By Sarah Cannon
Remember the mindfulness training you felt cynical about back when Matt was hurt? It was and was not a long time ago. It’s like a lifetime has been squished into less than a decade. Or how about David, do you remember him? He was the counselor you were seeing before the accident, then again afterward. He had perpetual pit stains on his pastel button-ups and always asked you what you were doing with your anger. This was back when your focus was driving Matt to out-patient rehab sessions twice a day then showing up to feed, clothe, educate your children, and also work for money. You gave David a blank look and said something petty with a hanging question-mark sound at the end, like, “I don’t know, probably running around the block makes me feel better?” Then you didn’t pay him and he had to fire you.
Remember before the accident, when you had that dorky ‘wish’ cork board? You spent a whole Sunday gluing inspirational pictures and words and pinned it to the ceiling above your bed. It had a numerical figure written on a physical dollar in the center to symbolize the salary you wanted in five years. Matt poked good-natured fun at you, and you defended it, saying it was your five-year plan. You liked your poster so much that you called up Hannah and the two of you crafted a woman-specific plan you were convinced Oprah would buy the rights to. Want More, was the theme. You tore the poster down and threw notes for the Want More program into the fire after the accident.
“Isn’t it a miracle?” everyone kept saying after Matt nearly died. Then they began saying, “Things will get bet better,” when they saw you weep. And you wanted to say, “Everyone keeps saying that,” but you mostly smiled your gummy grin and hoped they were right.
You slowly gave up on making plans past the day. You began walking in mindfulness without knowing it. On the good days, every breath was purposefully layered with calm and this did lift up your family. You drank water as best as you could, exercised when there was time. You ate apples. You didn’t drink too much alcohol, or not enough for a habit to be dangerous. You deserve your own billboard for that.
On the hectic days after the separation, you fantasized posting pictures of the kids with their homework at the kitchen table with the caption, “This is what real parenting looks like, motherfucker!” You don’t need to do that anymore. Having finally gotten out from under the rock of debt, you can breathe again. You rarely need any help for sleeping a full night, and you no longer catch yourself saying apologetic stuff like, “I’d take it all back if I could.” You don’t have to do that to yourself anymore. You finally get it that everyone everywhere is hurt, not just you.
You might always be little sad, but remember: sad and mad are two separate things. The good news is you’ve learned to view the sad in your heart as a permanent piece of the living organism that pumps your blood to make you alive. There is heat in your heart. You may always feel a little guilty, but that too, is different from sad. “Who leaves a brain injured man?” used to roll around your loaded brain as you navigated the day observing the suburban couples you presumed were content. But comparing your story with the we-stayed-together-despite-the-challenges stories doesn’t help. You don’t need that. It does nothing for you. Let it go.
You learned how power is not given, it is taken. You are taking the power to start your story again, that the start did not stop when your former spouse was hurt, that you get a second chance and it’s because you earned it. Yes, you have paid a steep price for the things you know — that was one thing David the therapist told you that shocked you into silence and more anger. “Have you grieved your old life?” he always wanted to know. Why would you grieve something you had not yet understood you lost?
Soon, you will ride in the same car with your ex and enjoy a kid’s sports game together. You’ll be happy he has a new tattoo with a Sitka tree but slightly displeased he went sky diving or is on-call to fight forest fires. You will always worry about him a little. You will share plans for birthdays and mail copies of report cards. His mother will somewhat forgive you and give you the biggest compliment of all: “What wonderful kids you are raising.”
You still fantasize about a party with a DJ and a wind blowing machine. You make a set list, staring with Nas’s When I Rule the Word, because that’s how you feel the days you wake up and see a survivor in the mirror. On the days you don’t, well, let’s not go there right now. You know better than to diminish yourself into the convenient narrative the culture would prefer: wasn’t it your male writing teacher – your contemporary, really – who asked you if you were writing this so people felt sorry for you? Did you need a pat on the back? No, you told him. You are writing this to be part of the conversation. You are writing this because only you can.
A mom friend in your carpool will ask how you are making it post-divorce, and you’ll say, “I’m not, I have five jobs that all kind of suck.” You’ll tell her you’re on a forbearance plan and your family gives you money. (I’m lucky, I’m lucky, I’m lucky, you remind yourself, like others do.) This carpool friend is funny, and you have always appreciated a joke during troubling times, like when Hannah sent you that email with a note about how your life was a shit sandwich you had to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner for many days to come. When you scrolled down and clicked on the video she’d included of an elderly yogi sitting cross-legged cracking himself up, you thought to yourself, How did you find such remarkable women friends who understand the absurdity of despair?
But back to the thing with the money and your funny carpool mom friend. When she realized what you were trying to say is that you had none, she joked, “Oh, so wine night in on you, right? “and it felt good to laugh together. Then she absolutely marveled at you, recognizing how she, too, had married young, and had never done anything on her own. You wanted to protest and give her back the credit you think you don’t deserve, but on second thought, you do deserve it, so why not just enjoy?
The water down the hill where you still live will never look more blue, sparkling in the summer and the color of your daughter’s eyes in winter – that’s what you called them when she was born: Puget Sound blue. You might be tempted to shout out to strangers you assume are taking life for granted: “What’s wrong with you?” but precisely since the anger has subsided, you aren’t compelled as much to share. You simply enjoy the new stuff you can afford: a new dog bed from Costco, a vacuum, a ping-pong table, a mattress, sheets to go with the mattress. It’s like you’ve been starving and now you’re binging, only you don’t feel as though you want to throw up.
A romantic relationship will be exactly how your friend described it would. Remember when you collapsed into his arms before an elementary school music concert in the school gym? There was a lot of public crying in those days, lots. These days when you walk the dog you don’t have to stop to lie on the cement wailing to the endless sky. God, that feels freeing. It’s been a few years since you slobbered on your friend’s shirt in the school building as he comforted you in the most platonic way imaginable, saying, “You will find love…it won’t be the same, but you will…”
Listen. There will be more relief than fear and you won’t always assume the worst when a phone call comes from a loved one. I promise.
You’ll feel that shame of losing subside. You’ll feel his shame of losing subside. You’ll understand that the shame is not in the losing – it’s in the shame. Shame on shame. You did your best, and that counts.
You can start over; so too, can he. This is where the new story begins.
Sarah Cannon is a writer and teacher living in the Seattle area. She teaches high school English and is raising her tweenagers as a single parent. Her debut book, the memoir The Shame of Losing, will be published by Red Hen Press fall 2018.
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