Rebuilding a life is hard enough. Doing it without an emotional roadmap across two continents adds all kinds of degrees of difficulty. Ben Laden wrote this, from half a world away late last year, as he contemplated the road(s) ahead.
November 2016: I’m in Chicago, USA, attending a film festival. America is just about to elect an orange man to The White House for the very first time, the Cubs have just won The World Series for the first time in 108 years. I’m batting 0 and 1 for marriage, but it feels like something historic is about to happen.
‘Are you happy now?’ It’s a question I often seem to ask myself these days. Three years since everything changed and I still don’t have an answer other than to keep truckin’ for my daughter, for those that love me, maybe even for those that don’t and finally for me. It wasn’t a picnic to start with, that’s for sure. I’d forgotten what is was to be single, had accepted my lot in life more or less, and resolved that ‘happiness’ was some kind of illusion, or a thing that other people had.
I don’t want to get into what happened in the breakup, to apportion blame, who was right, or wrong, because what would that serve? Probably I wasn’t a great husband. Perhaps back then not a great father either. In the end, The Way That Seemed Shut opened up and became the only path I could take. What I didn’t know at the time is that that’s what she’d wanted too. A lot’s happened since the papers were signed. In a strange way, we kind of get on better than we ever did together. Every fortnight I make the payment.
Now though, as I sit here and reflect at the invitation of a friend, in a different city, with a new love, I still can’t quite piece together what the rest of my life looks like. For a start, I’ve gone from the suffocation of a bad marriage into the strange realm of the long-distance relationship. There’s no question that I love her, but we’re fifteen thousand kilometres apart, although less in miles. My new existence often seems defined by distance. The people I care about the most, her, my daughter, my family, are mostly a long way from me. When I’m with them, I feel a great warmth. When they’re gone, I feel their absence keenly, but I also enjoy space and solitude. Being alone doesn’t frighten me in the way it used to.
Let’s be clear. I’m not proposing any answers here. That would probably be better suited to an outside eye. I’m too close to all of this to really have a clear perspective. I know that I’m just trying to do what’s right, at least what I feel to be right. To be true to my own heart and follow its course. I accept that there are consequences for my actions and I need to be okay with who I am now. Yes, I genuinely try to be a better man than I was yesterday and, tomorrow, aim to be better still than the one I am today. I listen a lot more now. We are all selfish creatures at the root, but I am responsible for the hearts of others and thankful for the love and trust they’ve placed in me.
So here in this different city I sit. Writing in my underwear while she is at work. Later I’ll clean the house a bit and eventually put on some pants, I guess. Her aged cats snore in tandem. One week here and they’ve only just stopped asking me to leave with their eyes. The election for the leader of the free world is but a few days away. We’re all holding our breath, but mainly I’m just thinking about her. Then I see my daughter’s face calling out ‘Daddy!’ and I want to get right back on that plane and fly south across the hemispheres and take her up in my arms and tell her everything is going to be okay.
‘Everything is going to be okay.’
I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but a week or so back I was here when the city erupted in celebration as its favourite sons won the cup after an eternity of waiting. It felt like a great time to be alive and here in this place; laughing and joking with friends and her. Sure, I have to say things twice since English isn’t always so easy to understand here. No big deal. Among the whooping & hooting and firework gunshots I felt joy. As I head for home and hope has been voted out of office, there’s still plenty of celebrating going on, but I don’t feel much like partying anymore. Aside from my concerns about the future for my American friends and all of us now, I know it’ll be a long eight months till I see her smiling face again without a digital render. It’s a long time to be apart from the one you love, but my responsibilities lie at home. As a parent with a business to run, I don’t have time to linger on love and its fragility.
A few months back we were standing together outside a bar drinking something fancy. I noticed that most people there were carrying on like they were having the time of their lives. When I was married I remember driving past places like this and feeling bitter and hating those with the time to idle away the hours like that. Clearly I wasn’t in a good spot, but at the time I despised others’ enjoyment. Now I was there, but still watching with a curious gaze. I suggested that we start laughing to pretend we were on top of the world too. She agreed and we both started mouthing silent witticisms and chuckling in turn. The funny thing is that when you mime it, soon you’re there anyway and before long we were roaring at nothing and staring into each other’s eyes like there was no tomorrow.
Well, I better put some pants on as the cats are beginning to look askance. Only a few more days together and sure a clean kitchen ain’t no diamond ring, but if it makes her happy… I won’t clean the litter tray, but I’ll cook and say whatever nice things come into my head as long as I actually believe them. Whether they’re ‘true’, or not, who’s to say? When I get on that plane after we’ve said our goodbyes, I know I’m going to feel a great weight in my heart. Distance… well you know how it goes.
Three years back I thought I’d never love again. I was wrong. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. Probably I’ll be making mistakes until my very last day.
I won’t be famous, won’t ever do anything that changes the fate of mankind. I won’t write something that moves a generation, or produce any work of art that transcends Time and Space. I won’t be remembered. I have lived and loved. By my words and actions I am defined and that’s okay. For now, I continue. The pain of regret is thankfully fading with the dust of memory and I see a future of possibility. With her I see a kind of happiness that I had forgotten. She breathed life back into me, into the parts of me where there was none.
Back home things will return to the way they were. A weekly routine; work and a little play. Paying the bills, keeping my head above water. I’ll wait for her to come. Then we’ll start the next chapter. No answers, just a day at a time. One foot in front of the other and hopefully some fun along the way.
Ben Laden is the director of Little Big Shots, Australia’s International Film Festival for Kids. Happening soon in Melbourne and Sydney. See: littlebigshots.com.au