My grandparents had been married for fifty-one years when Grandma died suddenly of a stroke. Soon afterward, my grandfather stood bowed over my mother’s kitchen table like a willow, staring at the gold speckles in the Formica as if looking into his blank future. Though his voice was unchanged — soft and vaguely professorial, a touch of Virginia accent mixed with Boston Brahmin — his sentences began to repeat themselves. I thought maybe Grandma had been the foundation that had held up Grandpa’s now-crumbling psyche.
Grandpa had been writing a weekly column for the local paper since 1950 or so — musings on the beauty of the passing seasons. He kept it up after Grandma died, although he was growing thin with grief. Then a fan of his column wrote him an eloquent letter, and signed it “N. A. K.” Grandpa struck up a correspondence with this admirer, and discovered that the two of them had both lost a spouse of fifty years, and shared a love of Virginia and a sentimental appreciation for the natural world. A friend, amused to hear Grandpa talk of Mr. K., introduced the two correspondents at the lawn-bowling club where both had been members for years. Grandpa’s articulate pen pal was an eighty-year-old Southern belle.
My mother didn’t go to their wedding, too ashamed at the short time that had passed since Grandma’s death. When Nettie first came to visit, wearing a turquoise suit that matched her lively eyes, there weren’t exactly hugs all around. But Grandpa was six feet tall again, blossoming miraculously like a desert cactus. Nettie had tapped the needle of the strange phonograph in his head, unsticking it from its groove. Though my mother covered her ears, we could all hear it; Nettie had given him a new song.
Mont Vernon, New Hampshire
My wife was sixteen weeks pregnant, and we were joyously anticipating this next addition to our family. My wife’s pregnancy had been routine (at least from a man’s perspective; I wasn’t the one who threw up every afternoon at 5:15). We were at her doctor’s office for a checkup and a sonogram. Perhaps today we would learn the baby’s sex. Having seen a sonogram before, I was ready to look for the tiny but steady rhythm of the baby’s heartbeat. This day, however, there wasn’t any little beat. No movement. Nothing.
It’s a little surreal staring at a silent, still form that’s resting inside your wife. The nurse tried her diplomatic best to suggest that perhaps the viewing angle was all wrong. Then she slithered out of the room in search of the doctor. The angle’s all wrong, we told ourselves. But the doctor entered, glanced at the monitor, and confirmed our fears: our baby was dead.
You’d think we would’ve broken down sobbing, but we were numb. Perhaps that numbness would serve us well, considering the doctor’s suggestion that we “give it a couple of days” to see if my wife would spontaneously abort the fetus. Then the doctor handed me a little bowl. “What’s this for?” I asked. And he told me the fetus should be saved for genetic testing.
A couple of days later, my wife went into labor, her uterus finally convinced that all was lost. For several hours, she sat on the toilet, patiently waiting to expel the dead tissue from her body. She seemed to have accepted it, and had even managed to refer to “it” with complete detachment. I hadn’t yet made that leap. As she sat there on the toilet, I sat on the floor of the bathroom, waiting. Me and my little bowl.
Finally, I saw it suspended just above the water, almost fully emerged. I saw the outline of a little head, two tiny arms dangling. Remembering the doctor’s advice, I held out the bowl.
How many people have ever caught a dead baby in a little bowl? It’s sort of like catching soft ice cream dispensed into a sugar cone — you try to make sure none of it spills over the edge.
I stared at what was in the bowl. Put a lid on it. Put it in the refrigerator. Closed the door. Returned umpteen times in the middle of the night. Sat on the cold kitchen floor next to it. Wondered about the thing in the back of the refrigerator. The very back. Nothing else on the shelf.
Taking the bowl the next morning to the doctor’s office. Weaving back and forth, unable to keep my eyes on the road because I was staring at that little bowl on the passenger seat. Finally arriving at the doctor’s office. Giving them the bowl. Getting the shakes. Stumbling out of the office. Fumbling for my car keys. Unable to get the goddamn key into the ignition. Finally succeeding. Switching the air on full blast. Thinking I’d be OK. Turning onto the road. Getting the shakes again. Pounding the steering wheel mercilessly. Pulling over. Lying down across the front seat. Rolling onto my back. Gazing up at the police officers, who seemed distorted in some way. Realizing I was seeing them through a prism of tears.
We eventually had another child, but not before going through a second miscarriage. That time I was ready to tell the doctor he could go straight to hell if he even thought about giving me another bowl.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
One August about fifteen years ago, I agreed to help my childless aunt, then in her eighties, look at a retirement community in Memphis, Tennessee. Auntie lived in Arkansas, and though she and I had stayed in touch by phone, I had not seen her in years. “They want me,” she said, referring to the retirement community. As a retirement-community marketing director myself, I knew just how much they did. Auntie faced the usual agonizing decision: should she trade her beloved home for the safety of round-the-clock care, or should she stay put in the place she knew and loved? She wanted to visit the retirement community, but no longer drove. I was “an expert.” Would I help?
Agreeing to the trip, I convinced myself that I could rise above the long, unpleasant history of our relationship. To my aunt, I was an enormous disappointment: a “nigger lover,” a rebel, a graceless Yankee. For my part, I saw her as an unreconstructed Southern belle, a self-righteous hypocrite who wanted to control everything I did, from the way I wore my hair to the way I saw the world. At every opportunity she reminded me to “be sweet.” I promised myself I would not fight with her.
I picked her up and drove her to Memphis for a weekend of retirement-community living, the marketer’s ultimate persuasive tool. But my aunt was not sold: “They look awfully old,” she said of the thick-lensed, cane- and walker-wielding residents we met in the dining room. I had to admit that they did. I suggested we check out other communities, but she would have none of it. After all, the marketers had been so “lovely,” and she didn’t want to be “disloyal.”
As we talked, it slowly dawned on me that my aunt had no intention of moving; that, in fact, she simply relished the attention, the drama of pretending to consider it, taking the trip to Memphis, and having everyone fuss over her.
Despite this, all went moderately well. We went to the Peabody Hotel for lunch on Saturday and to some of her favorite dress shops that afternoon. I yielded to her every whim until Sunday morning when, around eight, I had a spontaneous desire for coffee from the dining room. Auntie astonished me by becoming upset. She had powdered milk and instant coffee; wasn’t that good enough for me? I blandly said it wasn’t a matter of “good enough”; I just wanted the walk and some fresh cream, and I would be right back. She persisted: if I would just try her coffee, I would see how good it was. I became adamant. I had given and given and given, and now I was going to have something as simple and insignificant as a cup of coffee the way I wanted it.
Alone in the dining room, coffee in hand, I composed myself and prepared to be pleasant upon my return. But Auntie met me with a barrage of accusations about selfishness and inconsideration, followed by a richly detailed recitation of my simply awful behavior from childhood on. Somehow my aunt’s duty to my “poor, dead mother” came into it, which only intensified my anger. Auntie and I had never avoided argument before; how could I have thought this time would be different?
We traded bitter, teary, but mostly quiet attacks on our way to church (where she whispered that she was praying for me), during brunch, and throughout the checkout interview with the marketing representative. On the way home at last, the sniping degenerated into outright acrimony. As we sailed along a desolate stretch of elevated interstate past a derelict part of downtown Memphis, my aunt decided that something I had said was so reprehensible that she had to get out of the moving car right now, right there on the overpass: she would hitchhike home, or walk to a police station. She actually went to open the door, but I locked it from my side in time. When she could not get out, she began to scream, “Help, police! I’m being kidnapped!” her fingers clawing at the window.
I was sick with emotion, soaked with sweat, and terrified that she might physically attack me. Still, I calmly told her that she could scream all she wanted to, but I would not let her out of the car until we reached her house (about an hour away), and that, immediately after our arrival, I would be leaving, never to return. She quieted down, and we had a silent, hostile drive along the burning banks of the Mississippi.
At her home, I had just put her suitcase in her bedroom and started toward the front door when the phone rang. Hearing her say hello to her best friend, I froze and waited to see if she would mention the “kidnapping.” As I stood there, stomach churning, I heard her chirp, “Girl, yea-us, we were in Memphis for the weekend! We had the best time!”
My four-year-old grandson is having a hard time. His mother is doing an intensive graduate-school internship, so, for the first time in his life, he is away from her all day, five days a week. He likes his child-care center, but at three o’clock someone other than his mother comes to pick him up. On Mondays, it’s me.
Each time, I push open the door to his classroom and look around for him, scanning the little heads for his rumpled blond hair. Sometimes, if I slip in quietly enough, I see him before he sees me, and he looks happy. But invariably, when he spies me, he bursts into tears.
I try not to take it personally. I know he loves me, even though it’s his mother he wants. I sit beside him and stroke his head, coaxing gently, telling him about all the fun I have planned for our afternoon: The dog is in the car, and we’re going to the park, where we’ll find the ice-cream truck. His cousin is going, too. Still he sobs, “I want my mom. I want to go home, and I want my mom there.”
“I know you do,” I say. “She’ll come home at supper time.”
He cries until he’s cried enough, and then, as suddenly as he collapsed, he gets up, collects his lunch pail and jacket, smiles, and takes my hand. We go and have a fine afternoon.
Those few times when his mother does come for him, he often tells her he’s too busy to leave right away.
Melody Ermachild Chavis
In the late seventies, I spent a lot of time fishing in the Shenandoah River. The Shenandoah is broad and shallow, and does not lend itself to either bank or boat fishing, so I would wade into the cool, clear water. I was young and strong in those days; if I stepped into a deep underwater hole, I’d just put my rod between my teeth and swim to the other side. I caught catfish, bass, and sunfish in great numbers. None of them were big, but they were firm, and wonderfully colored.
I eventually drifted away from the river, and in 1987, following an auto accident, I suffered a major stroke. It seemed like the end. My left side was partially paralyzed. I was unable to walk, and the state took my driver’s license away. While sitting at home, an invalid, I read in the paper that, because of PCB pollution from a factory upstream, fish from the Shenandoah River were no longer considered fit to eat. It seemed everything had been lost.
After four years of physical therapy, however, I was able to walk and use my left hand well enough to fish again, though only in ponds. I got my driver’s license back and even landed a part-time job. I often drove over the Shenandoah, and longed to fish in it once more.
This past summer was unusually dry, and the river was low and clear. Driving by, I was tempted to stop. I had been walking on all types of terrain for years now — surely I could wade out far enough to catch a few fish. So, one evening, I set out into the gentle current, proceeding cautiously with a walking stick and looking down to see where each footstep would land. At least the river had not been turned into a desert by the PCBs: snails covered every rock, and crayfish and darters abounded in the shallows.
When I reached water that was about knee-deep, I stopped, tucked the walking stick between my legs, and cast my line. Though I didn’t catch a fish on every cast, I did catch a few brilliantly colored, hand-sized sunfish and swift, high-jumping smallmouth bass.
I went home happy that evening. The river was not completely lost, after all. No, not yet.
Whenever I think about how fleeting life can be, my thoughts drift to Ronnie. He used to make me laugh hysterically, and was my mirror image in many ways. We would take long walks together, talking about our dreams and our abusive fathers while our girlfriends rode horses down some other trail. Once, he and I got incredibly stoned on grass, and he pulled down my pants, stuffed daisies in the crack of my butt, and took pictures.
I wish I could talk to Ronnie now, hang out with him again. Sometimes I am awed by the fact that he’s no longer on this earth; it’s as if I only dreamt he existed. The worst part is, we drifted apart — or, rather, I drifted. I was trying to get my life together, and saw in him all of the things that I didn’t like and was trying to change about myself, so I stayed away. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about him. I’d been where he was. I’d been so high and so lost that I’d held a gun in my mouth, fully loaded with the hammer cocked, just to get a girlfriend to stop screaming. But I never pulled the trigger.
Ronnie’s chances were better than mine would have been: there were only three bullets in his revolver; I’d had six. Three bullets, so I figure he half wanted to live. No one could make sense of it. He had everything to live for, including a woman, Kim, who loved him deeply, but he just didn’t see it in time.
At the memorial service, a guy who’d known Ronnie more recently than I came up to me and said, “So you’re Mark. All Ronnie would talk about was you and Kim. He’d say, ‘I gotta get back with my girl and look my friend Mark up. I was happy when he and I were buddies.’ ”
I guess he didn’t look me up in time.
I miss him. I’ll never understand why I bounced back and he didn’t.
Upon returning from a six month, all-expenses-paid tour of the Balkans courtesy of the U.S. Army, I was as devastated as the war-torn countryside I’d just left. I couldn’t forget the cruelty, the viciousness, the brutality — not of the Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, but of my own people. On an old Soviet MIG base in a country desperate to be beamed aboard the NATO mother ship, the U.S. military had built a tiny kingdom of its own, ruled by megalomaniacs who long ago had jettisoned their consciences in favor of justifying their presence there until retirement.
Having escaped from this kingdom, I returned to a home I’d purchased just prior to deploying, in a rural community where I knew no one. My natural instinct was to hide in a cave for the rest of my life and become a snarling, eccentric old woman, but this desire was thwarted by the curious and kindhearted citizens of my small town. Their straightforward integrity was refreshing. No one scrambled to the top over the bodies of their fallen comrades, or bad-mouthed others to deflect scrutiny from their own ineptitude.
After a summer of planting, canning, swimming, and watching the wheat grow, I began to feel whole again. Waiting patiently while the weather arbitrarily dried out some wheat fields, soaked others, and always threatened to hail, I felt a deep satisfaction: The weather could not be manipulated. The wheat could not be forced to ripen. When I finally got to drive the big combine, and watched the grain pour into the hopper, I felt for the first time in my thirty-seven years that I had done something worthwhile.
Success hangs by a thread here; the weather is brutal, the people set in their ways, but no amount of money will ever again talk me out of a good, honest living.
Tomorrow, I will get a divorce. It’s been almost four months since my husband “relieved” himself of the news that he wanted one. Our marriage will have lasted one year and three months: it has been my first, his third. He made sure he finished his Ph.D. and depleted the money my relatives gave us before moving out in the middle of the night with his nineteen-year-old son, each to his respective mother. My husband denies it, but I know he’s off with the typist who transcribed all the interviews from his dissertation on sex addiction. A self-proclaimed psychic, she predicted we’d break up.
At first I cried, and talked on the phone for hours. I tore up phone books, screaming like a crazy person. I stared at the ceiling every morning and said to myself, “Another day of hell.” Now I just talk out loud about getting a gun to kill him. Maybe I’ll end up on some TV talk show.
Tomorrow, which would have been my father’s seventy-sixth birthday, I will sit in the courtroom while the judge stamps the divorce papers, and I will think of my dad, who died just before our wedding. I will think of how he encouraged me, at thirty-five, to go out and explore the world of love.
I still talk about the breakup incessantly. After all, it has only been four months. But there are some bright spots. The other day, pulling weeds in my garden, I discovered chives and oregano planted by the previous owners. I’ve hired a handyman to fix up my house, and am traveling a bit, visiting friends. The atmosphere around me seems a little thinner, a little less viscous. Still, I worry I will become embittered and perhaps never again risk romance. Maybe I’ll have twenty-six cats.
My hairdresser tells me you have to take life’s sharp corners fast. My dental hygienist says you have to get the first marriage out of the way to make room for the second, which is better. The nurse at the doctor’s office gives me similar advice. They’ve all had their own love woes, and I don’t believe any of them have healed. They’ve merely endured, picking up the pieces and carrying on.
One day this oozing wound will turn to scar tissue. In the meantime, I’m grateful for discovering herbs in my garden, for finding a handyman who dreams up new ways to keep the raccoons out of my attic, for having such wonderful friends. Though my divorce has been horrifying, I will probably grow stronger from it in the end.
My delusion that my life is a play, a drama in which I am only acting a part, lands me in a U.S. Air Force–base psych ward in 1954 at the age of fourteen. My “character,” an intrepid explorer of forbidden realms, is of course attracted to the most extreme treatment option: electroshock therapy. I can’t pass it up.
It isn’t very difficult to become a candidate for electroshock. All I need to do is not get “better” — as if getting better and being sent back home to that emotional desert were desirable. I like the ward better than home. Here, I get smiles, attention, and special handling due to my tender age.
Those of us scheduled for electroshock don’t get anything to eat or drink the morning of the treatment. We remain on the ward in our pajamas while the others go off to occupational therapy, and we are given an injection of atropine to dry up all our juices so we won’t choke on our saliva. All rings, glasses, and dental bridges are taken from us. The electroshock cart is wheeled from ward to ward with a clatter of metal and the accompanying footsteps and voices of the doctors and attendants. Finally, the dark metal box, with its array of dials and wires, is guided through the door of our ward. One by one, our names are called. It’s nerve-racking. Whether I am first, last, or in the middle, I am scared just the same.
When my name is called, a nurse accompanies me to the middle of the ward, where beds have been pushed back to make room for the electroshock cart, the cluster of corpsmen and doctors, and a padded gurney. I can see the women who have preceded me lying unconscious on beds at the far end of the ward.
I am helped onto the gurney and given a rubber bite guard so I won’t sever or swallow my tongue. Blank-faced corpsmen stand all around me, holding my arms, legs, hips, and head firmly in place, so I won’t break bones or tear muscles. The contact paste is smeared on my temples.
When the electrodes touch my head, blackness swallows me with a suddenness that feels as though a guillotine blade has fallen, and I am gone, knocked into nothingness. It is the most frightening and awful experience I’ve ever had. Drama enough for me!
Afterward, I wake up among the other groggy women and girls, confused, fuzzy-headed, and sore. My mouth is still dry. I am glad on the days when I know where I am and don’t need to ask one of the nurses. Even when I regain my faculties, there remains a deep sense of having been violated, as if I’ve been raped on a cellular level. Many of my memories are gone, never to return. I am a different person, somehow made less — and far more conscious of my vulnerability. Now I have something to fear even more than going home.
So I get “better” really fast. Of course the doctors think this means the shock treatments worked, and I am now ready to go home. I do not tell them otherwise.
Asheville, North Carolina
Forty hours after a traumatic delivery, I was sent home exhausted and in great pain, with a sick infant. Why hadn’t I had the kind of wonderful birth experience everyone talked about? Why had my baby been born sick? The situation was compounded by the fact that I had few maternal instincts, and that my child was so very needy — crying incessantly and slow to heal. She wasn’t the perfect baby I felt I deserved, and I wasn’t the perfect mom she needed.
My stepsister came by to admire the baby. Cuddling her and cooing and stroking her fuzzy little head, she crooned, “Don’t you just love her?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m hopeful. I didn’t like Philip when I first met him either, and we’ve been married six years now.”
She looked at me as if I really was the awful mother I believed myself to be.
Two years have passed since then, and sometimes when I look into my daughter’s tiny face, it takes my breath away. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such a wonderful child.
Why is love at first sight more valued than the kind that comes on slowly, picking up speed with every caress?
H. P. Wiegreffe
On my family’s living-room wall is a print of Jean François Millet’s painting The Gleaners. It depicts three women, two stooping to gather wheat into their aprons and one bent over as if to catch her breath. Gleaners, I have learned, were peasants who, after harvesting the landowner’s fields, were allowed to salvage for themselves whatever bits of wheat or corn they could find. Whenever I look at this painting, I think of my own family: my mom, my little sister, and myself. We, too, are three women trying to salvage what’s been left behind.
Twenty-one years ago, just before I was born, my father walked out on my mom. Nine years later, my sister’s father followed suit, leaving Mom to raise the two of us alone on a waitress’s salary. Then, about seven years ago, Mom married Bob. I was less than thrilled: the guy had already been married four times.
A few years later, we found out why Bob had been divorced so often: he cheated, then moved on, probably to his next three-year fling. This time, Mom wasn’t left with any new children to care for, but while Bob was around we had accumulated quite a debt. Christmas shopping, vacations — you name it, we’d charged it. When Bob left, he took my mom’s financial security with him.
Like the gleaners, we’ve begun to pick up the pieces. After making two mortgage payments myself, I agreed we needed to sell the house to pay off some of Mom’s huge debt. She has gone back to waitressing, and I’ve gotten a second job while attending college. Each of us earns about eleven thousand dollars a year. Because we work night and day to support our family, we have little time to be a family, and our spirits have slowly withered. The few hours we do spend together usually end with someone yelling at someone else and the three of us retreating to our separate quarters.
A week ago, my sister asked, “Why can’t we be like Katie’s family?” Katie’s family is similar to ours — two children and one mom. But every night they sit down and have a meal together, even though Katie’s mom works long hours.
So the other night, my mom cooked a chicken dinner with all the trimmings, and we sat down and ate as a family. It wasn’t anything special, just supper. We didn’t hold hands and sing songs; but we were together.
Mom was a dentist’s wife barely in her forties, and the mother of two daughters, when my father left her. Bam! No more dentist’s wife. Her world reeling, she was able to steady herself only by clutching her college diploma and repeating the mantra “I am an educated woman.”
As a teenager, she had once drawn a portrait of her idol, Nelson Eddy, and sent it to him. Now, my father gone, she sat at her easel for hours, churning out one amateurish landscape after another — but doing what she’d always dreamed of doing. I still have one of her paintings from that period. To me, it’s a portrait of defiance, strength, and resilience, though I doubt anyone else can see those qualities in it.
Years later, tucked away in an old magazine, I found an angry, desperate note my mother had written around that time. It could have been her suicide note, had she possessed just a little less resolve. By the time I found it, however, she’d gone back to school to earn her teaching certificate, gotten a job, and become a church organist in her spare time.
Twenty years later, she remarried. Upon returning from her honeymoon, she told me she finally understood why a woman might like sex. She was sixty-seven years old.
I’ve spent most of my life recovering from past hurts. My parents divorced when I was eleven. I was a daddy’s girl and missed my father terribly. On Sundays after church, my mother would take my siblings to see friends while I stayed home to wait for Dad’s visit. Usually he didn’t show up, and I’d make excuses for him — he was tired from working so hard, or the weather was bad. When he did visit we’d go for long, slow drives in the country. He’d drink beer, smoke cigars, and talk incessantly about all the people — most of all my mother — who had done mean things to him. I’d huddle miserably against the door, feeling sick from the stench of his cigars and sad that people were so unkind to him.
For years I couldn’t talk about my parents’ divorce, or even divorce in general, without fighting back tears. I was often deeply depressed. By my late twenties, I had been married seven years and was looking forward to finishing school and having children. Then my husband announced that he wanted a divorce. I was devastated, but determined to get on with my life. I’d read that it takes eighteen months to get over a divorce, but years went by and still I grieved, missing my husband’s cheerfulness and optimism, our summer cross-country trips, the sound of him puttering in the bathroom in the morning.
It has been more than thirteen years since our divorce. I still get up and go to work and cook and clean and make love. There is much joy in my life, but I’ve also come to expect that grief and rage will occasionally wash over me. This quote from Sexus, by Henry Miller, makes me feel better about being so slow to bounce back:
“If I make a mistake it is fatal. When I am flung back, I fall all the way back — to the very bottom. My one safeguard is my resiliency. So far I have always bounced back. Sometimes the rebound has resembled a slow-motion performance, but in the eyes of God speed has no particular significance.”
West Lafayette, Indiana
We lived together for fourteen years. He was an engineer and traveled a lot, a workaholic. I worked for a publisher in the city. When our daughter was born, I put my career on permanent hold to home-school her. Teaching her became my second most important commitment. My first was to him.
He got a better job in Georgia. This was our chance to finally move out of New Jersey and find a smaller home on more acreage. I remained behind to sell our house while he went on ahead. His company paid for me to make two house-hunting trips to Atlanta. Both times we made quiet, passionate love while our daughter lay peacefully sleeping in the next room. During the day we looked for homes together, as a family.
Two months later, however, we still hadn’t found a place to live, and his nightly phone calls were becoming acrimonious. Every evening I’d hang up the receiver, tears streaming down my cheeks. Finally, we didn’t speak at all for three weeks. Upset and confused, I called Mom.
“Sounds like he’s going through male menopause,” she announced.
“Male what?” I replied incredulously.
The library had only one book on the subject. He had every symptom.
“Don’t worry,” my best friend said. “You’re sexy, slim, and firm. He’s balding, gray, and he smokes. Who would want him? He’ll come around.”
I shook my head at her stupidity. Was I the only one who understood why men divorced their wives at forty?
I offered him space, suggested therapy together, therapy as a family, therapy individually. No response. I asked him what he wanted, what would make him happy. No response. I sent him the library book. No response.
Finally, in September, he came home for our daughter’s birthday. I had to read between the lines, but he basically told me it was over. I was devastated. Then he told me about the constant pain in his upper chest. He’d had two chest X-rays and thought he had lung cancer.
“What have you been doing?” I asked. “Did you lift something heavy?”
“I went to the driving range at the golf course two weeks ago,” he said. “With my boss.”
My eyes narrowed. “You don’t play golf.” I told him his pain was from swinging the golf club. Then I massaged his chest and drove him to the airport. He kissed me goodbye at the gate. I knew it would be our last kiss.
A week later, he phoned to tell me the X-rays had come back negative, and that the doctor had confirmed that he’d pulled a muscle playing golf. I told him not to call me anymore. When he asked why, I told him I needed to start my grieving process. He laughed.
I gave myself one month to put fourteen years behind me.
In mid-November, my best friend called. “I heard you mailed all his clothes and other personal items to him,” she said.
“That’s right. My clothes aren’t hanging in his closet in Georgia; why should his hang in mine?”
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Yes, I’m getting on with my life. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to test the waters but know he can come back to me if he starts to sink. Well, he can’t. It’s over. I’ve even changed the locks.”
“You know,” my friend said, “most women don’t do this.”
“Well, maybe that’s because most women don’t realize they have choices, too.”
“I guess being in limbo stinks.”
“I wouldn’t know. I chose not to be there.”
Whenever people hear that I went bungee-jumping, they immediately attribute it to my ex-husband; another of his crazy ideas, they assume, shaking their heads and giving my shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. It’s true I found myself an unwilling partner in numerous harebrained escapades over the course of that marriage, but the bungee jump was my idea. Mine.
I was working at a nursing home at the time, and our sixth anniversary was coming up. I told everyone, myself included, that I was doing it for the people at the home. (I also joked that six years of marriage made you want to jump off a bridge.)
The idea came to me one day as I was showing the home’s residents yet another faded, grainy National Geographic video. Seeing their bored, disconnected expressions, I found myself announcing that I would go bungee-jumping, have it videotaped, and put on a special showing for them. This sparked spirited inquiries about what in the world bungee-jumping was.
“Well,” I said, “you tie giant rubber bands around your ankles, tie the other ends to a bridge, and then fling yourself off.”
“Good Lord!” they said, and, “My stars!” and, most of all, “Why?”
Good question. I gave it quite a bit of thought as I made the preparations. I was probably more astonished than anyone that I would be attempting this; I am, ironically enough, terrified of heights. My husband, however, was ecstatic about my decision: at last I was initiating something daring and crazy, instead of just going along for the ride.
As the date neared, the nursing home was abuzz with excitement. News had traveled quickly, and all four floors were clamoring to see this amazing spectacle — even the Alzheimer’s wing, although they had to be reminded each day just what they were clamoring for. Residents would stop me in the hall and tell visiting family members, “This is the one! She’s going to do that thing with the rubber bands that I was telling you about!” And their grown daughters and sons would look at me with a combination of relief and horror: glad their parent’s dementia wasn’t as advanced as they’d thought, but upset that I would put such strange notions into their loved one’s already fuzzy head.
At my husband’s suggestion, we combined the jump with our anniversary trip to Nanaimo, British Columbia. It turned out to be a pretty awful anniversary. We were in marriage counseling, but it had already become apparent that the counselor could only help us document what had gone irreparably wrong. So we wandered about the lovely bed-and-breakfast holding hands and gritting our teeth, aware that our marriage was crumbling, yet unable to call it a day. I was really looking forward to the jump.
Still, it wasn’t until I was six feet out on the narrow diving board, toes hanging over the edge, heavy bands dragging on my ankles, that I found the answer to the question “Why?” Out there on that edge I was forced to confront my fears and make a decision. The only thing that scared me more than heights was the thought of leaving this marriage; of being responsible for ending it; of being a person who was divorced, who had failed.
I knew that if I hesitated even for a moment I would never make the jump, so I’d told those watching from the bridge to count loudly to three, and on the count of three, I would step forward. I didn’t look down, knowing that, if I did, I would drop helplessly to the board, sobbing and holding on for dear life until they peeled me off it. So instead I looked straight ahead at the horizon, at the beautiful mountains in the distance. I heard three. I jumped.
I’d thought that I would close my eyes, but I couldn’t. Apparently, I was just too interested in witnessing my impending death. I’d also imagined that the plunge would be quiet, and that I would scream. But the rush of air in my ears was deafening, and I didn’t utter a sound — I don’t think I breathed.
As I watched the deep turquoise water grow larger and larger, my fingers groped the air in front of me, splayed out to fend off the impact.
Then there was an incredible heaviness, as all my weight came to rest in one moment in time: still, silent, reaching.
Then the bounce. And suddenly I was grinning and whooping and filled with gasping laughter. I suppose, technically, it was the adrenalin rush, but it felt like more. To be sure, the jump wasn’t over yet; something could still go awry. But on my way back up, with the sun warming my upturned face and my lungs bursting with air and a scream of joy traveling from my toes to my lips, I felt I could do anything.