I’m getting under the covers and turning off the lights at the exact moment the person with whom I’ve shared a bed for 33 years is lifting into the sky and soaring over the ocean until together we’ll wake to find ourselves in different worlds.
He’s in Assisi & I’m in seat at a meditation retreat.
“Let there be space in your togetherness,” I once read in a spiritual text, and didn’t my late mother warn us against our early closeness. “You two spend too much time together.”
“The oak and the maple don’t grow in each other’s shade.”
I think that’s what the teaching said, but still we clung to one another for fear we would slip away like so many loves do.
And yet there is also the concern of rot, of not enough light and air, soil and water.
Which is how we find ourselves in Italy and the Berkshires, and in this spaciousness, may our fruit sweetly ripen.
Turns out I missed him which I expected I would, but it still felt good to feel it, like a confirmation of love, though it could just be habit, because the truth is, I haven’t been lonely in bed, not really.
Just one more day.
I’m worried I didn’t grow enough in his absence, didn’t soak it up enough, didn’t expand into it and myself. He is so rarely gone. I am always the one leaving.
After a cruise around the Island of Capri, he’s in the air again, while I’m cruising muddy roads, thinking I might have to park the car and walk up to the house soon like we did when the boys were young.
Even though we are adrift with growing pains, empty-nesting shifts & all, if he died while taking down those trees, I would really miss him.
He listens to what I write with an interest that belies 33 years of the same. He is an excellent hugger, lover, cuddler, though neglected in these regards of late. He is kind-hearted and reflective, a quality which has been exceedingly necessary these days.
Despite all this, I could Razor’s Edge him; something we once watched in a movie and liked so much that we practiced it each time we were faced with a goodbye that we weren’t ready to make.
His short-term recollection is patchy at best. His consistency with the day to day the same, while his need for mechanized routine and mindless habit maddening.
He is not particularly good with finances, never has been, even though he is increasingly good at earning, while I have plummeted in this regard. And for that, I can Razor’s Edge him even more, for the simple fact that he was born male and as such has enjoyed a whole host of cumulative benefits of which he, like most men, are exceedingly unaware, while I have inherited a centuries-old cumulative deficit which this morning my companion Virginia Woolf elucidated in an audio recording of A Room of Her Own played on my iPhone which I tucked into one pocket, while in the other, I stowed warmed stones from the wood stove while avoiding the river, and wouldn’t I, if he died, have so much more room.
And still, this evening, I listen for the sound of the ax and the winding of the chain saw and the absence of a holler.
I remember that September dawn in the year 2000 when my mother lay breathing in a hospital bed in her livingroom beside the bay window; her heart had already completed its mission, but her body kept on.
“Marriage is kind of like that,” I say to my husband as we pull up to one of our favorite cafe’s. “Even if the bottom falls out, couples keep on going… cleaning the house, taking care of the kids, going to their favorite cafe. You have to eat.”
But I don’t want to be the breath that continues after the heart of our relationship has stopped beating. My wedding vows were intended as a commitment to keep on pumping and to let go when the pumping ceased.
And so far, 33 years into this relationship, the heart is strong.
“I really like Dad,” I say to my youngest as we drive home from town. “I’m just tired of our relationship.”
This is also winter talking and 55 talking and working on the same book for 7 years talking and the empty nest talking; and what I mean by “relationship” is the patterned behaviors that get in the way of real relation.
It turns out that not only does the breath continue for a bit after the heart stops, but the brain goes on even longer. Awareness continues.
I like awareness. Awareness is what gives voice to the experience of dying for those who are resuscitated. I suppose relationships are resuscitated too.
This is not the first darkness into which we have descended as a couple, and like our previous encounters (albeit much briefer ones), there is nothing visible on the surface. No convicting offense. Nor the absence of love.
What is different this time is time. We have it. To spend. To see. To feel. To open into something we’d never quite allowed ourselves to open into before.
The Provocateur: The Empty Nest.
The Invitation: The Heroine’s Journey.
The challenge is to allow the descent into darkness without turning back or trying to change it so that out of the liminal space something new might emerge.
But what if this emergence does not include us as a couple?
Our willingness to sense into this possibility is, in my mind, a promising sign even as it terrifies us. And it does.
My practice in this darkness has been to remain open-hearted. This sounds like a noble endeavor, but what it really means is that I’m feeling pain instead of numbing or distracting.
I never realized how often I armored against feeling. How my attempts to make things better, to coach or cajole, to remain ever-vigilant, to overdo disappointment, overwork anger, and overextend resolution were mechanisms of defense, as were the tiny release valves of criticism, mockery and superiority.
WIthout such protection, I am open to my heart’s conveyances.
But what if my heart conveys a new beginning? And what if that beginning is far, far away?
And what if it is alone?
It’s not lost on me that our boys are the age I was when my parents’ marriage fell apart, and it’s not lost on me that my boys are the age I was when I left the heartache of my broken family for a semester abroad, for a season backpacking through Europe, for a year in Colorado, and finally for a life in the mountains 300 miles away from the sea.
Stay, feel, notice, I tell myself, and in my stilling, I notice that there is as much to feel from the past as there is in the now, probably more.
While I feel into the heaviness of my heart, my husband is engaged in his own practice. Feeling into himself. Finding himself. Knowing himself. Recovering himself. Which is as much a journey of the past as the present, just as mine is with pain.
We spent last weekend together at Kripalu Yoga and Health Center, sleeping in different dorm rooms by night while assisting a writing and meditation program by day.
There were a hundred participants between us as we each wrote into our past.
I wrote into all the red flags that could have redirecting my course.
He wrote into how his life might have unfolded without me.
In the evening, we came together on a couch outside the performance hall, my feet in his lap, and we took turns sharing what we had written, surprised to discover similar veins of exploration.
In times like these, the darkness is parted, but then it returns like the sea, and we drift away again into self-revelation, further and further from the shore of the familiar and easy companionship of thirty-three years. (The lifetime of Jesus. Just saying.)
It’s not lost on me that we are opening into new aspects of ourselves, dusting off old identities, trying out something new. More individuation for him. Less filling in the gaps for me. It’s not lost on me that this is disorienting.
It’s not lost on me that we had a particularly steep and jagged holiday season which had nothing to do with us as a couple and everything to do with our role, our heart, our ties, as parents.
The summer before last, when we still had a child at home, we encountered a familiarly patterned relationship crapstorm that left the household raw and ragged. Afterward, I checked in with our youngest and asked how we might better consider his feelings in the future. His request was tender, and directed toward me: “Check in with me sooner.”
But what of your father, I asked, don’t you have a request for him?
He shrugged, and offered in consolation, “Dad just needs to stay connected to himself.”
Was our offspring, practically grown at the time, parroting, or clearly reflecting the discrepancy in our relationship, the gendered discrepancy of all relationships?
I am so tired.
Women everywhere are so tired.
So much of women’s work–relationships, families, communities–takes place unseen, underappreciated, unpaid, and often in the shadows, frequently secretive and shamed.
It’s not lost on me that after each of my children left for college, I came down with acute infections.
It’s not lost on me that since meeting me my husband’s professional life has increasingly thrived while mine began to contract, and especially since motherhood, is forever gasping for air.
It’s not lost on me that with this particularly toxic President, it is a difficult time to be a woman (and a difficult time to be in relationship with a woman) as this rotting, stench-filled Patriarchy uproots everything.
My husband is afraid of this darkness, of what lies ahead.
I am afraid too, but for me it is necessary. Life or death. Now.
It’s not lost on me that I am writing from the depth of winter, but I’m not ready for spring.
Even if we should end, as we heartbreakingly will some day no matter our trajectory, our love has been a fertile place for growth and for that I am forever gratified and humbled.
It’s not lost on me that this is what scares me most, the inevitable parting.
What buoys me is the fact that our names, both Casey and Kelly, are Celtic for Warrior, and that we are a Marian family–born as I was on the Immaculate Conception of Mary to a mother born on the Birth of Christ, and a husband born on Her Feast Day, and our firstborn on Her Assumption.
Darkness is holy. Presence to the darkness is feminine work. And like everything, it too shall pass. But first I want to claim it.
With thirty-three years between us, it would be easy to abandon the heroine’s journey out of fear or habit or lack of fortitude.
I am writing into the gift of this darkness tonight. To honor it. To allow it to be rich and fertile, not just for us, but for all those who courageously dwell in the unknown becoming.
If not corny, then pathetic, or at least a bummer of a summer read. Unless you consider the impact, immensely liberating, between two people, who’ve shared 31 years, and who upon grasping the concept of “time capsules” deepen into life-giving self-compassion, and coupled with an awareness of “trigger spirals,” discover an even greater capacity to navigate their own potholes–without toppling over each other, into them, again and again.
You know those times when your marriage sails effortlessly along?
THIS is NOT one of those times.
As we walk past the shop with the beautiful glass, I want to say to my husband, “Do you think our marriage will make it?”
But I can’t muster the courage to speak it aloud.
Later, on the deck, overlooking the town, with two amber pints flickering in the light of a summer afternoon, I ask this question again, to myself, and then he asks it aloud. Another version of it. A less painful one.
If my chart had been read this summer, I may have been more prepared.
All three of my men are growing, and the earth beneath us is rumbling with change.
Tectonic shifts are in order, and who will remain standing?
I refuse to hold on.
I hope I refuse to hold on.
Because clearly, it is time to let go. Two sons. One husband.
But back to the sea, which is where we find ourselves when we finally have space enough to blow open what has been confined to static, friction, recycled angst.
I move toward reflection, but there are waves. Big ones. And they take me down, each time I attempt to chart a new course.
No smooth sailing for us.
If sailing is the metaphor, then what represents each of us? And what, life? And what, the marriage itself?
Are we the Captains?
Can there be two? Should there be one?
Are we the boat? Is our marriage?
No, the hull is strong.
“My navigation equipment is messed up,” he says, echoing my thoughts once again.
And what of the sails? Certainly they are tattered.
The waters around us grow frigid. Icy. The sky bursts open.
I try not to think of this rare time away as failure.
THIS is the work, I say to myself. THIS is the play. This is what needs space. Breathe into that.
“I am so angry,” he says.
I say nothing.
We sit in a vacant lobby. Waiting for our room. Suspended in this empty space of our marriage.
Waiting for a glimpse of a new coast to call home.
At the top of the hour, a good friend’s son will become a husband. This friend is the first among my peers to cross this threshold, which makes her unexpected phone call this morning even more precious.
Upon hearing her voice, I expect a last minute request for earrings or chairs or something approaching crisis; but she simply calls to tell me, “I get it.”
She is speaking of the intangible, the subtle, the sublime gift of motherhood and aging and our rightful place as “Queen.”
In response, I feel like Moses. It was I who had long ago promised this “Queenhood” to all my friends approaching middle age–while just glimpsing it myself. Furthermore, I spent this morning fretting over how much I wasn’t “getting it” while packing for my own sister’s wedding.
Instead of steeping in meaning like my friend, I am driven to distraction by appearance. While I’m relieved of the painful preoccupation with looks that plagued my youth, certain events still trigger my feelings of “not good enough.”
Ironically, just before my friend’s call, I had been scolding myself for allowing my hair, my body, my weight, my skin spots, my imperfectly shaved legs, my crooked toenails, my misshapen eyebrows, my jiggly bits and my overall middle-aged inadequacy to take precedence over the importance of the sacred occasion of my sister’s betrothal.
I blamed my father, my family, my culture, my gender, but ultimately I felt alone in my inadequacy–until it occurred to me that “appearance” was a convenient distraction–for us all.
If we can give an inordinate amount of attention to our appearance, then there’s less time left over to face that which really matters. Given this perspective, I can see that most of life is lived in distraction–only we’re too distracted to notice–or too afraid.
What is it that I’m afraid to face when it comes to my baby sister’s wedding?
The absence of our mother.
When my sister asked me, months ago, to honor our Mom during the ceremony, I was certain of my place; But now, only a few days before the wedding, I’m tremulous.
How can I stand up and speak of love when I want to scream at the injustice of our mother’s passing? How can words fill the vacuum of her space on this precious day?
Which brings me back to nail polish….burgundy or beige?
“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.