Sheila Reynolds Trainor died this morning, Saturday, Oct. 21. Hearing that news in a 6 a.m. phone call from my son, our only child, his voice husky with grief, sparked a very complicated reaction. Lots of thoughts, feelings and memories to sift through. We often talk about losing loved ones, but not very often about the death of an ex-spouse.
We were married for 23 years, and divorced for 22. But, as I learned when I got the call, the bond never dissolves completely. Her dying resurrected the life we shared, the life we so painstakingly built such a long, long time ago. It brought that life back to life, back before distance and disappointment set in.
But the beginning was hopeful and open and youthful and good. I had forgotten. Nothing, it seemed, could have penetrated the wall that separated then from now — except her dying.
Sheila was gifted with kids and had an exuberant smile. As a primary-school teacher, she was a natural. We roamed the lakefront together and entertained friends at our Rogers Park apartment in the 1970s, and we were good at it. We tried for a very long time to have children of our own and finally, with the aid of fertility treatments and after enduring two miscarriages, we birthed a beautiful boy, whom we loved sometimes too much, sometimes not well enough and, occasionally, just right.
She was nothing if not strong-willed and stubbornly persistent, which eventually paid off. After being diagnosed with MS, 20-some years ago, after an accident that damaged her foot so badly it relegated her to a wheelchair, after operations and myriad medical treatments, she fought her way back to a standing position and eventually to walking again. It was remarkable and I admired her for it.
She was childlike in all the ways that are brilliant and effervescent and fine, and some of the ways that aren’t. She was a bull in life’s china shop, but her son and grandsons — and most everyone else — will never forget the warmth of her hugs. She was an unavoidable presence at Brookdale and a fixture in Austin Gardens, where anyone who walks their dogs likely remembers her. Patrolling the path in her motorized wheelchair, you wouldn’t want to get in her way. But she knew the name of every dog she encountered.
She made an impression, and for better and worse, she was her own person.
It would take a long time to untangle the causes of her death. It was a perfect storm of peculiar circumstances. She was hospitalized for several weeks, then moved to rehab. We thought she was improving, but some nosedives are impossible to pull out of.
Tonight after a complicated day, I watched a beautiful, moving, Korean film titled, Past Lives, about childhood sweethearts, separated while young, who never get over each other. A love story worth seeing, but especially powerful for me. Over the course of their respective journeys, these two discover what many of us learn: that our one and only life incorporates numerous “past lives,” mini-reincarnations that inform and impact our “present.”
At the end of the film, as the now grown-up man prepares to depart, he says to the now grown-up woman, “What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then?”
No one seems to know, but I do know revisiting our past lives is sometimes unavoidable.
Sheila and I had a past life worth remembering, even though it turned into a different life. The memory of that happier time was eclipsed — until this morning.
And perhaps one other moment: About five years back, I attended the funeral for her mother, a woman with many past lives whom I admired, and when it ended Sheila came over and thanked me for coming. Then she took my arm and we walked up the aisle of Holy Name Cathedral just as we did on that June morning in 1978, our wedding day. Totally different, and yet so familiar. On both trips up that aisle we were heading bravely into whatever comes next — this time no longer together, but not entirely apart either.
Past lives come back sometimes to revisit us.
That was one of those days.
Today was another.