Never Alone Again

Today is the day my mother died in 2005. Today it is ten years she’s been gone. Such a strange milestone. How can it be? How can there be things like Facebook and smartphones and Donald Trump running for President, and my mom isn’t here to see? How can I be a mom now, and I don’t have a mom?

I have a journal of my mother’s that she kept when I was a baby. I was her first. In one entry, she wrote of glancing up from her daily tasks and noticing my prescription bottle on the shelf. She wrote of how significant this felt, that she and my dad had made a child, a separate person with her very own, separate prescription number. She and my dad had been two but were now three: “never alone again,” she said.

I thought of that entry the first time I noticed infant Poppy’s shadow. It was the middle of the night, and Poppy and I were awake for a feeding, and the lamp light cast a shadow on the wall of her wiggly little baby arms and head. How strange. This person was brand new with a brand new shadow that would follow her movements all her life. This shadow did not exist before this person emerged from me, and it was hers, not mine. Poppy, though my child, is not my possession, any more than I was my mother’s. We each are distinct beings who have our own shadows and our own prescriptions.

“Never alone again.” I think of how prescient those words were when 25 years later I would be sitting beside her hospice bed, along with my sister and aunt, when she took her last breath.

It was very hard for a good, long while after my mom died. Hard to accept that she was dead. It wasn’t fair; she was too young, and the cancer was too cruel and took her too quickly.

It is still hard, but naturally, it is less so. As the years lengthen between her last breath and mine, so do the moments that feel hard. The sighs; the tears. The world is becoming gradually separate from the world she last knew. So are all of our lives. And it’s hard, and it’s sad, and it’s not fair. But it is.

It is strange to have these memories set in Advent, this pre-Christmas season of hope and longing. It is strange to glance at a Christmas tree in an unlit room and be suddenly transported to a darkened waiting room in hospice where I stretched out on a couch and blankly watched the glowing volunteers’ tree as I tried to sleep. Strange to remember that the expected event ten years ago was a death.

Poppy and Ace never knew her. It isn’t fair that they never knew her, but I try to make sure they know of her. This time of year, for them, is only what it’s supposed to be: hope and anticipation and joy. And they invite me in with them.

Never alone again.

Ten years ago, the experience of watching my mother die changed me. And it wasn’t fair, but I did find peace amidst that trauma. I hope she did, too. I’d like to share something I wrote back then, 9 days before she died.

12/6/05

Sometimes when I feel confused about turns in my life or interactions I’ve had with people, I tell myself it’s okay because it will all be clear one day. I hope that one day, I’ll die, and I’ll understand everything that happened to me and every interaction I ever had with people. I’ll understand my parents’ relationship, and I’ll know why kids were mean to me. I’ll know the far-reaching consequences of all my actions, what I meant to people and how I hurt them. I’ll know where everything I lost went. I feel like that would be Heaven to me: final understanding and acceptance of every detail of my life–and everyone else’s.

I wonder if in death my mom will understand me completely. I wonder if she’ll see me or come back and tell me secrets about the afterlife. Whenever someone dies, I always think, “Now that person knows. I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering, but now that person knows.” She will know soon. I wonder if she can tell me.

She tried so hard. Now, we have Sylvia and the other Hospice nurses who come in and ask first, “Do you have any pain?” Their mission is, first and foremost, to make her comfortable. Does that mean she’ll be knocked out when she dies? I don’t know if I want to be knocked out when I die. I want to know it’s coming. I don’t want to be in a lot of pain, and I don’t want to be scared, but I do want to know it’s coming. But numbness of pain is what they call “peace” in the medical world. I certainly want my mom to have peace, but I wonder if she truly can. She must feel that so much in her life in unfinished. She just bought all that new furniture. She told me when she was diagnosed that she was ready for me to have a baby and make her a grandma. She’s only 53. How can you fight tooth and nail for months, clinging to all you have to live for, then really die at peace?

I wonder if she will understand me. I feel as though in the past months, I’ve grown to understand her better than I ever imagined I could. A year ago, whenever she called, I cringed at the sight of her name on the caller ID, because I knew she was going to go on about some boring computer stuff I didn’t care about and that she’d similarly tune me out if I tried to talk about school or writing or something. Now, I sit in her hospital room and knit or watch some random TV channel she’s selected or play cards with my aunt. I just hang out. When I help her with the meal tray or stand by her bed to talk to her, I see her face as she looks at me, and nothing from the past is there. I see her confusion, her bald head, her sunken eyes, the streaks of marker on her skin where the radiation technicians noted their place for treatments. I don’t have any new revelations about her. I guess I just see her in the present now. I think I was seeing the past every time I looked at her before.

I couldn’t have done this if she weren’t dying, but somehow it doesn’t feel wrong or weird to be glad it’s happening. Not the dying part or the suffering part, but the understanding. I have my own kind of peace right now. I don’t expect it to stay consistent through all the rest of this. She will die, perhaps very soon, and I imagine some new level of understanding and horror will come out of that. Then sorting things out and trying to put my own life back on a normal track again… I know it’s going to be hard, and I do feel unrest about the immediate future. But I’m not questioning what I’m doing right now. When I first heard the “six months to two or three years” prognosis, I asked everyone what they would do if they had only that much time to spend with their parents, and the main sentiment seemed to be that they would want to spend a lot of time with the parent, or forgive the parent. I didn’t know what to do at the time, but takings everything step by step, I’ve wound up just where I know I’m supposed to be. I didn’t set out to do any forgiving, but somehow I have. On that level, I feel peace.

hoops

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Lucky Thirteen

My marriage was officially dissolved three days  before what would have been Lou’s and my thirteenth wedding anniversary, but I didn’t receive the signed paperwork until two days after. August 3 slipped by with both of us thinking we’d made it to thirteen years while still technically married.

Lucky thirteen.

I just learned that one of the symbolic gifts representing the thirteenth wedding anniversary is fur.

Ask this lady how lucky she feels.

Ask this lady how lucky she feels.

So I was divorced for nearly a week before I knew it, but it was two or three more weeks before Lou found out. I guess his attorney never got around to telling him. By then, I’d changed back to my maiden name and gotten new IDs, and I think that’s what made Lou ask me: “did our divorce ever become final?”

This was in the waiting room after an appointment for Ace. I smiled and chirped, “Oh, yes, it did!” Even as I heard myself saying it, I cringed inside. I’d used the same tone you’d use to confirm that the insurance check cleared or the school lunch calendar was published online. Yes, tomorrow the children will eat corn dogs! Yes, we are divorced!

Yes, this conversation is incredibly awkward.

But divorce is inherently awkward. I try to make it less so where possible by owning the awkwardness. When I went to the Social Security office to change my name, I joked to the guy behind the counter, “I don’t care how many more times I get married, I’m never changing my name again!”

He didn’t crack a smile. He told me I’d change my mind some day when I met the right man. He told me if the woman he wanted to marry didn’t want to take his name, that would be a problem.

I told him maybe he should take her name if he wants them to be the same.

When I went to the DMV, I gave the same line to the lady who took my information and my photo: “No matter how many more times I get married, I’m never changing my name again!”

She laughed. She had on violet-colored contact lenses, and she was supportive in a we-are-all-in-this-sisterhood-together sort of way. She complimented my new driver’s license picture and congratulated me on getting my name back.

And getting my name back has felt like something to celebrate. It’s involved getting new login IDs at work and ordering new business cards. Summoning the muscle memory in my hands as I draw my old signature, and in my mouth as I feel of the old sequence of syllables slip out.

At work, people who don’t know me well enough to know I’ve been separated for the past two years see the new nameplate outside my office door or receive an email from my new email address. They ask me, “Did you get married?”

“Even better,” I quip. “Divorced!” This is usually met with laughs and the confession that they weren’t sure if they should ask, afraid the conversation might be uncomfortable.

I treat the matter lightly to avoid and defuse awkwardness. And you can do that; you can indulge in the cliché divorce jokes and play the role of the sitcom divorcee. At the end of the day, you’re still divorced, and the rippling impact that has on you and those who surround you proves the matter is anything but light.

I believe in marriage. I believe in committing yourself to another person, who has committed himself to you, and bolstering each other through good times and bad. I believe in sharing your lives until one of them ends. I believe in love.

But on this, the other side of divorce, with signed papers and restored names, the thought of marriage is pretty frightening. Frightening because now I know I can fail. Now I know I can be married, and it can end, not with a YouTube-worthy serenade to my Alzheimer’s-addled octogenarian love. Not with widowhood. Now I know I can get married and get past the newlywed year and the supposed seven-year-itch. I can get through having children and sleepless newborn nights. I can celebrate ten years with tin and a cruise, but not get as far as lucky thirteen and fur before failing, the final pronouncement as unceremonious as words exchanged in a waiting room.

funship

Celebrating ten years with umbrella drinks.

When I look at marriage from the divorced side of the fence, the grass does not look greener. Or maybe if it does sometimes, I immediately suspect it may also harbor poisonous spiders. Maybe there are shards of broken glass just beneath the surface of the soil, and now I’m not wearing any shoes, because I lost them climbing the fence. If I’d never ventured over, I wouldn’t have felt those stings and cuts, I’d still have my shoes, and I wouldn’t know not to trust the lush and deceitful appearance of the groundcover over there. I’ve been there, and I have the sore soles to prove it.

And yet… I find I still have hope. Hope that it’s not all spiders and shards underneath that grass. After all, I have been there. I lived there for a long time. Sometimes it’s not so hard to imagine that I could go back, with someone else beside me. Maybe I’ll get hurt again by unseen hazards underfoot, but at least without shoes, I’ll be able to feel the cool St. Augustine blades and the soft patches of Bermuda grass. Maybe next time, my partner and I will help each other spot the dangers, or at least help each other remove the splinters once they’re in. Maybe a few scars at least mean you know what to look out for in the thicket. I hope.

Pinterest wraps marriage with a soft-focus bow and the words we’ve all heard all our lives: “one and only” and “one true love” and “til death do we part.” For us folks who’ve been down the aisle before, those words don’t quite dissolve as easily as the legal status, and in fact they can be haunting.

The truth is, you can’t know what lies beyond the aisle, or what may lurk beneath an inviting patch of clover. There’s bound to be something a little uncomfortable somewhere along the way. Hope, be mindful, pray, watch out. Do your best. Try not to be the venomous thing in hiding. Try not to see the venomous thing in every shadow.

Make light when you need to. Take things seriously when it’s warranted.

Good luck.

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The Third Trimester Abortion I Can’t Find Fault With

Yesterday a friend shared on Facebook the heartbreaking Yahoo article “What Kind of Mother is 8 Months Pregnant and Wants an Abortion?” The piece tells of Kate, a mother who learned at 36 weeks pregnant with her second daughter that the baby in her womb had two severe brain deformities: Dandy-Walker malformation and agenesis of the corpus callosum. These conditions presented in their severest forms, which meant that the baby was not likely to survive very long into her infancy or childhood. If she did survive, she would have moderate to severe mental retardation, moderate to severe physical disabilities, and constant seizures. Kate realized that the erratic, unusual movements she’d felt the baby making in utero, so unlike those she felt her first child make, were probably seizures, afflicting the baby already.

Kate and her husband wanted this baby, wanted lots of babies, and had been joyfully anticipating the arrival of their second child. When they first learned there might be something wrong with the baby but before they knew how severe it was, they contemplated things like special education, long-term care, and how much money to save to ensure their daughter would be cared for after they died. But after an MRI and a consultation with a neurologist, they knew the picture of their daughter’s future was much bleaker. Kate asked the doctor what babies like her are like. What do they do? Do they just sleep all the time? The doctor told her no, that “babies like this one are not generally comfortable enough to sleep.”

Kate writes, “I had to think about a baby who was probably not going to live very long, and the longer she lived, the more pain she would be in. That realization–that I was more scared of her living than of her dying–is what made the choice for me.”

That choice was to fly halfway across the country to Colorado, the only place in the country where she could go, to pay $25,000 and undergo a four-day-long procedure that would end the baby’s life and allow Kate to deliver her stillborn. Kate held the baby after her body was born, got her footprints, and named her Rose. The baby was cremated, and her remains were sent to the family a few days later.

The grief Kate and her husband felt through this whole ordeal, and which they continue to feel, is abundantly clear in this article. So is Kate’s panic that her baby would suffer–horribly, constantly, and pointlessly–and that there would be nothing Kate could do to stop her pain.

So, what kind of mother is 8 months pregnant and wants an abortion? This article wants you to see that it could be the kind of mother who wants her baby, has planned for and loved her baby, and who knows that her baby’s life will be nothing but pain. The kind of mother who wants to save her daughter from meaningless torture more than she wants to save herself from grief, judgement, and ridicule. The kind of mother who wants a better option than an abortion but who sees no other options in the horrible hand her child has been dealt.

As I said, I read this article after clicking a link of a friend’s Facebook. Facebook then helpfully offered links to some other takes on Kate’s story, notably a piece on something called “Live Actions News” titled “Mother pays $25,000 to kill her 8-month-old disabled baby.”

In this article, writer Susan Michelle Tyrell reframes Kate’s story as that of, yes, “a tragic pregnancy,” but moreover, a story in which “the tragedy lies in the parents’ decision that baby Rose should not have a chance to live.” Tyrell acknowledges the pain Kate expresses but says, “The mother’s narrative almost sounds like a tragic miscarriage, rather than a miscarriage of justice for an innocent child.”

Tyrell quotes extensively from Kate’s original article, but then bafflingly reimagines the words themselves in her extrapolation.

For example, Kate shares in her original story that as she waited to learn the severity of her child’s condition, she imagined all the possibilities: “What would it be like to have the miracle baby who was OK and exceeded all expectations? What if she died at birth? What if she lived only a couple of years? What does it mean to get a DNR (a do-not-resuscitate order), for an infant? Hospitals are legally protected from trying to save a baby and not legally protected from letting a baby die.” Later, when she knew the extent of Rose’s brain malformation, she wondered if she would be able to have an abortion legally at the late stage in her pregnancy. She imagined to herself, “If I can’t get the abortion, I’m going to run away somewhere rural and I’m going to have this baby by myself and let her die without intervention.”

Tyrell quotes this last line but prefaces it with the interpretation that Kate “would leave baby Rose alone to die after birth.” Alone, as if Kate just told us she planned to go into the woods, give birth, and leave the baby to starve to death or be eaten by animals.

Tyrell later pushes her misinterpretation further and describes Kate’s “open attitude that her baby would die one way or another–even if it meant leaving the child alone to die.”

Tyrell doesn’t seem to understand that allowing someone to die “without intervention” is not the same as abandoning someone to die alone. “Without intervention” means not restarting a heart that has stopped beating, or not giving CPR to someone who has stopped breathing. It’s difficult to understand why even this option would be unacceptable to someone who opposes abortion. Kate’s imaginary scenario would have her giving birth, then allowing Rose to die from her disease without the interference of the inevitable needles, tubes, and noisy machines of a hospital.

In fact, far from saying she’d leave Rose alone, Kate indicates that she herself would be alone. She imagines giving birth to her baby “by [herself],” without the assistance of a doctor or midwife and possibly without even another person’s hand to hold, at great risk to her own life. An unassisted birth of a baby with Rose’s condition would be dangerous because the baby’s head could swell with fluid, enlarging it to the point she couldn’t pass through the birth canal. Kate says, “The risks that I was willing to take to let this baby go in peace, in the way I believed she deserved — it’s terrifying.” But she would have risked her own life if it meant ensuring her child’s suffering wouldn’t be prolonged.

The thing is, Rose was going to die one way or another, whether Kate ended the pregnancy in its 8th month or allowed the baby to be born. The difference is that if Rose were born, her brief life would be consumed with pain. No newborn can understand suffering–imagine the cries of an infant just getting a shot. Rose’s suffering would have been the type that she’d never overcome. Every moment of misery would pass just to bring her to the next. She would never smile or coo or even sleep. Instead, she would cry that high-pitched scream that babies in pain cry, except she would never stop. Not until she were completely sedated or until her life ended. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that baby Rose was suffering inside Kate’s womb, seizing but unable to cry out in the silence of the amniotic sac.

The title of Tyrell’s piece, “Mother pays $25,000 to kill her 8-month-old disabled baby,” is obviously misleading on two levels. There’s the characterization of Rose as an 8-month-old, which implies she’s been outside the womb for eight months. That part can be dismissed generously as part the title’s clickbait composition.

The second misnomer is the word “disabled.” While technically accurate, that word severely understates Rose’s condition. Were she to live, she would not be merely disabled. We’re not talking about just a kid in a wheelchair, nor a kid who goes to speech therapy, nor kid who grows up to get a job in a supportive work environment bagging groceries or living in an apartment with the help of a social worker. We’re not just talking about an IEP and a government check, nor even a Terri-Schiavo-esque hospital bed with a feeding tube and smiles at Mylar balloons. We’re talking about misery.

Commenters on these articles and others like it point out that everyone suffers, that people with disabilities suffer. It’s true: suffering is a part of life, and it’s unfortunately a bigger part of some people’s’ lives than others. But as Kate understood it and relates in her article, Rose’s life would have been nothing but suffering, and her young age if not her intellectual state would have made her incapable of understanding why or how or anything other than pain.

Other commenters take an exception to Kate’s use of the word “euthanize” in describing the procedure in which “the doctor injected the baby with a drug that, over a few hours, slowed her heart to still.” Commenters protest that “euthanize” is something we do to animals. This is also true. We talk about putting an animal out of its suffering when nothing can be done to help, because an animal can’t understand its pain, and we know intuitively that it’s wrong to subject an innocent life to suffering when it does no good. When we euthanize a beloved pet, we do that out of compassion. A baby is not a pet, but there is nothing in Kate’s piece to suggest she’s acted on anything less than compassion for her daughter.

One commenter I engaged with myself called Kate’s story an example of what Pope Francis calls “a throwaway culture.” I have a lot of fondness and respect for Pope Francis and respect for the commenter who cited him, but I think Kate’s abortion is the last one you could say was done to throw anything away. It’s very clear from Kate’s telling of her story that she did not reject Rose. You don’t finish knitting a sweater for someone you reject. You don’t ask to hold and admire the baby you reject. You don’t keep the footprints of and ask to have cremated the person you reject. You certainly don’t spend $25,000 and risk condemnation from all those around you as a form of rejection. Kate did what she did out of love and to protect Rose.

And Kate’s article uses the word “baby” throughout to refer to Rose. She never once uses the word “fetus,” which pro-life activists will tell you is a linguistic manipulation used to dehumanize a valuable human life. Kate named her daughter; she valued her life.

I don’t know what decision I would make if I were in Kate’s situation. My impulse is to say that I wouldn’t get the abortion, and I wouldn’t go into the woods to give birth without intervention. But to be honest, after considering the choices Kate faced, my impulses feel selfish. I would want to hang onto the pregnancy in order to have more days with the baby. I might want to see my baby hooked up to machines so I could know her heart was still beating and I could still touch her hand. My reasons for wanting to prolong the baby’s life would be to give me comfort, not for any reason that would benefit her.

The fact is that whatever decision I would make is irrelevant to the decision she made. Any Rose in my womb would be my responsibility; Kate’s Rose was hers.

The real symptom of the “throwaway culture” is the legion of writers and commenters who throw away Kate’s pain and dismiss her reasoning she has shared so openly and simply call her a murderer, a ghoul, selfish, or careless. Those who toss aside the anguishing realities of Rose’s brain malformations and insist it was “just a disability.” Those who throw away the human aspect of this story, propagandize the piece, and condense it into clickbait.

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Short sales, symbols, and old things made new

Lou and I closed on the sale of our marital home earlier this month. This is a relief inasmuch as we no longer have a joint property to worry about, but it’s no special bonus. The transaction was a short sale, meaning we had to get the bank to accept less money than we owed, because we tried and failed to sell the house for our break-even price.

The short sale will be a black mark on both of our credit scores, but for me (I can’t speak for Lou), I’m just glad to have the house out of my hands. In the 15+ months since I moved out of that house, I’ve spent no small amount of energy fretting over all the questions connected with who would live there, who could afford to live there, who could maintain the place, and what we would do when the answer to the above turned out to be “neither of us.”

Now it’s done. The mortgage we expected to tie our names together for 30 years is no more. We picked this place out together after looking at some absurd number of houses–close to 30–when we first moved back to my hometown about 5 years ago. It was never my dream house, but I liked it well enough. It was Ace’s first home; it’s the first home Poppy remembers having. We had chickens there, and birthday parties. Marathon viewings of Mad Men. Too few nights when we went to bed at the same time.

Now another couple will claim the deed, move into that space, and raise their family.

And in a baffling series of coincidences, I know that couple. Or at least, I know the husband. Or, I knew him. Years ago.

It’s “Pius.” Frickin’ Pius, about whom I wrote my post God’s Gonna Kill You: A Love Story.

I realized it was him when my real estate agent emailed me his offer in September. There was his name, electronically signed, because he doesn’t live here. For a second, I didn’t accept that it was him; it had to be someone else with the same name. (Side note: his name is not really Pius but something far more common, with a less-common surname.) But when I saw the offer-maker’s address, in the same out-of-state area where I knew Pius to be living, I figured it had to be him. I mean, I was pretty sure. The odds were too slim that it could be someone else with the same name, living in the same area, with family ties that might prompt him to put in offers on property in our same not-that-big hometown.

And how weird was that? I mean, I run into his dad from time to time and hear what Pius is up to, but it’s been a few years, and it’s been many more years since I saw or spoke to Pius himself. And he’s Pius. He’s the would-be priest who was my would-be boyfriend in secret that one summer. He’s a funny story I tell, replete with angst, divine wrath, parables, and chastity. He’s a symbol of the conservative teenage Catholic traditionalist I used to be. And while he did not ultimately become the Latin-Mass-saying, cassock-and-biretta-wearing, incense-burning, uber-traditional Catholic priest he had planned to that one summer, it appears he did follow the uber-traditional Catholic family trajectory that I had planned to that one summer.

And he’s moving back to our hometown with his wife and family, and he’s buying the house I bought when I moved back to our hometown with my husband and family.

And I, meanwhile, having left my husband, have committed the worst sin that could possibly be committed by someone on an uber-traditional Catholic family trajectory. (A close second was marrying Lou, who is not a self-proclaimed Christian of any kind, to begin with.) My divorce is the very reason that house was available for sale.

And what does that all mean? About my life and my choices? About right and wrong and God’s will and responsibility?

These were the things I thought to myself as I drove to the title company on closing day to sign the final papers that would finish up the sale.

The real estate agent and the title company’s notary and I chit-chatted in between signatures on the stack of documents. They each told me about their divorces and their ex-husbands’ relationships with their children afterwards. Divorce can be a very ugly picture. No one goes into marriage hoping to hit that trajectory.

When it came time for me to give up my key, I realized I wasn’t sure which of two copper-colored keys on my keychain was the right one. So since the buyers wouldn’t be signing documents until the next day, meaning that Lou and I still owned the house for a few more hours, I said I would drive over to the house to try out the keys.

On this drive, I thought about the house. I thought about how when we bought it, I didn’t love it, but it was a sensible home in a good school district, and we’d been house-hunting for months, and Lou was desperate to make a decision. I thought about all the ideas we’d had to make the house more ours: paint and kitchen renos, bathroom redesigns and new windows, French doors to replace the perpetually-jamming sliding doors. I thought about how we never did any of that stuff. Still, it was our home. It was the place where our children slept–or didn’t sleep!–through their baby and toddler years. It was the place we filled with furniture and baby toys; on whose walls we hung pictures; whose rooms we left messy often but sometimes scrubbed to a shine to impress guests or just to enjoy for ourselves.

Little slice of suburban paradise.

Little slice of suburban paradise.

 

I thought about how houses symbolize the families that live in them. Lou himself said that our house represented, in his mind, his success in life, including in his career and in our marriage. I think a lot of people think that way. So as the two of us, one at a time, vacated the house of our individual possessions and favored jointly-owned items, the metaphor of disintegration became obvious.

I thought I might cry when I got there. I hadn’t seen the house since Lou moved out for good, and I told myself I’d try out the keys, take a good look around, and allow myself a cathartic cry if that’s what I needed.

But when I pulled into the driveway, there was a commercially labeled pickup truck parked there. A contractor? Something to do with inspections or utilities?

I parked and walked around to the backdoor in the carport. And the man I saw emerging from that door… was Pius’s dad!

He recognized me immediately and said, “Hello! What are you doing here?” He looked very puzzled.

“This is my house!” I said with a smile. “For a little while longer, anyway.”

“Oh,” he said, clearly questioning whether he had indeed recognized me at all. “I thought you were someone I know.”

“I am,” I said. “It’s me! I guess… Pius is buying my house, huh?”

And then Pius’s mom came out of the house.

What followed were some of the strangest moments of my life. We stood in the carport and established the facts: this was my house, and Pius was buying it, and he was moving back to town with his family–four children!–and he and his wife looked at some absurd number of houses–like, 30–before they settled on this one. And Pius’s parents looked at houses with Pius and his wife, and in fact, they’d met Lou and Poppy and Ace when they looked at mine. And Pius would be moving his family down after the new year, but until then, his parents planned to clean and paint and make other preparations for their arrival.

Pius’s parents were so excited to learn that the house Pius was buying was mine. An auspicious sign for them? As far as I know, they never knew about the super-secret romance, so in their memory, I’m some kid who came over a lot one summer and went to church a bunch with their son (who was always far more conservative and traditional than his parents).

I walked through the house with them and looked in all the cabinets and closets to make sure everything of ours had been removed. Pius’s dad remarked that Lou had done a really good job of cleaning the place up, which surprised him since Lou is a man. Pius’s mom told me my children were cute. I gave them all the helpful tips about the house I could think of: how the refrigerator is only a couple of years old, and the subfloor in the hall squeaks because Lou replaced part of it and always meant to tighten it down but never got around to it, and there’s an access door to the attic hidden behind the drop ceiling in the office. I told them how the neighbors were nice and had two kids in high school. I told them what the neighbors had told us about the pool that used to be in the yard, how it went into disrepair and then was damaged in a hurricane. How workers came and broke the concrete down and filled in the pool with sand. I always had trouble trying to grow grass in the front yard because the earth is packed down hard and very sandy from the pile of sand that sat there awaiting its use as pool filler.

And then, Pius’s dad actually called Pius and put me on the phone with him.

It was… awkward, but not unpleasant. He sounds just like he did the last time I talked to him, probably 15 years ago. I was like, “So. Four kids now, huh?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s a very… full life.”

Before we said goodbye, I said I’d probably see him at Target, because that’s how it works in this town.

Then I said goodbye to his parents and gave them hugs. They encouraged me to come by, especially at Christmas, and said, “You know where we live!”

And then I left. I left, and I didn’t cry. I hadn’t cried. I didn’t feel sad. I felt pretty good.

This is good. It’s a good house. Pius and his family will enjoy it. Maybe they’ll have chickens. Maybe they’ll get the grass to grow. Maybe they’ll put down wood floors like we had said we wanted to. The yard has lots of space for kids to run around and play. The house is just a short drive from his parents’ house, and I’m sure they are just enamored of all those grandchildren. I’m sure after all these years away, Pius is glad to be coming home where he and his kids can enjoy his parents and sisters. There’s a huge picture window in the front room that’s perfect for the Christmas tree I’m sure they’ll have next year.

I don’t know what it all means, but it does seem auspicious, and maybe not only for Pius and his family. Maybe for me and my family, too.

Maybe it means that things work. Life works. Things fit. When our symbols stop fitting us, we can take them off and go find others. Like hermit crabs. Someone else will come across a symbol we discarded, and finding a perfect fit, move right in.

Sometimes you realize your biretta isn’t really the look you want for yourself. Sometimes the grass really is greener somewhere else because it just won’t grow on the hard, sandy soil where you’ve been futilely throwing seeds.

Sometimes a black mark on your credit score is like a black ring in the trunk of a tree from a year there was a fire or an insect infestation. It’s a spot on a timeline that life, in time, covers over. Eventually, the char and decay are absorbed, unseen, and forgotten.

Sometimes your thumb looks for a ring on your finger and finds nothing but still-dented skin. You feel your finger tingle, like a phantom ring burning that divot into your flesh. When it stops burning, it conceals itself, and you forget for a time that it haunted you.

A hermit crab is not its shell. It did not grow the shell, and it is attached to the shell only as much as it embraces it. And my house is not my success in life. My rings do not define my love. The things that define me are not immediately recognizable. They are more mine that way. They may be known to others only as much as I reveal them, as much as I choose to make myself open.

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Perfect normal

This is such a perfect Saturday morning. Poppy and Ace are playing sweetly together in their room, both in their underwear, because that’s how they roll. I can hear them discussing the tablet game they’re playing, something with pictures of animals: “That’s one of my favorites. It’s so cute.” “I like the baby one, not the mommy one.” “Yeah, I only like the itsy, bitsy baby one.” “Oh, I like that one! I like all of them, but my favorites are the best ones.” “Hey, look at that one! It doesn’t have a mouth!” What on earth are they talking about? I don’t know, but they do. They are relating and sharing and cooperating, but most of all–they’re playing. Together. Sweetly.

I’m still in my pajamas, feeling lazy, ignoring the dishes and putting off the laundry. The three of us ditched our plans for ukulele lessons this morning at Poppy’s request, and I think we made the right choice. We’re just hanging out.

It’s just normal. I want to inject all of this meaning into this morning, about finding perfection in imperfection, and about growing closer in adversity, and about how all shall be well, about grace and blessings. But what it all boils down to is: this is just normal. Perfect and normal.

Today, analysis isn’t necessary. Today is just underwear and tablet games and dirty dishes. My heart is full. Filled with normal; perfect normal.

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Children on the trajectory

I woke up this morning from a long, cinematic dream that my foggy recollections sensed played out like the plot of a Seth Rogan movie. One where the male lead is the faulted but generally loveable husband-figure, and he and the wife grapple to slog through the muddy terrain of their stale relationship. They imperfectly but honestly confront trust issues and pain they’ve unintentionally caused each other, hurts they’ve let fester, unaddressed. They come out at the end recommitted to each other and to the family they’ve created.

At least, that’s the trajectory they know they’re expected to follow, because this is a Seth Rogan movie, or maybe it’s that one with Steve Carell and Tina Fey. There may be painful moments and even real danger, but with tenacity and laughter, they find their way through, together. Taking deep breaths, joining hands, and looking toward what comes next with renewed determination and a strengthened union.

Lou and I watched that Steve Carell movie. Date Night. I think I related to it, or at least I wanted to. But disturbingly, at least at the time, a film we saw together that I related to on a much deeper level was Sleepwalk With Me. I took Lou to see it for his birthday a few years ago at an indie film house in Mobile, and he hated it.

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Spoiler alert: the characters in that one don’t make it through. Not together. In the end, they wake up. They let go of each other. They stop forcing their story to follow the expected narrative arc.

But my dream was the first kind of movie, the one where things work out, even when they seemed irretrievably broken halfway through. I woke up feeling rather accused by my subconscious.

“You should have tried harder.”

“You should have sacrificed more.”

“Don’t you regret it now?”

I got up. I started my morning, got ready for work. Poppy and Ace were with Lou, so I didn’t have uniforms to pick out or citizenship papers to make sure were initialed. I prepared in the quiet, and lyrics to a song I haven’t listened to in many years slipped out of my memory bank and began to play over my internal radio.

How can I believe when all around me all I see is hopelessness and lies? Can I reach beyond this dimly lit and dreaming twilight to a deeper reality?

And another.

I have regrets, and most I can forget. But one stays with me like an arm no matter where I am. I feel like Abraham. I put my blade inside its sheath, and find it’s not a bluff… I blew my one and only chance, and once was not enough.

And another.

Once that sweetness passes, you can never get it back. The train has fallen off the track… Everybody wants a little sweetness. Nothing wrong.

Regret is a funny thing. I’ve said before that I don’t regret Lou. Not loving him, nor marrying him, nor leaving him. But lately I’ve felt an emotion that feels like regret, and it’s slippery and difficult to analyze.

I regret that it all turned out this way. It wasn’t meant to. Twelve years ago, we stood side by side before Father Reed and made vows, witnessed and supported by a best man and a maid of honor. It’s a mockery of that ceremony to sit before a judge, across a table from each other, flanked by attorneys.

It feels wrong. Not because I don’t want to be out of the marriage, but because I don’t want to dissolve the marriage. I want to be divorced, but I don’t really want to get divorced. Going through the actions to get us there is uncomfortable, unpleasant, unnatural. It goes against what I thought I valued about myself: fidelity, tenacity, strength, determination, faith, right morality.

And then? Then there are Poppy and Ace.

Ace has been fairly compliant about everything, at least from the outside, for the most part. He’s still very young; only four now, and three when the separation happened. But last weekend, he expressed to me some thoughts he must have been ruminating on.

“There’s Poppy and Ace, so I want Mommy and Daddy.”

I didn’t understand at first. “You have Mommy and Daddy,” I told him. “You have Mommy tonight, and Monday, you’ll see Daddy again. But you always have your Mommy and Daddy.”

He wasn’t satisfied. He explained further. “But there’s Poppy and Ace here, so I want Mommy here and Daddy here.”

Ooh. “You want Mommy and Daddy together?” I asked.

“Yeah. I want you to marry Daddy. Marry him! Marry him!”

Ace is right. He and Poppy are together, and his mom and dad are supposed to be together. Should be, but aren’t. And won’t be.

And that feels like regret.

There’s an article that’s been making the rounds on Facebook, especially among parents: How American Parenting is Killing the American Marriage. The premise is that parents have turned parenthood into a religion, their children the gods they worship. Children always come first, even over our marriages, but parents should place higher priority on the marriage in order to provide stability and security to the children. The marriage came first, and the marriage comes first, and we fool ourselves if we believe we can put its cultivation on hold once our children are born and resume it seamlessly when they leave home.

This theme was echoed a little in my Sunday school class last week. We were discussing family structures and how the relationship dynamics in a family affect each of its members. For example, in a “Father Knows Best” style family dynamic, the father may be connected only to the mother, and the mother connected to the children, and each family member plays a strict, predictable role. This can create stability, but it can also repress everyone because no one may deviate from his or her assigned role. And mom loses her identity when the kids leave because her role vanishes.

Another unhealthy family dynamic may disconnect each member from the others, engendering independence but fostering conflict and anger. And another may have all the members enmeshed together with no boundaries, making it unclear who is in charge and where each member’s identity starts and ends.

A “healthy” family dynamic, per our discussion leader, has the father and mother connected to each other, united, and in charge of the family, with appropriate space separating them from the children. There is autonomy and intimacy. Everyone is connected, and everyone knows who is in charge.

I understand all of this reasoning. It makes sense; it seems right. Of course children need to know who is in charge, and that it’s not them. Of course if you hope to maintain a family structure headed up by two married parents, you have to do what it takes to cultivate the marital relationship. You can’t sacrifice the priority you placed on your spouse before you ever had children. It’s necessary that you nurture the marriage, and doing so keeps the family stable and the children secure.

But what does this all mean for me and for my children? Did Lou and I fail to nurture our marriage? When I ask that, the answer seems like a great, big “duh.” But I don’t think we didn’t try. Did we–or did I–make parenting the children into a religion at the expense of the marriage? Did I love Poppy and Ace more than I loved Lou–and was that wrong, and was there anything I could have done differently that would have produced a different outcome?

I don’t know… or maybe I’m afraid I do.

It’s so easy to love your children. Even when, as the article about killing the American marriage urges us to admit, you don’t always like them. Yeah, maybe infant Poppy and infant Ace in turn woke me up to nurse fifty times a night. Maybe the sun rose on my neck and shoulders stiff from clutching a baby awkwardly in the position most comfortable for the baby. I didn’t care for that. But she was infant Poppy; he was infant Ace. They were my babies. I could look at each of them sleeping, even as I felt tired and stiff and maybe touched out, and in looking at them I loved them. I just loved them.

Lou gave me Poppy and Ace. Lou was there first. But did I ever look at Lou and just love him? Did I ever look at Lou in the midst of annoyance and just love him?

I am uncomfortably reminded of a moment in our marriage that I think was a turning point. It was 2006, and we were in Connecticut, and I’d been seeing a therapist to work through issues leftover from 2005: Hurricane Katrina wrecking New Orleans, my mom dying, and Lou’s and my move to the Northeast. And something in my discussions with my therapist made her urge me to reconsider having children with Lou. Because that’s what time it was. We’d been married for four years, I’d finished graduate school, and we were both working. I was 26 years old. It was reproduction time. And she thought I should wait. When I confided in her my feelings about my marriage, she encouraged me to put on the brakes, reassess, and make sure he was the one I wanted.

There was a moment. Lou and I sat on the front porch, and I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children with him. And he asked me, what was I saying? Did I want a divorce? Because that was the logical conclusion. The trajectory I chose for my life was marriage and children. Children were always the given. If I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children with Lou, then I must not be sure I wanted Lou at all.

And I couldn’t say that. That seemed so outlandish. Nonsensical. We’d made vows before Father Reed, flanked by our best friends. We’d moved to other states together.

I’d finished graduate school. I was working. I was 26. It was reproduction time.

In that moment, I made a decision. I wanted to believe I decided Lou was the one, that I wanted to have children with Lou. But even as I made the decision, I knew it was possible I was deciding simply to have children. That Lou was the one was a granted. He was my husband. And it was time.

We conceived Poppy. And I stopped seeing that therapist.

And I can’t regret the decision I made on that porch. I can’t regret Poppy or Ace.

But maybe I can regret whatever measures of fear and selfishness I allowed to help motivate that choice. Maybe I can regret failing to acknowledge in a more serious way those issues that struck my therapist. Maybe I can regret that the choice to marry Lou and to have children with him may not have been driven purely by love for him, devotion to him, committment to him, and desire for union with him. Even if it’s unrealistic to expect that any human being can be motivated by totally pure  intentions, maybe I can still regret that maybe mine weren’t.

I hope I can be forgiven. For my role in mucking things up from the beginning, and for my role in failing to clear the path when it became cluttered with things to trip over.

I really do believe that Lou and I did the best we could. In our limited ability to know ourselves, to know each other, and to do the things necessary to create and maintain a marriage, we did the best we could. I’ve said “maybe” a lot in this entry, but I am convinced that we did our best. Or at least that we thought we did.

I kind of don’t know what this all means, and especially what it all means for the future. At this point, the future is what matters. How can I make sure my intentions are pure in decisions I make for the future? Am I even capable of making pure decisions–and is anyone? How can I provide a healthy family dynamic for my children when I’m no longer married to their father? What sort of family dynamic should I attempt to create if I ever marry again? How can you appropriately prioritize your responsibilities to your children and a marriage to someone who isn’t their father?

Ask Seth Rogan all of that. Tell him I’ll be waiting for his answer tonight in my dreams.

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Anniversary season

Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. Twelve years. Twelve years since a sweltering Saturday afternoon when Lou and I proclaimed “I have, I will, I will” before a crowd of friends and family inside the church where I attended Friday Mass as a kindergartener at the parish school.

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That church has a lovely, well-appointed parish hall with gigantic windows in which, at Christmas time, an enormous tree stands on display. That parish hall was under construction on my wedding day.

Weddings have individual anniversary dates. Separations and divorces seem to have anniversary seasons.

My wedding anniversary falls in the middle of my separation season.

The last weekend in June, it was one year since the things holding my marriage together began to fall apart. July, it was one year since an incident that normally would have been a fight but wasn’t because I no longer had the emotional investment to bother. Then a year since a big, blowup discussion. A year since confessions, admissions, and tears. Long solo drives. Packages containing books and articles, sent express mail from far-away family members hoping to help. Therapy sessions. Revelations. Resignations.

On August 3 last year, our eleventh wedding anniversary, Lou and I went out for what would be the last time. It was pleasant and friendly. We bumped into a friend of Lou’s he hadn’t seen in years–probably not since that friend was a guest at our wedding.

And the next morning, I think we both expected we’d be divorced before we got to our twelfth anniversary.

Later this month, it will have been a year since I moved out.

I spent my anniversary yesterday with my family  at a water park. The outing wasn’t planned intentionally to take place on that day; just a coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing. Poppy and Ace and I spent five hours communing with my sisters, my nephews, and my dad on a lazy river, in kiddie pools, and on water slides. We didn’t leave until we were sticky with layers of sunscreen and chlorine, filled with nachos, and exhausted.

In fact, we could have left earlier. Poppy had gotten to the end of her good time and was acting crabby and complaining of a headache.

When I was a kid and it was time to leave places like water parks, we’d all protest, “But we’re having fun!” My dad would repeat this motto: “You should always leave while you’re still having a good time.”

That’s definitely not a metaphor for marriage. You’re supposed to stay until the bitter end–the more bitter, the better. You’re supposed to stay until all the fun has washed off and you find you’ve covered yourself in a protective film that’s sticky and stings your eyes. You’re supposed to stay until you have a belly full of junk that tastes great going in but is murder to get off your thighs later. You’re supposed to stay and float on the current of an artificial river, around and around in circles, on a solo inner tube.

This time last year, I was hopping off my tube. Wading against the current and towards the steps. Looking for my towel; shielding my eyes from the sun.

There was a kind of honeymoon period after my separation. I decorated my apartment. I bought dishes and bath towels and tools. I hung my TV. I met new people and learned to use my voice. Everything was new and exciting and fun.

The first time I drove around to look at Christmas decorations on my own, I realized I had an almost palpable feeling of satisfaction at doing something meandering and meaningless just because I wanted to. After I’d seen all the impressive mansions in one wealthy neighborhood, I could turn right to go home or turn left to explore the lights I saw twinkling just down the road. I had no one to go home to, and no one in the passenger seat who might be tiring of the same old sets of Santas and garlands remixed and repeated.

The honeymoon period was exhilarating with all its newness, but it’s worn off.

There are things I miss from my marriage. I won’t lie. I miss having hugs from my babies every night. And I miss having a friend to go home to who knows what’s up with me and wants to hear the updates.

The thing about twelve years is that no matter who I might end up with, if anyone, and no matter how happy and fulfilling I may find a relationship with that person, he won’t have those twelve years. Or nearly fifteen now, counting back to when we met. Those are Lou’s. Lou knew me when I still lived with my parents, when my siblings were all still children. When I was practically still a child. Lou knew my mother and my grandmother, both of whom are now dead. He knew me at the tail end of my uber-Catholic phase, in my college years, and during my time in grad school. He knew me when I used to dance, and when I used to knit, and when I used to paint by number.

No one else can know those things.

And of course, it isn’t necessary for a husband to know those things. But it was comforting that my husband did.

On the other hand, I was practically still a child when I met Lou. At the very least, I was not the same person I am now, nor was he. And one way or another, as we grew and changed, we didn’t grow together.

And still, I don’t regret it. Any of it.

While the honeymoon of my separation may be over, the novelty faded, I find I still feel at home in my new life. Even as I grapple to find peace with certain elements of this life and the choices I make, I’m in the right place to wrestle with those issues.

It’s twelve years from my wedding and one year from my separation. It’s one day from yesterday and one day until tomorrow. Each day brings with it something new to learn. Each experience offers some opportunity to grow.

That is what I wanted, and that is what I want.

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