It was the morning of my son’s high school graduation, and while he was ironing his commencement gown in the living room, I decided to find the albums that held my own graduation pictures. I opened an old scrapbook to a photo of me with him, my first crush, my first heartbreak.
I was sixteen years old, the new girl in a small school, pretending to be confident while privately reeling from my parents’ recent divorce. He was popular and athletic, a swimmer with broad shoulders and perfect teeth. I had no idea what made him notice me, but for three months I had access to the “in” crowd as his date.
The photo shows us together at a dance, posing in front of a blue backdrop. I’m sitting on a white swing, wearing a corsage on my wrist. He stands behind me with his hands resting on my shoulders.
My son probably didn’t notice me fall silent as I turned the brittle cardboard pages. After the photo that I remembered, there were several notes pasted on the page that I had forgotten.
One said, in the swimmer’s handwriting, I love you. I stared at it, stunned. I had no memory of this.
How does a person forget the first time someone says I love you?
The next note said, Don’t keep anything to yourself. Tell me everything. This one made me want to cry. How could this teenage boy possibly have guessed that I was hiding everything? I was embarrassed that my parents had split up, embarrassed that my mom and sister and I lived in a forgotten corner of a wealthy suburb, in a tiny apartment that overlooked a parking lot and a chain link fence. I remember feeling awkward and afraid. I remember the day the swimmer came to my apartment to break up with me, and the two days I was sick on the couch, certain I’d never go back to school.
Thirty-five years later, two little notes shocked me with the realization that something bigger, better, more loving, and more positive had been occurring and I had completely missed it.
I was so busy hiding that my sixteen-year-old heart couldn’t receive the love and support it desperately wanted. And with that came an even sadder insight: that teenage heart has stayed with me for the last few decades.
Suddenly I saw my heartbreak through new eyes. I wanted to go back thirty-five years and relive the experience with the understanding that the heartbreak didn’t break anything in me; instead, it opened me up. It was a gift that I never accepted. I wished the teenager in me could, just for a moment, enjoy the good parts that she had overlooked.
I couldn’t go back in time, but I could say now what I wished I’d said then. I could thank the swimmer for being sweet and expressive and loving.
So, before I could change my mind, I did. I found the address for this person I know nothing about, a man I haven’t talked to since high school, and wrote a card.
I thanked him for his kind notes and apologized for my inability to respond. I said that, as a mother of two teenage boys, I know that it’s not easy for them to express themselves. I would hate for anyone to diminish their feelings.
Why should you send your first love a thank you card? Because you’re actually writing it to and for that younger version of yourself. You’re letting your heart know that it’s okay to let go and receive love in a different, more expansive way.
For me, it was important to go back and see myself as a participant in my life. I was more than an outsider looking in; I made an impact on someone.
I inspired someone to express himself. Which inspired me (finally!) to express myself.
And that never gets old.
Main Photo is by vjapratama from Pexels