Writing this story is hard, but it’s something I feel like I need to do, in order to testify to the miracle of forgiveness.
So far I’ve made only veiled references to my relationship with Junaid – but loving him and losing him has possibly been the single most defining event in my adult life, at least so far. If I’ve kept the details mostly to myself, it’s because I understand from the outside there’s no logical reason why such a short lived experience should have affected me so much.
Case in point: I have a friend whose husband was diagnosed with cancer; she fought the good fight with him, lost him, grieved him, and fell in love again, all in less time than it took me to go from loving Junaid to arriving at total forgiveness and understanding after his departure from my life.
I don’t know why my heart bruises so deeply or takes so long to mend, I just know that we all work on our own timelines, and we can’t rush it or force it. I guess I’ve been silent because I wanted to protect the tender places in my heart from judgment or comparison.
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Junaid Part 1: Love & Loss
I met Junaid on an online dating website towards the end of 2012. We began talking around the time when I was packing up my house in Bend, Oregon and relocating to San Diego. Junaid was also in a transitional period, dividing his time between Pakistan, his country of origin and the location of his extended family, and San Diego, where he’d lived for several years and was operating a successful business with his best friends.
Our communications grew intense even from a distance, and our hearts were already intertwined by the time we met in person in San Diego in early 2013. Prior to knowing Junaid, I’d always furrowed my eyebrows with skepticism when I heard people telling me how they’d married or exchanged lifetime commitments with their beloved after just a few months of knowing each other. But before we’d even met in person, Junaid and I were joking that we both understood, now, how people could jump into marriage so quickly.
I’ve never felt so completely seen by anyone, or so deeply connected to someone as I did with him.
I was 32 when we met, and by that time I’d already been living independently of my family for more than half my life, having left home just shy of my 16th birthday. In all that time on my own, I never lived with a boyfriend or experienced a significant long term commitment with another man. I’d had many conversations with Junaid about my insecurities that I would never be loved, my deep fears of being abandoned after letting someone into my heart, and feeling exhausted from managing everything in life alone for so long.
Then there came a day when Junaid looked into my eyes and said, “Put your life in my hands. You don’t have to do this alone anymore, let me take care of everything for you. Let yourself rest in my care.” In that very moment, my heart and soul responded with YES, with total trust, and all of my doubts and my walls came down. I took the part of my heart that I’d been saving all my life for my husband, and I invested it completely in him. I believed with unwavering certainty that my wait was over, that I’d found the man I would spend the rest of my life with.
It was not long after this moment that the cracks started to appear. Junaid had recently been through a divorce after more than a decade of a difficult arranged marriage. He had three daughters, and was struggling to make visitation arrangements with their mother. Although when we started our relationship, he assured me several times that he was totally recovered from the divorce and ready to move on, doubts were beginning to creep into his heart as to whether he was ready to marry again, and the emotional strain of being away from his children was taking a toll on him, as well.
Some days he’d seem distant, or comment to me about just needing some time to be on his own for awhile, but he assured me that I was still the one he’d want to marry when he was ready to take that step again. He promised me, no matter what, that he would never abandon me, that he would always take care of me. Always within days of saying he needed space, he’d reach out and ask to see me again, and once again our time together would be passionate and deeply connected.
One night during dinner at our favorite restaurant, he removed the ring I wore on the second to last finger of my right hand. He asked me, “This is the size of your wedding ring finger, correct?” and held my eyes with a mischievous look as he slipped my ring into his pocket. A few days later, he kissed the top of my hand and said to me, “I’m going to buy you a ruby ring, because rubies are more precious than diamonds, and so are you.”
What was I to think? In his distant moments, I told myself I just needed to be patient until the aftershocks of divorce had settled down. In his connected moments, any thought of the distance or the need for patience completely vanished from my mind.
Then, on a day just like any other day, and with nothing to give me any warning, he simply didn’t show up for our dinner plans. He didn’t answer when I sent him text messages asking if he was on his way. He didn’t pick up the phone when I called. I didn’t hear back from him that night, or the next day, or the day after that. Calls, texts, emails, everything went unanswered. The only way I knew he had not died in a traffic accident on the way to dinner, or that he was not lying unconscious in a hospital bed, was from seeing a few random updates from him on Facebook. He didn’t speak to me that week, or the next week, or the week after that.
My trust in him, and my trust in my love for him, were both so deep, it was almost impossible for me to believe his intention was to end our relationship without a word of goodbye, and to never see me again. I cycled through anger, through devastating hurt, but always back again into forgiveness and hope.
Several weeks went by, and I was growing exhausted from passing the places filled with our memories and bursting into tears, from spending hours parked at the beach after dark, sobbing in my car. When I saw on Facebook that Junaid had returned to Pakistan, the scales in my heart tipped past the fulcrum point, away from hope and towards believing it was over. In early summer 2013, I moved back up to Portland and tried to start fresh.
In spite of everything, I would still write emails to Junaid about the things going on in my life, almost the way I did when we were first getting to know each other – as if we were somehow still connected, as if I thought he cared what was happening in my reality. Eventually he called me on the phone and told me what I should have realized long before, that he was never going to want a relationship with me, that I should just stop writing to him, that he was never coming back. My heart broke all over again.
I spent the summer of 2013 living like a shell of a person. My insides felt completely burned out. It seemed like I’d reached the end of my story, that everything would soon be over. I’d pass my reflection in the mirror and a shock would jolt through me, just from seeing that I was still so young – because if I wasn’t looking right at myself, I could have sworn by the way I felt inside that I was ancient and weathered.
During the day, I would throw myself into work. During the evenings and weekends, I spent most of my time alone in my apartment, no music, no television, only silence as I stared off into space.
In one such moment, sitting on my couch and holding a cup of tea while I stared silently at the wall, all of a sudden I felt the presence of Junaid’s spirit enter the room. My heart reached out desperately for him and I started to speak out loud, as if he was really in the room, “Please come back, please don’t leave me.” The feeling of his presence stayed with me for a long moment – it felt as though he was standing on the other side of the room, facing away from me, but not wanting to leave.
The impression I gathered was that this wasn’t a visit from Junaid of the here and now, it was Junaid looking back on his life, after everything had already come to pass, and that his heart held regret. For some reason, it was spending this moment with his spirit that caused his loss to sink into my bones, more than his physical departure, more than his silence, even more than his phone call to tell me it was over. Sensing his regret, along with his unwillingness to face back towards me or to respond to my pleas, I began to accept on a soul level that our lives would always be permanently separated.
At the end of August, I wrote Junaid an email again, just to wish him a happy birthday. A few days later, he wrote back to tell me that he’d decided to enter another arranged marriage, and that he and his new wife had been married on his birthday.
I’m sure you’re wondering how there could be any reason left for my heart to break, but once again I felt shattered. Believing he’d left me because he wasn’t ready to be married again was one thing; learning that he’d chosen to marry another woman instead of me, and so soon after we’d been together, brought me to a whole new level of devastation.
After several horrible days of mourning, I reached deep inside myself to find my survival instinct. I bought myself a ring that says the word “love” to replace the ring Junaid had taken off my hand, to remind myself that love was still possible for me. I also bought a plane ticket to Europe and a new backpack, and within a few weeks I’d arrived in Madrid, determined to jumpstart my life again.
If you were following my blog in 2013, you’ll realize that this brings me to the time I met Santiago, and that this post about Junaid is the back story to why I was so confused and broken hearted when we met. My adventures with Santiago started just 2-3 weeks after learning about Junaid’s second marriage.
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Junaid Part 2: Arriving At Forgiveness
Forgiveness is something I was striving for, even during the summer before Junaid’s second marriage. Try as I might, I kept coming up against the feeling that it would be so much easier to forgive, if only he would talk to me, would acknowledge how he hurt me and apologize – if only I could hear from him an explanation of why he did what he did and make some sense of it.
But the fact I discovered is, not everyone who hurts you is going to apologize; they may not be able to explain their actions even to themselves, let alone will they be able or willing to explain them to you. The work of forgiveness is still your responsibility, whether or not you receive the apology or the explanation you deserve.
I’ll save the narration of what happened between Santiago and me, and how I ended up living back in San Diego, for another story – for now, it’s enough to know that I was back in California by summer of 2015.
After one emotionally charged email I sent before leaving on my trip to Europe in September 2013, I had not reached out to Junaid again, out of respect for his new life and his new wife, and I suppose also out of the realization that saying anything more was completely futile.
It took me an entire year from the time I returned from Europe at the end of 2013, until a quiet fireside moment in December of 2014, when I realized my heart had finally completed the journey from being the hard desert rock of a year ago to once again being the soft fertile ground it had been before I’d met Junaid – the way it needed to be in order for me to allow love to take root once again.
But I think, even at that point, I had a pretty strong victim narrative running in the background; although I felt on the surface of things that I had forgiven Junaid, my forgiveness journey was definitely not complete. It took me yet another six months to deeply understand that I’d played a role in my own heartbreak.
In time, I realized I’d set myself up for heartbreak by investing 100% of my faith in only seeing what I wanted to see – the moments of happiness and connection I felt with Junaid. I had deliberately ignored the truth I didn’t want to see, that no matter how genuine our connection was, at the time I knew him Junaid was not ready to invest himself in loving me or making a commitment to me.
At the time when we were together, I simply did not have the breadth of experience to understand how it’s possible to genuinely care for someone and witness that they are a wonderful person, and still not be in a place where your heart can fully open to loving them.
I decided to use the opportunity of Ramadan in summer 2015 to take an accounting of myself, and with reflection I discovered that I’d been remiss in thinking Junaid had been the agent of my heartbreak, as well as in focusing my attention on the apology I thought he owed to me. In fact, I discovered the only thing that was any of my business was the apology I owed to him!
With this in mind, I wrote him a brief but sincere apology for what I’d discovered was blameworthy in my own behavior, most importantly that I should have seen that he was still hurting, confused and in need of healing from his divorce, and that the unselfish and loving thing for me to have done would have been for me to give him the space he needed to recover and figure out for himself what he truly wanted.
Junaid wrote back with a brief apology as well, and I assumed that the matter between us was settled and that we would be unlikely to hear from each other again.
Three more months went by, and out of the blue, I received another email from Junaid, in which he not only apologized again but told me that he makes frequent prayers for me. I was genuinely surprised to discover that he ever thought of me at all, let alone that he would pray for me.
We each exchanged another email, giving each other a brief update on our lives; he told me that he has experienced “tremendous turmoil” in his life the last few years. I noticed in myself that instead of reacting to that news with any kind of satisfaction, I was genuinely sad to know he was not living the fairytale “happily ever after” I’d been imagining for him all this time. Still, I didn’t think there was a lot left to say, and so a few more months of silence went by.
In January of this year, Junaid wrote me again to say that his first wife had absconded from Pakistan with his three daughters, and her location was unknown. He asked me if I would be willing to help look in a few locations in San Diego where he thought they might be. Throughout the next month, we corresponded regularly, mostly exchanging perfunctory emails about conversations with lawyers and how to pursue his custodial rights and so on.
As I was preparing to leave on this trip to South Africa, I wrote him a note saying, “If there is anything else you’d like me to do for you in San Diego, please let me know, as I will be leaving town in the next few days.”
Junaid’s response surprised me – he wrote back almost immediately and told me it was very sad that I would be leaving, and asked if I was on Skype or WhatsApp. I responded that yes, of course I was, and that I hadn’t changed my contact information since he deleted me from those channels years ago. He responded by finding me in both locations, and then for the first time in almost three years, since the day he called me to tell me that we were definitely over, we spoke to each other on the phone.
I have to say, it was an absolutely weird experience to talk to him, it seemed at first like I was hearing someone’s voice from beyond the grave. For the first many minutes of talking to him, I didn’t even know what I was feeling. Predominantly I just experienced my brain wanting to use this as a potentially one-time opportunity to finally understand what had happened and why.
I asked him all the questions; what he told me, in short, was that he was concerned I would regret my decision to marry into another culture and that I would leave him, and he didn’t want “another broken family”. (For the record, his fear was not based on any hesitations on my part.) He said he was convinced by his family into marrying his current wife because they believed “she had a good reputation” and she would be faithful to him.
Most of what he said to me was veiled; I feel like he left a lot of gray area intentionally, and I have the sense that he was being very mindful of wanting to be honorable and polite to his current wife. On a certain level, it doesn’t really matter what he would say even if he were speaking completely candidly; if he has no intention of changing his circumstances then it’s just as well that he leaves things unspoken.
One thing he did say, however, is that he realizes now that he would have done much better if he’d chosen for himself. And what he said next had a profound effect on me: he expressed his confusion and sense of betrayal, that in spite of always doing his best to make the “right” decisions, in spite of choosing faith and family instead of making “selfish” choices, all of his sincerity has led him into a lifetime of conflict and disappointment.
In that moment, I realized that I’ve experienced that very same astonishing disappointment – “the breaking of the idol of my own goodness” if you will – and my heart was moved into total compassion and a level of forgiveness I didn’t even realize I was lacking before.
I deeply believe, now, that whatever terrible results may have come from his choices, they were made in a sincere attempt to do the right thing – I believe that he was doing the absolute best he could do, and that’s as much as anyone can ever be asked about.
I witness that moment of achieving complete forgiveness as a miracle, but it has also opened up a great deal of more complicated questions for me, which I mostly approach philosophically – questions about the morality behind love and promises and freedom and commitment.
I may be grateful for the opportunity to have tasted complete forgiveness, I may be grateful for the ability to transform my pain into life lessons and to have matured in my understanding of love, but I’ll never look back on this experience and be grateful that it happened or grateful for how it turned out.
I guess I’m admitting that although I may have a better understanding of forgiveness, I’m still lacking in my experience of redemption.