“Could it be I was the one
That you held so deep in the night?
On the back staircase
You fell to your knees with tears in your eyes
All that you suffered, all the disease
You couldn’t hide it, hide it from me.”
– Salt and the Sea, Lumineers
The second of three times that he walked out, it was late at night and my daughter had awoken to our raised voices. The first time ever. The last time ever.
And I had covered her ears, while I held her, and yelled at him to stop. Stop talking. Stop yelling. Stop spewing words and just breathe. All I said out loud was: Stop!
He left, clothes in hand and keys on the table. And texted me later that he wasn’t coming back.
Alone, I rubbed my daughter’s back and sang her to sleep. In the morning, when she asked about Daddy, I had to tell her he wasn’t going to come back to live in this house. And then all the other stuff you say, through the ache in your chest that makes it so hard to talk: he loves you tons, we both love you, that will never change.
And before you can get her dressed for preschool, she grabs you and cries. And you hold her and stay cool and calm as tears roll out of your eyes because you can’t believe, yet again, you are the one doing the actual work. Alone. Cleaning up the mess all alone.
She holds you and you hold her and you both cry. You tell her you know it’s sad and confusing. You tell her to use her words whenever she can so you can know what she’s thinking and feeling. Even if you’re really mad at me, you say, tell me and it’s ok. We have to really tell each other what we’re feeling, ok? Because we’ve got each other here and I want to always listen to what you have to say, ok?
She uses that line on you to try to get ice cream for dinner six days later and that’s when you finally feel in your bones that she will be ok – because you will listen, you will pay attention, you will make damn sure she gets through this as unscathed as possible. And she tells you, even when she doesn’t want ice cream: We’ve got each other here, Mama, we always will.
Still, you try to work things out while separated and finally hit a point, one night, where you realize that there’s no saving it because the old habits are back and even just the beginning of them has squashed the desire you had been hanging onto like a chemistry-driven life preserver. . . *poof* . . . gone.
And so you make that one last step apart. And wait for the wrath. And you don’t have to wait long. Seconds, really. And then you try to explain. But then, no longer on that disorienting planet of do I or Don’t I? Stay or Go? you are able to silence yourself. Finally, you don’t need to try to be understood. It never worked anyway. You failed at that effort over and over and over and over.
Now? Just protect your daughter from all the ways this new reality can harm her.
Now? You just focus in on that effort like an eccentric scientist in a house on a hill.
In a rush you didn’t expect. With a fullness you couldn’t have even hoped for at any point in these last three years.
For three years, I haven’t been able to listen to music in the car when I’m alone without crying at some point. Some song will trigger something from the worst of the betrayals. Or some song will be about the kind of love you wish you had. The kind you thought you had until three years ago. Something in some song will be like a time release pellet hiding in stealth to undo your calm and detached highway serenade.
So I avoided music when alone, even when I had to start a three hour round trip commute to another work location once or twice a week, and I gave in to audiobooks. Finally started in on podcasts. And for three years, unless I was driving somewhere far enough away that crying could be recovered from: I listened to people talk instead of sing. Hours and hours of talking. Music was only when other people were with me – like my heart and my eyes had shields that disappeared as soon as there was no one around.
The last few weeks have been a shitload of shit for me. I am having the kind of family issue back in my hometown that involves CPS and fighting to keep a three year old safe. I’m trying my best to help long distance and not feel helpless when he keeps getting yanked back and forth. When he’s picked up by police wandering, barefoot, with his younger sibling, on railroad tracks in the middle of the day.
And I’m having medical tests that not only scare me for what they could show, but also because *gawdblessAmerica* they’re so fucking expensive.
The weight of work responsibilities and family responsibilities and facing this health stress (both of body and wallet) have been swarming me like a hive of bees and I’ve been blowing smoke with every breath to keep them just barely at bay, just enough to finish each task at hand, carefully and fully and scared nearly to death that if I pause long enough to feel the weight, I will dissolve into thin air.
And then: the end.
Of this relationship trying to limp back into something it never really was: honest and healthy. Of the family I thought I was creating that I’ve chipped away at myself for three long years trying to create out of this mess. The future I wanted so badly for my daughter. A story fit for the “we came out of this stronger” cliché you see in every dumb self-help book (Yes, I read quite a few of those betrayal books in 2016 and tried, unsuccessfully, to burn one of them in our gas BBQ back in 2017, when he walked out for the first time).
Chipped away until I was sure all that was left of me was some sort of honeycombed skeleton on the downward slide to old age.
The funny thing is, today, only six days into the official end of this era of my life, I listened to a whole record – twice through! – on my hour and a half commute today. Sang along with it.
And – no tears. Not even close.
When I realized this, I looked in the rear view mirror, as I stopped at a light, staring at my eyes to see if they were, shockingly, actually dry only to realize that I had forgotten to put concealer under my eyes. And yet: no bags.
I didn’t even wear concealer until a few weeks ago and I thought I had just hit a point where I was old and had bags. I knew I was under stress. And crying a lot over home life. But I really thought I had hit an under-eye-baggage tipping point. Like my chipped away self, I was sure I had done irreparable damage to my under eye real estate by pushing myself through all of these attempts to make a lie something honest, like you could actually see the work of it carved in dark semi-circles under my eyes.
I was instantly reminded of when I closed my café in 2010.
It was such a tough decision. I sunk so much time and money and heart, especially at the end, trying to get through the economic bullshit of the mid 2000s. My body ached. I had knee pains. Sometimes when I got home I couldn’t get back up off of the couch without groaning.
I was 35.
Part of the decision to not renew the lease and just count it as an expensive five year adventure that had so much good to it was that it had aged me to, maybe, 50. I believed I had sped up my own aging from all the physical work and stress that I could only see a future where I would feel 80 at 50.
I was so sure that I had permanently damaged my body that I needed to cut my losses then and not make it worse.
And then, about a week after being fully done with the whole dismantling of the space and selling off the pieces, I found myself fake-waltzing across my kitchen floor while cooking dinner. Singing along with a song and gliding across the floor in circles – coming back to the stove to stir a risotto and then gliding in a circle again, lost in the joy of a song and a body not completely exhausted.
I literally stopped, as though I had just seen myself for the first time in years, and teared up from joy. I wasn’t aching. My knee didn’t hurt. My shoulder wasn’t sore from tamping hundreds of pucks of espresso out of a portafilter for an eleven hour shift.
I was ok. Better than ok. I felt light.
Whatever sadness there had been in handing back those keys and abandoning the dream of watching those exact neighborhood kids grow up and out of the neighborhood – it had all been so so right. I could literally feel the rightness in my body only days after being so sure I was always going to feel too old.
I needed to let him walk out three times, even though after two I swore I would never let him do it a third time. I needed to try and try and try – even after three (!) different therapists (one who was our couples counselor) asked me, alone, some version of the same questions . . . why do you keep chipping away at yourself when this isn’t going to change and it’s not about willingness it’s about capability and why are you holding on so tight?
I needed to try and try and try and try again, because I loved him, sure. But more because I needed to know that whatever happened, it was the right thing for my daughter. And because I was, only barely subconsciously, terrified of the immediate aftermath more than the long term struggle. I was bartering with the devil in hopes he’d grant me my wish: let me find the magic spell to make this all whole again (even though I knew it had never actually been whole). Please. Help me not have to live through the terrifying in between time – in between this loss of balance and the life I knew I really deserved.
I was hobbling myself to try to force what I wanted to be right for my daughter instead of what was.
I needed to keep giving myself away, piece by piece, so I knew I hadn’t left any option unturned.
And I really did believe, until today, that I had done real damage to myself, physically, that I had aged myself irrevocably. But that it was worth it, if only so I could look in my daughter’s eyes, whenever she was old enough to really, really ask, and say, without a doubt, that I had done everything I could, short of dying trying, to salvage the family I wanted and intended for her before having to let it go. I needed to know that sentence would be truer than true.
That I had done everything.
Then. In that car today. I was singing without tears – some really tragic songs as a matter of fact. Some beautifully painful songs about love and family and addiction that are hitting me in a very soft spot right now.
I saw my eyes. Framed by the rectangle of the rear view mirror. And they looked fine.
Better than fine.
No tears. No bags. Like I had reversed the effects I’d noticed the week before in less time than it takes to reach the weekend.
I realized I was still waltzing. Lighter on my feet, truthfully, than I’d been in over three years.
And the speakers in the car went on: I’ll be your friend in the daylight again.
We’ve got this, my eyes said. Take the wheel and sing. You’re ok.
And I kept singing.