Fighting for My Marriage Came at Too High a Cost
The writings of Mary Oliver and May Sarton prepared my mother, and then me, to leave our husbands
It’s Friday, two days since I told my husband our marriage is over. I wake to find that the dishwasher, the washing machine, and the basement humidifier have all broken. I am incredulous, and I rage around the house, unhinged and wild-haired. I report to my almost-ex-husband on the appliance misfortune. He calls it an omen. I laugh. Don’t you know omens foreshadow an event? We’re already at the match’s end. We’ve been jabbing at each other for years, and sometimes just gnashing our teeth. We wanted resolution and victory. But instead, this is ending a different way: These are the haymakers. I could wait for the eight-count, but I’m throwing in the towel. The omens have long since come and gone.
It’s February. Winter has finally arrived, and we’re buried in snow. The fantasy kind, the kind that drifts down like powdered sugar. The world is gilt in blinding sparkle. The beauty overwhelms, but so does the work: two shovels, a scraper, and a wood carrier stand, alert, on the front porch, ready for daily use. Outside, snow slides from the roof and icicles snap in the morning sun, the thuds loud enough to shake the house.
My daughter and I are walking in the woods in twenty-degree weather when her coat zipper breaks. While she is rolling down a hill in the snow, the elements come apart, and refuse to fit back together. At home, I discover there is a warranty policy, and begrudgingly send the coat to the prescribed address. The website says it will take four to six weeks to hear whether the garment can be repaired or not. It is winter in the Hudson Valley, so I buy my daughter a new coat on late-season clearance, wrapping her in layers of wool and fleece until it arrives. I am fortunate to be able to solve the problem with the click of a mouse and a few credit card digits, but I am vexed nonetheless. Days later, the zipper on my jacket goes, too, in the same fashion, and within a day after that, my son’s, too; one of the top stops snaps in half and the slider flies off completely. It feels like a cosmic prank.
I call the outerwear company to explain. The man on the other end of the line calmly instructs me to send the second and third coats to him, says it will be four to six weeks “before we know anything,” as though he is a doctor taking a biopsy and running tests.
“You know,” I say, “It is the middle of winter in Upstate New York, and you now have all of our coats.”
“Yes,” he says, “I’m sorry, ma’am. It’ll be four to six weeks at least.” I begin to laugh. Because it is absurd.
In a small way, yes, but still, it feels like a fun-house reflection of the spectacular collapse of this whole pandemic year, the grand reveal of all that was already broken and the farcically poor responses. They keep asking us to hold on. They say, “have faith.” But we’ve fought too hard, too long, and at too high a cost. We’ve watched our faith burn. We are watching it become something fiercer and more true. There is nothing left to do but release our hold on what was.
I am mad that my not-yet-ex-husband’s zipper didn’t go down too. We have been separated, now, for eight months. But then he heads to the Adirondacks, alone, to celebrate his birthday, and breaks his ankle the first day. I feel both guilty for thinking what I did and, also, more schadenfreude than I’d like to admit.
Two days after he returns from the mountains limping, I ask him to sit with me and talk: What needs to shift while he rests and his ankle mends? He says, “Nothing.” He says, “I can handle it.” He insists he will still go to work—where he stands for hours—just less. Then he asks for money to bridge the gap. I am in disbelief; we used up the last of our liquidity to buy him a place to live. I feel like a well he drinks from whenever he’s thirsty, never noticing when it runs dry. I begin to laugh, and then crumple into sobs. When he leaves, I know it is time to stop fighting for us.
I hold the truth of finality for ten agonizing days. I am wrecked. Can’t sleep, can’t eat. Then, on a Wednesday, in couples therapy over Zoom, I tell him I want our separation to be permanent. I knock over my glass of water, my hands are shaking so hard. I tell him I need to let go. I ask him to let me go. He looks stunned, and I am surprised he is surprised. He asks me to hold on, to try one more time. He says, have faith. I say, I can’t. I say I’ve fought too hard, too long, and at too high a cost. There is nothing left to do but release my grip on what was. We have the same argument we’ve had for years, again, while our therapist watches from the screen. Snot and tears careen down my face in sticky rivulets. I start to plead: I need you to let me go.
My anger has gone out of me. I have been gutted. I feel lighter, like ash. I feel like I will vomit.
The following Monday, the kids—four-year-old twins—are at his place, and the house is quiet and dark. I don’t know what comes next, what fills the space of clawing and willing and waiting. I pull my mother’s books from a teetering pile by my bedside. Most of what was in her house, our house, is gone, but I’ve kept a few of her books, the ones she collected when she divorced my father; Mary Oliver, mostly, and May Sarton, too. I discovered them on her bookshelf the morning after her death and sat on the floor, encircling myself with them, searching, already, for a way to keep my mother close. I was twenty one, and needed her still.
She’s been dead for thirteen years now, and I’ve carried these volumes with me through countless moves. I have barely looked at them.
In my bed, there is a vast space beside me where my soon-to-be-ex-husband used to sleep. I cover it with the books, and reach for a worn paperback, From May Sarton’s Well. Inside is a piece of yellowed loose-leaf paper, and on it, my mother’s unmistakable scrawl. I am struck by how like mine it is. My god, I think, how I am becoming her. There is, on the paper, a brief list of page numbers, and beside most, a word or two. A handmade index. A map.
I turn to “p. 89—intimacy difficulties.” To be honest is to expose wounds, and also to wound. There is no preventing that. The scorched truth clicks loudly enough to hear. I have had it beside me all this time, but I haven’t been willing to go near it. I knew, somehow, that my mother’s books would bring me nose to nose with the inevitable. And so I have circled carefully around them, avoidant, just as I have circled around the truth of what I must do to free myself from the stuckness of my marriage.
I read on, following the trail of breadcrumbs my mother left me. What have I done? What do I do now? My mother, by way of Sarton, has anticipated the question: Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain.
The words invite a putting down. It took my mother nearly thirty years of trying before she could accept that it was time to put down her relationship with my father. I remember her impenetrable distance after she asked him for a divorce. It was borne of bitterness; she had waited much too long. She was snuffed out completely, for years, before she found the break. Cancer felled her soon after. It was too short a second act.
I have come to accept that it is time to put my own marriage down. It was the only thing left to do. Sarton affirms this. In the end one cannot be faithful in the true life-giving sense if it means being unfaithful to oneself.
I have, of late, fed on the promise that I won’t follow in my mother’s path. I watched her fade, watched her become hollow. I, a child, needed her then, but she had nothing to give. She’d used herself up in desperate willing and the blackness of resentment. My children have watched that same blackness sharpen my edges. They have seen me fade. They need me to return. I need myself to return. I thought I could spare myself and still find a way out. My mother did too. We were wrong.
I knew before I woke/That I would have to break/Myself out of that tomb/Be born again or die … Hear death within me/Like the roots of a tree/Her life within mine—/Twice-born mystery.
I have been patching rather than reckoning. I was unprepared to see the broken things piling up around me, pointing to the break required of me. Now, exhausted, I have done it. Alone here in the lovely silent house/Alone as the inner eye opens at last. I am unburdened, and awash in fresh pain.
The afternoon of my confession, I drive an hour north and walk a snowy path. There is a wide metal gate, the kind you find on farms, closing off the steepest section. I climb over it without a thought. I lean into the wind and slip-step up a steep wooded slope, up and up until I come out into a barren, undulating field. The sky is a mottled, pale gray; more snow is coming. The snow on the ground is white-gray, too, pulled into tiny, wave-like drifts. I sink deep as I climb to the top of the hill, breathless in the cold. I stretch my arms and face into the biting wind. Snow begins to fall. Tears run down my face again, but I am not crying. I feel clean.
That night, our children are at his house, and I sleep harder than I have in weeks. A sleep of fallow mud.
The next day, I wake and head for the woods again, with skis this time. The sky is piercingly blue, and the dog runs ahead of me, gleeful. What is it about animals? … They restore us to childhood’s world, pure and self-absorbed. I ski until I am euphoric and soaked in sweat under my thermal layers. It is so strange not to have an argument to mount, a next move to plot, a secret to hold. I float through the day.
I carry my mother’s book around the house with me as I move through the days, doing laundry, vacuuming rugs, wiping crumbs off the counter. I lay it down in plain sight to ensure I will stumble upon it. My mother holds me through the poet’s verse. I read the words like I’m counting rosary beads. They become prayer.
On my way out to warm up the car one morning, I notice that a corner of the front porch is sunken with rot. The collapse is distinct, visible to the naked eye; I recognize immediately that it’s been deteriorating for a long, long time. I pass this place, this decay, many times each day, but I haven’t seen it until now. I wonder if this is how I have looked. I wonder if anyone has noticed.
It snowed again yesterday, but today the sky is clear and vast. The light of February is long, and the mornings are full of birdsong. The new year and a fresh fall of snow/The new year and mourning to do … So it is now the gentle waking to what was/And what is and will be as long as I am alive. I have no idea what my spring will bring, or when. But I know I want to be soft when it comes. I hope I have time for a full second act. I know there is no guarantee.
In the woods, the dog snuffs her nose in the powder, then leaps into the air, high on her life. I stop to catch my breath, and stare into the naked woods. The snow is all kinds of blue. I am, I think, more of a poet than I was before I knew him, if to be a poet means allowing life to flow through one rather than forcing it to a mold the will has shaped. I start up again, and my snowshoes thwap against the heels of my boots, ice cracking beneath me. The going is slow and effortful. Everything is breaking. Everything is thawing.