Sometimes, everything goes wrong,
But before it goes . . .
Fifteen years ago, I read a little book by one of my favorite authors,
Sheldon Kopp. A psychotherapist, he wrote books about coping with the odd
circumstances in life. For instance, his most famous book was If You Meet The
Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, and a more recent one, written I think after a
brain tumor had interrupted his practice and his prolific writing, was What
Kept You so Long? They were nearly all about trusting yourself in the face
of uncertainty. This particular book, which I seem to have misplaced or given
away, was entitled Here I am, wasn’t I?
His theme was that whatever your situation, good or bad, things are about
to change. Don’t count on anything—except change. If things are so bad you think
life isn’t worth living, then wait. It will get better. If things are so good
you think you have finally made it through the bad stuff, then wait. Things will
fall apart once more.
When I read the book, I took it in—I thought. Things for me had been,
well, all right. Could have been better, could have been worse. I was living
with a woman who seemed to embody all the characteristics I needed in a partner:
open emotionally and socially, liberal politically, aware of her own deeper
issues, tolerant of those who thought differently from her, rebellious against
"the system" and able to be outrageous with great humor but still sensitive to
the struggles of Earth’s creatures. In our four or five years together, I had
learned much about myself and about what’s important—and unimportant—in life.
Our relationship had weathered a number of storms, most concerning the
difference between expectation and reality. Once, I had even brought up the idea
of marriage, and she had emphatically declined. It was not about our
relationship, she said, but about her need to keep her identity. We invested
together in a house, and thought about the future.
Here I am, Wasn’t I? was typical Sheldon Kopp. There is
compassion in his writing, in spite of the flip attitude suggested by his
titles. Sure, I thought, I know all this. I read his books because they
reinforced things I thought I knew. Maybe we all do. At any rate, I was prepared
A couple of years before, when my partner came back from a canoe trip in
Ontario with a group of women, enchanted, it seemed, with a particular young
woman, I smiled. I would have leaped at the opportunity to spend a week in the
wilderness with that particular young woman myself. It was no threat to me, and
we spent a long time talking, in the atmosphere of sweet smoke, about attraction
and relationships and human weakness. The faint sense of panic I felt, and
talked about, was dispelled. Our relationship became stronger.
Then more recently, after a skiing weekend, she admitted to a similar
attraction to another woman. No problem, I said. But then there were more
weekends. As much as I had thought I had totally defeated my teen-age
inclination to jealousy, I began to feel a tightness in my gut. She was
understanding and solicitous.
Then it happened. "We need to talk," she said late one night.
Sheldon Kopp was right. I almost laughed at the irony. Having read the
book so recently, I could almost quote passages that pertained directly to my
situation. My friends were supportive. "It might take a year, but you’ll
survive," they said. I wasn’t so sure, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to wait a
year to find out. I drove my car rather precariously in those days.
Actually it took more than a year for me to feel myself again, and to risk
my heart with other people. By the time I had done that, I felt I had learned
one more lesson about myself. I also felt more compassion toward others from
whom I had, myself, disengaged in my lifetime.
Here I am, Wasn’t I? occupied a prominent place on my book
shelves, reminding me often of the impermanence of things—of everything. Sheldon
Kopp’s brain tumor must have reminded him of that, every day. My friends
reminded me that I would survive my broken heart, and I did. That author was
faced with another reality, however. If on one day he felt well enough to
breathe the scent of spring flowers and a newly mown lawn, he had to know that
tomorrow, perhaps, he would not. Surely he knew that his good days were to be
fewer and fewer.
Perhaps, that’s the point. He wrote in one of his books, "What makes it
seem unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured." Perhaps, as I
struggle today against the pain in my back and in my shoulder and sometimes in
my spirit, perhaps I can find a way not to struggle so much. I have come to
accept the loss of a lot of things I used to think were incredibly important. My
body will no longer do many of the things I want it to. Sometimes I can let go
of the reins. Fighting pain doesn’t make it go away. Control, as Kopp says, is
Does that daffodil beside my driveway think—that glorious yellow caroler
of April’s delight—does it think it will live forever? A week? When it first
lifts its face to the sun, does it wonder how many more suns it will see? Does
it grieve as it begins to droop?
I read Sheldon Kopp because I think he’s right. That doesn’t even assure
me that he is. It probably doesn’t matter. If I had known, twenty years
ago, that I’d get my heart broken once again, it would have been a pity if I had
thrown it all away, just to avoid the pain. That relationship—that blossom,
however brief, was joy and beauty in my life. I don’t want to deny myself one
more day to bloom just because it’s going to end.
Donald Skiff, April
on this essay? Send me an e-mail, please.
(And mention the title of the essay, too)