Welcome back. Wrapping up Part Six I alluded to a bit of a heartbreak awaiting me on the horizon. In Part Seven we traverse through a land of sorrow on the road ahead to my origins.
During the rough years of my late teens, I befriended several young people who, like me, were just kids seeking their independence from all forms of authority. A few months after my eighteenth birthday I attended a house party at the home of a friend’s friend whom I had only recently met. Another guest there was a girl named Tonia and we struck up a conversation in the first floor living room of this split-level house. Everyone else was congregating and doing what kids do at these parties in the lower level family room. My time spent talking with Tonia that night can best be described as otherworldly. For the first time in my post adolescent life, I was sharing myself openly with absolutely no fear whatsoever of being judged. She seemed genuinely interested in spending time with me. What felt like no more than an hour was in reality several. It was after midnight before the thought of bringing this exchange to a close crossed either of our minds. Tonia might well have been like that with most people she met – I don’t know. All I know is that those few hours alone with her while over a dozen of our peers were elsewhere in the house, held me in a state of feeling simply accepted. She welcomed me into her space. It was this lacking hitherto that contributed to me becoming so rebellious.
From that point forward I made deliberate effort to hang out with her more frequently. On multiple occasions sometimes we would just sit out in her backyard at night and stare at the stars together. We would talk about anything and everything. Things that made us laugh and things that made us cry. If this what once-in-a-lifetime friendship is all about, I’m down with it! I tenaciously believe that part of why I felt so comfortable with her is that she too was adopted. We did not talk about it much but we both appreciated that we had this in common.
At one point, I do not recall exactly when or where, I tried to kiss her, and she backed away. Yes, it was awkward. Yes, it had a slight impact on our friendship for a little while. We lost touch for a bit but soon reconnected. I had to accept that what I meant to her was perhaps not what I might have wished but in no way would my ego be an obstacle for us to continue being good friends. What I valued from our friendship was worth much more than any desire I had to introduce romance into the picture. I did carry with me the hope that her reaction to my kiss was merely one of timing and that “no” merely meant “not then”. One thing is for certain; for how she made me feel about myself, I was willing to make all necessary concessions to keep her in my life. When a larger group of friends would meet up she would sometimes have another guy in tow whom she was dating but I was not bothered. If she was happy, that’s all that mattered to me. I loved her and my love required nothing in return. And I know she loved me but not in the same way. The depth of my feelings towards Tonia were never fully revealed to anyone; her friends or mine, her family or mine.
As time went by, my 21st birthday was just over the horizon and my parents offered to throw a party complete with a half keg of the beer of my choice. I cannot recall what beer I chose. As soon as we had plans roughed out, I called friends to invite them. Among the first was, of course, Tonia. In a rather still and monotone voice, she asked me to come over – she had some news for me. She lived a half mile away which was about a ten-minute walk. I arrived to a very small gathering of friends and family. She was sharing with those who were there that she had been diagnosed with leukemia. My heart sank in unison with every heart in her house that day. This was in March of 1988 and she had turned twenty-two a couple months earlier. The gravity of this, while powerful, left me not with a feeling of ‘My God, I am going to lose her’, but rather, ‘We have a long road ahead to help her get through this.’ There was no way on God’s earth that for even for one second was I going to entertain the thought that she was not going to get through this. I was NOT going to let her be taken.
The summer months of 1988 included frequent trips to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for me to visit her – and I visited every opportunity I had. Leukemia is marked by many things, one of which is an extraordinarily high white blood cell count. The only way to confirm the presence of leukemia is through a bone marrow biopsy. Once treatments such as chemotherapy begin, further biopsies are needed to monitor progress. Put bluntly, bone marrow biopsies are painful. Life was hell for her – and it was hell for me seeing her suffer both physically and emotionally. During one visit when I was next to her bed, she looked at me through tears and said. “Matt, I’m so scared.”. What I wanted was to be able to trade places with her. But if not that then at least I could be her rock of faith, her beacon of encouragement. It began to feel at times as if here too, failure was not just an option: it was my only option.
Later that year she went into remission and could once again begin to lead a somewhat normal life. True to her spirit, she did not hold back. Raised in a family active in the performing arts, she was quite comfortable in the lime light. She was full of life in a way I could only envy. I often wished some of that would rub off on me. Between jumping back into the night club scene and competing in fashion shows, she was going to show leukemia who was in charge.
Eventually, remission would retreat and back into the hospital it was to be. This time Pennsylvania Hospital, also in Philadelphia. Here her moments of lucidity were growing less frequent and my heart and soul were dying inside me. Once she fell into a coma, I was losing any sense of goodness in the world. One evening while I was alone with her in her hospital room, I took her hand and leaned over to say these words:
“Tonia, I believe you can hear me although you cannot respond. I want to tell you something I wish I had had the courage to tell you long before now. I love you more than I can say…. more than I thought I was ever capable of loving anyone. I know your feelings for me are not the same and that’s OK. I don’t need them to be.
“You are the most giving and generous person I know. Right now, I need to ask you to stop thinking of others and focus on you. All your thoughts need to be directed towards winning this battle.”
I would never see her awake again. The following weekend I was at my aunt and uncles’ place about ten minutes from Bethany Beach in Delaware. It was my happy place in those days. On the morning of Sunday, May 20, 1989 the phone rang, and my aunt answered – only one tethered phone per abode in those days. It was my mom calling for me. I put the phone to my ear to learn that Tonia had passed away. I was completely numb. Every biorhythm in my body came to a complete halt. I put the phone down and only these words passed through my lips in a soft cracked whisper: “I am going to sit on the beach for a while.” I took no chairs, towels, or blankets. No beach paraphernalia of any kind. I simply picked up my car keys and drove away.
I sat on the beach watching waves crash on the shore with my arms bent behind me supporting my torso at an angle similar to halfway up in a sit-up with nothing but my clothes between me and the sand. With all my senses, I could see, hear, feel, smell and taste the sensation of Tonia sitting right there next to me just like those nights in her backyard beneath the stars. This time there was no laughter. There was no dialogue. Nor were there any tears – at first. Just the fullness of her presence in every way. My worst nightmare was coming true. I would have to continue on without the one person who was just getting to know me when I was heading for my worst and remained my friend throughout my battles. The one person who was teaching me to leave the past in the past. The one person who was teaching me to forgive myself and how to love myself. This is why I loved her. I suddenly felt insufficient in the words I spoke to her the last time I visited her. I told her I loved her (and I will never know her reaction), but she left this world without hearing why. For the first time since I heard the news of her death that morning, I wept. Without her I was completely lost. As I write this, the 30th anniversary of losing Tonia was less than a month ago. Worthiness of love and belonging remains elusive to me today. I am sometimes pained to think that I am letting her down.
Later that evening I returned home from the beach in Delaware and went straight to her house where there were cars up and down the street and people everywhere. Her father came out on the porch and when he saw me he put his arms around me and we cried together for a while. Once we regained composure, he asked if I would be a pallbearer. I said yes without hesitation. My preferred role in all this would’ve been taking her place, but a pallbearer I would be.
During the viewing, funeral and interment I was inconsolable. I truly could not keep myself together. My sobbing was completely out of my control. For the entire day I saw the world through eyes blurred by tears. Even later that evening when friends and family adjourned to one of our favorite hangouts to celebrate her life, I still could not go twenty minutes without an upsurge of tears. The pain was so unbearable it left an indelible mark on my willingness – dare I say ability – to ever get that close to anyone ever again.
Ad nauseam I have heard, in every way possible, the virtues and pay-offs of putting yourself out there for all the glory a truly loving relationship has to offer, and I don’t doubt it’s true. I know what it feels like to have it – and I know what it feels like to have it ripped away from you. I am also sure that those who win at love far outnumber those who lose. No one need ever pontificate to me on this subject. The loss of Tonia drove my adversity to emotional risk through the roof. At the age of twenty-two having lost the first person who truly showed me how worthy I was of peer acceptance and self-forgiveness was so painful that I vowed that in no way whatsoever would I every expose myself to any possibility of experiencing anything like that ever again. I am aware of all I am forgoing – I’ve experienced it firsthand. For me, no price was, or is, too high to pay to guarantee I would never ever live through anything like that ever again.
While this is not the only reason for my disinclination to emotional intimacy, it is far and away the leading reason. I won’t be sharing these stories in detail but in future parts of this series observing the impact of this experience will be unavoidable.
In Part Eight, a whole new life begins with a heavy and guarded heart along with a commitment to become the person Tonia had the faith in me to become that surpassed my own faith. It’s been a labyrinth to say the least.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for being by my side for this part of the journey to my origins. It means more to me than you will ever know.
See you in Part Eight.