When one of my kids remarked that he thought there was a profound sadness in me, I was taken aback. He has seen me in a good, solid, happy relationship for several years now, and while life isn’t without its challenges, in general, I have no complaints.
And then it occurred to me.
He is picking up on some aura, some mood, some indefatigable “something” that I am still carrying around, or that returns on certain familial occasions. And after all, since my boys are no longer children, these days it’s at those events that I am most likely to be interacting with my sons — at the holidays, a graduation, some other special celebration.
It’s been more than a dozen years, but the fact of my divorce, the speed with which the marriage unraveled, the ease with which my spouse moved on, the tumultuous aftermath that dragged on for a decade, the onslaught of related losses… All of it still hurts.
And I still ache at having trusted myself to the institution of marriage, to the man with whom I stood at an altar and exchanged vows, and to the family court and judicial systems that broke my beliefs in fairness. What I learned: Never let your guard down entirely, and he or she with the deepest pockets wins.
You may interpret my conclusions as bitterness or cynicism, more pronounced at moments and evaporating at others. Personally, I consider these realizations to be hard-won wisdom. I also recognize my own responses as a function of marital expectations formed in the way I was raised, and my vision for what constitutes family. That includes old school values like honoring commitments, following through on responsibilities, working through issues rather than walking away.
No doubt my personal history comes into play as well; I was single into my 30s having declined a few proposals, deferring marriage until I was ready, convinced I had made an excellent choice.
I’ve heard the lectures about moving on after divorce many times. They are irritating and dismissive, and predicated on assumptions that may not be true for all of us, including the adage that “time heals all wounds.” But moving on is not as simple as a prescription, especially when the past is the present, and the present is indeed a bitter pill.
Oh, there’s likely nothing so special about my story except perhaps how long it raged. Yet in our many hard years since the marriage ended, there was a great deal of good in our little household of one mom, two boys and a big mutt. But that fact doesn’t erase the sadness of having said “I do” to a man who is the father of my children, and who became a stranger to me. It doesn’t undo the bittersweet clarity that when I look into my sons’ faces, I see my dad (long deceased) and my ex’s mother (whom I once loved), both of whom are no longer in my life. I cannot deny that when I hear echoes of family jokes that trace back to my children’s early childhood, I flash immediately to other days.
Then I feel the empty space profoundly — not for a man I do not miss — but where a family history of four ought to be.
Instead, there is the story of the three of us together, of something in me irrevocably fractured, and I can only hope, less so in my sons. And apparently, my sadness lingers at moments. Perhaps it is an aftereffect of the years I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. Perhaps it arises on those occasions that invariably spark old memories.
Lest you think that’s all there is, I repeat: These days, life is pretty good. There remains a post-divorce financial cloud from which I may never recover, and lost opportunities as a result. But we weathered storms, my children are now young men, and they will find their own way as we all must, with time.
I am grateful that the man in my life sees my joy and hears my laughter; these are qualities in our life together that are our “normal.” (How great is that?) Still, I can only imagine that he, too, senses the sorrow that is part of who I am. We are none of us any one thing.
As for my children, I hope I have been a model of resourcefulness and curiosity, of determination and positivism. I hope they see that what is good in life can outweigh the hurt of our deepest disappointments.
And so I come to accept my reality: Sadness can coexist with happiness; some wounds may never heal though we learn to live with the pain; some pain may never subside completely. You may consider it phantom pain, but it’s pain nonetheless. And regardless of its source, shouldn’t we be allowed to acknowledge it when it returns, free to express our feelings openly?