We weren’t thinking. We two parents, ungluing a fifteen-year marriage. Who would have considered, given our deconstruction, the unintended consequences, the collateral damage?
It was all about us; who gets what? How much? Angles and tangents.
Sure, we tried to save it; a counselor, a vacation, and finally, a mediator. To our credit, we did not fight or even argue until after the divorce. It wasn’t violence or anger, the end of the marriage. It wasn’t an affair or another person.
The marriage simply atrophied, withered, sublimated. Who saw it coming; certainly not me. I was blindsided— her announcing she was numb, liked it better when I was away traveling.
Me? Absorbed in too much work, too many activities; her, the same. We grew apart, our interests diverged.
How to tell our two boys? We waited, waited longer. She couldn’t do it.
It had started with her announcement, in April. By October, it was over, but not yet officially over.
Her retired parents came every Christmas for several weeks—she was an only child. She wanted me out of the house within three weeks.
I bought a beat-up duplex in a minority neighborhood twenty minutes away. The kids knew none of it. Not a clue. I didn’t tell anyone, including my family, until after the divorce in April the following year.
Such a pity—the two of us had worked so hard at the marriage.
She endured the life of a military wife for eleven moves in nine years; a year alone when I was in Southeast Asia; the four years we lived in Germany; my messy exit from the military without a job; then being gone six months working part time in another state; getting a job, moving the family, and losing the job six months later. Another job in a new career field—eight months away in training; then constant travel to 34 field offices; the uncertainty of three corporate reorganizations… For all of it, she was there. On deck.
The boys: Mark, thirteen; his brother, Brad, eight.
I can’t place the time or exact setting when I told Mark. I try to forget most of the pain. I don’t remember telling Brad. They had lived the perfect childhood; small school, lots of friends, new house, hot wheels, birthday parties, Boy Scouts, and family vacations.
“Mark, your mother and I have decided to get divorced.”
“Oh, I guess I will have to see the counselor at school.” That’s all he said.
I told him I was moving into another house, not far away.
He said nothing.
I said, “Your mom and I are still friends, and everything will stay the same, except I’ll be only twenty minutes away.”
He said nothing.
I said, “You guys can come over and we can do a lot of new things.” He said nothing.
How was I to know? Mark was fourteen the next June, a typical teen.
Brad was just a funny carefree kid; didn’t seem to give it much thought.
Deciding how to split sixteen years of mementos and our children’s pictures, including pictures I took of doctors holding them under the light with umbilical cords attached, was painful.
The day I moved out of the house was the worst. A low overcast sky and steady drizzle matched my wanted-to-cry, mood. I tried to be positive, loading the truck with my boys, an adventure, pizza later. I brought a tarp to bridge the distance from the truck to the backdoor to ward off the rain.
We unloaded into the first floor and basement. A single mother with three kids lived upstairs with her boyfriend. It took hours. Mark was quiet. We went bowling after.
The routine set in. I called daily; talked to each. “How ya doing?”
“What’s going on?”
They never asked what I was doing. Kids being kids, I thought.
At first, I had dinner occasionally with their mother— friendly. I said OK to her dating the builder of our house, taking our kids to his beach house for the weekend. She got a job at a fitness center, broke up with the builder, met another guy at a retreat. I was dating, too. We were both moving on.
Mark wasn’t. Sure, he did well in school, was responsible, had a weekend job at a skeet shooting club. He was quiet and private. I was careful not to criticize or complain; I did not live with him. I thought, typical teen on the other side of the moon. He’ll reconnect when in sight of earth again.
The real trouble began when her boyfriend moved into the house (our house!) and brought his troubled son, Brad’s age.
That cut off my “friendly contact” with her and any pretense of civility. This made relating to my sons doubly difficult, half their lives off-limits. Legal fights followed, as did the attendant drama in their home. Not their fault, my sons. Ours. Mark was about to graduate from high school, so I arranged for a panel of tests to identify his natural talents in selecting a college major— engineering. Mark finished third in his class and got his first choice at an out-of-state university.
Another legal fight over our prior financial agreement on his college costs, I paid. Mark was caught squarely in the middle.
The six-hour drives I made with him to/from his school were awkward conversations, my questions about school and his fraternity, his short answers. Mostly he slept. I should have seen the resentment and anger. This continued for five years. He graduated, passed the PE exam on the first try, got engaged.
At the wedding reception of 200, we sat in the back of the room at a table with my former wife, her boyfriend, and old, disabled relatives of the bride.
Mark seldom called, ran the Marine Corps Marathon twice without my knowledge, never told his friends about me. My relations with his wife were rocky from the start and persisted. When he called, it was on the way home after work. After caller ID arrived, I knew he ignored my calls. I found out about promotions and opportunities to celebrate after the fact.
For three family reunions over the years, he came late and left early, was polite, but reserved. I assumed he was climbing the corporate ladder, raising two daughters, and tending to a needy wife. I wanted to break through, but I didn’t know how. Didn’t have the guts. I wondered if he felt the same way.
Three years ago, Cindy, my new wife of 17 years told me to wake up. I didn’t believe her. She wrote Mark a letter. “Your dad is getting older. We never know when do we? Resolving issues is never too late, unless it’s too late.”
Mark flew down for a meeting, advised us he had ‘no problems’ with us, got on the plane, went home. We haven’t talked for almost three years. Cindy and I are heartbroken, losing our two granddaughters, not being part of their lives.
It’s hard to explain my sorrow because it’s mixed up; swirled with other emotions. They include anger, of course, at him, me, my former wife, his wife. Who takes the fall here?
Now forty-five, his wife has problems; my fifteen-year-old granddaughter battles depression and has identity issues; he’s the CEO of a big firm. I’m the father that failed him without knowing it. For what it’s worth, he has treated his mother, my former wife, about the same.
I thought life experiences, his, would bring him around someday, realize that shit happens, mistakes happen without intent. People get hurt. They recover, or not. I had hoped he would get over it. He didn’t.
I’ve rationalized, maybe he’s introverted and analytical, not damaged by the divorce. That would be easy, but wrong. His actions and inactions over the years tell a different story. He made a choice long ago, one I was not aware of. That choice was not mine, but his.
Brad, his younger brother by four years, has been a loving and connected son. He was likely too young and not caught up in the college finance disputes among other things.
We will never know. Should we have talked with his school counselor? Obviously, I was blind to his pain, the pain he hid so well. I always wondered why he had no interest in my life, the reason for his one-arm hug from a distance.
Mark has been a frequent topic of discussion with Cindy over the years, and much soul searching by me. Less so now, as time passes. Too much space to fill. It’s easier, less painful, not to think about it. Yet, here I am, writing about it.
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