Recently, I composed a letter to my wife, who has moved out of the master bedroom and taken over the basement bedroom suite. Her move seems to be preparation for a complete departure, leaving behind me and our three teenage girls. I decided to lay out how I saw life past and present, and how I thought the future might play out. It was my understanding of what our ‘marriage contract’ was intended to be.
I titled it Will You Stay or Will You Go? and this is the text I used about the marriage I thought I was part of. It helps if you know that we were pen pals for a number of years when I was in Australia (I grew up there, but was not born there) and she was in England. I moved to England, where we got married.
It started with a letter and with words, but is this how will it end? Will this letter, these words, precipitate an undesirable outcome or will they breathe life onto dying embers? Either way, I don’t think that it will end with a cheery song. We have a difficult path to tread and the outcome may, at best, be tired relief.
I have tried a number of variations on this letter. There are things I should say and things I shouldn’t. There are different themes that could be appropriate. There is the nagging thought that all decisions have been made and I am watching a slow-motion exit, rendering all entreaties pointless and futile. I cannot be sure what is ‘right’ and have opted to take a path that tries hard to avoid personal criticism.
Let me first address how I thought life would play out. What follows are not the thoughts of the 23-year old that courted you, they represent what I have learned over the years about long-term relationships.
The ‘plan’ for ‘us’ wasn’t really a plan; it was more of a succession of unplanned steps that had a certain inevitable sequence to them. It started in my mind and, I think, in yours with the dream of love and marriage, the dream of finding Miss/Mister Right, of finding someone that was, simply, suitable.
Over a short period, we shifted from ‘having children sometime’ to it being the time to start having children. It was an easy and natural shift because I had complete confidence in you. From there, we moved to the biology of pregnancies and pushing kids into this world. The dice rolled again and again and again and came up “Baby Girl” each time, which suited us both perfectly. We stepped easily into the tiring and sometimes irritable lifestyle that comes with nurturing kids through the early years. We reveled in the sweet smells of our babies, in the giggles and love we got in return, and in the simple bath routines and living patterns of our toddlers. We enjoyed traveling with our young kids and with all the equipment needed to get them onto a plane or into hotel bedding.
Over time, we shifted into the generally more pleasant and less demanding years as they started their passages through the school system. Babysitters gave us some time to be “us” again and we had many enjoyable nights eating out with friends, and meeting interesting people at the Smithsonian Institution. Now, with three teenage girls, I think we are both surprised at how our tiny babies have grown into almost-mature proto-ladies. None of them are grown up, but we can see the women they will become one day. As flawed as us in their own ways, they are also so much more.
The obvious follow-through in the “plan” was to steep in sadness as our three little angels took flight and left the roost to start their own careers and paths in life, to hope they would all come to see us every chance they could, and to hope they would call home all the time with news and gossip. It surely wouldn’t have worked out that way, but it’s a goal all parents strive for nevertheless.
But it didn’t stop there. We were to grow older together, to pass through our strongest years and into gentle decline. It’s not a welcoming thought, but one that we must all accept eventually. Whether it’s by gentle acceptance or the realization that recovery times from injuries are longer, eventually we notice that Age has crept up and clubbed us over the head. It can be eased by some familiarity, by challenges that keep us feeling alive, and by enough change to create comfortable rather than stale routines.
Making way for the next generation would have required us to one day take turns on a sad death-bed with family around or to experience the sudden and hurtful loss of the other. I have accepted the path my life is on. I am simply a traveler through Life, one of billions, hoping to amble rather than speed down this particular road. I have never seen golfing and Florida beaches in my retirement or dank Assisted Living residences. I have not yet got old enough – or rich enough – to even visualize what retirement might be like. But I know it lurks in the distance, waiting for me to realize that work is not forever.
I had hoped to be there for you at the end, to ease your passage into whatever the next realm holds for us. I had hoped to be able to look into your eyes if you were worried about dying, and give you peace at the end. I had hoped to reassure you that my love for you would be enough to sustain you on your final journey. With three loving children to assist me in this mission of love, that future is bearable.
I worried more about dying first and leaving you to grow old alone. My only hope was that the three girls or another husband for you (after at least some weeks of mourning) would give you the company and peace I could not. Having life insurance has taken a load off my mind, but I worry that maybe they wouldn’t pay up and I wouldn’t be there to negotiate vigorously for you.
In this ‘plan’ for life together, there was plenty of room for mistakes, for ups and downs, and for personal tragedies to bump the path around a little. There was room for us to change careers, to be rich or poor, and room for us accommodate shifts in each other’s needs over time.
We aren’t even completely “compatible” in the ways that don’t matter. We have different tastes in some foods, in books, and in some movies. We drive differently, do different things with our downtime, and I am definitely not as driven as you when it comes to either work or housework. I have never felt any of that to be a problem. Men and women approach life a little differently anyway. I have thought our differences to be sometimes provocative, often cosmetic, and always irrelevant to long-term happiness.
I had understood us to have an implicit bargain. We had available to us the chance to explore life for many years and find partners after turning 30, as many in McLean have done. It sounds like so much fun to live like this and be so free. It’s so easy to forget that each failed relationship represents one or more broken hearts, less innocence, more wasted time, and more difficulty with distinguishing between Miss Right and Miss Right Now (or the ‘Mister’ versions of these people). We opted for the traditional path, filled with more than a dash of uncertainty and terror, and a large dose of utter recklessness: We bonded young and decided to start with nothing and to build a life together as a team.
There was some more, but it makes less sense to anyone else. She leaked tears as she read some sections, but nothing has changed since then.
At some point, I am going to have to accept that divorce is switching from possible to likely to inevitable. The convenience of all being in the same house, even with the odd living arrangements, leaves me in a limbo that can be sustained for a while, but not indefinitely. Sooner or later, an explosive change has to occur. It might be triggered by an external event, an issue with one of the girls, but something will probably collapse this house of cards. And my life will take one more turn for the worse.