I’m driving down the freeway, letting my left arm dangle out the window. I like the feeling of the breeze whipping against it. And then—instinctively—I clench my fingers together in a fist because I’m afraid my wedding ring will slip off and go clattering down the road. And then I remember: I’m not wearing my wedding ring. I haven’t for at least two years. And yet… I can still feel it. Physically.
And it brings me back to my wedding day. I remember looking at my new wedding band as I gripped the steering wheel while pulling out of the church parking lot. “It feels strange,” I said. My father smiled. “Get used to it,” he replied. And I did.
Over the years, it became like just another part of my body, physically inseparable from who I was, like my brown eyes or my arms and feet. It constantly reminded me that I was now joined to my wife, and she and I had become one flesh. The ring literally bonded with my skin to remind me, and others, of this reality.
Years went by. My wife and I made love and argued and cried and wondered how we’d pay bills. We suffered miscarriages. We pulled through. We were young and we learned as we went. And through it all, that titanium ring clung to my finger, an anchor holding me in place even as life circumstances threatened to rip our union apart. I was proud to wear it. It made me feel special. It made me feel connected to another person through every trial and celebration. It was part of me.
One anniversary, we went snorkeling in the Pacific. My fingers shrunk in the cold water and my ring slid off. I quickly clenched my fist and barely saved it from sinking. A close call, but I clung to it tightly and swam the rest of the day with my left hand balled into a fist. I was not going to lose that ring. And I never did.
Then one night, I came home and my wife sat me down on the couch and made a confession that shattered our marriage. We split up. I moved out and found a new house. We started our divorce paperwork. But I still wore the ring. It was still too much a part of me, and the way I saw it, we were still officially married.
A few months before our divorce became official, I finally took off the ring. For weeks, it rested on my nightstand. Then I placed it in a desk drawer where I couldn’t see it, where I wouldn’t constantly be reminded of it. Gradually, the pale line and indentation on my ring finger faded and it looked as if I’d never worn it.
But then one day after the divorce, it happened. I was driving and I felt—physically felt—the ring on my finger. I clenched my fist to protect it, but then realized, of course, that it wasn’t there anymore.
Medical professionals call this “phantom pain.” Often, when someone loses a limb or other body part, the body still “feels” the appendage as if it had never been removed. Missing feet itch. Missing knees bend. Missing hands grasp. What causes phantom pain? Even today, no one knows for sure. Current theories focus on altered neurological pathways as the culprit.
The term “phantom limb” was first coined by American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell in 1871. He described the phenomenon of “spirit limbs… haunting soldiers.” Occasionally, I still feel my wedding ring. Not always. But from time to time, it still “haunts” me. Maybe it always will.
It’s been estimated that at least 80 percent of amputees experience phantom sensations at some point, while others experience it for the rest of their lives. Maybe it’ll be the same with me. Or maybe one day, I’ll get married again and the pains will go away. I’m not sure. It’s all a mystery, just like most things involving the body and mind and soul.
But I believe the pain can be good. Every time I “feel” that ring, it’s like a holy reminder that I lost something precious, a once-vital part of myself that will always be missing now. And that’s okay. Because that just reminds me that I’m alive and I’m capable of feeling and loving. And healing.
And as I think about it, I suspect that the path to healing involves loosening my grip. When I drive down the road, I may occasionally feel that phantom wedding band slipping off my finger. But I don’t need to clench my fist tight anymore. I’m not going to lose the ring. The ring is gone. I just need to let it go. The future is ahead.