…the first would be Mark Butler, who, when I was sixteen years old, was one of my earliest boyfriends. It was a short-lived, extremely innocent romance, and the reason for it ending had profoundly positive reverberations throughout my life.
Every now and again, over a beer at the Irish Pub, both Lance and I love to trawl back into the past and find the people who had the most profound influence on our thinking processes. We find this a really happy, inspiring conversation, and more importantly, it makes us grateful for the good things that we’ve experienced and the wonderful people that we’ve met in our lives. While we both realize that we all influence each other in ways that sometimes we cannot even begin to understand, we base our selection of people on the type of influence that to us is mind-blowing; it changes the way that we interact with people and it alters our view of our environment. We lifted the idea from Mitch Albom’s book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which is the story of war veteran Eddie who dies on his 83rd birthday and finds himself in the afterlife. Here, Eddie meets with five people, some strangers to him, who either influenced him, or were influenced by him. In turn, they take him through the different phases of his life, and as he travels with them and listens to what they have to tell him, he discovers that his own life, one that he had felt to be ‘uninspired’ was in actual fact, filled with meaning and purpose.
I met Mark when I was sixteen and still in Sixth Form College. He was a year older than me, had already left school and was out in the working world as a trainee electrician. He’d attended my school for many years, and I’d seen him around, but we’d never crossed paths. He was very much involved with his childhood sweetheart Julie, both of whom would often be seen canoodling on the school grounds, a couple of love-birds in their own world.
Mark and I came across each other after his best friend Chris started dating my then best friend Collette. Collette had mentioned my name at a gathering, and Mark said he remembered seeing me around when he’d been at school. He asked her to ask me if I would meet up with him. I agreed, at the same time wondering what had happened to his girlfriend Julie.
At the age of sixteen, I was filled with an inauthentic confidence that came from my new-found popularity with young men. Having lived through an abusive relationship with my parents, on the inside I was emotionally dysfunctional; I had no sense of self, little self-esteem and I felt myself to be unlovable. The events of my life had made me feel invisible; my mother always put her well-being before mine, neither of my parents ever showed me affection, and neither praised anything I did. In school, I didn’t achieve much, was unremarkable and to my own mind then, forgettable. In my early teens I was very much a loner; I suffered low-grade depression and didn’t feel I had much to offer the world.
By the time I reached sixteen, I had discovered make-up, fashion, and the power beauty has over a lot of men. I had started to go out on dates with boys my own age and attended school parties. By now, I was considered beautiful to a lot of the young men, and I liked the attention they proffered upon me. My sense of loneliness was abating as I drew considerable interest with my new-found manicured looks. Even the young women found me interesting, their curiosity based on my appearance alone. I learned that no-one expected much from a beautiful girl, and it was just as well, as I didn’t have much to offer in the intellectual sense. But I got what I’d needed for a long time. I’d never felt important before, but now, people stared at me, sought out my company, and treated me with a measure of awe that was both an enigma and a delight. As my popularity grew, so did my obsession with my looks. It was the one thing that got me attention; in school, beautiful girls had celebrity status, people talked about them, watched what they wore and were interested in their youthful banal conversation. Now that I’d achieved overnight ‘stardom’ (cosmetics are amazing, yes!) I became vigilant. I put on a daily fashion show. I walked the grounds of the school with my head held high. I was never seen with a hair out of place or a face clean of make-up.
Enter Mark. By our third date we knew we liked each other a lot; he subsequently declared that he would tell his girlfriend Julie that their relationship was over if he and I were to be exclusive. I was only too happy about this since he constantly talked about my beauty, admired my great clothes and always bragged about being with a girl that everybody stared at. I needed to hear this daily, three times an hour; it was medication for my inner dysfunction, and he provided massive doses of it. Julie was history; I felt superior to her, because he had dumped her for me. Besides, she was overweight, had stringy hair and wore ugly silver braces on her teeth. I couldn’t understand what he had seen in her. Why someone who looked the way she did had been his childhood sweetheart was a mystery as deep as the universe to me.
We were together for almost three months, and in that time Julie had hovered somewhere in the background. In the beginning, I was confident. I had the advantage in my looks. She couldn’t even begin to get close. She sometimes showed up at pubs or clubs that we visited. Sometimes she cried when she spoke to him. I impatiently wondered about her dignity. He didn’t seem to think the same, always feeling and showing compassion towards her. Mark and I had a lot of fun together. We laughed a lot, talked a lot; in short, we really enjoyed each other’s company. By the third month of our relationship, he became pensive and quiet at times. Once, when I picked up a gift that Julie had bought him during their time together, he took it from me quickly and shoved it into a drawer. I didn’t see him quite as often by this time, though when we did see each other he was just as nice as always.
One day, in school, I received a visit from Julie who informed me that she and Mark had seen each other a few times and that she felt I ought to know. She thought that Mark was struggling to let go of our friendship and that if I finished it myself, that would solve his dilemma. He liked me a lot and wasn’t sure what to do. I was somewhat surprised by her visit and new to this sort of confrontation. I told her that I would talk to Mark about it and would probably do what she asked if there was doubt in his mind.
Mark was hugely apologetic and said that he couldn’t explain what was happening. He wanted to stay around with me, but absolutely loved Julie. He could see it would be difficult to have both. He talked about their childhood love and how he felt. He kept saying how much fun he had with me and that he didn’t understand why things had to be this way. He felt swept along by a force he didn’t understand. Strangely, I got it all in an instant. He loved her. He had a soul bond with her. He was young, and had simply wanted a fling after a long relationship that had started in childhood, and I had come along. He had been entranced by my looks and had mistaken this fascination for something deeper. He didn’t love me at all. He liked me a lot, and had formed a solid friendship with me, but it didn’t go beyond that. Now that he had experienced my company, and had seen that true love was very different from infatuation, I knew that I ought to let him move on with his soul mate. Some young men like Mark, I realized, are easily distracted by beauty and sex, and it took young women like Julie and myself to encourage them to acknowledge the meaninglessness of such superficial choices.
Something was transformed in me in that last meeting with Mark. I was sad to lose someone who had become a good friend, yet I was unbelievably happy to discover that physical appearance has nothing to do with love. I learned from Mark that we are loved for who we are, not what we look like or what we wear. Mark healed something in me when he described his love for Julie. He made me see that I didn’t have to work hard for love through my appearance, that I could let go of an idea that was beginning to enslave me. It came to me in an instant that the attention that I got was meaningless; it was an illusion of love that I had conjured up in my own mind. I saw that love came from a deeper stratum of our being, that it was indescribable, and it defied all human logic. Mark made me see that one day I would be loved for me, and that when time ravaged my body, my soul would still be there, valid in its own right, and loved by people who would see beyond the surface to something that was unspeakably exquisite.
Throughout my life I have often thought about Mark. On the days when I would stress about going to the supermarket without my make-up on, I would remember that I was lovable no matter what I did. When I put on weight and wondered if I wouldn’t find love because I was too fat, I would remember Mark’s love for Julie and feel valid again. Through Mark, I learned that I would never have to earn love, that it was my birthright. And because of him, I shifted my focus to my inner life. He made me realize that I had to work on my inner beauty if I was to live my life in a healthy manner. Mark returned something to me that had been lost for a long time. I don’t know where he is today, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll tell him all this when I meet him in ‘Heaven’.