It was family movie night and we were watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We were at the part where Harry finds the Mirror of Erised, a magical mirror that shows Harry his deepest desire. The first thing he sees are his dead parents, standing next to him, smiling. And in that moment, I looked around at my three children, and although they were fixated on the film (they always are when it comes to Harry Potter), I don’t think any of them felt much empathy for what Harry was going through.
Sitting on the sofa, side by side, holding hands, were their parents. My wife, Mel, and I have been married for 11-plus years, and as far as I can tell, we will be married for another 11-plus years. But the really sad thing is, when I think of myself around Harry’s age in the film, age 11, I understand how he felt. Not that my parents were killed — they divorced when I was 9 years old. It was messy, and by age 11 I’d been thrust from one home to another. I was often forced to take sides when I wanted unity. My father fell into a nasty 10-year streak of drugs, alcohol, marriages, and jail time. My mother grew bitter and depressed over it all. Eventually I moved in with my grandmother.
Were I to find the Mirror of Erised, I probably would have seen my parents standing next to me, smiling, still in love, because honestly, that was my deepest desire. That feeling has really stuck with me, even into adulthood. But the funny thing is, as I looked at my children and my wife, watching poor Harry long for his parents, I realized that unless we have a tragedy, they will never feel that pain. Right now, my children’s deepest desires are to get more screen time or a dog. These are simple wants, not weighty ones.
And if I were to look into the mirror, right now, I think I’d see Mel and me, in old age, with grandchildren around us, even more in love than we are now. And when I think about that, I realize exactly how much I’ve gained from sticking it out with my wife.
Perhaps sticking it out isn’t the best word. I’m not sure what to call it, but sticking it out sounds negative, and that’s not what I’m reaching for here. But there is something to be said about working through thick and thin with someone you love, because marriage, at least mine anyway, has waxed and waned over the years, and it took us going through some hard fights to figure out how to live together, manage money together, parent together, and a number of other things that for so many other couples become stopping points rather than moments for growth.
I think the first two years of my son’s life were the hardest. We were up all hours of the night, every night, because the little stinker wouldn’t sleep. I was a sophomore in college, and working part-time waiting tables. Mel was working full-time at a hardware store. Money was tight, and nerves were tighter. We fought a lot during those first two years as parents, and when I think back on those moments, I wonder how we survived.
I can’t speak for Mel, but what I do know is that every time I looked at that little baby boy, I could see a little bit of myself. Tristan and I have the same short stout hands and dirty brown hair. We have the same blue and yellow eyes. I couldn’t help but think about him going through the same struggles I went through as a child because of my parents’ divorce, and realize that all of this was bigger than me. I was determined to make his life better than mine, and that meant making things work with my wife.
All the stress of family and a new child came to a head one evening. Mel and I were both tired, and we hadn’t spoken much for a couple days because we’d been fighting. Tristan was asleep for once, and although we knew he’d be up in a few hours, we sat down and talked.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t do all this fighting. I’m just too tired.”
Mel was across from me on the old used sofa we’d gotten from my mother. We were in a small two-bedroom farmhouse built in the ’50s we were renting from a family friend. Everything about our lives was about saving money and finishing school. They were lean times that only got leaner during the next couple years.
“What are you saying?” she said. She had fear in her eyes, like I was about to drop the D-word even though we’d promised never to mention divorce.
I let out a breath. I put up my hands. “I’m not saying anything like that. Or at least I don’t think I am. I could never put Tristan through what I went through,” I said. “I just know that I can’t keep fighting like this.”
Mel reached out for my left hand. She slid off my wedding ring, and suddenly I got nervous. Then she turned the inside of the ring to the living room light so that she could see the inscription inside.
“Love you forever,” she said. “That’s what it says. Forever is forever. All this that’s going on is temporary.”
She was near tears now, and I couldn’t tell if it was exhaustion, or the emotions of the moment, but what I do know is that I was near tears also.
“We just need to stick this out. It will get better, I know it,” Mel said.
In that moment, I thought about my parents. I wondered if they’d ever had a chat like this. I wondered if they knew just how ugly their lives would get after divorce. Because I did.
“You’re right,” I said. “I love you.”
Mel slid my ring back on, we kissed, and we started talking. We made compromises. We were up late, but it was worth it.
Ever since then, I’ve always thought about forever and compared it to what’s going on, and realized that the struggle, the hardship, was temporary. And so much of that realization comes back to my parents’ divorce, and using that example as a reason to try harder with my family. To not give up.
Flash-forward, back to watching Harry Potter. I looked at my family and realized that my deepest desire for a happy family was right there, all around me. It wasn’t my parents, surely, but that desire had changed. I was experiencing a happy family as a father now, not as a child, and it makes all those early struggles worth working through.
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