The Ring - Part II
I kept the ring for over thirty years, until I bethought myself one day that it might be an evil talisman, locking me in a dead past, hiding from me the true beauties and pleasures of the present.
Why had I kept the thing so long, the divorce long since final, the children long since away to their own grown-up households?
At first I hoped the ring could be reinstated, back on my finger, my by then ex-wife back with me, remarried. But as my children grew up, far away, with yet another step-sibling, that dream faded into the truth. It was really over for us. I had behaved too badly and now I had to take my knocks and get on with my life.
Later, I kept the ring as a memory of what had been, and of what then might have been. But of course it hadn’t.
My second wife, never a fool, when driven to fury or despair with my failings, more than once capped her complaint with the claim that I was treating her not only as second wife, but also as second best wife. Of course it wasn’t true. I told her so. She was the only woman for me. I now never looked at or thought about any other woman, past or present. And as far as I knew my heart, I spoke the truth.
But I kept the ring.
What fog and grey shadows must have twisted in the corners of my mind, that I could tell her those things as the truth, and be so certain. And how better she must have understood, not even knowing about the ring, of life and of her husband, to have so accurately accused me. But then, women read men so clear, from the outside, seeing patterns which from within are merest shadowed corners and wisps of mist.
Like the ring.
Slowly I aged. My profession flourished, I reached the target I had aimed at so long before. As ever, the journey held more than the arrival. For a few mature years, I practised what I had prepared so long to achieve. With some satisfaction I applied my skills, but hated the long hours, the travel, and the social isolation that, as they said, went with the territory. Perhaps that was what destroyed the second marriage.
But then, I still had kept the ring.
And so the third marriage. Of fact, as they say, rather than of law. An oral contract, if you will. Why not the formality? I offered. I pleaded, even, as time went by. No dice. Why? What man can know the heart of a woman, knowing not the fog with which he is himself befuddled?
Did I feel accepted? Yes.
Committed to? No.
Committed? I truly thought so.
But somewhere, still, I hid the ring.
Then my father died. My wife, this wife, my third wife, of fact rather than of law, would not join me at the funeral. No need, she said. So I went alone, disappointed. I had wanted her comfort. I guess I have some basic weakness.
My first wife was there. I feared that meeting. Needlessly. No tension. No blame. Acceptance, yes, and sympathy and support.
But I didn’t tell her about the ring. I was committed elsewhere. Wasn’t I?
My third wife, she too finds me wanting. Tidy? Nowhere near enough. A messy dresser? Yes. Working too long hours. Too interested in my projects. Too compulsive about reaching my goals. Forgetful of meals. Too bound up in trying to survive, when I am already so obviously healthy again, she says. That’s the cancer. It hit me a few years after my father’s death.
Why are people so fearful of cancer? Even of the word, let alone the actuality. ‘The Big C’. Rubbish. It’s just another way of dying. Or not. Either way, unpleasant, but that’s life, as they say. Some cancers are easily and successfully cured. Mine was not. The treatment was unpleasant in the extreme, and rarely successful, they said. Later, still alive, struggling to accept the side effects, I was told that I was one of the lucky ones. I had to agree, as at least I was still there to have the discussion.
So I began to piece together my disrupted life. But some pivot part had been smashed forever. The survivor of an holocaust builds on a different base than other people. The partners in my firm knew not what to do with the frail, cantankerous, whispering shade of the previous robust leader. In time, over the following years, the voice would return, and strong meat once more inhabit the then thin, puckered skin. But commerce is the business of the present. How could they wait for years, uncertain of the outcome? A few weeks. Some months. At most. Then the faithful servant, in all probability moribund, must be pensioned off. Kindly, yes. Fairly, even. But never-the-less, off.
And still with the ring.
As the months went by, I continued to survive, and my thoughts turned little by little from coping with the disease, and the side effects of treatment, to the future. A different future. Not the future of a robustly well professional. Rather, the future of a post-treatment cancer victim. A vastly different world. Not so secure. Under the shadow of impending death neither glorious nor comfortable. Or perhaps to survive, but unemployed, and weakened, and then how to manage? Friends and family found little tasks to keep me occupied and provide some income. I’m sure I gave value, but I’m not so sure those projects were needed.
I found that friendships and family, previously accepted as part of life’s ordinary background, were becoming steadily more important to me. I began to renew old acquaintances and search out family contacts from childhood, and even more distant relations that I had never before met.
Health and fitness became more important to me. I bought a bike, and skied more.
My wife, my third wife, objected to these turns of events. Why bother with people I had never met, leaving her side for days or weeks to do so? Why cycle in the dawn, in streets nearly empty, the few passing vehicles all having room to give cyclists a wide berth, when I should be warming her bed? Why ski, leaving her for days at a time, now, at sixty, when I had previously abandoned it as overly risky, at forty?
I tried to explain. To help her see the abyss now revealed before my feet. Remission not equal to longevity. I have to make my contact with relatives now, go skiing now, live fully now, because I may not have a tomorrow. I had to get fit, get back, if I could, to what I should have been. That, when I had been at my lowest ebb, had been a dream I kept before me and a promise I had made to myself, sealing it with the pain I strove to overcome, did overcome, finally put behind me. And so, then recovering, I did not want to cast that oath aside, felt out of step with her, who stung me with the threat that if it was more important than her, perhaps I should make my home somewhere else.
Eventually, some years after my mother died (but more of that later), for the first time in my life I joined a gymnasium. That was my youngest son’s idea, and it feels right for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I have four grown-up children. Three near middle age from my first marriage and one, a much younger adult, from my second. I wish my third wife would show them the welcome and support that she fully acknowledges I show her two, also near middle age, professionals. Of course it’s her house, but it’s still my home, and has been for seventeen years now. But I must ask permission for my children to visit me, and the answer is generally an outright no, or else, grudgingly, only while she is out somewhere else. However, a man’s life is miserable around an unhappy woman, so it’s important to keep things running smoothly. But at the price of regular dismay? Most everything I do seems to disappoint.
And so I kept the ring.
Then, as I said, my mother died. My wife, this wife, my third wife, of fact rather than of law, would not join me at the funeral. No need, she said. So I went alone, disappointed. I had wanted her comfort. I guess I have some basic weakness.
My second wife was there. I feared that meeting. Needlessly. The tensions had eased somewhat with the passage of time, though they were still there, underlying the sympathy.
And of course I didn’t tell about the ring.
My mother. What a riddle. To have been so selfish and opinionated and yet so widely admired and accepted. Neglecting her children in favour of strangers. No wonder strangers felt such warm acceptance. Is that the answer to the riddle? Sad that she has died, of course, but glad that she was spared further, and increasing pain. Glad, too, that she was spared any more of her battles with me. Pleased for myself, about that, too.
Those battles were too big a part of our life, hers and mine, together or apart.
At her funeral, as is the custom, I spoke a few words, then to be followed by those of my younger brother and other relatives. Most, I knew, would praise her kindness, her strength of character, her business acumen. But I was the only one there who personally knew the whole story of her life in New Zealand. I alone had been there with her from the start.
As I stood before the gathered mourners, crowded, standing room only, even on the porches, squeezing towards the doorways for a glimpse and to catch snatches of the service, my mind was almost a blank. I looked around, and the silence became more intense. I recognised here and there the faces of family, friends and acquaintances all of whom had suffered the embarrassment of those battles of mine and hers, rarely private and never gentle. I owed them, for my own sake as much as my mother’s, some explanation, and myself some release, from that life-long load. In that moment, I knew what I had to say:
“When my father, who had considerable political insight, foresaw in the lead-up to the second world war what scourge would roll across Europe, and he sent my mother and I to the farthest place on earth to be safe from that danger, he consigned her, with a toddler child and little money, to be alone, in a strange country, far away, for many years. A strange country that she came to make her own, making friends of its people (as she made a friend of everyone she met, all her life long) and by her efforts making a successful business and a home for her children. A successful mother, with successful sons.”
“To achieve these things she fought like a tiger, giving no quarter, demanding her due, and insisting without compromise on whatever she believed right. And so she taught that toddler, so that I grew up trained at fighting like a tiger, giving no quarter, and demanding my due. When ever we came together thereafter, she and I, there would be a difference, neither of us would give way; there was no thought of compromise and the battle would rage, without regard for onlookers, until we were both exhausted. She being as she was, and I as she had taught me, there was no other outcome possible. And so it continued, as many of you here today know all too well, throughout both our lives, even to my brother’s birthday celebration only a few weeks ago.”
“But what I guess none of you know, only she and I knew, is that after those arguments, those unresolved battles, one or other of us would go quietly to the other and we would, before the day was out, put our arms round each other and reaffirm our love. And I give thanks to whatever being arranges these things, that the last time I spoke to my mother, those few weeks ago, and after our usual battle, our words were of love. An undying love, as I have today found out, the hard way.”
And so I took my seat. And wept. Wept for myself as much as for her. And took her body, and with the help of family and friends buried it, and knew I had reached the end of another passage in my life and would then have to find my way through a new one..
I have always been a writer. My professional life has been filled with the writing of proposals, reports, analyses, instruction books, essays on strategies and tactics; even descriptions, for my marketing colleagues, of the relationships between the players in the firms and departments we have dealt with. But never fiction or biography. Nothing, except by implication, about feelings, emotions, the ticking heart of our being. But in this new passage I had just entered, here I found I could understand and describe wonder, and hope; fear, terror, happiness and love; doubt, despair and delight. I began to write. What a pleasure. And the pleasure of being read. Hearing what pleasure my words gave. Sometimes even having the pleasure of watching the face of the reader; knowing from their expression exactly which phrase they have just read.
Except with my third wife. The time at my desk is time away from her and the things she deems important. Does she feel threatened? I take to her all that I write - except this one, maybe - and she says not more, surely? Have you nothing better to do with your time? Put it over there, I’ll look at it when I have a moment. But she never does, not more than a glance. My words don’t entice her into turning the page. She says she just isn’t interested. But she’s a reader. She has read far more of the classics than I, and is currently enjoying her way through the Patrick White ‘Letters’. I feel side-lined and slighted.
Perhaps she is right. Perhaps I should move out, as she would suggest in a gambit from time to time. Maybe we do not belong together. Perhaps we used to, when I worked for the partnership; conservative, neither a skier nor a writer, pre-cancerous, my mother still alive, able to take small, regular carpings and swallow the tensions, prepared to see less of my children for the sake of a quiet life. I could always deal with those problems later ... for there is always more time, I then thought - I was still young, fit, successful. But since then I have learnt the hard way that the time is but short, and accident or disease can come without warning to any of us. We do not know, we cannot tell, the time or manner of death’s knell.
Shortly after my mother’s funeral I found myself talking to a fascinating woman that it turned out I had met, briefly, in passing, a long time before. She knew my children, and liked them all. She had a large family of her own, too, and those of them that I came to know, during brief meetings over the next few years, I had no difficulty liking. We became close friends, and as close friends will, we talked of many things, including our own lives and their pivot points. And, still under the ongoing threat of banishment from my third married home I gave more than passing thought to moving into a fourth, with this new friend, if she would have me. We talked about it, but gave the idea away. There were religious differences, but they would not be insuperable. The sticking point was her jealously of my first wife. My first wife? That was over thirty-five years ago! Well, I might like to fool myself about that, but it was there as plain as a pike-staff for those with eyes to see, I was told.
It was that damned ring! Nothing good would ever come of it. I was in a new passage now. More than one past passage had come to its end, and I must learn to accept that with good grace. So I found the ring, plucked it from its hiding place, and threw it away. There! Now I had closed that chapter, properly, at last.
Except, I began to regret then having thrown the thing away. Why had I done that? What harm was it doing? If ever I was given another opportunity (across a third of a century? Wake up to yourself) that discard could be seen as finally losing the faith and thus blind my chances to any possible reconciliation.
No, do not go down that path. Live in the present. “This is the minute, and you are in it.” My mother, and her little sayings, hiding in my mental fog-banks. Out, out. Back into the grave. For me to remember, when and as I decide, not poking about, in my hidden corners, against my will. My mother, so busy at other things, making decisions for me without finding my preferences, or worse, finding them and then doing the opposite. But always with the best intentions my dear, of course. A mother knows best. Phooey! How can an accident of conception make a person omniscient? No wonder we fought! She took liberties, banking on my good-will and tolerance, long after I was an adult, such that nobody in their right mind would expect to get away with. This is my life now - you gave me as good a start as you knew how - fine. Now let go! At last, trapped in my skull, she cannot argue, fight, cajole, manipulate, or make things hard for others whom I care for, and try to influence me through them. Insubstantial, a ghost. Her clutching hands passing unfelt through all she tries to grasp, her shade blown, shrinking, off into the nether distance, her voice fading to a whisper and then gone. For now. She will return. But each successive foray I find easier to parry, and with ever less guilt or fear. Perhaps not fear. Perhaps apprehension. But anyhow, less of it.
One day recently, I got bad news. My cousin, so close to me in my teens, but rarely seen after she married and moved away, is dying of a cancer, treated successfully and thought permanently cured over ten years ago. I can afford to travel either to her bedside now, or to her funeral. I would rather commune with her mind than with her dust. There is no question, no doubt. There might have been once, but not since my own illness and recovery. My wife thinks I have an aberration. This is not someone I have seen in all our time together, except perhaps at one family gathering. Why bother? I try and explain about our childhood, the happy squabbles and teasings, before we grew past these things. I should not have bothered, it falls on stony ground, and so I book my tickets anyhow, arranging my route so that I can see one of my daughters as I go, visit other friends, and also drive my cousin’s sister (also my cousin, of course), herself too ill to travel alone, from her distant home so these two sisters can also be reunited for a while.
My daughter, as it turns out, is between addresses. I have to contact her via her mother. She, in turn, offers me a bed, but I decide to stay on neutral ground. Does my heart pound so boldly on my sleeve? Why do I ask? Because my wife, my third wife, before I leave her for this trip, says explicitly to keep away from my first wife. What grounds for jealousy? The marriage was thirty-something years ago and I have had no contact at all since my father’s funeral fifteen years ago. And now she has her own life and doubtless her own man. She has had other children, with their own father, since her time with me. She is surely no threat.
Just keep away. I know you men. One day you will leave me for some young thing.
Well, I understand your fear, but I’m hardly typical. And besides, she’s hardly a young thing.
So I arrange to stay with an old varsity mate, and his wife.
Then I make my pilgrimage. I see my cousins. How happy to see them again and rekindle the affection of our youth. How bitter-sweet and sad to be there under these circumstances.
I drive back to the capital, I see my daughter. Her mother is there at the time. We talk. I know my behaviour killed her love.
No, but it did drive her from the home, she says.
That’s not the same.
My spirits lift, but I don’t then know why.
Later, she writes that I would be welcome if I were to call again, but not to leave it so long, next time. Well, it was fifteen years, but still, my heart skips a beat. OK, so I know I have a mild aneurhythmia, but you know what I mean. No wonder I kept the ring, perhaps.
But then she writes that she
needs to be left to herself for days on end,
because she needs that space. That could be rejection, but I doubt it, for she finishes, ‘come again’ and anyhow, I would love to be allowed to get on with my writing in large chunks of time, without absolutely having to be on call, and civil, as required. Her words could just be caution, for that would be prudent, and by the time we reach sixty, prudent is part of life. Otherwise you are dead, already. But as a simple truth, why, she describes a life-style that could suit me as well as it would her.
By then I am on my first trip abroad, ever, finally seeking out distant relatives and skiing the Sierra Nevada, long a secret, suppressed wish and now an actuality. The magic of e-mail gets the messages to me, wherever I am. I have to know if I have understood, or merely fool myself, reading in what suits me, and ignoring a colder truth.
I pick up the hotel phone. It should be made of gold, to match the cost of the call, but I don’t care. I’m running out of time, and to be given another chance, perhaps, and wimp out on it to save a bob - that would be true madness. So I pick up the phone. dial her - midnight here at Reno, nine p.m. in Wellington - and she answers.
Oh, Peter. Her voice shifting from mundane to pleasured in a syllable, joy pouring down the line, unmistakable, unambiguous, unalloyed, unequivocal, committed, welcoming. I could die happy to that glorious sound. I have my answer. It is as I had hoped, oh so deeply hoped. I want to see her. I tell her so. She says yes. I don’t want to waste more of my life going down wrong alleys. She says yes. Maybe we’re too set in our ways. Perhaps we should spend some time together, and do some more talking. She says yes. Oh, she says yes she says yes she says yes.
That night I sleep like a baby.
But later we both have our cautions again. I know, we both know, we aren’t twenty any more. Maybe that’s to the good, and we will be more patient with each other. At least, I will be more patient. She always was. Mostly.
She writes that a man who suits her must play a musical instrument. I used to, and the reminder jolts me. I have a trombone and a guitar, and have thought of getting a keyboard. But at the moment, here, that would be foolish as I don’t play any of them any more. Why not? It sounds like a complaint, but the house is too small, and the imperfections of practice disturb my wife, my third wife. Why do I carry on with that racket? Yes, of course she likes music, but we have dozens of excellent recordings on CD. Why don’t I play one of them? I give up the attempt. The concept of trying, rehearsing, and succeeding, even if poorly, at making the music rather than just listening, only finds more stony ground.
And I have a letter that’s signed, Come again.
When I was at school, an all-boys, Anglican school, in my teens, we had a lady English teacher. Apart from the sick-bay matron she was the only female in the school. One day she told us that she had two teenage daughters. That got our full interest, immediately, like a thunder-clap. I have no idea now what led up to this point, but she told us of her advice to them, on dealing with boys who they wanted to know better, “Flee and they follow; follow and they flee.” Then she said that this was good advice to us, too. Her daughters seemed more interested in the boys who were just a little distant, or diffident, or anything but over-confident and pushy.
I don’t want to seem pushy, either. I feel anything but over-confident. And perhaps fifteen years between contacts is erring just a little too much on the side of diffident? Perhaps I should never have written all this? Is it less a stream of consciousness than a flush of enthusiasm? Perhaps I should not send it? I don’t want, surely, to frighten her off. Oh, no.
But to hide my feelings? Why, I may as well stay where I am. Here I am practised at it, which curdles within me, so that I plan, anyhow, a departure. But where to? Travel, though affordable from time to time, is not cheap. I would like to be among or near friends and relatives. So I stall, the convenience of the present sapping my will. Though years have gone by since the cancer, progress is slow, and I’m still gathering strength. But in doing so I recognise the consequent tensions and disagreements gradually building to the point where neither of us will be able to ignore them.
The time is right.
The chance is there.
Follow your heart.
Trust your love.
What need of a ring?
But the decision to go hand in hand, into the sunset and the closing credits, is not the end, not at all. Rather, it’s the start of a much more complex tale, yet to be discovered, then maybe to be told.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins