When I was putting my kids to bed last night, we’d just finished reading our nightly chapter of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Second: The Reptile Room and we were talking about what we were going to do this weekend when tears started streaming down my face for no apparent reason. I wasn’t particularly sad or upset about anything, but the tears started flowing and I couldn’t stop them. I’ve been under an enormous amount of stress lately and I think it finally just overflowed. I tried to hide them the best I could, but the girls could tell something was wrong. Emma sat up, gave me a big hug, and said, “Don’t be sad, Dad. You and Mom can always get married again.”
Emma has brought up the possibility of a reconciliation before and each time I have been very careful to impress upon her the unlikelihood of that ever occurring. I’ve avoided using the word “never,” but I think I’ve covered all of the synonyms.
Emma isn’t the only person who has suggested the possibility of a remarriage somewhere down the road, and I can understand why. My ex-wife and I looked great on paper. We loved each other, we got along quite well, we were a damned handsome couple, and our personalities were just different enough that we had the potential to complement each other beautifully. To many people, we were the dream couple and, after the girls came along, we were the dream family. So, when I have to break the divorce news to friends and acquaintances who haven’t yet heard, there is usually a look of utter disbelief on their faces as they take in the news.
I, myself, had never even considered the possibility of a reconciliation once I was divorced. It was absolutely out of the question. If things got so bad that we needed to get divorced, I was through. That was it. It was over. And in the past, when my relationships were over, they were over. I never had any problem putting them in my past and moving on. (In fact, I may have been a little too good at putting them in my past and moving on.)
This time, however, I’m having a hard time letting go. And that has taken a heavy toll on me and, unfortunately, everyone around me. Even though I’ve managed to shield my daughters from a lot of the garbage of the past four years, I know that it has had an indirect, but profound, impact on their lives because of the direct, but profound, impact it has had on mine. Sure, I’ve put on a brave face and done a good job of maintaining a positive, upbeat attitude, but they’re perceptive kids. They know I’m unhappy.
See that? That’s me in my grandparents’ back yard in Lovell, Wyoming, the summer I turned five. I don’t think I’d ever seen that particular photo before my sister, Jenny, gave me a framed copy of it along with one of the kindest notes I’ve ever received. It said, in part:
“I found this photo several weeks ago when Amy and I were sorting through family pictures. It made me giggle out loud. This picture is to me the absolute essence of pure joy. I’d put the photo down and then look at it again and smile; and then I’d lay it down and then I’d pick it up again and laugh. I saw picture after picture of your sweet face that absolutely radiates light.
“The thing is, this is still how I see you. Your life may be messy, and you may not feel so full of “pure joy,” but that beautiful spirit that shines out of those photos is still there….Whether you realize it or not, every time I see you I see this little boy and his beautiful smiling eyes.”
Unfortunately, my daughters don’t have the same advantage my sister does. They don’t remember me “pre-garbage.” Emma was in pre-school and Zoë was still in diapers when our marriage was blown out of the water. And as I lay in bed last night it occurred to me that, with their young memories, they’ve probably never known me as anything but a sad, worried man. That kid on the tire swing probably seems as foreign to them as he sometimes seems to me. If that’s true, I should be ashamed of myself. No child deserves to grow up with a parent who’s in a state of perpetual, low-grade sorrow.
One of the reasons that I haven’t been writing much lately is that I’ve had a few post-divorce grieving periods in the past few months where I’ve been so white-hot angry with my ex-wife that anything I would have written on the subject would have been so full of venom that I would have had to stop typing occasionally to wipe the spittle from the screen. OK, it wasn’t that bad, but I have been having some “issues.”
These types of “issues” can often be avoided by simply avoiding your ex-spouse in the rather stressful period immediately following a divorce. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work when you have kids. When you have kids, you are bound to your ex-spouse in ways that are unavoidable. For instance, I live about one mile from my ex-wife and we have to interact on almost a daily basis to coordinate our lives with the girls. That would be hard even under the best of circumstances, but it becomes infinitely harder when you’re in the pathetic, futile, and supremely uncool position of still being in love with your ex-wife.
Every time I see her, it kills me. And I see her a lot. “Every day a little death.” And even when she’s not around, there are remembrances of her everywhere I turn. She’s been haunting my dreams and now she’s even turning up in movies. When I was watching Something’s Gotta Give, I couldn’t help but notice that Amanda Peet has a figure that is almost identical to my ex-wife’s. The other people in the audience were probably wondering why someone kept making guttural, choking noises every time Ms. Peet appeared in her bikini.
We also share the same friends, which has complicated things all along, but I didn’t know just how bad it could get until I learned that one of our long-time, mutual friends wants to start dating my ex-wife. What in the world am I supposed to do with that? Of course, it’s not my job to do anything with it. Of course, it’s none of my business. Of course, this is what she’s supposed to do…get on with her life. But when I heard that bit of news, I think my brain imploded. I just don’t have the neural pathways necessary to process that kind of information in any meaningful way. It just turns into pain.
And, because of the kids, I will never be able to avoid that kind of pain entirely. I can insulate myself from it to some extent, but I’m still going to have to sit by and watch a lot of stuff that I don’t want to watch. Just think, I’ll have the pleasure of being on a first-name basis with every new boyfriend that comes along. And I’m sure the girls won’t hesitate to share interesting tidbits about them. “Hey, Dad, Kirk took us to the mall in his Hummer…” “Hey, Dad, I think Derek makes a lot more money than you…” “Hey, Dad, Jean-Marc speaks French and owns three art galleries. He’s taking us to Paris next summer…”
Can I just eviscerate myself now, please, and get it over with? OK, I’m joking about the evisceration (sort of), but I’m not joking about the rest of it. This is a real problem. But it is my problem, and the only person who can solve it is me, and I need to solve it now. For my daughters’ sake, if nothing else.
What I could really use right now is either 5 years or 5,000 miles. In 5 years, a lot of these problems will have worked themselves out, but that doesn’t help me much right now. Moving 5,000 miles away would also solve the problem, except it wouldn’t actually solve the problem. I just wouldn’t have to deal with it on a daily basis. What I would have to deal with, however, is the absence of my daughters.
So, the only real solution is to let go. Let go completely. Let go, move on, and get on with the process of living our lives (separately) and raising our daughters (together). I’m taking some concrete steps to do just that, but I don’t pretend that it’s going to be easy. I don’t pretend that I’m going to be able to turn off my feelings like a faucet. In fact, I’m quite proud of the fact that I can’t. After all, I promised not to. I promised to love her forever, no matter what. I also have some strongly-held religious beliefs that make letting go even harder. But it’s the right thing to do…if for no other reason than it’s the only thing I can do.
The irony is that, for all my whining about letting go, there’s honestly nothing to let go of. I never had it in the first place. What I’m holding on to isn’t what we had, but the idea of what we could have had. What we did have didn’t work…period. And no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t make it work. And in the end it looked like it would never work. (Emma’s not reading this, so I can use the “n” word.)
I don’t want my daughters to think that what we had is what a marriage is supposed to be. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that’s the best they can reasonably expect out of life. Right now, the only thing I can teach them, by example, is how to have a “very good divorce.” But what they really need is for me to teach them, by example, how to have a real, solid, caring, passionate, working relationship in the first place.
I missed my first possible opportunity for that a few weeks ago when I turned down an offer for a date. In the condition I’ve been in, I felt that inflicting myself on the fairer sex just wouldn’t be fair. At least, not yet. But, more than that, I wanted to avoid asphyxiating the poor girl when all of the air got sucked out of the room when she asked me to tell her a little bit about myself:
“Well, let’s see…I’m 40 years old, I’m unemployed, I’m on the brink of insolvency, I don’t have a place of my own so I’m crashing in someone’s basement right now, I’m still in love with my ex-wife, and…um…are you feeling OK? You’re looking a little pale.
“Oh, my. She’s fainted. In fact, I think she’s stopped breathing. Someone call 911! Maybe I should give her mouth-to-mouth. No, wait, she’s opened her eyes.
“Don’t try to get up. You lost consciousness there for a moment. Wait, where are you going? I really don’t think you should be running so soon after a fainting spell, Monique, especially in those heels. Well…uh….I’ll call you later, OK? Monique?”
But I wouldn’t try to stop her. I’d let her go. That’s what I do now. I let things go…
[Follow-up: What a difference ten months can make…]