I have a head for recalling numbers. Always have. Always will.
Birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, even license plates. It is impossible for a particular date to approach, and not recall the events that are associated with it – preparations for a wedding, the excitement of starting a new sort of life, and the moments of celebration in the early years. Or, the date of a blow-up, the date of separation, the date of a final decree that wasn’t an end at all, but the beginning of something long and painful.
At times, these sources of recollection pass easily. I may be wistful for a few minutes, and then I move on. I may even steal a glance at an album and marvel at youth, at idealism, at a lovely setting – and feel no pain. I am grateful when that occurs.
At other times, a date becomes a dagger. Maybe it’s an engagement anniversary or the ex’s birthday or even the way a holiday weekend was enjoyed “as a family.”
These days, that discomfort is only felt when I am already in a heightened state of stress or vulnerability. I am also grateful for that.
Photographs and old letters can be the most challenging of all. When I’m immersed in cleaning and organizing jags, which I have been lately, that’s when I’m most likely to bump into the unexpected. And given that I’m sentimental – hardly a surprise, I know – I have tucked away so many mementos over the years that I’ve long since lost count.
Then, setting my mind on a stack of papers, files, magazines, or books in need of going through and clearing out, inevitably I encounter a tangible memory. Some of the memories are good albeit bittersweet, and I smile. Some are tough to recall even in passing, and they may set off a chain reaction that takes me to a dark place.
Family photographs can be the most difficult, especially those taken when children are little.
As I was the one behind the camera, I appear in relative few of these scenes, whereas my ex is in many. I intentionally captured the moments he was around as a way of “pinching myself” that I had been fortunate enough to marry.
Fortunate enough to marry. What in the hell kind of thought is that? When will we stop measuring a woman’s “success” in whether or not she marries?
Of course, looking back I recognize the potent lessons of my childhood and adolescence. I was “lucky” to have found a man (my mother’s view point). I was “lucky” to be loved at all (my emotional interpretation of her words). I was “lucky” that a man wanted to marry me once I was over 30. I would be “lucky” to ever meet anyone else who was as smart and still single. My mother never knew about the three men in the ten years before who also wanted to marry, and I said no.
I wasn’t looking to marry, I wasn’t ready to marry, I felt no need to marry. But eventually, we may arrive at a place where the possibilities in a formalized union seem nice – at the very least. After all, everyone around us is coupled up, we’re tired of dating, and we want to feel what we imagine to be “safe” – safety in a person we can count on, safety in what we construct as “family.”
If the opportunity presents itself, we say yes. It’s what we do, isn’t it?
When we hear it enough – that we’re lucky to have found someone who would “have us” – don’t we believe it? Especially when we haven’t felt “good enough” for much of our lives, and when the indirect message in those remarks reinforces a lack of self-esteem, which further encourages our inner critical voice to take up the same refrain: “You’re lucky to have this chance, you’re lucky to be in a position to make compromises, don’t rock the boat.”
And so we say “I do” to the chance, “I do” to the compromises, and “I don’t and I won’t” to rocking the boat – until the boat is overturned in a tidal wave we never see coming.
Sometimes, we stumble into images and words that follow us through the divorce itself, and possibly out the other side. They pop up in unmailed letters to old friends, in candid photographs taken at a child’s party, and an expression of bewilderment or weariness. Years later, we revisit these moments and know they serve as reminders that we weathered storms, made it to shore, picked ourselves up and kept on going. Somehow, in the process, we built a sense of deserving a whole self, and we succeeded in chasing away the inner critic.
Then we embrace the date, the weekend, the echo of an event. We feel what we feel, we do not linger, and we carry on.