A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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In 1972 I fell in love with a man who resisted the draft and said he would rather go to prison than participate in an unjust war. We were wed on the front lawn of my church in our bare feet, because we refused to be conventional. I was seventeen, a virgin, and a Christian. He was five years older and an atheist with a strong sense of himself and even stronger opinions. We had many energetic discussions in which he attempted to convince me I was delusional for believing in the Bible.
Then, in the first year of our marriage, my husband underwent a conversion experience. Previously he had attended church with me solely for the purpose of amassing evidence against the existence of God. But one Sunday he stood up during an altar call, went forward, and pledged his life to Jesus.
My husband became a deacon, then an elder, and finally the pastor of his own church. As the pastor’s wife I was expected to be submissive and silent. Our lively discussions became one-sided sermons in which he would instruct me on God’s will for our life together. I was frequently reprimanded for not keeping the house clean enough to entertain church members at a moment’s notice. (My husband would actually swipe his finger along surfaces looking for dust.) I was told the halter tops I wore in the summer made me look like a “whore.” I was scolded for listening to “secular” music on the radio, because it did not contribute to my spiritual growth. When I argued, my husband simply gave me the silent treatment, sometimes for weeks. He eventually told me that he no longer found me attractive and had no desire to sleep with me. Meanwhile in public he pretended that everything was rosy and even taught marriage classes for couples in his congregation.
When he said the church was the most important thing in his life, I finally got the message. I packed up and left. We’d been married for more than a decade by then. I should have left in the first year.
My family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1969, and I entered the third grade soon after. The local school system had successfully resisted numerous court orders to desegregate, and there were no minority students or teachers in my school. A skinny girl with dark hair and olive skin that tanned easily, I was always much darker than my parents and my four siblings. Though white, I became, in effect, the first black girl at the school. To make matters worse, I was a Yankee, not a “Rebel.” On the first day I was told I had to sit at the back of the bus. In class I was placed in the desk farthest from the teacher.
Every day before lunch we had to line up to wash our hands. After washing, one of my classmates went over to Big Eddie, the black janitor, and slapped him five. The teacher thought I had done it and made me wash my hands again.
I had previously been an excellent student, but now I grew to fear and hate school. I was openly called the N-word by both children and adults. I would wake up early and go to the bus stop only to run back to my house when the bus appeared. I got stomachaches from the anxiety. My mother was baffled as to why I suddenly did not want to attend school. She said I had to go; it was the law. When I asked who made the law, she said the president.
One day I had the idea to leave school at recess: I would hang back in the line of children, then sneak away and walk the two miles home. As I reached the school gate, however, I started to worry: Would the president come to my house to arrest me for leaving school? Sadly I made my way back to the playground.
The following year the school was forced to integrate its teaching staff, and I was assigned to Mrs. Scott, a silky-haired black woman whose skin was several shades lighter than my own. I became her favorite student.
Sugar Land, Texas
They will tell you the first year without your mother will be the hardest. They will be right. You will go back to work and greet your friends and co-workers with a smile while you wonder how the world could possibly keep going without her in it.
They will warn you about the first few holidays without her. It will be hard, someone will say. And this will be true. You’ll spend Thanksgiving trying to cook everything just as she did. Worried family members will look on, asking if they can help. No, you’ve got it, you’ll say. Everything is fine.
No one will warn you about the times you’ll come home from work, excited over this or that, and reach for the phone to call her. Then you’ll realize: You cannot tell her all about it. You will never be able to share good news or seek her advice again.
The worst will be the first wedding you attend. Nothing will make you feel the loss of your mother quite like watching another mother help her daughter into her gown. The realization that your own mother will not be there for your wedding day will grab you and not let go — not in the first year, or the second, or the third.
Megan A. Rudolph
Raleigh, North Carolina
“What do you think of your legislative colleague not wearing a tie on the Assembly floor?” the reporter asked me. I had expected a serious question about the water problems in south Santa Clara County or my proposed solution to “Blood Alley,” the treacherous section of Route 101 that ran through the Coyote Valley.
I was thirty-five years old, a former high-school science teacher, and a mother of two girls, and I had recently been elected to the California State Assembly. The year was 1974. There was only one other woman among 120 legislators, and even she thought my election was a fluke; certainly I wouldn’t be able to do the job, much less be reelected.
Some colleagues were rude to me; others were dismissive. One told me he was shocked that I didn’t cry when I had my period. My secretary would bring to me other secretaries who were being sexually harassed by my colleagues. One woman said she was about to be fired because she was pregnant and her boss didn’t like pregnant women.
The Speaker of the Assembly paid me hardly any attention — until he realized I had the ear of the press and women’s organizations. I introduced legislation that would increase funding for children’s mental-health services. That would improve insurance coverage for pregnancy. That abolished corporal punishment in schools. That raised awareness of the effects of alcohol on the developing fetus. I traded jibes with other representatives and helped sharpen their legislation and their arguments. The more progressive members began to include me in conversations. Slowly I became accepted, but I was never “one of the boys,” invited to the all-night poker games.
I served for six years — three terms — and left by decision, not defeat. But I will never forget the challenges of that first year. It was a lonely one.
Leona Egeland Rice
At the age of eighteen I gave birth to my son Jack. I had read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care and felt prepared. Dr. Spock said to get the baby on a schedule of feeding every four hours. Nothing to it, I thought. Maybe I could write a book in my spare time.
I fed Jack at 10 PM and went to bed. An hour later the baby woke screaming. I got up, changed his diaper, and walked the floor with him until he seemed to sleep. As soon as I put him down, though, he woke. Maybe he was hungry again? I fed him, and he promptly threw it up. I rocked him back to sleep, but after two hours he was howling again.
By 6 AM, when my husband got up for work, I had slept only a couple of hours. This was in 1959, when fathers were not expected to contribute to child care, and my husband was a man of his generation. I cooked him breakfast, made his lunch, saw him to the door, then climbed back into bed. I was soon awakened by my son’s wailing. Another feeding, more rocking, and still I had a wide-awake baby. How could someone so small make so much noise, and for so long? Finally, at 10 AM, I put Jack in his buggy and took him for a walk.
Day after day, night after night, it was the same. I fed him gripe water to relieve gas. He loved it, but it didn’t stop the crying. I gave him cereal in the hopes of filling him up. No such luck. If I put him in his bouncy seat so I could cook or do housework, he howled and struggled to get out. If I put him in front of the TV, he wasn’t interested.
Over the course of his first twelve months, Jack learned to smile, to laugh, to eat solids, and to crawl, but not how to sleep. Finally, just before the year was up, the Baby Who Never Sleeps stayed down all night. He did it again the next night. And the next. I started to feel human again. His dad and I celebrated his first birthday in triumph. Perhaps we celebrated a bit too triumphantly: by the time Jack was thirteen months old, I was pregnant again.
Kamloops, British Columbia
My partner of twenty years and I had just designed and built a home on three acres of land when I discovered she was cheating on me with her boss’s wife.
That first year after the breakup, I would lie awake in bed at three o’clock in the morning, asking myself what had gone wrong. One night, determined not to let depression get the best of me, I got up, put on my running shoes, and headed out the door. I ran the six miles to the next town and back. I did this many mornings before dawn that first year.
Living on my own filled me with a mixture of uneasiness and excitement. After two decades I suddenly no longer had to check in with anyone if I had to work late. I could leave the house and return anytime I wanted. I could take off to the city and stay until two or three in the morning because there was no one to worry about where I was.
That first year on my own I pushed myself to try new things. I might be alone for the rest of my life, I thought; I might as well jump right in. My partner and I had never gone camping, so I decided to try it, purchasing equipment and practicing setting up the tent on my living-room floor. Then I packed my truck and headed out of town, planning to camp at different hot springs throughout the Northwest. The strangest part was having no one to talk to for days. But there was also something peaceful and grounding about not speaking. I would soak all night in a hot spring while everyone else slept.
That first year was a time of both deep sadness and liberation.
I married a man from Kansas, and when we retired, we couldn’t afford the high cost of living in California, where we had settled. So we moved to his birthplace, a town where everyone knew everyone else and had generations of ancestors in the cemetery.
I had grown up in Boulder, Colorado, and spent most of my adulthood in the San Francisco Bay Area. So my first year living in Kansas was a shock. We bought an old house that a single woman had lived in until she’d died. We had to put on a new roof before winter or the home would have died, too. We had the place rewired because the entire electrical system was operating on one fuse. And we added a carport. (The woman had never owned a car.) I was amazed that anyone could have lived such an isolated life, but others around us still seemed to be living that way.
For at least a year when my husband and I walked into a restaurant — I should say the restaurant — people would turn to stare. Sometimes strangers would ask whose house we had bought. They didn’t want an address; they wanted a name. When we were invited to a gathering at “Carol’s house,” we had to ask for an address; in reply we got a description of how to find it. Even events advertised in the paper often gave only a business’s name. Everyone in town knew where it was.
I tried a variety of ways to get acquainted with the neighbors, but none seemed to work. When I brought lasagna to a funeral dinner, it appeared to be in violation of some norm. Not only did the locals always make the same dishes, but it seemed that each had a specific spot on the serving table for their item. The lasagna disappeared quickly, but I still didn’t feel accepted.
It was a rough year. If it hadn’t been for the phone and the Internet, I might have given up. The thought of moving all our belongings again also deterred me. Eventually I decided just to be who I am, and if it gave people something to gossip about, so what.
Ten years later I’m still here — and still a long way from fitting in. I read books that nobody I’ve met here has read. I (gasp!) try new patterns when I knit and crochet. I’ve seen other newcomers attempt to become a part of the community only to give up and leave. Not me. I’ve come to consider this little town home, even if I will be an outsider here for the rest of my life.
In the twenty-fourth week of my pregnancy, my unborn son was diagnosed with a rare disease called arthrogryposis. His symptoms were clubfeet, flexed wrists, clenched hands with overlapping fingers, and an underdeveloped chin. Tests could not determine whether he would also have an underlying neurological or muscular disorder. My husband and I would have to wait until he was born to find out. I was afraid my son would never walk, would never talk to me.
In the first month after his birth, we visited many specialists, but the doctor we saw the most was our son’s pediatric orthopedist, who was responsible for correcting his clubfeet. The nonsurgical procedure involved three months of plaster casts (changed regularly); three more months of placing our son’s feet in a metal brace for twenty-three hours a day; and three years of wearing the brace only at night.
The hardest part of the day, after my husband went back to work, was about 10 AM. I would put the baby down for his morning nap, turn on a TV show for my two-year-old, then go to my bedroom, lie on the carpet, and cry. I wanted desperately to see friends but had no energy. If I took a shower, I counted that as a good day. Getting out of the house for anything other than a medical appointment was a feat.
Meanwhile I was jealous of every healthy baby I saw, which itself was exhausting. My anger would explode at the slightest perceived wrong: a comment from my husband about dinner, an inconsolable baby, my two-year-old asking for a snack. After each outburst I immediately felt ashamed.
My first brief moments of delight came as I witnessed my son’s ingenuity at getting around. At nine months he could finally sit up unsupported. He didn’t have the arm strength to crawl, so he scooted on his bottom, making a grunting noise as he propelled himself through the house.
I soon realized that I’d been so preoccupied with grieving the loss of the child I’d expected that I’d failed to appreciate the child in front of me. It took the better part of that first year for me to begin fully loving my son.
Union City, California
My new husband, R., started law school in 1972. As a macho male, he rarely saw fit to participate in menial domestic activities such as cooking, shopping, cleaning, and laundry. As a conventional child of the 1950s, I saw nothing particularly wrong with this attitude and did my best to fulfill my wifely role.
Since R. was going to school full time, it was up to me to support us. I began a new career as a public-school teacher and discovered I was spectacularly unprepared for it.
The district office assigned me to P.S. 32 in the Bronx. Having no teaching experience whatsoever, I asked to start in a lower grade — maybe kindergarten. For the next five weeks my schedule consisted of assisting and filling in for teachers in fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade classes all over the hundred-year-old building. I often had exactly five minutes to get from a trailer in the outside yard to a room on the third floor of the main building, and vice versa.
I tried to have an activity prepared for each class I taught and spent much of my time after work and on weekends developing lesson plans, which the students rarely let me carry out. My deepening unhappiness did not go over well with R., who was eager to stay out late and have fun on the weekends.
After five weeks of being unable to control most of my classes, I came in one morning, stood in the hallway awaiting my assignment for the day, and quietly cried. The assistant principal told me to hang in there for one more week; then she would change my schedule.
True to her word, she gave me only kindergarten-through-third-grade classes the following week. Unfortunately even the youngest students could tell that I was clueless and behaved accordingly. Meanwhile my husband still wasn’t pleased. He hadn’t expected his wife to work constantly, even at home. Over Christmas, on my week off, he suggested a trial separation.
At that time my father had just been diagnosed with cancer, and my life had boiled down to a rigid routine: get through the school day, work on lesson plans for an hour or two, and then go to the hospital to visit my dad. When R. accompanied me, which was rare, he made it clear he wanted to leave as soon as was decently possible. I came to prefer going alone.
One day, as I prepared to leave for the hospital, I decided that if my husband did not come with me, we were finished. To my surprise he was waiting at the front door with his jacket. Not only did he come; he was supportive while we were there. The idea of a separation faded into the background — for a few months.
In the spring R. suggested a baby might improve our marriage. I thought that was one of the worst reasons I’d ever heard to have a child, and I quietly remained on birth-control pills.
By June my father had passed away, and when the school year came to an end, I took my cat and my stamp collection and moved back to my mother’s house. R. started calling after a week or so, saying we had been separated long enough. He didn’t realize I had skipped the separation part and simply left him.
I finally agreed to meet him for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. It didn’t take us long to have a disagreement, and for the first time in our relationship, I raised my voice to my husband. After a moment of shocked silence he looked at me with more respect than I’d seen from him in ages and asked, “Why didn’t you ever do this before?” We finished our meal and divorced amicably soon thereafter.
In one year I’d lost my father and my husband, but I’d also lost some of my misguided notions about a woman’s role. Yes, it had been one hell of a year.
Queens, New York
So far we have sculpted, glazed, and fired little clay creatures together. We have eaten many tacos. We have made paintings of landscapes, trees, birds, and chickens. We have run one mile together. (It wasn’t that bad, was it?) We’ve played a lot of music and volunteered in a nursing home. We’ve listened to podcasts, and I have fallen asleep during them all. We’ve watched movies at home, and I have stayed awake for one. We’ve made it to the movie theater once, and I managed to wake up every five minutes so you could explain what was happening on-screen. We’ve gone to an old-time-music jam. We’ve edited a handful of each other’s stories. We’ve cooked many dinners. We’ve made snow angels. We’ve walked in the garden. We’ve petted the neighborhood cats. We’ve climbed on your slanted roof and looked at the stars. We’ve played a lot of board games. We’ve gone dancing, and I’ve gotten to see your fancy footwork. We’ve gone to concerts. We’ve read stories out loud to each other in funny voices. We’ve decided to start a podcast. We’ve made homemade pasta. We’ve made love many times. (It keeps getting better.) I have taken you to see where I used to live. You have seen me play with my old band. We’ve tried to light a fire in your fireplace, but the flue was permanently shut. We’ve built a fire in your yard and played music. We’ve ridden bikes at night. We’ve made a list of things neither of us has ever done and vowed to start doing one a week.
We have known each other only six months. Our first year is not even close to being finished.
Jessica M. Doyle
Durham, North Carolina
While digging through boxes from my father’s house, I discovered an old cassette tape labeled “Radio Show” and gave it a listen. Apparently Dad had been interviewed on the air about his work in the aerospace field. The rocket science didn’t mean much to me, but hearing his voice took me back to the summer of 1963.
I had just finished my freshman year at boarding school when I came home to find my mother packing. She was taking my younger brother and sister to visit our aunt for a while, she said. I was signed up for a summer at horseback-riding camp. It occurred to me that her departure might be a sign of trouble between my parents, but I shrugged it off. I had never even heard them have an argument.
I know now what was really going on: Mom had told Dad she didn’t want to be married to him anymore. She had moved into my bedroom while they waited out the school year. The children weren’t to be told.
Dad was alone in the house that summer. He managed to go to work every day, and each evening he observed the same after-dinner routine: He would lie down on the floor with his head between two stereo speakers and listen to Gustav Mahler’s Second, the Resurrection Symphony, full blast. Then he would hold his nose, down a large tumbler of bourbon, and go to bed. This was his nightly ritual as he waited to find out whether his wife and children were coming back.
But Mom was already in love with someone else. She had been planning her escape for a long time. Aware that she would need a job to support the kids on her own, she’d gotten a real-estate license and gone to work at a local firm, where she’d fallen for the boss.
As the old tape recording played, I wondered how my father had been able to pull himself together enough to be upbeat and informative at a time when he was a broken man. Years later Dad told me what had kept him alive that summer was listening to Mahler.
Santa Cruz, California
© Sara Munari
It was a big deal that I could marry my same-sex partner in 2013. One morning three years later I was still in my pajamas, playing on the floor with our one-year-old son, when my wife nonchalantly declared, “I’ve been thinking about transitioning.” Then she left for work.
That was one year ago. She is now a he.
Four months after that early-morning revelation, he gave himself his first injection of testosterone, something he’ll be doing every other week for the rest of his life. Most transgender men experience starting on testosterone as akin to going through puberty again — only this time as a boy, with adolescent moodiness, a deepening voice, peach fuzz, and a lively interest in sex. Over time this settles out, leaving behind full-fledged facial hair, bigger muscles, and a more angular face. My partner smells and sounds different now. The feel of his skin and the contours of his body are changing.
Four months after starting on testosterone, he had “top surgery” — a double mastectomy plus chest reconstruction. He used to wear a sports bra, but now he goes around the house, and sometimes the neighborhood, with his sweaty chest exposed. It is undeniably liberating for him but still strange for me.
My partner has legally changed his first and middle names and has begun the process of changing his “gender marker” — that is, the box on his passport, driver’s license, and so on that describes him as female. For now the name alongside mine on our marriage certificate and our child’s birth certificate doesn’t match the name of the person with whom I share my day-to-day life. I, too, sometimes feel a step behind this new reality.
Recently a friendly flight attendant asked me, “And what would your husband like to drink?” It was a reasonable question — he was, after all, sitting next to me and handling our rambunctious toddler. But my immediate thought was: I have a husband? Indeed, just like that, I now have a husband. I wonder what the next year will hold.
Empty Cradle, Broken Heart was the title of the book the hospital gave us, along with a blue-and-yellow storage box containing Caleb’s tiny baby hat, a lock of his hair, his hospital bracelet, and plaster imprints of his hands and feet.
Many months earlier I had sent the sonogram to friends and family, showing two babies in one womb: Identical twin boys. Two younger brothers for our oldest.
Caleb was born first. I saw him curled at the end of the operating table, chest down, arms and legs tucked under his body, looking like an alabaster statue of a baby. I asked to hold him, but the midwife said, “Not now. We need to concentrate on getting the other baby out.”
When I awoke from the anesthesia, my husband, Matt, said the babies were both in intensive care. Joshua had had some initial trouble breathing but would be fine. Caleb had lost 30 percent of his blood from a ruptured umbilical cord and had begun to breathe only after twenty long minutes.
A little more than a day later, Matt sat next to me holding Joshua while I held Caleb against my chest. His breathing sounded tortured, but the doctor assured us that the morphine kept him from feeling any pain. My son lay against me with his head back and his mouth open. It was several hours before he took his last breath.
Later the nurses brought Caleb to me in a bassinet. They had removed the IV and cleaned off the glue from the wires. I looked at him for a while — so small and still — then picked him up and cradled him.
We had Caleb cremated because part of me could not stand the idea of his body lying in a coffin in the ground. What if he got cold at night? What if he cried? When I opened the container from the funeral home, I expected to see soft ashes like in a fireplace, but it was more like coarse sand mixed with bone fragments.
Our insurance covered Caleb’s thirty-thousand-dollar hospital bill, but first I had to fill out all the paperwork to register Caleb as a dependent — even though he no longer depended on me.
It felt as if I were walking around with no skin, all my nerves exposed. Matt tried to offer me support, but he was barely holding it together himself. One day, after strapping Joshua and our older son into their car seats for an errand, we began having a pointless argument. Back at the house it heated up. I lunged at Matt, swinging wildly. He didn’t fight back but pulled me into his arms so I couldn’t hurt him. I actually bit his shoulder. When I’d stopped panting, he slowly released me. We stared at each other like two wild animals in a cage.
Shortly before the one-year mark, Matt told me we were at a turning point. If we stayed on the same path, we might never recover. We needed to live again. I understood what he was saying, but grief was my main connection to Caleb. I was scared to let it go.
Eventually I realized that my husband was right. Deciding to stop grieving our son was not the same as deciding to stop loving him.
Diane M. Bergeron
I had just finished my first semester of college, and Shirley had completed her three years of nurse’s training when we quietly married: no big wedding, no bridal shower. I still regret that it wasn’t more special.
We moved into a travel trailer parked near the top of a hill in an avocado grove in Escondido, California. On weekend mornings, unless one of us was working, we would take our coffee onto the tiny patio and look out over the avocado trees to the hills beyond. We would stand there with an arm around each other and think ourselves lucky. And we were, although we could have used a couple of comfortable lawn chairs.
When Shirley got pregnant, we found an upstairs apartment in downtown Escondido. By then I was working full time on the night shift at General Dynamics in San Diego while still going to school. Shirley was working at a local clinic close to our apartment. I would leave to attend classes before she got up in the morning. When I got home, I had just enough time to change clothes before driving to my job. I arrived home again around 1:30 AM, after Shirley was asleep. That’s when I did my studying.
We saw each other so little that we pinned photos of ourselves to the wall, just to remind each other of how we looked. This terrible schedule became even worse when I finished at the local junior college and began to attend San Diego State.
We’d been wearing ourselves out for about a year when my tonsils had to be removed. The elderly head doctor at my wife’s clinic was quite cheery as he described the procedure. “When you are sitting in the chair,” he said, “you must pant like a dog.”
“Excuse me?” I replied. “Did you say, ‘Pant like a dog’?”
“Yes, you know.” And he demonstrated. He was so convincing I wanted to pet him.
I thought of canceling the operation, but I wanted to appear manly and brave in front of my new wife, who was assisting. So I sat in a dentist’s chair and panted — I assume to make it easier for him to reach down my throat. The doctor inserted a wire loop into my mouth, snared my tonsils, and sheared them off. Twice.
The deed was done on a Wednesday, and I returned to work on Friday. Late that evening, as I drove home, I coughed and felt the scabs in my throat slough away. Without warning I was bleeding. I stayed calm, rolled down the window, and spit blood every half mile until I got home.
Weak from exhaustion — and blood loss, I thought — I forced myself up the steps to our apartment and entered our darkened bedroom, where Shirley was asleep. (I knew it was her. I had seen her on Wednesday.) I awakened her with a gentle shake, pointed to my throat, and gurgled that I was bleeding to death.
My spouse jumped up, went into the kitchen, and returned with an empty coffee can, which she set on the floor on my side of the bed. “Spit into that,” she said. Then she lay back down and fell asleep.
I climbed into bed next to her, leaned over the side, and spit. My supposedly loving wife didn’t care that I was dying. Wearily I laid my head against the pillow and fell asleep while waiting for the end.
Dennis G. Wilson
Robin and I met in college in Virginia. She was cute, smart, and outdoorsy. We both loved David Bowie and Thelonious Monk, preferred to drive stick shift over automatic, and didn’t eat meat. We lost our virginity to each other, and a little while later I proposed. That’s what everyone did in their mid-twenties, right? We didn’t really plan our future together so much as discuss it over lunch.
After we got engaged, Robin started a teaching job in her rural hometown on the Potomac. I had no marketable skills, so I sat around a lot. I wasn’t mature or confident enough to jump into the role of supportive fiancé by chaperoning dances at Robin’s school or monitoring cocky teens at football games.
Then came our wedding day, which can be described as chaotic at best. It rained hard, so our quaint ceremony among the white pines was moved to the small chapel in town. At the reception I got into an argument with my in-laws. At issue: despite my firm request that there be no alcohol served, the family of the bride had spiked the punch. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal had my aunt’s alcoholic fourth husband not dipped into the bowl. The drama kind of took the fun out of cutting the cake and smooshing it into each other’s faces.
We kicked off our first year as husband and wife with a two-month standoff with my in-laws, followed by a merciful, albeit brief, truce for Christmas. In the summer my wife and I did volunteer work on separate continents. That fall we relocated from Virginia to the West Coast, making individual moves two months apart. Don’t ask me why. All I can say is, if you’re planning a cross-country move as a couple, do it together.
The marriage was pronounced DOA in San Francisco, right about the one-year mark. We composted the frozen top tier of our wedding cake and spent the next few weeks asking creditors to drop the hyphenated surnames and divvying up our belongings on a who-uses-what-most basis. She got the stereo; I got a cat. She got the Cuisinart; I got the other cat.
Over the years I’ve almost gotten hitched twice, but I remain single. For a long time I viewed my divorce as a fatal flaw in my character, but eventually I came to understand that I’m far from alone. Almost 50 percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce. The average length of a failed first marriage is eight years. I thank God my ex and I had the decency to call it quits after just one.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I sit on my deck outside my yurt, gazing at the view. There’s no denying the beauty of southwest Colorado, but after six months here I’m not sure I’ll make it to one year.
In 2012 I took a leave of absence from my office job to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. My kids were out of the house, and I was free and wanted to find out if I had what it took to spend half a year hiking in the woods. It turns out I did.
With my newfound confidence, I began to believe I could pursue my other dreams, too. For example, the “go and live in a shack in the woods” dream. I pictured myself building a homestead and, though I’ve never been a potter, putting in a kiln. I drove out to Colorado to search for undeveloped land, but I soon realized I did not have the skills to get a shelter built by the winter. So I began to look for a plot that had already been “improved.” That’s when I happened upon this place, which had a yurt, a bathhouse, and a kiln with a studio attached. It seemed meant to be.
Blinders fully in place, I bought the property, expecting I would magically transform into a person who knew how to put up a garden; start a home-based business to pay the bills; fire pottery in a propane kiln; fix a leaky yurt; and stay calm when she saw dead rodents floating in the underground cistern that provided her drinking water.
I didn’t turn into that person. I’m still a lazy woman skilled in the ancient art of procrastination. (I have yet to pursue firing the kiln. Have I mentioned that propane scares me?) I still get anxious over small problems. I still sometimes drown in my thoughts. The only difference is now I live alone in a yurt.
Everyone told me that once I got through the first year, I’d be OK. I was expected to go to pieces on the anniversary of the day we met, the day he proposed, and the night we married; also on his birthday and all the holidays. But, at the end of a year, I’d somehow emerge from my grief.
I turned into an introvert after his death. I tried to continue with yoga, but most of the time I sobbed quietly on my mat. Finally I stopped going because I grew tired of the loving looks and understanding nods. I didn’t feel loved or understood.
Other than trips to the cemetery, I stopped going out unless I absolutely had to. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. When I ordered food to be delivered, I told the restaurant I would leave the money under the doormat, and that the delivery person should retrieve the cash, place the food on the mat, ring the doorbell twice, and leave.
I dreaded going out for the mail because when I saw my husband’s name on an envelope, I would burst into tears. I tried to will myself not to look at the mail until I was safely back inside the apartment, but I lived on the fourth floor, and the elevator ride was long, and I couldn’t resist. When the doors slid open, I’d be crying. If any neighbors saw me, I’d scurry away before they could ask whether I was OK.
Sometimes I sat cross-legged on the floor, cradling his eyeglasses in my hands. Sometimes a wave of grief would crash down on me unexpectedly. Sometimes I couldn’t even identify the specific thought that had caused it.
I followed strict rules for my cemetery visits: I always left early on Sunday mornings, when I had the least chance of running into someone in the elevator or at the graveside. I brought a jug of water, a scrub brush, and the towel he used to take to the beach. No matter how hard I tried to keep my composure, the moment I saw his grave, I fell to my knees and sobbed. After the tears subsided, I poured water across his marker, scrubbed the granite clean with the brush, and patted it dry with the towel.
One day, while kneeling at my husband’s grave, I felt the urge to stand up. I took a walk around the hillside. I stretched. I appreciated the warm sun and the cool breeze. For the first time in a long while, I listened to the birds singing. It was just over a year since he had died.
Westlake Village, California