By Sallie Weissinger, Author of Yes Again: Misadventures of Wishful Thinker
Fall in love. Get married and have two children – maybe three. Have it all: love, romance, and intimacy. Be one another’s best friend. Grow old together. Forever and ever. That was the plan my teenaged and early twenty-year-old self counted on. The “fall in love” and “get married” parts happened, but by the end of a seven-year marriage, our souls – the intangible parts of us that make us who we are, with our reasons, desires, justifications, feelings, temperaments, and values –were no longer mates. The once-glowing light had begun flickering and ultimately went dark.
Five years later, as a thirty-four-year-old single mom getting by on a modest salary, I met a man with four daughters, an ex-wife, and a dog he’d had to leave with his kids. We met at an ice cream shop in Berkeley through the old-fashioned newspaper personals. He’d seen my brief ad announcing a “34-yr-old prof. W/F seeks male counterpart… a soul mate… someone kind, gentle, intelligent, and humorous.” He responded to the newspaper’s blind P.O. box number, and I responded to his response. Within less than ten minutes of talking over a root beer float and an iced tea, I had a lump in my throat: I had fallen for this man.
We had an abundance of things in common: we loved our daughters and our dogs and shared an affinity for hiking, biking, reading, movies and theater, and liberal politics (without falling into the ultra-radical Berkeley camp). We both described ourselves as “SBNR” (spiritual but not religious) and were members of the same Unitarian Church, though we’d never met there. The bond that started within ten minutes of that meeting ended with his death from cancer, ten days before our twentieth wedding anniversary. That was in 2002.
How did we know within minutes that we had the stuff to be soul mates? What indefinable qualities did we see in each other? It started with words, tone, smiles, and eye contact- but there was also chemistry. What extravagant mix of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine was released over a glass of iced tea? The more time we spent together, the more we realized how in some ways we paralleled one another, yet also balanced each other out (he was fiery, and I was even-tempered). We challenged and contradicted each other’s opinions. Regardless of our disagreements, we never stopped respecting and valuing each other.
Losing my soul mate in my mid-fifties sent me spinning in a bottomless black hole. I’d lost my footing and my foundation. I knew I needed to figure out how to fill the hole inside myself and get back on solid ground but didn’t have the raw materials or the equipment. Spending time with friends, going to the gym, and doing volunteer work at animal shelters were moves in the right direction. Reading (and rereading) Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart helped temper the pain, as did a weekly regimen of walking a service dog for a quadriplegic. But those activities were starts, not end points. My journey kicked into high gear when I joined Rotaplast, a remarkable non-profit organization founded by the Rotary Club of San Francisco. I went as a medical interpreter on five or six missions to Peru and Venezuela with plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses, who performed reconstructive surgery on children with cleft lips and palates. Having been a college and high school Spanish teacher decades earlier, I used my Spanish to engage with hospital staff and with parents and their children.
The parents’ stories were many: “My little boy – mi muchachito – hates going to school because the kids make fun of him. He cries every morning when he leaves the house. He begs me to let him stay home.” “They bully my Diego for not speaking clearly. They imitate him and call him stupid.” “Rosita is beautiful, but all she sees is her deformed lip. She won’t talk in class and has no friends.” “I have to watch every time mi bebe eats, to make sure he doesn’t choke through the fissure. He could choke to death.” If the stories were painful to hear, the sights were even harder to take: One six-year-old child had part of his palate tissue coming through his nose. One lovely fourteen-year-old girl had her upper lip attached to the lower part of one nostril.
After a pre-op clinic session, we met in the hospital’s waiting room, where I took the children from their mothers and led them to the operating room. I assured the weeping parents I’d come back to let them know when the operation started, how it was progressing, and when it ended. Within an hour or an hour and a half, I guided the parents to the recovery room, where they sat with the nurses as their kids began waking up. Relieved and exultant, they listened as the nurses explained how to provide post-operative care and when to return for the final checkup and discharge.
“Es un milagro – it’s a miracle,” one mother said, tears streaming down her cheeks, as she looked at the trailing end of the surgical thread on her child’s face. “Now he’ll play soccer with the other boys.” Another mother told me, “My daughter will smile. You’ve given her a reason to smile.” Never had weeping been so joyful.
I’d found something larger than dealing with my sense of personal loss. I was tapping into the no-longer-empty part of my soul, becoming my own mate by helping people with problems greater than mine. Then, through a girlfriend, I learned of an organization that trained doctors and nurses in El Salvador and Nicaragua to detect cervical lesions in women, an early warning sign of cervical cancer, the number one cancer killer of women in third world countries. After I’d gone on six or eight missions, the organization’s leader retired, and I found Partners for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic. Nursing students, professors in the nursing program, and medical advisors associated with the University of Southern Maine went twice a year to treat patients for hypertension, asthma, diabetes, and other diseases. Treating villagers in Puerto Plata province and receiving their farewell hugs was akin to receiving communion in my spiritual home, the church of the golden rule. As patients left with a six-month supply of life-saving medication, they took us gently by the wrist, stroking the lower part of the forearm. It was more embrace than handshake, as they said, “Gracias por todo, amigos. Nos vemos pronto, si Dios quiere.” Thank you, friends, for everything. We’ll see each other soon, God willing. That was my prayer group, my community.
My new-found sense of being home didn’t mean I didn’t miss my husband. I did. But, with each year and each medical mission, something vital had begun filling up the abyss. I’d made connections with patients, doctors, nurses, and non-medical support people who shared the essence of life with me. There are multiple ways to feed a hungering soul. In this case, it had happened in a series of small towns with unpaved roads lined with unpainted houses, lush greenery, mud and dirt, constant rain, corrugated outhouses, and friendly townspeople.
But there was more soul food to come: In one of the villages, I noticed a three-pound, six-week-old black-and-brown puppy limping in the road. Seeing a motorcycle speeding toward her, I ran to the rescue, took her to a veterinarian who treated her for parasites and removed over seventy ticks from her tiny body. I brought her back to California, naming her Grace, from the U2 song: “Grace finds beauty in everything. Grace finds goodness in everything.”
I’ve learned that, when it’s good, it can get even better. The month after I returned from the Dominican Republic, serendipity visited yet again when I met Bart, a retired internal medicine doctor, dog lover, and widower. Mutual friends arranged for us to meet at a downtown restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Bart, with his soothing voice and muted southern accent, gentle blue eyes, talent for listening, and openness to converse at a deep level presaged everything we’ve come to share: affection, intimacy, laughter, and trust. Again, within ten minutes at the table, the oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine floated inexplicably in the air. By then I had found a soul mate within myself, but there was plenty of space and opportunity to add one more to my life.