A Hallmark kind of love

Packing up my half of our shared family house to move to my new home, I didn’t take the time to go through every piece of paper, or book, before they went into the many boxes. I knew that I really needed to make the time to do this before I moved out, but between the spiraling depression from the aftermath of our divorce and the house closing process dragging on longer than I expected, it just didn’t happen.

New discoveries, adding to the existing drama, were popping up like weeds. It was just too depressing some days, trying to pack things up without a solid destination secured, not sure if I would be able to move anytime soon, while at the same time being pressured to get out. In the end, in the days before the moving truck arrived, I just grabbed piles of things, emptied drawers, and threw it all into boxes unsorted.

It could wait until I unpacked.

And it has waited, in the many boxes around my house. The boxes that I keep moving from one room to another to make room for furniture in the living room, or to “organize” the office so we can actually use it. I’ve unpacked most of the boxes now, but there are still a few stragglers.

During the unpacking, I’ve come across some things that have made me stop and pause, with a melancholy look on my face and tightness in my throat, remembering the happier days and the love in our family. Pictures, notes, books, cards…

My heart aches.

Cards from Mother’s day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries. Some from my kids, but mostly from my ex. I saved all of them, even now. I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away, so I packed them into boxes and moved them with me, just like I’ve done with every other move. I’m a sentimental idiot sometimes, leaning towards hoarding tendencies, I’ll admit.

When I had them in our other homes, they were kept safe in the back of my dresser drawer. Under my pajamas or underwear, but still available at any time for me to flip through to remind myself, on a tough day, that there was love when I wasn’t so sure.

I have unpacked them from boxes, from a sideboard cabinet, from a dresser drawer. It was as if they were hiding, lying in wait, to jump out at me to take my breath away, make me do more than just pause.

Stop me dead in my tracks.

At first, I tried not to read them. Then I decided that I would, as if someone else were in the room daring me to, with the notion that they wouldn’t make me feel anything other than angry and disappointed. If anything, I told myself, they would reinforce the idea that my sense of security and love all of these years was just a false curtain. They would be dripping with false promises and proclamations, and I would see that now.

And I know, I should be thankful that I even received cards from my ex-husband, since I’ve now learned that not all couples exchange cards (or gifts?!) for anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Christmas or birthdays (who are you people?!)

I read them with spite and disgust, so certain that they would make me shake my head in disbelief. Knowing that they would cut through my heart with a swift force and make me wince, possibly causing me to beat myself up (once again) over how stupidly trusting I had been for so long. Wonder to myself how I didn’t realize that it was mostly for show.

But I was wrong, for the most part.

They are still painful to read, painful in a regretful way, similar to the way you feel when you think of someone who has died and you regret not making more time for them while they were living. Reminding yourself that life sometimes gets too busy and we miss the  simple opportunities to connect, we neglect to make time for what should really be important.

Realizing the connections that were lost along the way.

Some of the messages are the usual “I can’t wait to see what the future holds” or “I’m so glad that we are on this crazy journey together” type of sentiments. But others are a bit more detailed and personal, what I knew when I first met you memories and inside jokes that only we could remember why they were so funny or so endearing. Things that only couples understand. But they all read like a gauge of our relationship at any given time, how good or bad it was during that particular chapter, that place in our history.

I can almost feel the energy from each one, good or bad. Or just lukewarm.

I admit there were times that writing inside of a card for our anniversary or Valentine’s Day felt forced, staged for public consumption, following the same scripted outline because that’s what married people do.

Sometimes we fake it till we make it.

During a holiday or milestone celebration, we look for the silver lining in our relationship to highlight, even when we can’t really see it or feel it. We need to dig ever deeper for that proper sentiment because that’s the “right thing to do”. We celebrate another year of togetherness, no matter where we fall on the spectrum of happiness at that point in time.

Because marriage is hard. Marriage has good days and bad days. Everyone knows that.

It is a rollercoaster of work, with some very high highs and some even lower lows. Nobody can be happy and content every moment, of every day, with anyone. Nobody is completely in love with each other at all times for all their days. It ebbs and flows.

You can tell from the written messages inside of each card where we fell on our timeline of love at any given holiday. The messages would be long and flowing, filled with appreciation and devotion, during our happier times. Those were the days that we both felt secure and trusting, or maybe more comfortable and relaxed? Not just in love, but loving towards each other.

At least I thought so at the time.

Looking back at the last few cards now I can’t help but wonder how I missed the signs. How could he be so unhappy with me, discontented with us, and still write some of the most loving words imaginable inside of a twentieth anniversary card to me?

“I love you now and always will. You’ve been an incredible wife and friend over these 20 years and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have someone as warm, loving and thoughtful as you. Love, your husband of 20 years…xoxoxo”

Followed by my birthday card only two weeks later,

“You’re as beautiful now as ever. And I’m not just saying that to be nice. It’s absolutely true.”

Four weeks later, sitting in our living room, he was telling me everything he hated about me, how I had disappointed him and all of my shortcomings that he couldn’t bear any longer.

I guess Hallmark doesn’t make a card for that.

So, I read through them once more and tucked them away once again. Not sure why, or when I think I will need to pull them out again. Am I saving them for our children to see someday, to reassure themselves that at one point we really did love each other? Or will they feel even more betrayed once they read these hollow hallmark promises?

I don’t know.

But I hope, if they get anything out of reading them someday, they will realize that marriage takes more than fancy cards, expensive gifts and beautiful flowers. It’s not just about celebrations and dinners out. That’s only the surface stuff, and it doesn’t guarantee success in your relationship or your marriage. You need to dig deeper, to give more, to say more.

You need to go beyond the silver lining and deal with the clouds and the storms together.

Hallmark will always have a card for every occasion, but it doesn’t have the answers to your real life questions and struggles. You can’t hold it all together with card stock, ribbons and glitter.

Marriage is about the life that happens in-between those holidays and celebrations. It’s about the everyday challenges that you have to choose to stick together and to make it work. It’s choosing each other, not another card.

 

 

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What if…

Such a common thought, for most of us at some point in time…”what if?”

I’ve had too many to count of these unsettling commentaries running through my mind over the past year or two. If I’m honest, I’ve had that commentary running through my mind for years, always looking for the hidden answer, the deeper meaning or secret message.

Like a game show, I always wonder ‘what was behind door number three?’ What did I miss?

The internal conversations of “what if” range from small scenarios, maybe tiny bits of conversations that went wrong, or smaller actions that became something bigger and harder to live with than I had ever imagined or expected.

What if I had done it differently? What if I had said yes instead of no this time?

When the idea of getting divorced was first brought up, said out loud in an almost business like way as a solution to our stalemate, it seemed surreal. The room seemed to get bigger and I felt smaller, quieter, my brain was filled with cotton dulling the sounds and senses of it all. I was numb. It felt as if it wasn’t really happening to us, I was just witnessing a movie or a scene from a play from another seat, in another room.

Maybe it was all a dream? Or a nightmare?

It didn’t seem like something we would really do, considering our level-headed decision making history. We had done so much together over the last twenty five years, experiences that challenged us beyond our imaginations sometimes, and still managed to stick it out to figure out solutions together, as a partnership. This was just an idea, right? It was a test for both of us, a game of chicken really, wasn’t it? Was it really so broken that we couldn’t fix it this time? Were we really that far apart in our goals and future plans?

Shouldn’t someone say something, back pedal, stop us from doing this? But nobody did.

Once the big decision had been made, agreed upon in theory, my mind began to spiral around the events that lead us here. The most current events, not the long list of small slights and disappointments that built up our resistance to one another over the years, like bricks building a wall.

That’s when a new set of “what ifs” began.

What if… I had just agreed to make the move for his new job? All that I had researched about the new location – the housing, the schools, the neighborhoods – proving to me that it was not the right fit for us as a family, put in a box in the corner of my mind, ignoring the deep gut feelings that I had about how our kids would (or wouldn’t) adjust to another move because the timing was completely wrong for all of them.

What if… I had disregarded the disappointment and hurt that would come from my extended family to find us moving away again? What if I had just thrown it all to the wind, blindly trusted, and jumped in with both feet?

What if… I didn’t think about anyone else, not even myself, and just did it?

What if… I had done what I had always done in the past, just trusted that it would all work out for the best, for all of us? What if I had just chosen our marriage, our partnership, over the perceived well-being and happiness of our entire family? Would it have saved our marriage? Would we be blissfully happy in our new location, glad that I was talked into it, with everyone seemingly well-adjusted by now?

What if… I was wrong about my theories, my research, my fears?

Did I put too much stock into some of the reasons not to go, some of it just fear of another change, did I devalue the importance and weight of our marriage?

What if… after that ugly night, when he told me all of the things he hated and disliked about me, I had gone to him and tried to “fix it”? What if I had told him that I would try harder to be a better partner, to be the kind of wife he wanted and deserved, and I would do whatever it would take to keep us together. Even if that meant moving.

What if… I had accepted his offer that we could continue “doing this” for twenty more years? No apology offered, no excuse for his ugly rant tearing me apart, just accept it as our way of life and love and moved forward to the finish line.

What if… I put it out of my mind and pretended that it didn’t really happen?

What if… I had accepted his now obvious peace offering on Christmas day, a trendy designer workout bag and matching top, as an unspoken apology and just moved on? What if I had continued to shop for a Christmas gift for him even while hurting, and gave him a similar fence mending gift?

Would that have been enough to stitch us back together? Would we just pretend that he hadn’t said any of those hurtful things, and just kissed a bittersweet thank you on Christmas day to move past it all, both of us accepting it as one bad night brought on by stress, travel and work.

Would he have continued to commute for us, his family, as a peace offering until we were ready to move?

What if… I had told him from the beginning, from the earliest days of our slowly growing apart, exactly how I felt when he treated me like I didn’t count? What if he had told me how disappointed he was with me and my apparent shortcomings then?

What if… we had figured out how to really communicate with each other years ago? Would we have stayed married this long because we could work things out and understand one another, or would we have divorced years ago realizing that we weren’t really right for each other?

Maybe we would have come to the conclusion that we had different expectations of marriage earlier on, and acted upon it, before we spent twenty years trying to hold it together.

What if… we had just broken up at the end of that first summer or first year?

We never would have gotten here, to this ugly place of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises, and maybe we both would have had happier marriages with other people? Maybe we would have taken completely different paths that made us each happier, and feeling more secure, more fulfilled, more loved. Maybe not.

But, what if…?

 

 

A different filter

About a year and a half ago my oldest son broke his phone. Not a new occurrence when you have teenagers with phones. They forget they have them in their pocket as they jump into the pool, or try to tape it to their handlebars to take an action video and inevitably it goes flying off during one of their “tricks”, or any other simple to avoid circumstance that they just didn’t think through. It also gets lost, or stolen.

It happens.

When it happened this time, I was not as willing to get him a new phone. This was the second (or third?) time within his contract period, he was able to repair it the last time, and it was beyond frustrating. So, I “punished” him with my old phone, an iPhone 4s. Yes, I know, the horror! I could have dyed his hair pink and it would have been less offensive to his teenage ego.

But he took it.

This made the most sense at the time, it was definitely cost effective, who doesn’t agree with “free”? Plus, we were still paying off the previous (broken) phone. We agreed that he would use my old phone until the contract was paid in full, about six months. A painfully long time for him, I’m sure.

He assured me that he would wipe the entire phone of my personal data; texts, contacts, email, etc.

Word to the wise: take it somewhere that does this as part of their business. Never, and I mean NEVER, trust your teenage son to do this type of thing for you. It’s bound to disappoint. And possibly instill incredible fear into your heart and soul.

He got his new phone about a year ago and has been happily using – and protecting – his new updated connection to the outside world. But just today, I happened to come across my old phone sitting on the family room table. It looked so small, so out of place, that I didn’t even recognize it as being mine. It had 6% battery life.

Not really realizing that it was indeed my old phone, I opened the screen to check the contacts to get an idea of which one of their friends it belonged to. Imagine my surprise when I found my list of contacts, and then looking at texts saw my old texts from two years ago.

At first I panicked, wondering if he had read through my texts or my email. Not that I was plotting or planning anything illegal or immoral, but some of my text exchanges with friends can be a little “colorful”. Not really meant for my kids to read, you know?

As I scanned the list of texts, I came across a set of old texts between my ex-husband and myself. I winced. What would I read there? Would it make me feel hurt, upset and raw like I felt during that long year of our divorce process, or happily vindicated in our decision, glad to have moved on, relieved?

They were texts from only two years ago. It was a crap shoot in my mind, the sequence of events and timing not nearly as clear at that moment.

I scrolled through, holding my breath.

There were texts from the early days of him commuting to his new job, plans for wine and pizza when he arrived home, asking what he wanted me to get from the grocery store for an upcoming fishing trip. Communications about plane delays, weather reports, car repairs and family gatherings being planned. Updates about our kids.

Jokes, intimate only-we-can-understand type of jokes. I could feel the smile that I must have had back then reading his messages, the eye roll I must have done in response to some of his sarcastic comments. And there were “xoxo”s mixed in among the few emojis, usually at the end of his texts.

I could feel the love.

At that moment, my heart ached. And I realized that it was real at some point, or at least we did have some pretty good stretches of “good” in our marriage. Maybe it was better through text and over the phone? Possibly.

Another mark on our permanent record for poor verbal communication skills.

What happened to us? Where did that go? I realize now, that those were the things that kept us together for so long. Those small things. The little stuff that makes you smile, makes you feel connected, and forget that that other person can really annoy or upset you on any given day.

But the small things couldn’t fight off the big things in the end, could they?

It made me sad. It made me miss that part of us, the part that bound us together and made us a family with our boys. At that moment I looked past the sad, the bad and the ugly from our marriage. I changed the filter and saw only the soft edges and warm light. I saw the film reel of the highlights playing in my head. I heard the music of our laughter and the language we shared.

And I missed it.

If only for a moment, for a few minutes, I forgot all about the ugly words we had exchanged over the last year or so. In person, by email.

In texts.

I pushed aside all of the resentment, the hurt, the bitterness and only felt what I thought we had all along. A solid foundation to build on, to hold onto in the hard times, the challenges we took on together and came out on the other side even stronger. A partnership beyond the basic necessities.

Love. Somewhere, deep inside of it all, there was love at one time.

And it made me mourn for both of us. We both went into our marriage with such hope and promise, dreams and plans. So many years invested. All for it to implode almost instantly in the end. How did that happen?

I don’t have the answer, still. I play the reel of our marriage over and over in my mind, I look for clues and hints, but nothing really stands out as “the moment” that it went off the tracks, unable to be corrected. The little things pop up like spikes on a Richter scale, most of them small, barely registering, with a few larger ones over the entire marriage, but nothing of such magnitude that it should have crushed our foundation. At least I didn’t think so at the time.

It doesn’t really matter now, it’s done. It can’t be rebuilt. It won’t be rebuilt.

Finding my old phone, and old texts, made me aware of how the filter that I choose to look through can change everything. It can make me feel a completely different way if I let it. I do like the feeling of this soft focus filter, the warm fuzziness of it all, at least for the moment, for a day.

It gives me a welcome rest from the sharp clarity of my memories, and my everyday real life.

 

 

Good enough

Something that has come up more than once over the last year or two is the idea of “good enough”. And not just in one area of life, in many. I guess that sometimes we just get tired of trying so hard to be the best, the brightest, the most thoughtful, the most loving…that it’s time to relax and just be good enough. Still get the job done, just not with all of the bells and whistles. And that’s okay. Sometimes.

But, good enough can also transform from more than a moment, or a period, of your life. It can become your life.

Become your career, your parenting style, your relationships, your marriage. Instead of seeking out better or best, or trying to improve it or fix it, it’s so much easier to just float along, letting the waves take us out further, and be good enough.

But is it really enough? And is it even good?

I think I began this habit of accepting good enough pretty early on in my childhood. We weren’t wealthy, or even middle class in the beginning, so we learned to just not ask for, or expect, more than was considered good enough from anything or anyone.

Some people use this childhood experience as a catalyst, or a motivation, to get more of everything that they’ve ever wanted as adults, but were denied as children. They live for their high-powered careers to take them on their amazing destination vacations and to wear the latest designer fashion trends. They collect tokens of success, totems to show the world that they have achieved a higher level. They need to show the world, and their inner child, that good enough was never good enough for them, and now they are in control and now it will be more than enough.

Others of us became trained to not only accept good enough, but to expect it without question or argument, and to live our lives that way. I’m sure most people from my generation – and definitely the ones before – had this hard wired into our brains from the generations before us.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not blaming my parents or grandparents for any type of brainwashing, nor am I whining that I should have been pushed more to stand up for myself or to excel in school to have a super fabulous adult life. I am not making excuses for my poor choices, or lack of voice, that led me to ignore what I truly needed or wanted out of life and my relationships. It’s only an observation of what lead me to this epiphany, the realization that I have been living ‘good enough’ in too many areas of my life.

The entire premise of ‘good enough’ becomes a slippery slope over the course of a lifetime. It starts off with the small things that you accept because really, what does it matter in the end? It’s such a small thing, it’s not going to have much impact in the long run. It may even relieve you of some frustration, or lighten your load of responsibility a little bit, let you off the hook basically. And who doesn’t want that sometimes?

But then, the small things slowly get bigger and bigger over time, and your expectation of what can be excused or shrugged off as “good enough” becomes more elastic, more forgiving. And that idea spreads to those that are close to you, they accept that you accept good enough often, so it must be okay.

And pretty soon, good enough isn’t just a school project or a work report. It’s not getting your meal served luke warm in a restaurant and eating it anyway. It’s no longer just skimming over the small details to save the peace and a little time anymore.

It’s your everyday life. It’s your career, your relationships, even your marriage.

You start off wanting so much from all of these areas in your life, expecting nothing less than greatness. Pure and real, you will work hard at all of it to be successful, determined that you will be more than good enough now because it’s about time.  You’ve accepted good enough long enough. Now you deserve to get what you really want, what you feel you truly deserve, because you’ve read the books and watched the movies that tell you exactly how it should all play out. You are ready to speak up and make demands.

You’ve witnessed all of the wrong ways to go about it, family and friends being the examples to learn from, so naturally you won’t be making those mistakes.

But your expectations for great accomplishments in all of these areas meets up with good enough along the way, because you can’t prepare for what you don’t know or what you haven’t witnessed or experienced before. You can’t guess what will happen, see the future, because you are only one part of the equation. There are so many other people, and events, that bump into your expectations along the way taking you off course – sometimes only a little bit, other times much bigger detours – that the possibilities are endless.

The only choice we really have in the end is to regroup, retrain, and begin again with new knowledge and new expectations. Accepting that we didn’t really know all that we thought we did. We couldn’t have predicted how other factors, people or events, would come into play or how they would affect the plan that we truly believed we had prepared for ourselves.

And everyone’s idea of “good enough” is always a little bit different, so what may seem good enough for you may fall very short for someone else. Or quite possibly it may be more than they hoped to receive. It is the difference of our experiences that can bring us together and separate us all at the same time.

It’s a wild card. A wild card that keeps reappearing throughout our lives.

And with any setback or disappointment there is always a lesson in there, if we are willing to pay attention. If we are willing to accept it and learn from it, accepting that our good enough was obviously not enough, maybe it will keep us from settling for or expecting good enough next time. Hopefully it redirects us to a better path and better choices.

Life isn’t meant to be lived “good enough”. Your job, your friendships, and definitely not your marriage, they deserve more effort. They deserve more of your time, your care, you attention. You deserve it too, whether you’ve been told so or not. And so do the other people in your life.