Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Melancholy Tuesday: How to Not Make the Ex into a Monster

I spent all of Monday with Za’s kids in rural WA State, so I was unable to post my usual melancholy Monday entry. I have come to realize that I need this cathartic, weekly ritual of writing about the melancholy in my life, and so I am seizing today’s post as the time and place to do so.

I have been with Za for 1 1/2 years and during these past two days, I met his children, ex-wife and her family for the first time. Nothing in my life could have quite prepared me for this experience. I have never been married, nor had children, so in many ways I am simply unequipped to know what Za’s life was like before me. After this brief visit, I have a better idea, but I am still ruminating on how differently he lived before me.

The details of his divorce and why he and his ex-wife chose to move the children 3,000 miles away from him are still rather elusive to me. I am not sure we are ever allowed a window into the intimate lives of others. Even though I would say I know Za well, I will never know how his former relationship drew him out. Relationships are not mere pairings of two fully formed and impermeable others. They are dynamic and open; it is through them that we shape or stunt the unique parts that define us.

The only portal I have open to me for grasping what might have deteriorated between them, such that they were forced to make profoundly painful decisions about splitting up a family, is to reflect on the tumult of my own life. I have suffered enough regret, and found myself in enough onerous relationships wherein I was deeply conflicted over whether to stay or leave. I know that the decisions that two adults make are rarely the product of merely selfish, infantile behavior. In fact, I would deeply distrust anyone, who has not lived my life nor been placed in the urgent situations I found myself in, if he or she was arrogant enough to judge what I should’ve done better given the constraints that were upon me.

I would be lying to you if I presented myself as one who is free from moralizing behavior or even free from jealousy. I confess that my earliest impressions of Za’s ex were not good, nor did I strive much to correct such an impression. It is simply too tempting to turn the ex-lover into a monster. I guess it forestalls any serious contemplation that I, too, may find myself hurt and embittered after a long relationship. Depicting the other as someone who deserves her misery is a powerful way to neutralize the threat.

No relationship is free of risk; all relationships require some measure of our own vulnerability. And, frankly, the threads of our life are so myriad, that we may never fully grasp what lead to the unraveling of certain ones that, for a time, suspended us above the abyss of uncertainty.

When I found myself facing the woman with whom Za lived for 15 years and with whom he chose to raise children, I could no longer reduce her to the monster that had made the fact of her easier to bear. She is a beautiful, lovely woman, who despite her own pain at facing me, extended warmth. I could see why Za loved her.

I do not really know, nor do I think I should hear out her account of why their marriage ended. My allegiance lies with Za, but I have resolved to resist the further temptation of fueling that loyalty by hating her. Anyway, as life continues we tell ourselves different stories of what went wrong; I am not sure we ever really know and so storytelling is our only means of moving forward. So however she has made sense of their end, that account will surely outlive its purpose as she finds new love and happiness. I was lucky enough to meet her new companion, whose benevolent soul made the dinner bright and hopeful.

By no means was this easy, nor do I think it ever will be. But, I am grateful that I took the risk to meet her, and that she let me spend time with her children.

I was heartbroken as I left them with their Dad, grandmother and uncle and drove back to my hotel. I was invited to a special Christmas dinner, prepared by Za’s ex-mother-in-law. I had no way of knowing if this woman would be kind to me, if she would extend her hospitality. Only after several months of great agony did I agree to find out. And, I was rewarded in ways that few could imagine, given the difficult nature of this situation.

Mae (not her real name, of course) put me at ease from the moment I climbed up the stairs to her log cabin. She told me several times to make myself at home and also allowed me into her life, telling me wonderful stories of her family. She showers Za’s kids with her love.

On the way over to her house, Za’s oldest son rode in the car with me. We talked about why he loves his new teachers, specifically that their voices communicate interest and motivate him to learn. The eldest is 11 years old, and precocious.

While we were waiting for dinner, and before we opened presents, the eldest son took me on a tour of the property. We walked down to the horses and let them nuzzle their faces into both of our necks. We next went on a tour of the garden, where he named all of the flora. We also caught a glimpse of a few chickadees, which filled him with joy.

The younger children climbed on top of me, tickled and tackled me. We chased each other around tables and over couches.

I hope that this trip has helped all of us to imagine a harmonious future.

When I left, Za drove down the long driveway with me to open the gate. He came around to my window, and knocked on it so I would roll it down and give him a kiss goodbye.

The quality of that kiss was somehow more tender than what has transpired between us for months. Something that had been hardened in me finally melted.