When your life is suddenly emptied of children, you discover things you once knew, like quiet and simplicity and space, or that you never knew, like the way you and your husband, brought to tears in the kitchen while listening to a story, turn away instead of toward the arms of the person with whom you chose to share a life.
How had we never come upon this before, this mutual turning away? Shouldn’t it have been revealed over the course of thirty-something years, or at least in the decade before children?
I certainly knew that he turned away from me–think of the year my mother died during which I wrote the poem about the wallpaper and my wrist and the color red while the new baby nursed in the crook of my arm, and he went ahead and enrolled in that Masters Program after I’d asked him to wait. `
We have slept apart since the late August afternoon when we took that same baby to college. Most every night for more than a month now (after never before). Mainly because I’ve been sick. And Menopause. And the string of unusually sticky September nights. And the way he sometimes wakes to pee, not once, but twice, the floors creaking, me waking, at 4 or 3 or 2, up for the day no matter how much night remained.
Today was a bad day, a new regimen of treatment making me feel worse to feel better, and the heavy cloud cover with no promise of redemption of sun in the forecast; and when he arrived home late from work, he fixed himself some dinner and brought it to the couch where I had given up trying to write into that year with the wallpaper and was instead watching a documentary about Joan Didion who wrote into just about everything.
Her words brought us to tears from time to time and there it was again!—this turning away—this hiding our grief?—and yet didn’t we cry at the same places, and weren’t our hearts moved in the same way, and isn’t it unbearable to think that one day, he may be slumped in my arms, or I, in his, like her husband (and then daughter), forever. gone.
Little by little, in the empty spaces, we are finding what we once knew. Our two-ness.
It’s sprouting up like spring seedlings, promising something that is almost too painful to receive. This turning toward one another again, like this turning toward self again. In love.
This whole marriage & a house was your thing, and now with the kids both gone, I resent you like I resented falling in love so many summers ago.
But just like your first birthday as a father, I feel a tenderness well up in me on this first birthday from the other side.
It’s taken me by surprise, like the way I look at this photo that I zoomed in to take last weekend at the pond while you were deep in conversation with another guy.
Living with 3 guys is a lot of work. I mean it provides huge swaths of independence, and I’ve relied upon that, but it’s also lonely in the realms that women invisibly tend and upon which society depends even while it infinitely dismisses our humanity.
Which is to say, I’m tired. It could be the president. His party. It could be menopause. It could be the caretaking that began when I was a girl like it does for so many born female, especially older sisters. It could be the weight of my mother’s and grandmothers despair, dismissed as an inferiority of gender instead of the societal tragedy it was. it is.
This untethering from our boys leaves me wanting to lighten more, like a hot air balloon lifting into the sky, while you seem to have the opposite inclination–to dig deeper, to enlarge, to ground.
What will come of us in this next chapter? This new book?
I fell in love with a 20-year-old guy who had an easiness about him; who was kind; who always pitched in; who was comfortable around women; who was capable of celebrating them and sharing the lead; who was gutsy enough to persist in asking his boss out on a date.
What is it that I love about you at 53?
…the way your chest still beckons to my head I suppose. The solace of your arms around me…
I delight in the ways you rediscover yourself… Your sudden capacity for self-care and deepening interest in self-knowing… Your courage to be vulnerable in this regard. Your decision to chaperone a trip to Italy. (Italy!) Your growing certainty of all that you have to offer, just as you are.
For now, I can barely love you because so much bandwidth is taken up by loving and letting go of our boys; but I can sense a seed of return on the horizon, and your steady presence is promising, as is the mutual deepening of our personal paths.
To another shared circle around the sun!
What I wrote to you on your 21st birthday still rings true:
On the third day, we rose, and resumed “normal” life, having resurrected tenderness with two days of love play which to our surprise included a visit to a widow and kindness toward a stranger; and something else–a new insight into an old question: Why do we always end up in these marginal towns/cities/places? Can’t we imagine/afford/allow more for ourselves?
No doubt the long light of our nuptial month and its thousand shades of green inspired another perspective:
We share a heart for the underdog and for the sense of possibility in fragile places…
like this morning’s bills and the laundry and the neglected lawn.
The simple phrase “in your eyes” immediately brings forth the chorus of a Peter Gabriel song.
Almost simultaneously, I see an image of a young John Cusack (aka. “Lloyd Dobler”) standing outside the window of his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom in the wee hours of the morning with a boom box overhead.
In your eyes–the light, the heat. In your eyes–I am complete. In your eyes–I see the doorway. In your eyes–to a thousand churches. In your eyes–the resolution. In your eyes–of all the fruitless searches.
My husband and I named our first son after this character inSay Anything. And the poster of that now iconic scene hangs in our 14 year old’s room–a recent gift from one of my old highschool friends–who was there when I first fell in love.
In fact, it was Lou Ann, almost 25 years ago, who completed the realization of my feelings for Casey after I tenuously began, “I think I…”
“Love him?” she asked, with a smile.
And I did.
But unlike Lloyd Dobler and his heart throb, there were no sharp moments of pain for Casey and me. Our relationship unfolded easily without the dramatic edges of a coming-of-age romance.
It was during my own highschool years, long before I met my husband, that I fell in love for the first time . And it was in “his” eyes that first I learned about passion and devotion and ecstasy.
Shortly after I graduated however, my parents marriage ended, and then so did my relationship. Thus, it was a broken-hearted me and a much wiser one who fell in love with Casey.
This made for a good choice in a mate as I can affirm over two decades later, but it also meant that I guarded my heart more closely. Until now.
…so much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival
I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive
Last weekend, Casey made a surprise visit home from Kripalu where he is studying to be a yoga teacher in a month-long intensive. His was a short 18 hour stay, and our house was filled with company–but we found time to make love–and it was the first time–ever–that I looked into his eyes at that most tenderest of moments–fixing my gaze.
…and all my instincts, they return
and the grand facade, so soon will burn
without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside…
Funny to think that there was still some of my heart left to give after so very long together.
But there was.
And I did.
…in your eyes
I see the light and the heat
in your eyes
I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light, the heat I see
“How can you stand there with a broken heart ashamed of playing the fool?”
James Taylor, Shower the People
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”
Kahlil Gibran, on Love
Twenty years of “talking about it” and the piercing heartbreak of my betrothal’s betrayal has not dislodged. It has, however, taught us both about the nature of love–again and again.
Most recently we’ve learned that “all is fair game” in relationship–particularly hurt, whenever it comes up–even twenty years later–for there is no Statute of Limitation on needing to process pain. This revelation by a pair of marriage therapists is dismaying to my husband–but relieving to me–and ultimately a fulcrum of release for us both.
It was twenty years ago on the Eve of our Nuptials that my best friend became my betrayer, in an act, so cliche, that it grieved me even more for playing the fool. This act arrived amidst other anguish amplifying its aim at my heart.
For my mother picked the month of May 1990 to finally hit bottom in her years as an alcoholic. Though her drinking had long been covert, during the weeks preceding my wedding, she took openly to the bottle, drinking day in and day out, without eating a single thing–in a last act of protest against a second marriage, and a life, gone bad.
A week before the wedding, my Matron of Honor attempted to pull together an “intervention,” but I declined–in my own landmark expression of self-care. Still, to her credit, my sister wanted to do anything to insure that my mother would make it to my wedding, especially since she missed my graduation–but I was only glad that she was alive and hoped that she would pull herself together so that others wouldn’t have to feel sorry for me.
On the early morning of my “special” day, I stopped by my mother’s house after having my hair done, and found her sitting there in the sun on her front porch in a puddle of blood. She didn’t realize that she had her period. Her hair was matted, and I wished I had thought to take her with me to the salon that morning.
I returned to my hotel room in my veil and did yoga in my underwear before the bridal party arrived. Despite my lack of sleep and mounting stress, I was surprisingly sparkling with beauty. I had been meditating all month, but I now know that angels were working double time on my behalf.
As my suite filled with bridesmaids and mimosas, the long-awaited flowers arrived–and they were all wrong! I spent months deliberating over the kind and color of blossom and had finally settled on pale roses in full bloom for me and simple bouquets of baby’s breath enveloped in white tulle for the wedding party.
What was delivered in a long white cardboard box to my honeymoon suite and placed on my nuptial bed was something quite different: dark green ferns choked the baby’s breath and the roses were tight-budded PASTELS!
Just as they arrived, a call came into the room. It was the photographer. His car had broken down on the highway and he wouldn’t make it to us in time for the photos, but he “hoped” to be at the wedding. With the receiver in hand, I looked down at my sherbet-colored bouquet and wanted to vomit.
My dear friend and bridesmaid, Lou Ann, kindly offered to run up to the street mall to get some different flowers–even offering to pick wild ones–but there wasn’t time. My father stepped in as photographer and lined the wedding party (almost a dozen females) up the stairs of this Victorian Inn for some amateur shots that I treasure to this day.
His necessary involvement was an act of healing for me as it was the first time that he truly engaged in the celebration of my wedding–beyond funding it. Up until this morning, he had even hedged about accompanying me in the limo from the inn to the church–because it left out my new stepmother.
With the flowers all wrong, the missing photographer, the drunken mother, and the betraying betrothed one, there was a large opening created for my reluctant father. Our 30 minute drive from Cape May to Wildwood Crest was a unparalleled gift–even if he did insist on smoking with ashes threatening my satin gown.
By some act of God, my mother met us in the vestibule of the church and there my father brought me to tears by having photos taken of just the three of us together; no matter that those pictures never appeared along with the others when my stepmother handed over the developed rolls.
Though she had to be “escorted” down the aisle by a groomsmen on each side, the Mother of the Bride took her rightful place in the first pews. We were both wearing the same laced fabric bridal shoes. Her’s in cream; mine in white. Though her simply embroidered dress (that we had chosen together) hung on an emaciated form, she had not a single drink that day.
As my father walked me down the aisle, his hand gripped mine so tightly that it hurt. He held it close to his chest which made for an awkward gait given our height differential: he’s 6 foot 4, and I’m 5 foot 2. As he lifted my veil for our parting kiss, my eyes caught those of my groom–and cringed.
Casey took my hands in his with a look of happiness and shame. His face was pasty white, his lips parched, and his eyes circled with broken blood vessels.
It was three o’clock that morning when he woke me–drunk–professing his love and excitement. I had trouble falling back to sleep after that call, but my old college roommate knew how too soothe me into getting some rest before the sun came up.
It was just after 6 when I called him back and received his high school buddy on the line. “Oh, I don’t think he can come to phone now,” Jimmy laughed into the receiver. “He’s still on the toilet. It’s coming out both ends!”
Time stopped for me as I fell into a black hole of loss. First my father, then my mother, now my husband to be. This wedding had been his idea. He wanted the pageantry, the ceremony, the commitment. I was happy to continue living together or to simply elope. It was he who had thrust me into this cliche role of expectant bride in white opposite a bachelor bad boy. I had never seen it coming.
Our rehearsal dinner had been at our all time favorite bistro on a little side street where we’d sneak away in the early weeks of our courtship. My mother-in-law made sure they served my favorite dessert: Lemon Sin. Birthday cake was also in order as the night marked my nephew’s 4th and my brother’s 6th. Out of town guests were invited and we all crowded in for a casual, but exquisite affair.
Most comical was my mother–who arrived very drunk–and proceeded to my father’s table where she rubbed his balding head in a fond hello that they hadn’t shared since their divorce a handful of years earlier.
The hero of the night–and of the entire wedding planning process in fact–continued to be my mother-in-law. She whisked my drunken mother away to “meet other guests” much to my stepmother’s relief.
I can’t remember anything else from that dinner, not even the rehearsal itself–except that I had neglected to choose something special to wear for the occasion. It was my cousin who tipped me to this oversight and I quickly searched my teacher’s wardrobe for something to celebrate the bride on the eve her wedding. A ankle-length khaki skirt and cream knit sweater made due at this last minute with hair hurriedly pulled back into a pony tail.
After the dinner, my husband’s family gathered for drinks at the hotel where out of town guests were staying. I popped in for a bit before leaving to join my bridesmaids at the Inn in Cape May. “Do you mind if I go out with friends for an hour or so?” my fiance asked respectfully. We had both forgone the tradition of a bachelor/ette party–having sewn our wild oats long before meeting.
I replied yes to his request without another thought. Neither of us had any idea that the deeply considerate Casey could be capable of sabotaging our wedding day–or any day–with a drink that turned into “drinks” and then “shots” and then hours of vomiting.
I wanted to cancel my wedding, but I didn’t know how. I was too practical to stop something so significant set into motion with the freight of a wedding’s weight. Instead, I married a man that I despised that day–one who stood before me with sorry eyes.
The hip Reverend Rowe, who officiated our wedding, had issued one threat at the rehearsal the afternoon before: “If anyone arrives with alcohol on his breath, the wedding is canceled.”
I thought it a funny thing to say at the time, but the next morning, I half-hoped Charlie Rowe would take a sniff of the groom and call it off. I guess it was we who called his bluff.
But there were angels. Angels abounded indeed. For despite all the heartbreak on my wedding day, I glided through the day with grace. One such angel stood beside me with golden curls–my littlest sister April, age 4, the flower girl, whose mothering had recently been left to me.
She’s 24 now and living nearby, having joined me in Vermont a few years back. I’m not so capable of comforting her as I once was; I can’t take her on my lap or hold her hand as easily–but I like knowing she is there, just the same. There was so much pain on my wedding day, and it wasn’t just mine.
I write this post from my bed on the morning of my twentieth anniversary–where my husband I feed each other rich chocolate cake after a night of wining and dining.
Casey bites at his nails as I share each draft. He’s done an hour of yoga, taken a shower, and headed to the post office–while I continue to type. He hands me a card from my stepmother who always remembers our anniversary.
While writing seems a silly way to spend the morning, there are angels guiding my hands. Because it is time. It is time to release the pool of heartache that has gathered in my chest around this day and this life of mine. It is time to shift my attention to all the ways that I’ve been “held” in the heartache.
Just this morning, a new view of my husband’s act comes into focus. Like Judas, he filled a sacrificial role in our epic of love–which brings me back to the sermon that my minister uncle offered at our ceremony.
While Uncle Jeff did not officiate the wedding, I did ask him to speak–and I was surprised at what he chose to day. For this most romantic of days, he delivered a sermon of forgiveness. He spoke of the dismal times of marriage when one spouse fails the other.
I did not want this foreboding talk to be applicable to my spouse on the first day of my marriage–or any day for that matter. But what I didn’t know then, was that I would need this sermon of love and forgiveness–for myself.
For better or for worse, Casey and I have grown up within this heartache of a wedding day–in the revisiting of it–year after year. He’s learned a lot about himself in the process. He’s learned how to stay present in the shame of his own betrayal–and he’s learned to forgive himself–even in the face of my grief.
It’s been I who’s held onto the guilt. For twenty years, I’ve despised myself for continuing to feel the pain of that day–and for not being enough to change the course of events–not just with Casey, but with my family of origin, with my parents, my mother, and my siblings.
“I suck,” is the sob that rises from my heart after yet another sister thanks me for the years of mothering her. It is in this moment of finally accepting my overwhelming inadequacy, that the pool of pain around my heart begins to trickle out.
“Think about who Jesus Christ loves,” said my fundamentalist uncle at my wedding. “He loves those who have missed the mark, those who are imperfect, those who have disappointed. And in his love, what did he become? He became repulsive on the Cross. He took the place of people who are not attractive to God–and He demonstrated His love that way.”
I realize now that Casey demonstrated his love for me in much the same way. He stood there at the altar of love, steeped in shame, and spoke his vows with earnest claim. My own voice was softer, much less convicted–stumbling upon the words of “faith.”
“Love each other as Jesus loves you,” said my uncle. But I’ve found that it is ourselves–in our acts of disappointment–who we first need to love. And in that surrender to failure, all the difference is made.
At the hour of our betrothal, twenty years forward, Casey crawls back into bed beside me and my computer, serving a fine Black Cherry Micro-Brew in the crystal from our wedding day.
With a lightened heart, we watch our the wedding video together with fresh eyes–of love, forgiveness–and recognition.
most challenging is bedtime, as i find myself all keyed up at a time of night when i’m typically drifting off
as Casey sleeps soundly beside me, i begin to write this post in my mind, stemming from a conversation i had with our teenage son
lloyd has recently initiated a series of questions around my own teen years–which i find both amusing and alerting–as i’m uncertain as to what’s prompting his curiosity
the other day when read my latest post, i’m not in love, to his father, i was surprised to find Lloyd listening from the back seat of the car
“What?” he says, pulling out his ear buds, “YOU were at a drag race?”
i hesitate to respond because i feel conflicted–should i defend my youthful adventure or should i protect my son from the mistakes i made–and from making his own in my footsteps?
Because of my writing life, Lloyd knows more about my past than most kids care to know of their parents, and this last bit of information seems to crystallize something in his head, resulting in this follow up:
“Were you popular or something, Mom? Why did that guy want to be with you?”
As I go uncharacteristically mute, my husband gallantly answers from the driver’s seat, “Look at her,” he says. “She’s beautiful.”
Now, the entire car goes mute until my youngest puts down his latest graphic novel and asks, “What’s a drag race?”
In bed that night, I think about the perceptions forming inside my teen’s head, and I wonder, why doesn’t he ask his dad more about his youth? Then, I smile shyly, remembering Casey’s compliment about my beauty–and I wonder when will Lloyd ask Casey the next logical question in this fairytale about his mother.
Why you? Why did mom choose you?
Asi begin to answer this imaginary question on behalf of my betrothed–who is now snoring beside me–I drift off to sleep myself, thinking what a sweet love letter this would be…
The seventies hit “I’m Not In Love,” brings me back to Delfield Pond, transistor radios, “big boys don’t cry” and the first taste of power that my presence holds in the loins of men. Walking toward the high dive in a bikini with my friends, I’m surprised to see that the cadets lift their heads from their towels.
Though I’m only 14 and never been kissed, songs like “I’m Not in Love” pull at something I don’t yet understand–but know that I want…someday. It’s not some cheap pubescent per-version of romance that I’m after, I’m waiting for the real thing–the stuff of movies and novels. And not Harlequin or Heathhcliff or Romeo, but something cooler.
I got it.
At 16, Roy Becker runs down the corridors of the Tampa Airport and finds me in line at the gate. He is glistening with sweat and his brown bangs hang over his dark eyes.
“My car wouldn’t start,” he explains, as he takes me behind a wall, and leans in to take one last, consumptive kiss. He has ridden his bike all the way here. His mouth is salty and his lashes are… wet?
In our 9 days together, I’ve never know this side of Roy. He is wearing his white painter pants. The ones with loops for brushes, and fingers. He lets go of mine, and we never see each other. Again.
Roy Becker. His name has taken on devotional qualities in my lifetime. Roy was the proverbial bad boy–kicked out of a host of highschools along the Atlantic seaboard, and ending up here, on the strip in Tampa–drag racing.
It was Spring Break, 1980, and I had come from New Jersey to visit a childhood friend from my days at Delfield Pond in New York. After we take a seat in the back of his car, she introduces me to Roy. I shake my head “no” to the offer of the joint, but can’t help but lock eyes. He is beautiful.
“You’re checking me out,” he says, leaving me blushing, and feeling foolish. I don’t want to like him, because everyone does, and he knows it. But after the beach, and Busch Gardens, and the police, it was Roy who fell hard. For me.
Not only did he surprise me at the airport, but a month later he drove north and called me from the road.
“I fell for someone this spring. I’m coming to see her,” he said.
I never expected to hear from him, let alone see him. I’d already returned to my everyday life in a uniform at my Catholic Highschool with a proper boyfriend who was going to college and who kept me on a pedestal where I wasn’t even supposed to look at other guys let alone sleep with them under the stars in the sand.
“Oh, that’s great,” I said, pretending, even to myself, that I didn’t know who Roy meant; until he said it out loud, and I turned stone cold. Terrified.
“You can’t,” I said, and hung up, without telling him where I lived.
After Roy, I was never so careless with passion again, understanding that I could just as easily wield poison. Perhaps that’s why, as a teacher, I’ve been so kind to the scrappy boys who remind me of him.
Funny now, that the song, “I’m Not in Love” comes to me–all these years later–married to a man who was once part bad boy himself. Even then, I didn’t want to admit love. Didn’t want the vulnerability that came with feeling it openly.
That same summer, I’d been dumped by that highschool sweetheart who I had betrayed in Tampa. After 7 years, he abandoned me on the pedestool for a wild girl of his own.
Now, I am neither wild or pedestooled–just another middle-aged mom, with two kids–one, 14, on his way to carving out his own life of passion and abandon.
And yet, something wild in me is still stirred in the music. Just this week, I felt the “in love” feeling with the man who’s lain beside me for a quarter of a century; though now it’s more of a sudden, unexpected “flow” than a “falling.”
It scares me just the same.
“I’m not in love,” I find myself singing. “So don’t forget it. It’s just a silly phase I’m going through…”
Which makes me wonder, how did I become so afraid of that which I’ve always known I’ve wanted?