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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Unpacking the boxes

One thing that seems to reappear repeatedly over the last six months, is the idea that once you are divorced, and “enough time has passed” that you should be “over it” and get on with your life. The amount of time is a sliding scale, depending upon who you’re talking to, it can range from six days to six weeks to six months or more. Getting over it can relate to anything from the idea that you still cry sometimes for no reason at all, you still cannot speak his name without feeling sick, or the crazy idea that you haven’t started dating yet. What are you waiting for??

Why are you so stuck? they wonder.

At least that is what the message feels like in most of these instances. People mean well, I’m sure…or at least I hope. That would just be one more insult to this entire injury. They really do want what is best for you, what will make you feel better and make you happy once more. Divorce is often compared to death of a loved one, the grief is almost the same they say, there are stages and no two people experience it the same. The only difference is that the so called loved one is still around, alive and well, just not with you.

But I think it’s more comparable to moving to a foreign country, without knowing the language or the customs, and being expected to jump right in and feel at home almost immediately. And you’re expected to not only understand it all, but accept it as your new normal life without any further expectations or allowances. You can handle it, right?

The only problem with that scenario is that moving to a foreign country is not the seamless experience we’d all like to believe, or hope, it to be. And neither is divorce.

First, when moving to another country there is most likely a language barrier. Before you move, or even accept this journey, you realize that there will be a new language to learn and navigate. Of course, you’re usually assured by many caring souls that “everyone speaks English, you’ll be fine!”

Well, that would be lovely if it were only true.

And I think we can all agree that working with a room full of lawyers, paralegals and other divorce professionals, there will be language that will be more than confusing and anxiety inducing. It’s not your regular run-of-the-mill grocery list or coffee chat, is it?

Then there are the customs. Some countries expect a kiss on the cheek when you greet people, others expect a kiss on both side of your cheeks, some shake hands with their left hand, others with their right. Some bow, or avoid eye contact all together. There are so many possibilities, and so many nuances, to each set of customs that it can all feel overwhelming when you are first learning the ways of the culture.

It doesn’t come easy.

The same can be said for the journey through divorce, really. You go into it thinking you know how it’s going to go, how people are going to behave, believing that you will all be in agreement for the most part, and understanding where everyone is coming from basically. You will work together because you know each other and you think you share the same customs and values. But it’s not that easy, at least not usually. It may begin that way, and last for the first couple of months, but somewhere along the line you realize that you both have entirely different expectations, and the people guiding you have a completely different playbook than either one of you possess.

You all have different cultures with different customs. And you need to agree somehow.

Oh sure, there are those incredibly amicable couples who basically make up their own agreements, sign them, take a selfie with their divorce document and then go have a drink afterward to celebrate…that’s more than moving to a foreign country, more like moving to another planet! But let’s be honest, that’s not the norm by a long shot.

Then the big part comes, the unpacking.

If you’ve ever moved, which I have numerous times including overseas, you remember the never-ending packing and unpacking that goes along with moving.

Packing those boxes is easy enough. You fill each one until it’s full, tape it up, label it and move onto the next one. You carefully place the delicate items together, wrapped in paper and bubble wrap, to protect them. Sometimes you even hire professionals to do the packing, to make certain that it all gets to the next destination intact (this isn’t always a guarantee, of course, as I’ve learned too many times to count!)

But then, once you arrive in your new destination, your new foreign country, you now have the herculean job of unpacking it all and placing it where it “belongs” in  your new home. Sounds easy enough, sure. Just put it…somewhere. Of course you need to make some decisions along the way; which room, what shelf, which cabinet or drawer. It takes organization, and patience.

And time.

Usually, the normal timeline for one of our major moves was about a year to completely unpack and feel “at home” in our new location. It sounds like a long time, doesn’t it?

It’s not. It sometimes flies by, and sometimes drags by, all at the same time.

Because you still need to learn the language and the customs of this new place while you are unpacking. You still have to go on with “normal” life, grocery shopping and taking care of household details, figuring it all out as you stumble along in this new world. Your phrase book clenched tightly in your hand, panic rising in your throat almost daily, hoping to meet someone who understands you.

There is a lot of unpacking to do after a divorce.

Not just the material things from the life you have just untangled, but the memories and the moments you shared. As a couple, as a family, with your friends. They’re in boxes. Not always physical boxes, but boxes in your mind and in your heart. In the dark corners of your memory, too. Some are unlabeled, others are dusty from being ignored for so long.

In the end, you need to unpack and place it all. Sometimes you give some of it away, or pitch it entirely. Other things are too sentimental to get rid of, but too painful to keep. Those things end up in the basement, or crawl space, to be found at a later time by someone else.

After you die, if you’re lucky.

It takes time, sometimes more time than you ever expected. More time than other people expect, most definitely. Sure, some people are great at unpacking and hanging the curtains and artwork within days of moving. They’re hosting luncheons and cookouts within weeks, they’ve painted, decorated, joined clubs and planned the next holiday almost immediately. They’ve made it a “home” without missing a beat, without missing anyone or anything from their previous home. They adapt easily.

Others of us need more time. We unpack carefully, place and buy furniture thoughtfully, to make sure we will like it for a long time. We are not hasty decision makers, we don’t hang just any curtains to cover the windows or buy just any couch to furnish our living room. We take the time to research it, shop for it, compare it, to find the best fit.

We need to be sure. We want it to be right, to be exactly how we want our home to feel.

And just when you think you’ve unpacked it all, the boxes and the wrappings have been removed and everything is in it’s new place; you’ve started to smile and laugh again, you feel lighter and more positive about your future…you stumble upon another box. It was hidden in the back corner, under a rug or a blanket. It’s small, easily overlooked because it’s been buried for so long. You didn’t even think you moved it with you, or remembered that box being there.

You have to open it though, you know you do.

This box is a memory, or a scent, or a photograph that’s fallen out of a book. It’s a number in your telephone that you come across as you scroll through your contacts, it’s a wrong service call to your house instead of your ex’s, it’s a song on the radio, a name on a street sign. It’s simple, unassuming, and yet so complicated and heavy.

For such a small box it carries a lot of weight.

This isn’t the only box you’ve missed or forgotten, there will be more unpacked boxes along the way, boxes that will open whether you choose to or not. Some of these boxes just burst open, completely unexpected and take your breath away. Blur your vision, get caught in your throat, stop you in your tracks.

Pushing you back to the starting line.

Some you just stumble across accidentally, others are opened by family or friends without any realization that the contents could be toxic, unwelcome or even hurtful.

There are so many boxes that you don’t even know exist. Until you do.

So, the next time it is suggested that I should get over it, move on with my life, start dating again to find someone new, or hear suggestions that enough time has passed why am I still so hung up? I will have only one response to offer.

I’m still unpacking the boxes.