just drive away. Instead, I got out of the car and started walking up a street. I got to the end and turned and was halfway back when a car drove up the street and stopped beside me. Two men got out. What are you doing? They asked. I was salty even back then and said who wants to know. They flipped their police badges at me and said they had someone report a suspicious character sitting in his car and come to investigate. They asked to see my ID and what I was doing there. I explained my girlfriend lived just there and that we’d had an argument. Fine, they said, get in the car – we need to check the story with her.

That’s the last thing in the world I wanted but there’s no arguing with a couple of cops. I got in the car, we drove down the street, and we knocked on the door. “Do you know this man?” they asked when she opened the door. She confirmed she did. The first words out of her mouth after they had gone was to ask – quite reasonably – “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

That pissed me off. I’d done nothing wrong and I’d just been sitting in the back of a cop car. I felt tainted. We argued, to and fro, and I stormed out, that’s it, all over.

And it was. We saw each other occasionally after, and when I cooled down I knew I still loved her – but every time it looked like we might reunite something would happen.

This changed me. I was distraught. I’d been an exuberant personality beforehand, now I became guarded. I had suffered so deeply that I knew I couldn’t face that again so I made myself strong by building a wall. It’s crumbled a bit in recent years, but the remnants remain.

By itself, this is a sad story but there’s a tragic kicker.

We went our separate ways and didn’t see each other. My life went on, I had other flings without giving myself to anyone, I travelled and lived. I thought of her sometimes hoping that she had found the happiness that had so eluded her. I loved her still, loved her soul, she was someone I had cherished. I wanted her to be good.

One day I’m speaking to a friend on the phone and he asks out of the blue, whatever happened to Berni? I was sitting at my desk and on impulse typed her name into google. To my great surprise, a result came up – a funeral notice.

I was shocked. Over the next week, I did all I could to discover what had happened. Eventually, I got onto someone connected to the cemetery. He told me much as I had suspected – that she had taken her own life.

I think something broke in me then. I felt so miserably sad for her. Such a tragic life. And I thought – if only it had been different. If only we hadn’t broken up. If only the nosy parker hadn’t dobbed me and the police take me to her door. If only I’d been more reasonable. If only I’d gone to her the next day and told I was sorry. There were hundreds, thousands of if onlys. I felt responsible, at least in part.

I visited her grave after that. I had too. I drove to the country and spent the night in the town she grew up in and stood by her grave. I’ve never forgotten her. Ever since I’ve felt as if I should make my life worthy of her too – as if I had to live for her as well as me. It’s one of the things that has made me endure and be brave – I could fail for myself, but I couldn’t allow myself to fail for her.

It’s an awful story and a tragic life. It was in me last night. Writing it today I feel it deep. I wish I hadn’t started now – the sadness abides. It’s a true thing though and perhaps more than anything else this has made me into the man I am today. I wonder if that’s why it was in my mind last night – and what it means.

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