By Wendy Cohan
I drive too fast from Missoula, west through Spokane and the scablands of Eastern Washington, through the industrial maze of the Tri-Cities, along the other-worldly beauty of the Columbia Gorge and on into Portland. I drive up to our family home—painted a color that we worked so hard to choose: the perfect blue. Now, my husband and I face the task of going through our remaining belongings, separating his life from mine, over the next five days.
I’m staying at my friend’s empty house, just up the street, to limit any awkwardness and to give myself some private time and space. I play it cool: I’m helpful, generous, and not too inquisitive about his new life and new love. Although it’s difficult, I avoid playing “Do you remember?” too much.
It’s all going as planned, and it isn’t too awkward. After all, we’ve known each other for most of our lives. Each morning, we walk to the market café near our house, eat off each other’s plates, and talk about our kids, like always. I just can’t touch him, or be close enough to want to. It’s not like I want to make out with him, or, God forbid, sleep with him. That door has been closed for a while. But there are moments when I feel the urge to run my hand across his back, or reach out to touch his forearm. Of course, I stop myself, even though I have performed these simple motions thousands of times in the past thirty years. Part of me wonders, why can’t I still? It’s exactly like muscle memory, and the heart is a muscle, too.
Nights are harder. I spend them alone in my friend’s restored Craftsman, sorting through boxes of photographs and wondering if thirty years of shared memories are insurmountable. I don’t know how to survive the enormity of this loss. But, clearing away the clutter is a necessary part of disentanglement, no matter how painful. I carry on, like a middle-aged Sisyphus, steadily pushing the boulder up the hill.
The truth hurts like mud in my eyes. In every photo, I am touching him, leaning over him, my hands on his shoulders. I am making wreath pancakes with bacon bows on Christmas morning, a silly grin on my face. On an ordinary day, I am looking up at him from the kitchen table wearing his soft, blue Tee-shirt, a drooling baby in my arms—and from the back seat of the double kayak, a tow-headed toddler sitting low in front of me. I am the one with light in my eyes, the one laughing, smiling, or touching him—but none of these photos speak the three simple words I needed to hear. My husband was not fluent in any of the love languages. Always a struggle for him, his facility disappeared completely after our kids were born.
Opening another box, the danger becomes apparent. Utah’s maze of red canyons, the Pacific Rim’s urchin-lined coast, the blade-like ridges of the Sawtooths—and even the quaint little state parks in New England where our kids first set eyes on box turtles and bullfrogs, and where our son patiently caught a fish for the first time—will now be remembered, or forgotten, separately. I will never again strap a toddler to my chest and ford thigh-high spring runoff to reach him waiting on the on the other side. I will never again help to build a Lego-fort for our son’s pet rats to pillage while he runs the camcorder. What if one of us loses a significant detail, and the other one of us is not there to fill in the missing piece?
Thirty years of Christmases, Birthdays, Thanksgivings, Fourth of Julys, school concerts and family vacations seem to have been transformed into a soul-sucking sense of unreality. Did my life, and our life together, really happen? How do I hold on to all these things that he was such a big part of, and move forward—at the same time?
It’s late at night and I’m listening to Van Morrison, that lovely ballad When the Leaves Come Falling Down. As I’m picking up the box to put it away, a wrinkled yellow post-it flutters to the ground. I put the box down and pick up the note, because I suddenly recognize the small, awkward hand-writing: “Every time I see a flower, I think of you.”
I’m still metaphorically pulling the petals off that daisy, one at a time. Did he love me, did he not? Nora Ephron was right: “You can never know the truth of anyone’s marriage, including your own.”
As the days plod by, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the sense that I am in any kind of control. The afternoon the plumber comes to fix a leak in the main bathroom, I have to duck in and use the toilet in the master bath. I give a little knock on the door, and then scoot quickly past our comfortable bed with the pillow-top mattress, where he is laying, looking sexy and relaxed, while talking to the woman he has replaced me with. A lithe dagger slides between my ribs, and I think, if there’s a next time, I’ll just go outside and pee in the dark shadows under the fir tree.
This is hard—and as I explained one evening before heading up the hill to my temporary refuge—harder for me than it is for him, because the scales of love and loss are not equally burdened. By his own admission, he never loved me, while I loved him completely. And, he is happy in a new relationship, while I am alone except for my ninety-five-pound malamute, who is, at least, fluent in at three of the five love languages. I am asking for a little empathy, here. Maybe he does feel some compassion, but I wouldn’t know.
After four days spent packing up and moving the separate pieces of our lives—there is only one more task to deal with: signing the papers to complete the sale of the house. The realtor wants us to come in individually, at different times, as if she’s afraid of a “Jerry Springer Show” scene in her office—but we’ve been friends, lovers, partners, and spouses for thirty years. We can sit together in a conference room like grown-ups and place our initials on a piece of paper.
I head down Barbur Boulevard, past the Middle Eastern grocery that makes fresh pita bread and the world’s best baba ganoush, past the Fred Meyer’s where I was once struck with a stabbing migraine and had to ask the fish department for an emergency plastic bag of ice. Then I turn left on West Burnside and head up the hill toward Forest Park. Cruising for a parking spot near the realtor’s office, I can almost imagine us going to our favorite restaurant to celebrate, after. Almost.
It’s the kind of warm, July day that makes every out-of-town visitor want to move to the Pacific Northwest, and makes me wonder, for a moment, why I left. As I’m briskly striding down the sidewalk in my blue sundress and shades, my fresh, big-city hair-cut bouncing in the sunshine, I catch a brief glimpse of him watching me from a distance. He doesn’t wave. He abruptly turns his back, opens the glass door of the building, and heads up the stairs without me.
I really have no idea what is going through his head: Let’s get this over with, or, she looks good. I like to imagine he’s thinking, I had a pretty wife who loved me, and she was a great mother to our kids. She was adventurous in every sense of the word, and she made me laugh. I wonder why that was never enough?
The morning I leave, he gets up early to see me off. It’s still foggy, and the summer dew is heavy on the grass in the front yard. The sky doesn’t look like rain, though, so I don’t bother to tarp the trailer. I’ve already stuck the fragile items and the watercolors I painted of my children in the back of the car for safety. They’re some of the few items I’ve claimed, preferring to start my new life with a fresh palette and less baggage. Packing complete, I have no expectations for what comes next. I’ve never been here before and could not even imagine it happening. To us. I can only keep breathing.
My husband gives me a fleeting smile. “Well,” he says, “Have a nice life.”
I stare at his face, the same face I’ve been staring at for thirty years, thirty-one to be exact, and my hands reach out of their own accord. Muscle memory. I place a palm on either side of his face and close the distance between us with a quick step forward. I kiss his lips one last time, because I deserve to and because I want to. I don’t give him a choice: A hug isn’t enough, doesn’t say enough. I can’t speak a word. I can’t do anything but march to the car, get in, and drive away. I only make it a block or two before I have to find something to wipe my eyes with so I can see the road ahead of me.
I am struck to my core. There was no way to prepare for this: Leaving him behind is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I cry my way through Cascade Locks and Hood River. I start to take deep breaths in The Dalles, and the extra oxygen floods my reeling brain. I’m numb through the desolate eastern end of the Columbia Gorge, and exhausted by the time I reach Spokane. I gradually start to breathe more easily only after I cross the state line into Montana.
I stop in St. Regis for a plastic container of fresh-washed black cherries. Lamberts: dark, succulent, icy-cold, firm and juicy, my husband’s favorite. Every summer we stopped here on our way to the cabin. The four of us spit cherry pits out the window all the way along the Clark Fork, through Paradise, up over the top past Hot Springs, and down onto the shores of Flathead Lake at Elmo.
I want to let my husband know that I’ve made it at least this far. I want to believe that he might care, so I send him a short text: “I’m eating nostalgic cherries in St. Regis.”
He texts me back: “Cherries and St. Regis is a nice memory.”
And that turns out to be our last contact for the next three months. We both need to let the dust settle. I allow the Clark Fork River’s seductive curves to lead me home.
I turn onto the street leading to my new house, emotionally and physically exhausted. I park in back, enter through the garage, and walk quietly into the yard. My dog is overjoyed to see me, and he gives me more than the average number of kisses. I bury my face in his short, summer fur and breathe in his familiar scent.
One thought continues to flit through my mind like a restless little bird: How long will it take before my husband stops being the most important person in my life, the person I think of when something momentous or terrifying or joyful happens? For so long, he has been the person I want to share everything with: a blue sky above snow-dusted trees, the wildlife sighting of the month, or the kick-ass blues band I heard last week. I know this is just a reflex, but after thirty years of thinking of him as “my person,” I can’t easily shut it off. So, gradually, I learn to do the only thing I can: I allow the thought to arise and then I tell myself, gently, “that’s enough,” which is exactly what I tell Wylie when he’s sucked up enough of my attention for the moment. It works: The thought goes and lays down, just like a good dog. And I can breathe again.
Wendy Cohan is a fresh new voice for women over fifty. She has written for The Fine Line, Goalcast, Prime Women, and Purple Clover. Contact: https://www.facebook.com/WendyCohanWriter/