My grandfather died in 2012. At the funeral in South Carolina, my brother and I sat on either side of my grandmother. My grandparents had split on a hot, muggy August night in 1977. "This time for good!" she said, and this time she meant it. Why this time? He had a done a lot of terrible things, but this was the first time he had shot at her. After the bullet missed, she ran barefoot out of the back of the house, through the woods, and never returned.
But they never divorced. You see, even though he was a rampant philanderer, wife beater, and felon a couple of times over, he thought divorce was the one thing in particular that would keep him out of heaven. By the day of the funeral, he might have found out if he was correct.
While my uncle was giving the eulogy (which started out, not with "Amazing Grace" but with Johnny Paycheck singing "I'm The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised." If you don't know the song, part of the chorus is, "She tried to turn me on to Jesus, but I turned on to the devil's ways, and I turned out to be the only hell my mama ever raised." May not be typical for a funeral, but oh was it appropriate...), my grandmother was balling her eyes out. Was she reliving all those bad times? Was it regret at having wasted almost 30 years, less the three wonderful children, with someone capable of such things?
When it was over, I looked at my grandmother and asked, "Do you still care about him? After all he did to you and the family?"
Without a pause, she replied, "I loved him for what he could have been."
And he could have been a lot of things. At 16, he was flying airplanes. At 17, he was on an aircraft carrier bound for Korea after lying about his age so he could go across the ocean to fight. He could fix anything. He could cook. He made such high-quality moonshine that he had to ship truckloads to Tennessee because the local stuff didn't measure up to his. That's sort of like the French importing wine because they found a better source.
Today is August 23. It would have been an anniversary celebration for my significant other and me, if things hadn't gone south. When I started writing in my journal this morning, my grandmother's words came back to me, as well as images of a funeral. A version of what she said was the first thing I jotted down.
"I love what could have been."
Our relationship could have been amazing. It was amazing while it lasted. We talked for hours each day. We laughed. We traveled. We played. We ate. We connected. We loved. We took care of each other in some of the most thoughtful ways. We grew. We planned our future. We went to counseling together early in our relationship to address existing and potential issues. We contributed to the world. We soared. We lived a big, big life and were working towards it being much much bigger.
But we also shot at each other. Figuratively, of course. Unlike my grandparents, it wasn't a one-sided affair. Both of us had guns and we used them. We picked them up because we were scared. We fired them because we were scared. Each of us took being shot at for a while. Until one day we didn't. Until one day, we both ran out of the house and in opposite directions.
I'm sorry that I shot at her. I'm sorry I ever even held the gun in my hands. But what a great lesson. Unlike my grandfather, I'm still alive. I'm alive! I can put down the gun, now that I'm fully aware of its power to destroy. I can put down the gun, now that I know it doesn't protect, but only harms. Unlike my grandfather, she is still alive. She can put down her gun too.
It will be work. At times we may feel completely defenseless. But instead of wondering what could have been, maybe, as we enter new relationships, we can say something else.
"I love what is."