Thursday, September 15

the thing about love is... part 3

It turned out that Justin and I were willing to love each other. He went fishing one weekend and brought fresh trout back to cook in my apartment. We took late-night drives up into the mountains. He took me out to the airport viewing area and taught me to tell which direction a plane was going from the wing lights. We prayed together and talked about what it means to pray like you believe it makes a difference.
 When I wasn't feeling well, we watched movies, me leaning up against his white tee and six-foot frame.

I met Justin’s mom when she was dying, laying in a hospital bed set up in the living room of their house. Later, he was talking to her about his friends and mentioned my arm. “Justin, you know that’s OK, right?” she said.

I will never forget the first time, his arms wrapped around me, he reached down and stroked my tiny arm, so very gently, feeling each finger tenderly. No one had ever touched my arm like that before. It wasn't like my mom's touch or when my sisters playfully grabbed and pulled on it. It felt like another, new kind of love. Overwhelmed by a thrilling sense of surrender and trust, I felt laid bare, accepted, and grateful.

Justin and I stood by each other during some of the toughest times in each of our lives. He was the voice in my cellphone calling from Texas when I was very ill and my life was spinning like a merry-go-round in outer space. I was the one who listened when he needed to talk about his mom, to cry and wonder what she would have said.

Not only had our “baggage” not pushed love away, sometimes I think it was mostly our struggles that brought us together. We had a lot in common: both oldest children, both driven, both from families with country roots; and we'd both been through some tough shit at a young age. But we were a lot different, too. I was four years older. He loved MASH and fishing; I preferred sushi and independent film.

On a camping trip with friends, we played Would You Rather which offers players a bizarre array of improbable choices. “Would you rather make love to someone with no arms or no legs?,” was the question. I chose no arms, feeling they were somewhat superfluous anyway; Justin chose no legs. “Because you need arms to hug someone," he said.

I wonder now if that was a sign.
I think of Justin as my first adult boyfriend, even though I never called him that. He was genuine and sacrificial and he taught me that my mom is right, that I am something special and worth being loved.

Even after our romance had dwindled, he drove six hours out of his way to visit me after going to a baseball tryout. Ironically, it was I who found I couldn't love him the way he deserved. Sometimes I still wonder why. Several years ago, he started dating a very beautiful woman. He proposed to her in Europe and last I heard, they were living in California.

I'm working on a theory. I think when it comes to love, we're so worried about being a certain way or doing a certain thing to attract the opposite sex, that we forget to just be...ourselves. That’s not to say that having someone to point out our self-destructive behavior isn’t sometimes helpful, but I don’t think it really gets to the root of the problem. Even those women who had Dr. Phil in their ears looked a little awkward and tense, and I’m sure their dates thought they sounded really intelligent, but were at the same time wondering why they always paused and stared off into space before answering. Maybe their dates assumed it was for dramatic effect.

When I was a freshman in college, a sophomore theater major told me that he and some friends were sitting around on campus one day talking about their definitions of beautiful. You see, that’s the kind of thing a group of guys can do in college and not feel silly. Anyway, he said he told the other guys that I was his definition of beautiful. It could have been a really great pick-up line except that he never asked me out. Maybe he was method-acting.

I’ve often thought about what he said and what a nice compliment it was, and how much I really would like to live up to it.
 But some of the most attractive people I have ever known were overweight or had acne. Physical beauty is a mirage, a distraction. Real beauty is something anyone can be, but few people are. And that’s what I would tell the little girl who thought maybe she wouldn’t ever have a boyfriend because she was missing an arm, if I ever had the chance to meet her.

“So you see,” I would say, “the fact that you have an abnormal appendage is really the least of your problems.” Well, I’m still working on the semantics. I would also tell her that she is probably the main reason why I decided to write about love and disability at all. And she's much less alone than she believes. I'd estimate nearly every little girl and boy worries, at some time, that they are unlovable because of how they appear to the rest of the world. Somewhere along the line, they are led to believe that they just don’t quite measure up—-that their thighs are too big, that they are too shy or talk too much. But here’s a secret that, incidentally, has revolutionized my life: you don’t need to be missing an arm or a leg to feel this way. I once saw Uma Thurman on Oprah talking about how she had really low self-esteem. You can be famous and gorgeous and play sexy vixens on film and still feel completely unloved.

The truth is, you don’t have to try to be anything to find love; if you love yourself, other people will fall in love with you. That's it. Whether you have one arm or two, use a wheelchair or walk on two feet; whatever you have or don’t have, these are all minor details when it comes to romance. And if you can grasp that, you are well on your way to finding love, and probably won’t ever need to go on the Dr. Phil show at all.