Parenting H

Category: divorce

H’s father is here to pick him up. He hands me a copy of the papers he filed petitioning the State of Washington for the dissolution of our marriage. I knew he was coming for H. I knew he had filed the papers. I was not expecting to receive them now. I barely make it inside and to the sanctuary that I have created for me and H in our bedroom before the tears make it hard to see.

There is a letter from his lawyer. She wants to help, but I am advised that she is representing him, not me. I wonder if her offer is genuine or a pro forma nicety, one of those things some people say when they see someone else in a horrible way, not actually expecting to be taken up on it. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want her help. I have my own lawyer.

On the next page I stare at our names. Him vs. me. So this is it. This is how a marriage ends. My mind flashes to us at the courthouse signing for our marriage license, us standing up in front of family and friends saying our version of “I do,” us sitting in an interview for T’s green card, flipping through our wedding album with a stranger, assuring the US government through this snuffling, sneezing man, also married a foreigner, that our marriage is genuine. And now here we are, apart, opposed. Him vs. me. Me vs. him. Undoing all of those things we had done to come together.

Our marriage date is listed on another page. July 24, 2005. And the date he chose to mark our separation. February 1, 2014. It could have been any number of dates, I think. The day he did not tell me how he felt, that there was a disconnection growing in his heart. The night she stayed in our apartment. The day he called from Leavenworth, his joyful voice a bullet through my gut. The day he chose to go on the hike even though he knew how I felt about it. The day he started the secret texting and instant messaging. The day of our last failed attempt at sex. They day I fell on his list of priorities, and the days after that I slipped lower still. The day he refused to go to couples therapy. The day I started to turn away from him. The day he completed his turn away from me. The day the words started to tumble out of his month. The day he sort of said it, said in the clearest way he knew how. The day I finally understood that there was nothing else I could do or say. It doesn’t really matter though. They are all painful dates, the day he moved out of our apartment as good as any for a petition.

Another page. There are so many of them. This thing we are doing is simple in concept, but it requires so many words. Reason for the petition: The marriage is irretrievably broken. Seeing it spelled out so explicitly stops me short, even though I know it. There is no hope for us as a couple. It is over. In truth, it has been over for a long time, and these are just legal hurdles we are throwing ourselves over now. Facing each one spikes the pain of the separation, becoming another opportunity to let the grief wash over me without attaching my self-worth to my broken marriage, to let go of the self-blame. The tide carries me back out most times before I understand how to stay away from the waves that pull me under to these dark places, the feelings of unworthiness, the self-loathing. My marriage is broken, I am not, but still I am battered and crushed, disappointed and angry and sad. I can feel the beginnings of bumpy, jagged scars in some places, and I run my mind over them now to connect with the healing.

I scan through the rest of the papers. H’s name is there. He is the minor involved. It is established that the State has legal jurisdiction over him, over me. Then there are a series of deadlines, the last being a year from now. It seems so far away, and I wonder if I will be caught up, ready for all of this by then. I wonder if I can bear it for so long. I put the papers back in the perfectly uncreased, pristinely new manilla envelope in which they arrived. I will try to understand them some other time, I think. Maybe. Maybe it will be a long, long time before I understand them at all.

Later, at bedtime, H requests that we talk about our day. It is part of our new bedtime routine. We change his diaper and brush teeth, and then we read books, always Good Night Gorilla and then a rotating cast of others. He has milk, and then he says, “Talking about morning.” Sometimes he lies next to me, droopy eyed, nodding yeah, yeah as I talk about the activities of the day, sometimes he listens as he is having milk, and sometimes, as tonight, I kneel on the bed and rock him in my arms as I talk. His body, heavy with sleep, fits into mine as if he had never left, his head nestled into my shoulder like it is my missing piece.

“We woke up this morning,” I start. “H had milk in bed. Then we read books. We got out of bed to look for Grandma. She was still asleep. We folded towels. Then mama changed your diaper, and we got dressed. We met Raleigh and J and had a treat. H had some zucchini carrot muffin. We went to story time. H held two egg shakers. We sang songs about outer space. Then we walked back to Raleigh and J’s house. H had some of mama’s chamomile citrus iced tea. We looked at flowers and bushes and trees, and H examined an irrigation pipe along the way. Then we said goodbye to Raleigh and J and got in the car and went home. Mama changed your diaper. We took a nap together. You slept on mama. When we woke up, Ben was here. He brought the mantle back, and he was fixing the cabinets. We went swimming, and H looked in the filter and jumped in the pool. H laughed and laughed. We splashed together and took catkins out of the water. Then we came inside and got dressed. We read books and did some playing. Then you saw your papi. It was a good day,” I say to H, my eyes closed, breathing him close. “It was a good day.”

It was a good day. A geyser of sadness and loneliness rushes through my body and tears sting my eyes as I say it, and yet I meant it. I surprise myself by meaning it. These things that I do not like are happening. They are painful, and I am in pain. They are happening, but it does not erase the things I have in life that bring me joy. I still have joy, too.

H and I were together today. We experienced companionship, friendship, and love. It was a good day.

***

A note on the piece: This is a story about one sliver of my life at one moment in time. Everything here happened, but other things that happened concurrently are not included. For me, it is a story about how painful separation and divorce can feel, how good togetherness and connection can feel, and about how those two seemingly opposite experiences can be nestled side by side in life. It is not a piece about how bad or wrong my co-parent is, nor is it a piece assigning blame for our divorce. It is not really a piece about him at all; it is about me: My experience, my feelings, my perspective, my shadow parts. I recognize that some of it may read as if I feel he is entirely to blame, but I don’t feel that way at all. We share responsibility for arriving at the place we have. I respect his privacy; he read this piece before it was published so that I would know how he felt about it. I would not have published it if he felt it invaded his privacy. He deserves as much.

A flash of metal catches my eye as I fish my toothbrush from my toiletry bag.

It is my wedding band.

I had squirreled it there months ago, in a side pocket, when I first took it off. The toiletry bag had been shoved to the back of the vanity under the bathroom sink, behind unused soaps, lotions, shampoos, and toothpaste, and that is where I had put it back. The ring will be safe there, I had thought, and I will be safe from it. I can forget about it for a while and decide later what to do with it.

I have forgotten about it mostly, except for those times when my thumb, out of habit, moves over to my ring finger to turn the absent ring, or my pinky slides over and rubs up and down to do the same. The ring is the last thing I expect to see as I get ready for bed, glinting from a jumble of toiletries that I have been carrying around with me for a week and a half, back and forth between our apartment and the place H and are staying at night. It surprises me to see it, but not that I feel sad when I do.

I leave the ring in the toiletry bag. I carry it around, back and forth, and while I invariably forget something I need at one place or the other, I always have the ring. It is a perfect ring, one that felt like me every time I looked down at my hand for the almost nine years I wore it, and now it makes a perfect metaphor for all the things I have been carrying around, back and forth and everywhere, since I took it off. There is my ego protective anger, dagger sharp, that screams, “How could you have done this to me? You are wrong and terrible for not even trying. I do not deserve this.” There is the pain that lies just beneath the anger, a quiet ocean of tears and sadness. It is a blameless, million-shades-of-grey kind of place, this pain, where we each did the best we knew how. It is the more liberating place to be, and it is almost unbearable and exceedingly difficult to stay there long.

I carry the hopes and vision I had for an intact, loving, warm family for H to come home to; of family-oriented weekends spent at the zoo, at apple orchards, at the Arboretum; of honoring our families’ traditions and creating new ones of our own; of secret wishes that a second baby would be a brother for H; of me and H’s father growing old and happy together through all of life’s seasons, through the children coming and growing and going, through job transitions and wild, impossible-seeming dreams hatched and realized, through the good and the muck and back to the good again. I carry around these things with me still. It is not as easy to shed them as it was to hide that perfect wedding band in my toiletry bag. These things are sticky.

I carry worry now that I did not before. I worry about H and how he is experiencing this separation. He does not have the words to tell me, so I do not know for sure. When he has a hard day, when it seems as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, when nothing seems right, is it because he is feeling acutely the pain of the rift in our family or is it something else, perhaps merely typical toddler growing pains? Your papi has a bed in a new house now, I told H when his father first moved out, but how does he understand this? He must notice that he does not sit on his father’s lap before bed every night anymore and that we do not wave at the kitchen window every morning as his father leaves for work. Both of us have agreed to do our best to shield H from our feelings about one another, but there is no denying the gaping hole that has been torn into our small household. We creep around it, cautiously approaching the edge from time to time, but mostly we stay away for H’s sake. What does H think of it? How does he feel? I do not know, and I worry.

I carry things from the apartment to the new place we will stay until I have a better handle on myself, on my finances, on life. Some things I pack for storage until some undetermined time in the future when I will want or need them again. Mostly it is a mechanical process of sorting, discarding, and packing, but then I find the pain I carry. It is hiding in a photograph of me that H’s father had on his desk at home for as long as I can remember. He took the picture soon after we moved to Seattle together, before we were married. We are in the Jetta, me in the passenger seat in the black leather jacket I never felt quite right about wearing, my head tilted and resting on the grey cloth seat of the car. I look serious. I find it face down in the closet, on top of an unopened Christmas gift. What is inside the package? Who gave it to him? What is he hiding from me? I ponder these things, and it hits me again. It is over. He took my picture off his desk. This part of my life is coming to an end. The hopes and dreams I had for my marriage and my family need to be released. Things need to shift and change. I am shifting and changing. It is painful, and I do not want it. It is forcing me to carry so many things I would rather have never picked up. It is forcing me to put down some things I would rather have held onto.

I do not know what to do with the ring. It lives in my toiletry bag still, to the right of the bathroom sink in the place H and I have landed for now. I do not know what to do with it, so I do nothing. It is in an in-between sort of place, just as I am, caught between what was and what will be. I am carrying too much of the past and too much pain and anger to see the future clearly, and although a part of me wishes I could accelerate this process and bypass all the parts of right now that I do not like, there is a larger part of me that knows and accepts that this is not possible and that it would not serve me or H in the long term. When I have carried the past long enough, when I am able to tenderly turn it over to the universe, sending those things I wished for away with love and gentleness instead of with bitter resentment, I have a sense that something beautiful will open up for me and for H. And perhaps then I will know what to do with the ring.