“How long has it been?” Our firecracker of a tween-age girl looked at us over Family Day dinner. “Since what?” I asked coyly, hoping she wasn’t asking what she was asking.
“You know, since the breakup?”
Their dad and I looked at each other. God she’s astute. Neither of us had acknowledged this fucked up anniversary. We broke up at the end of November, but it was February before he moved out. We both mumbled something like, “A year and a bit.”
“What month? What day?”
I quickly pivoted to talk of Family Day weekend the previous year, when we were painting their rooms, building IKEA furniture, getting ready for THEIR separation from each other after nearly a decade of sleeping in the same room.
But on February 4th, 2017, we were doing something entirely different.
On the morning of Feb 3rd, 2017, my daughter said, “I don’t want today to be over,” and started weeping. She had realized it was our last night as a family of four. I’d dealt with my own pain the previous night by going out dancing with a super fun colleague and her merry band of Polish friends and gotten stupid drunk, slam dancing to Lida Pimiento in a gallery. It was all so awful (the husband leaving, not the dancing) that I only have hazy details sketched out in my memory bank.
Dealing with my child’s emotional pain while nursing a massive hangover was not my finest moment. But that morning I was focused on letting them know we just had to get through it. The social worker had advised against letting them stay home, because that could create an ongoing issue, so I gently coached us out the door.
When I called home after school, it was clear that my kids were not in a good way. My son, who is not generally overly emotional, was a teary mess. I realized that I would circumvent the pressure of the last night all together by overriding it. I rushed home to get them and called my sister on the way. Sushi and sleepover, STAT! My sister is a successful adult human, but also an incredibly childish plaything for my kids, and going to her posh condo would be just the thing to distract us all.
She had a big glass of wine waiting for me and video games for the kids. Somehow it was fun, even though their dad was back home, packing for his move the next day. After dinner, I got the kids ready for bed and then I gently made my way out of Neverland and back to the house we all shared together. Why? Why did I go back to the marital home? I’ll never really know.
The boxes I’d procured for him to pack were sitting empty in the front room. He had done nothing and was sitting in the dining room, watching YouTube on his laptop. My memory tells me that I avoided making a snide remark to cover my anxiety over his lack of packing, but I can’t confidently say that this is true. I know I eventually went upstairs to our bedroom to pack up my own things from the dresser that he would be taking with him to his new apartment.
We must have slept in the same bed that night, but again, I have no memory of it. Did I weep on his bare chest, like I had so many nights leading up to that one? Who knows? That glass Inside Out memory ball is buried in that land where Bing Bong goes to die.
The next morning, we said our goodbyes, Theo and I. I don’t remember that final goodbye either. I could only begin to imagine what it’s like to leave the home your children grew up in and would continue to grow up in, just without you. But he wanted this, I kept reminding myself. He didn’t have the courage to just leave, of course. For years he just made himself absent by whatever means necessary. Now we were just making it official.
I had a fun day planned. I wanted anything but for my kids to have a memory of their dad leaving. I headed back to my sister’s and she took us for a super fancy brunch in a super fancy hotel. My mom called us at some point, to discuss how she’d been a mega bitch to Theo when he came by to get our old furniture out of the basement. She spoke in our native language so the kids wouldn’t understand. My sis and I giggled, knowing mom had my back.
Then the boy child went to a birthday party, while the girl one and I went to the nail salon with a bunch of her friends and their moms. The village I had carefully built over the years rallied together to support us. After manis and pedis, we retrieved the boy one and went to see Hidden Figures with a single mom friend and her daughter, who was my son’s classmate. We were completely distracted and when we exited the theatre, it was suddenly dark out. It had been a bright, crisp February day and to be hit with the dark was a reminder that we had gotten through the worst of it.
“Let’s call your dad,” I said quietly, “He probably hasn’t eaten all day. Let’s see if he wants us to take him to dinner.”
When we got to his new neighbourhood, the girl one didn’t want to get out of the car. “It’s so WEIRD!” she kept saying. And yeah, she was right. Theo was hurt, I know it, but he eventually coaxed her out. We had Thai, and as we sat around the table we raised our glasses. “To us!” we toasted. The 20-something girls at the table next to us made gagging sounds and rolled their eyes.
I was surprised by how angry this made me. I wanted to go over to them, in all their young, hopeful glory, and say, “THIS IS NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE! This family has been through the wars! We have survived the near death of that sweet girl over there, but our marriage didn’t survive the post-traumatic stress after her disease and surgery, and maybe it was long broken before that, but GODDAMMIT we are here today of all days and eating Pad Thai and Cashew Chicken and it’s a FUCKING MIRACLE!”
Instead I swallowed a spring roll and turned to the girl one. “How about after dinner we go see Dad’s place?” And that’s what we did. Except when we got to the corner, I made an excuse about having to buy cat food and took the boy one to the store with me while the girl one skipped down towards the beach where Dad now lived.
“We’re going to buy him some groceries. Just enough so that he has breakfast tomorrow.” Was it generosity? Was it needing to be the smug person on the high road/horse? Old habits die hard, and I always took care of Theo. It’s what my mom raised me to do. So we showed up, the boy one and me, with a bag full of a lesson. It was the kindest way I could imagine beginning this new life.
“This is so WEIRD!” the girl one exclaimed again. It was SUPER WEIRD. Seeing our stuff in a new home, breaking up a life woven together. If you want to destroy my sweater, pull this thread as I walk away.
He came back to the house, I forget why. The shock of bare spots on walls where his concert posters had been removed. The absolute gut-wrenching blow as I walked into our bedroom to nothing but dust bunnies. I’d told him to take the bed, the mattress, the sheets. I didn’t want his energy on anything. I dragged the old futon mattress up from the main floor and plopped it down. When the kids saw this, they asked for their mattresses to be pulled in too. They flanked me, in a makeshift camp, little refugees ready to make a new life, but needing the safety of the maternal womb for the transition.
They saved me. For two weeks I destroyed my back on that floor, but they saved me. I was forced to go to bed early, forced to not cry myself to sleep, forced to accept that I was surrounded by a great love that had been born of the very person who broke my heart.
They are the bright spot in my day. They are the reason Theo and I are still friends. They are my reason for everything (except maybe this writing here, which I’m not sure is sustainable). They are the reason I only moderately fell apart in this last year. They are why I keep going. They saved me then and they continue to save me, one day at a time. I hope I am able to give them even a fraction of what they give me.
I’m not ready to date with my heart just yet, but spending time with Ali, I realize that how my future partner will gel with my kids is critical in my decision-making. For now, Ali is just for me and I don’t know that this will change ever. Ali… sigh… that’s a tale for another post.