Disclaimer: JUST an FYI, lest ye think me heartless and cruel, that I did have Mitch read this to be sure that it was okay with him that I was posting something personal about him, and he said absolutely. Because in general, he is my biggest fan.
Winter has ended, finally, finally, finally, and all of the green things have returned, pushing out of their cozy hiding spaces. I have five tulips who have managed to survive my terribly sandy soil and the two gophers that we have been trying to assassinate for the entire year. I don’t know what color any of them are yet (the tulips, not the gophers), but every day the kids and I check on them as they reach up to the sky, each day growing a little stronger, and a little more confident as they seek the sun. Spring always teaches me a lesson about persistence, and strength, and having the courage to believe that staying hidden deep inside the earth is not THE PLAN, and that there is something bright and beautiful waiting for you… but only after the transformation happens.
The trees are getting their leaves back, and every dawn and dusk the air is so full of bird song that it’s a wonder to me that we ever had a winter at all. Some people have accused me of forgiving too easily, and times like these make me believe it. Tonight after the kids went to bed I walked alone to the edge of my backyard where the grass becomes woods, which was all covered in a foot of snow only a few weeks ago, and I looked up at the setting sun.
About a week ago, we put in our 30 day notice with our landlord. Tonight I packed the first box—full of little boy clothes that fit Gavin when we got here, but now are so laughably small that my laughter almost turned into tears. When your babies are babies, one year contains so much living. He was not quite two years old when I brought him here. He had only been walking for a few months, and at first, he couldn’t stand the feeling of the grass on his bare feet. By the summer’s end, he refused to put on any shoes.
My anniversary is in a few weeks, and even though 6 years is typically not considered a milestone, it’s a pretty important day for my family. Because last year, just before our 5th anniversary, we were living in a different house, and I had given that landlord our notice, and I was packing up boxes of Gavin’s and Maren’s clothes, and I was using every spare penny that I had to put down a deposit on a two bedroom rental.
Two bedrooms; one for me, and one for the kids. Because I was leaving their Dad. I was leaving my husband.
My children were my singular focus. Every time someone called, or the few times someone came over, I sent Maren and Gavin out of the room before anything was said. I warned our family members not to bring anything up in front of them, and became an artful conversationalist, changing the subject over and over again if they did. Mitch and I worked out a routine—he would be here to eat breakfast with the kids every morning, and he would come here after work to have dinner with them at night. And then after bedtime, we would go our separate ways. I don’t know how he spent his evenings and nights during those months. As for me, I set my intentions on two words—“And then,”
Finding one task at a time, clearing that task, and then starting the next. Pack the kids. Call the bank. Call our insurance carrier. Say the words, over and over and over again, until they are hardly even words, they are just syllables, they are just letters, they are just sounds, just sounds strung together that could mean anything. They are so casual, they could be just as easy as calling your bank and letting them know that you are going on a vacation and they should be expecting some strange charges. Except the words were, “I am leaving my husband.” And no matter how many times I said it, it felt like the words were not just sounds. They were alien, and awful, and sharp. They walked up my vocal chords, they pulled at my lips and forced their way out, leaving my throat raw and bruised. But I said them, because it needed to be said. Over and over.
They’re young, I told myself. If Mitch and I worked things out, Maren and Gavin would never even know that this time had happened in their lives. And if we didn’t… well… maybe all they would remember was that one day he was there, and then one day he was gone. Maybe they would grow up thinking that this was normal, that all parents shared meal times and bath times but then lived in different houses.
It’s salvageable, I told myself, and yet, I called a divorce lawyer. We met with a therapist, together and individually. We both wanted to make things work, but in the meantime, I needed to make decisions operating under the assumption that it wouldn’t. And so, I packed up our entire home. I cleaned it, scrubbing every nook and cranny, knowing that the return of our security deposit was the only way that I’d be able to pay rent the next month. And on the rainiest day I can remember, Mitch and his brother moved the kids and I into our little house in the big woods.
That first night was awful. There’s no air conditioning, so I couldn’t bear to close the windows, but there were so many mosquitoes that we all had to sleep underneath the covers in the stifling heat anyway. Every noise outside woke me up, and when the kids finally came running into my room at the crack of dawn, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all.
And then we ate breakfast together at our little table. And then– we went outside to explore.
Maren found butterflies, and wild flowers, and leaves that were green on one side and white on the other, so when they blew in the wind they looked like they were sparkling. She put her back against the wall of the house, and then yelled, “Conga-bunga!” and ran as fast as she could all the way down our hill until she hit the woods with the sparkling leaves, and then she would lift up her arms above her head and twirl.
Gavin found frogs, and mud, and sticks and rocks and snail shells, which he immediately began to collect. Every time I washed his clothes, I pulled out new artifacts from his adventures that day. His little legs grew so strong running up and down the hill in our backyard, his shoulders inked golden in the sun. He is not much of a talker (who would be with such a chatty big sister?), but at night, he would look up at the stars and say, “Look at the beautiful stars, Mama.” He doesn’t let me hold him anymore, and struggles manfully when I hold his hand, but he will let me rock him and sing him lullabies.
We all screamed when a snake slithered beneath our trash can. Twice our trash cans (and the structure that surrounds them) have been knocked over by bears. We named the bunnies that lived under our porch Benjamin and Tom, and Maren was delighted to discover that they really do have cottontails. We waged guerilla warfare against two pocket gophers, with little success. The kids painted a million pictures on our front porch. We ate a million popsicles. We fell asleep under a million stars.
While the kids played, I would walk the perimeter of the yard, dreaming about where we could build a coop for chickens and a barn for goats. I wanted to plant fruit trees and become a beekeeper. On the hottest day of the summer, I cooked down about a bazillion strawberries and made jelly. I bought a lawn mower—a reel mower made by Fiskars—telling myself that I needed to buy something that I didn’t need Mitch to help me maintain. Something without spark plugs, without oil changes, without trouble shooting that would involve machinery that I didn’t know anything about. Mitch reminded me constantly that I was definitely smart enough to maintain a lawn mower, but just the idea of looking at an engine was overwhelming to me. So I found a different way. Everything I did was like that—finding a new way. And then finding another.
I knew right away that I was not at all mad enough at Mitch to give up seeing my kids every day. And, eventually, I knew that I wasn’t mad enough at him to keep him from seeing his kids every day, either. Don’t get me wrong—I was angry. So angry that sometimes I felt like I was being burned from the inside out. Angry for so many, many things. Angry at him, angry at myself, angry at my new life, and angry at the one I’d walked away from. Angry at my family back home, who wouldn’t return my phone calls. Angry because my family up here weren’t really my family—they were his family, and the distinction had never mattered until now. Angry because I felt betrayed, angry because I felt like I had worked so hard to build a life for us that was what we wanted, and none of it had mattered. And angry again, double over angry, and exhausted, and broken, and exasperated, and shake-your-fist-at-the-heavens pissed– because I knew I’d have to do that work again. Because I knew—just like the first time we had locked eyes in the choir room ten years ago, and a shiver had gone all through me, and it was all the excitement of meeting someone for the first time, but all the joy of seeing an old friend again after a long absence. I knew.
The only way to deal with the anger, I found, was to let it rage, and hope that when the ashes cleared away the best parts of me would remain. I endured the transformation, and prayed that I would have a blossom and not barbs, and that my petals would not be colored with bitterness, resentment, and pessimism. I didn’t pray that it wouldn’t hurt; but I remember when I woke up one day and realized that it didn’t anymore…. not as much, anyway.
But even so, the old ways were gone by then; and I knew I’d never fit back into what we’d had before. So, one day after dinner, I told him that: just that. We couldn’t have what we had before. We would have to find a new way.
And he said, in a way that still breaks my heart when I think of it, “You are the mother of my children. You are my wife. Even if you had divorced me months ago, in my heart, you’d still be my wife. And I will love you forever.”
And so, with persistence, and with time, the frost receded. The memory of warmth returned, and with that, the winter ended. Spring served as a reminder that we have to be brave. Sometimes we have to believe in something that is unbelievable: that there may be something better after we get through the pain of growing. That if we can allow ourselves to be fragile, vulnerable, weak, and so, so small– but also single-mindedly damn-it-all determined—we can let the transformation happen. We get to bloom.
Tonight, after the sun set, I turned around and looked at my little house in the middle of the forest, where my children were sleeping, where my husband had spent the evening teaching our two year old how to stir fry chicken and our five year old how to peel carrots (“Look at me, Mama! Just like Daddy!”).
I am happy. I am so happy. But I will miss it here. I will miss that woman—that wild woman who rolled in with her two babies in tow and gritted her teeth and found out that, in the end, she’s not half-bad. That she wasn’t quite so awful as maybe some would have liked to have her believe. But I think, though, that if I could talk to that wild woman again, she would shake her head at me and tell me to run. “Are you crazy?” She would demand, “Do you know how hard I had to work to become you? Do you know how badly I hurt, how much I cried, how lonely I was, how scared I was? Move along, lady. You owe it to me to get going, and to live well.”
I’ve always known that my kids deserved the best of everything, but for the first time in my life, living in this house, I started to feel like I deserved something good, too, and that it didn’t make it worth any less if I had to go get it for myself. Sometimes, actually, it made it worth more.
I used to say this to myself all the time, “You are smart enough to do this.” Or, “You are strong enough to get through this,” But last summer, my mantra changed. I am enough. I would tell myself, while I snuggled my babies against thunderstorms and nightmares, and studied for graduate school, and worked, and made huge decisions, and mowed my own damn lawn with my own damn lawn mower. What began as a plaintive reassurance that I wasn’t screwing everything up became something else. It was my kick to the teeth of everyone who’d put me here. It was my battle cry, and I said it to Mitch, I said it to the heat, to the mosquitoes, to my bank, to my professors, and to my enemies, who often masqueraded as my friends. Guess what folks? Behold. I am enough.
….I wonder sometimes. Do you think maybe the spring blossoms carry with them a memory of what is was like before the bloom? Of how safe, and tidy, and easy it was to lie dormant under the earth? I wonder if the tulips, even as they are so proud of their bright petals, might also wish that they could go back to the way it was before, when their brightness and their truth were still secrets. I think that they would tell you that both ways are painful, but that the old way was, at least, less dangerous.
But you outgrow it, they would point out. You have to risk it, they would say.
You have to grow. You have to bloom, in order to see the sun.