Maybe you expected it. Maybe you didn’t.
I sure as hell didn’t.
My parents had always said they were each other’s best friend. “Always marry your best friend,” my father told me. And I did.
My parents had plans to retire together. No, not plans — a house with 80 acres, rural but close to a hospital, a house able to sustain them on the first-floor only. My father, I thought, was counting the days until their retirement. And then they’d move up to the hills together, them and the ever-present milling horde of dogs, their antique furniture, and my mother’s vintage orange poppy-patterned pottery.
And then my grandfather died, and my father cheated with the funeral director (I’m not kidding). This, apparently, was the catalyst that began the miserable tumble of their lives, the crack that opened up all the ugliness I’d never seen, or even guessed at.
You have a certain image of your parents, of their marriage. Even when you move away, you picture them ticking away at their lives: Your mom dusting the old coffee table; your father delighting in his riding mower. You see them sitting down to the same Fiestaware plates, the same silverware you grew up with, mouthing the same complaints about work and family they’ve mouthed since you can remember. You see the dogs begging at their knees. You do not imagine the fracture, the fissure, the crack that will lend lie to all the things you believed in.
Because watching your parents divorce is hell.
I know where I was when I got the phone call. I stood at the end of my hallway, at the confluence of my living room and the entry hall, and my mother did not mince words. “Your father cheated on me,” she said. I felt like I’d been punched. I wanted to know who, where, why, but immediately didn’t want to know anything at all.
She told me everything, and I hated the woman for it, hated her with every iota of my self, blamed her for dismantling my family. I Facebook stalked. And I hated her husband too. I hated her smug, bro’d-out-looking sons. Then I hated my mother for telling me this information — because you are supposed to protect your children, even when they are adults. You are not supposed to tell them that you cried in the walk-in closet. (That really broke my heart.)
Then my father weighed in. Two sides, and all.
Accusations were made. Best friends they were not.
He told me what a terrible person my mother was, how she expected him to do everything, and never said thank you. How she spent a lifetime taking advantage of him. That she never, ever, not once, said thank you for anything he did, and he did basically everything.
Then my mother told me how my father was a terrible person, how he lied, how he drank all the time, and how even when she suggested counseling, he was too drunk to answer.
Everyone was horrible, and everyone was a liar. They played against each other like I was a 12-year-old caught between visitation. Only visitation was my cell phone, and if I didn’t pick it up, they assumed I’d gone over to the enemy’s side.
So I began to lie. I developed my verbal-nodding skills. I agreed with everyone over everything. When my father wept and asked if he was a horrible person, I said, “No, Dad, you’re not a bad person. You’re fine. You’re fine, Dad.” When my mom talked about lawyers and money, I encouraged her to take him for everything he had. “No, you deserve to take that mountain house from him after what he put you through,” I said. Then, to my Dad, “No, you deserve to keep that mountain house after what she put you through.” They thought I was agreeing with them. What I was really saying was shut up, shut up, shut up, for the love of all things holy, shut up.
And it comes down, in the end of all things, to money. My sister lent my mother money, my dad said, so now they’re all buddy-buddy. I didn’t tell him that my husband had sent her Paypal cash to fix her car, and that it hadn’t parlayed into some super-close relationship. My father planned on coming down to visit us until the courts finally forced him to pay my mother what was rightfully hers. Then he told me in tears that he couldn’t come to see his grandsons because now he was flat broke, of course.
Every conversation with my mother came down to money, and with good reason because she was the one in danger of losing her house. She’d already sold the ponies she bought for her grandkids. She went on and on about her finances, whether she’d have money for this or that. My parents spent my entire childhood firmly insisting that children had no need to know about their parents’ financial situation. Now, while I couldn’t give you dollar amounts, I can tell you who owes what to whom because of why. Money has taken on a kind of discomfiting emotional currency, a referendum on right and wrong. And it is dizzying and exhausting.
We still haven’t told the kids. Well, I suppose we have, but in pieces — they don’t think, for example, that my parents live together, but they don’t really know how divorce works. This is the worst part of all. I always believed in marriage, at least in my family. I always believed that you could tough out the rough patches. That you got through it together. That you came through it on the other end stronger and said, “Thank God we made it after all.”
I was wrong. It was a lie.
If my parents can divorce, after nearly 35 years of marriage, what does that say about me? If they are not safe, I am not safe. That’s the harsh reality. They always told me to marry my best friend. And I did. I did. I just pray it will be enough.
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