“Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
It wasn’t until 2005 – the year my dad died, my son came out, and my husband ran over the family dog – that I knew I had to leave my marriage. For 28 years, I sensed it was coming. I even had recurring dreams that tried to tell me as much. It was that trifecta of surreal events, in rapid succession, which trembled the settled soil under my feet until a call to action was forced to the surface.
All those years, I had been living inside someone else’s dream – my husband’s – parts of which I admit we shared. Seven years into it, we had our first son, three years later, our second. Our family grew up in a lovely five-acre spot where the owls held nightly gossip sessions and deer families glutted themselves on fallen apples and mulberries. At night, we floated in the pool under pinpoints of light, expertly arranged in the ceaseless sky. This was the House That Ray Built. It was his pride, those few acres of earth where blackberries sprang up from pebbles of deer dung, and morels heralded once a year, phallic and succulent under the mayapples. It was so perfect, Snow White would have fit right in. But the only thing Snow White and I had in common was a houseful of men and an optimism for enlisting resident bluebirds to help with the daily chores.
At night, I occupied a different country home, one I’d never really known, but could describe in detail given the number of times I dreamt about it. The dream, always the same, went something like this.
Outside the water churns in chocolate fury, whirling past the front porch, picking up speed. The brittle farm house is completely empty, save for me, and because it’s familiar I have an affection for it. Bits of trees are pulled into the engorged river and sometimes crack harshly against the foundation. A detached branch slams into the porch and is wedged between the railing and the top step. It’s hopelessly stuck. The muddy waters consume it, and I watch until it’s fully drowned, until I can’t see it anymore. Even though the dream is always familiar, the terror feels fresh.
At another window, the water is alarmingly high. It’s nearly up to the window ledge and seeps through the wall to form a creeping puddle at my feet. I have to get out of here, I think to myself and in that instant, the river decides otherwise. It grabs the house and drags us away together, me, the house, the whole shebang.
We’re racing past everything like a runaway speedboat; willows dangle their branches just out of reach, rocks come up for air from under the frothy assault of a violent current. I so want to grasp one and stop the ride. Jump, I hear inside my head, but my heart is weak. Just do it. The aging two-by-fours suddenly buckle under the pressure and the house splits in two, front to back like a fortune cookie. I am all that’s inside. For years, this is the part where I wake up.
Even though I had a good husband and children I adored, I was lonely. Like love, loneliness takes many forms. For me, the most powerful of these was born not of isolation, but of the spiritual disconnection in my marriage. I felt alone when our Red Lobster conversations centered around the salad croutons, or when annual vacations sent me to Europe and him to Idaho, or when the lush, joyous bouquets of gift giving had all but crumbled into parched pleas of, “Just tell me what you want.”
Many women of my generation will say we were born on the cusp of greatness at the advent of the Women’s Rights Movement. This made us an unofficial test-case generation. As little girls, we were told we could grow up to become whatever we chose – astronauts, lawyers, archeologists. On hearing this, my little sister announced she wanted to be a dad. My older sister wanted to be rich. Yet for many of us, myself included, our primary role model was the stay-at-home mother. My own mother was very good at many things, among them, homemaking and childrearing. She was the woman I could most readily emulate, the one who knew how to iron pleats, how to throw together a meatloaf dinner in under an hour. I know I followed her route because it came with a ready-made map, making it easier to find my way. My sisters ventured out as military officers and adventurers. I slid into my mother’s identity, quick and quiet. Then I spent the next quarter-century determined to make it work for me.
No one questions the dissolution of a bad marriage. Where there is infidelity, addiction, mental illness, there is cause and justification. But where there are two good, hardworking people who love their children and harbor only a pervasive sense of unhappiness, most of us question whether the marriage might be saved. I was no exception, and it would be 28 years before clarity came. It was not a bad marriage. It was a wrong marriage.
When Dad died of heart failure in 2005, something in me began to shift. He had bought into and perpetuated the fantasy of our perfect family. After losing mom in 1979, he canonized their marriage. Never mind that toward the end, depression was stalking Mom like a vampire or that like me, she felt alone much of the time. In Dad’s mind, they had been content. The loss devastated our family, and we dispersed to pursue singular lives. Thus, when my children came, Dad watched them grow with the same delight he watched his old 8 mm home movies. It was the best part of life being lived out again, through my family. Dad was our most ardent cheerleader. “You have a beautiful place, two great kids, a hard-working husband. You’ve got it all.”
Logically, it is impossible for anyone to walk away from “it all.” Yet once Dad was gone and his cheering stopped, my end of the pyramid grew wobbly without his support. It was wrong of me to have ascribed so much importance to Dad’s feelings about my marriage. There were many reasons I couldn’t leave before I did, but chief among them was my inability to once again bear witness to Dad’s heartbreak.
When Alex came out to us a month later, I wasn’t terribly surprised. My instincts prodded this knowledge for years. What surprised me was how almost overnight, he changed from a hunched-over, pimply teenage boy into a tall, confident young man. Even more surprising was the tremendous support he received from his friends and his small-town school. We expected struggles ahead for him once he was out, but instead, his brave foray away from convention and toward the truth was largely celebrated. The gates of possibility were suddenly wide open, and Alex charged through. Watching him flourish, I realized he harbored enormous capacities. I recognized how long he’d lived in silence, how alone he must have felt all those years he’d known. When I looked at him I saw myself.
One morning the following fall, Ray phoned me from the garage to tell me he’d accidentally run over our Beagle, Pepper. I could tell he felt bad about it; this was an accident that could have happened to either of us. She was arthritic, nearly blind and deaf and had wandered behind one of his tires on her way to see him off that morning. The two of us stood over the dog, her back broken, her old eyes clouded with cataracts. It was clear she wasn’t going to survive. Yet when Ray said, “I have to get to work,” I knew this meant the job of seeing Pepper to her end had fallen to me. I, too, had a job, but the idea of walking away from this moment was upsetting. Pepper had been with us since our first year in the house. She’d guarded our children and the House That Ray Built, charmed our guests, fended off raccoons and snakes, amused us and loved us. Ray was raised a farm kid, and for him, an animal’s death was met with a certain practicality. But I could no more walk away from Pepper than I could walk away from one of our boys in this predicament. I didn’t want Pepper’s last moments to be an interruptive, unpleasant task. I was angry at Ray that morning, but said nothing. Our boys, then 16 and 13, came out to where the dog lay on the pavement. They said their goodbyes, but did not want to come on this last trip to the vet. They hugged their dad before he drove away. Then they helped me pack Pepper into the car, raising her carefully on a blue towel into the back seat.
It was just one of a hundred family moments that felt wrong to me, these gaping cracks in our understanding of one another and the world we shared. Most of the time, it was a matter of getting through the moment and tending to the business at hand. There was no time for sorting out victims and wrongdoers in that moment. There was, after all, plenty to feel badly about: an injured dog, a guilt-ridden husband, two kids needing assurance, school, work, euthanasia, the vet bill, the oozing carcass brought home in a black plastic bag. As the years passed, I registered these painful moments as pin-pricks but never gave them the attention they deserved. Practicality forced me to let go, or at least put them away. And some nights, my brain resurrected them with a second regular dream.
I am nowhere, all alone. One by one, I pull sewing needles from a tomato-shaped pincushion – just like mom’s – and press them into the cavities of my mouth. They’re under my tongue, along my gums, their metallic tips pricking the tender flesh and causing my eyes to water. I keep laying them atop my tongue in neat little rows. Even though I don’t like crowding them in there, I must continue. I can’t quit until my entire mouth is full. When it is, my jaw is stretched as far open as it can go, the needles inside compact against the roof of my mouth like a log jam. It hurts. Not the needles so much, but the impossible stretching. The cavern at the back of my throat is thirsty and I start to salivate. Don’t swallow. Desperate, I begin to spit out the majority of the pins in slobbery clumps, being careful not to inhale or let one of them escape down my gullet. I have to reach in and remove the last few one by one, while preventing them from scraping along my tender gums. Still don’t swallow. It feels even more precarious now because my tongue is finally free and I want to swallow, to slake my thirst, but have to be sure every pin is out of there first. Did I get them all? I must have. I swallow one. Crap.
As I’ve found in writing, all life events are connected, not necessarily by chronology, but by the delicate weave of gradual understanding. Each strand radiates from what was created before, the integrity of the connection dependent on the strength of new beginnings. I find it impossible to write about the structure of my marriage and family without examining the model for it – that of my parents. I could not have written about my decision to divorce without recognizing the influence of Alex’s courage on my own self discovery. Sometimes, life events converge in ways that we could never have predicted – remarkable, humorous and, yes, sometimes unfortunate ways. A mother learns to be herself by watching her son’s example. A phantom nightmare repeats to offend the senses with a pungent truth. A father’s death starts one clock, a dog’s death stops another. Despite all our attempts to maintain equilibrium, it seems these connective imbalances are critical to the integrity of our lives. Each event introduces a new color, a new tenuous fiber. Each fiber casts its own luminous hue against the next, and the interlocking threads continue outward. It is when we follow our instincts, these connections, stitch by sturdy stitch, from the known to the unknown that we find ourselves at the apex of something larger and more complex – an intricate, surprising design of our own making, this embroidery of the self.