“My name is Shari, but it’s pronounced Sherry,” she said over coffee.
“Really?” I said. “I hope you’ll forgive me if I slip up occasionally and call you Shari. My former father-in-law’s eighth wife, and still a good friend of mine, is named ‘Shari’ and pronounced ‘Shari’.”
“Are you serious?! Eight wives?” she said.
And so it begins. Again. I am single. Again. We are on a first date, making small talk, and beginning to explore the mystery of each other that can never be known. I am 57, a grandfather with three daughters and a lifetime of highs and lows, hits and misses, curves and straightaways, loves and love’s lost. I have too many stories to tell, like the one about spilled coffee grinds.
But that story will have to wait, for now it’s introductions and getting the phonetics of one’s name right, and for noting those all-important yellow flags, that could become red flags, that ensure there will not be a second date.
Hmmm, I think. She is wearing sensible shoes. Does that mean she is in denial of her sexuality and will want to fall asleep every night in front of the TV? That might not work for me.
Hmmm, she thinks. He didn’t ask once about my children, but just keeps talking about himself. Does that mean he is another self absorbed narcissist in whose shadow I will become invisible? That won’t work for me.
And so it goes.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh, was a woman who knew something about living in the shadows. In the 1930’s, her husband was perhaps the most well-known person in the world ~ truly one of the first media superstars. But in time Ms. Morrow Lindbergh found her own voice, as a feminist and author, and upon her famous husband’s death had this to say of him: “Only when a tree has fallen can you take a measure of it. It is the same with a man.”
Indeed we are like trees. Our roots go deep and are hidden. Our branches spread wide to the heavens and sway and grow, never the same today as they were yesterday. Who can perceive the whole of us? Every leaf is a story that makes us who we are.
My date does not want to hear all my stories. She has her own to tell, and they are all important. When was the last time she cried, and why? That leaf is found there. What makes her heart truly come alive? That leaf would be found over here. What happened in the marriage? Why didn’t it last? That root is buried and must be uncovered very carefully. Do you believe in God? Climb out to the furthest, highest reaches of my limbs, if you dare, where tender young leaves open to the sun and we will learn together. One can spend a lifetime exploring and still never know it all ~ “to take the full measure of it” ~ as the wise woman said.
What then of coffee grinds?
In 1992, my older brother, a gay man, was given a double death sentence: AIDS and Hepatitis C. In those days there were no miracle cures, and we all knew it. I visited John in the hospital one morning, only to find that during the night, in his fevered throes, he had pulled out his IV. Dried blood was spattered across the walls, floor, and curtains. It looked just like spilled coffee grinds ~ black and crumbly. To this day, when I see them, I think of that moment.
I called for the nurse. “Please clean this up before my mother comes.” 48 hours later my brother was dead. He was just 39 years old.
That story ~ that leaf ~ is a complicated one. I was an evangelical Christian in those days, with strong beliefs about heaven and hell. Where would my brother spend eternity? Had I done enough to let him know I loved him? What did I really believe about homosexuality? Independent of what I was being taught by my Christian imams, what was my true, authentic self telling me? Where was my heart in this story?
I have made my peace with these questions, and I have chosen a path of bliss that is not what my teachers wanted, but that is truly my own. I have learned it is far better to know and love one’s truth, one’s authentic self, and to let that person flower with ebullience and impunity, than it is to live a lie that pleases others. Make no apologies for what some might call eccentric or wrong. Make no apologies for who you are, for your eating, for your breathing. Make no apologies for what is right in your own soul, for everything about you is just as it should be.
As for my tree, I am still standing, and I hope, still growing. It will take many more dates with Shari, or Sherry, to explore all her roots, leaves, and branches, and she mine. It will take time, and curiosity, and love. One day my tree will fall, onto, and eventually into, the ground, and those who care to can take a full measure of me. But if you have read this far, fellow explorer, then you have already shown me love, for you have made the effort to see coffee grinds the same way I see them. And for that love I thank you and wish you peace.