1 On Opening Doors
I paused at the front door, not wanting to turn the handle, knowing I would be met by the sounds of silence. It was an empty feeling. One I had known was coming but did not want to confront. It was the reality my normally busy, bustling house was now empty, and the vacancy would never fully be filled again. That was the way it was supposed to be all along. If Mark and I did our job right as parents, our children would leave and make their own way in the world. We succeeded on that front, sending them off to college with the tools needed to navigate their own waters away from the safe harbor of home, far from my protective mom wings. Every part of me was truly beaming with pride knowing Max and Maya were doing what they were supposed to be doing. But it begged a bigger question: What was I supposed to be doing? I also knew on the other side of that door was a conversation waiting to happen that had been years in the making. It was the one where we had to figure out if we liked each other without the normal of the past quarter century. Were we capable of being together and happy as two? Or was it time to acquiesce to this part of our journey together ending? It was a hard conclusion to reach when there was no real explosive moment or event that triggered the desire to move on and be happy, perhaps even happier, in the ever after of being an empty nest. The thoughts circulated in my head like a tornado, constantly churning. There was never a calm. After the tornado passed through and the thoughts subsided and turned to gentle winds, the destruction had been unleashed. I couldn’t go back to before because the constant nagging question of what my happiness looked like lingered in the back of my mind. And, when it lingered, it was unresolved. Cleaning the wreckage caused by a tornado was a monumental task. You didn’t just sweep it away. You brought in bulldozers, backhoe loaders, and heavy equipment essential to clean up. That seemed simple compared to managing the damage spinning in my head. But I was resolved; I needed to believe I was more than a heap of trash after a storm. I saw my reflection in the door’s glass as I went to grab the handle. It was that of the woman I wanted to be staring back at me. She was confident, capable, fearless, and independent. I knew her once, and I wanted to be her again. I acknowledged her with a gentle smile, offering support for what was to come. With my head playing out scenarios it clearly did not know the answer to, I took a deep breath and reached for the door handle, feeling simultaneously apprehensive and excited. I was ready to walk in and confront my future, the one I envisioned without Mark. I reached for the handle only to find the door yanked from my hand and Mark standing on the other side. “Jesus, Jenn, where’ve you been? I’ve been texting and calling, and you haven’t replied.” Mark was a hard man to read, but he didn’t get mad often and berating me was not usually his style. “What the hell, Mark? You stalking me?” My voice was unsteady, strangely defensive, and echoed loudly in the foyer of our home. Another reminder of the empty inside. He looked confused. “No. What?” Instead of me blindsiding him, he blindsided me. I looked him, wanting to hate him for taking my momentum away, sensing full well he had nothing to do with it. I wanted to reply that I was lost in my own head trying to figure out how to have this long-overdue conversation, but that quickly dissipated when I saw the expression on his face. It was not that of a man anticipating his world was about to come crashing down on him for reasons unknown, but rather the look of a man overcome by grief. It was a grief much deeper than that. And it scared me more than the conversation I thought we were going to have. “What’s wrong?” I asked, panicked something might have happened to one of our kids. “It’s your mom, Jenn,” he said somberly. “She’s gone.” “Gone where? What are you talking about?” I was confused, unable to fully process what I was hearing. The words did not make sense. From behind him I made out the shadow of a man. It was my dad. I hurried to be by his side. Grabbing him. Hugging him. In that moment, realizing the implication of the words. “Dad, why didn’t you call? I would have come to you.” He looked at me, confused. His thinning hair hadn’t been combed, his big blue eyes were bloodshot, and the buttons on his shirt misaligned adding to his disheveled look. He struggled to say his words as if trying to speak a foreign language. “I couldn’t figure out how to use the phone to call you. Your mom always did that. I didn’t have your number. But I could remember how to get here.” “Oh, Dad. That must have been such a long, hard drive.” “It’s alright. Nothing I can do for her now, anyways.” “But you called someone for her?” “I called 911. They got there and said she was gone. There was nothing they could do. Someone came, took her body. Carol came and offered to call you, but I said I would let you know.” “Carol has my number, Dad.” “Oh. I suppose I should have let her call you then.” In that moment, he seemed so fragile and forlorn. “That’s okay. I’m glad you got here safely.” I gave him a long hug, holding back the tears I wanted to let flow freely. I did not want to cry tears for my mother. I knew those would still come. It would be a process. And I knew those moments would find me when I least expected them to. A reminder here. A picture there. These tears would be the ones which came with the realization my dad was alone without my mom and that he was mentally and, quite honestly, physically a fragment of the strong, gregarious man who had been the backbone of our family. My sadness quotient had doubled in a matter of minutes. My resolve to be strong for myself, to do right by me faded as this new curve ball was thrown in my direction. Even in this moment, I found myself annoyed by Mark thinking he just got off the hook again, avoiding a heavy conversation. There were times, many times, over the years where I had questioned staying. I would be the first to admit I chose safe and simple. Safe and simple meant not worrying about money. It meant being cared for in superficial ways. But it did not guarantee happy. Safe and simple did not ensure I would be seen for who I am. It just meant ninety percent would be satisfying with the other ten percent being up for grabs. Some would say ninety percent was amazing. I challenged that assumption. I chose a man who didn’t show me daily he loved me with words or affection, but he was honest, faithful, loyal, and dedicated to our family and dreams. He supported me when I walked away from a career on the upward trajectory to be a stay-at-home mom. He let me be independent without checks and balances. I was able to overachieve just like the old days. Only this time it was through my involvement in the world of PTA, school, and youth sports. If anyone would have told me the next twenty years of my life would be over in a flash, I would have laughed. I was so busy in those moments I could not ever imagine them coming to an end. I lived in those moments, relished them, found peace and glory in them. I created two amazing human beings, and they did not disappoint. Of course, I am biased. I am supposed to be. Even if they weren’t perfect, I would profess to nothing less. That was my job as their mom. When my youngest started becoming less dependent on me, I found myself trying to imagine my life after she left. I was always an overachiever. I wondered what I could pour my energy into next. Writing, my passion, had been fleeting at best over the years. Maybe I would dust off the old notes, find the files buried somewhere on my computer of ideas I jotted down but never fully pursued over the years, and write that novel. I was beginning to find excitement in the idea of doing things I wanted to do again. It was going to be my turn to be the center of attention after giving all of mine to everyone else all those years. There was a chance I would be accused of being selfish or ungrateful if I suddenly shifted gears. I could count on some people to encourage me to pursue my passions, do what was best for me, find things which gave me joy independent of my role as a mom. But there would be detractors too. There were always those I told myself. Were they the bitter Betties of the world, too chicken to do something for themselves, too afraid of being alone, too dependent on the lifestyle they had? But, if I truly stood back and weighed the options of my situation, I could understand them. Why rock the boat when you could do anything you wanted and still live your life comfortably? Those conversations with myself had become exceedingly loud voices in the last couple years. Now it felt like they were screaming at me. Somewhere in between those voices arguing pros and cons, contemplating what-ifs, it led me to address the elephant in the room. While I was anticipating the “what next” part of my life, I began to question what my happiness looked like. For so long, it had been defined by my family’s contentment. With them gone, the focus began to shift to me. And it occurred to me I deserved to be happy. And so did he. We both did. But would I be better off and happier when he was no longer my safety net? How do you know it’s the right decision? So many times, I imagined just once he would do something so wrong that I could not forgive him. It would be so much easier. Having to deal with roller-coaster emotions predicated on nothing but an uneasy, unfulfilled feeling in my gut was exhausting. But safe and simple meant I would be the bad guy even if, in the end, it was for the greater good of all. Reluctantly, I had been grappling with how to own that, be confident with that, and move forward in the present knowing the future would be a big, fat unknown with zero guarantee what I felt had been missing or lacking would magically appear on the other side. I was fully aware that the grass was not always greener on the other side. But what if the grass wasn’t really that green on your side anyways? If the grass was already an off-shade of brown, did it matter if it was brown on the other side too? Every conversation I had planned and played out in my mind was suddenly buried in the realization that my mom had just died. It was unexpected. She had been a healthy eighty-year old woman. It might sound like an oxymoron. But she still walked with her friends daily. She did her Jazzercize class at the senior center several times a week. She played bridge. Her mind was sharp and her body still agile. Her heart, however, had a different story. While she went quickly, it saddened me to think of Dad finding her. And then wondering how he kept himself composed enough to make the call to 911. He would get in his car and drive several hours to tell me. How? There were so many thoughts running through my mind simultaneously. I watched as Dad fiddled around in his pockets like he was looking for something. “What are you looking for, Dad?” I asked. “My keys,” he said absently. “I need to get back and take care of things.” That was my dad: Always taking care of things. “Dad, stay here tonight and I’ll go back with you tomorrow. That way we can take care of things together.” He paused and took consideration. I could see the relief come over him. Nodding, he went to the couch, sat down, and began to cry. I walked over to him, grabbing the tissues from the table as I walked by. I had never seen my dad break down before. He was always strong and in control. In that moment, my tears began to flow uncontrollably too. As I sobbed, I found myself wondering if the crying had several meanings: losing my mom, seeing my dad vulnerable, or realizing I had put off a conversation I felt I was ready to have but would now be delayed indefinitely. It was a perfect storm of emotions. The reality was it was a combination of all three, each with their own deeper meaning, all needing to be addressed. Just maybe not in the order I thought or hoped.
2 On Car Rides and Truths
I went to bed that night knowing that I could not start the conversation with Mark. He was upset by my mom’s death just as much as Dad and I were. I suppose there was a small part of me that was relieved not to have the conversation just yet. I was ready, but I wasn’t ready. I really did not have a plan. I played out parts of what I would say to him, knowing he would be upset, but he wouldn’t be angry with me. He was a man of little emotion, except when it came to our children: then the cup runneth over. Mark was truly a remarkable father. Each of us would likely admit we were better parents to our children, devoted to them on every level, than we were partners to each other. Maybe that was a natural evolution that happens when you have children that consume all your energy and attention. It certainly was in our case. With both kids gone, the past couple of months had been hollow and lonely as we tried to figure out how to be just each other again. It was sometimes awkward. Sometimes sad. Sometimes just two ships in the night meeting on opposite sides of the bed when it came time to sleep. And even then, we slept in opposite directions. I was an earlier to bed, earlier to rise person; he liked late night TV and waiting until the sun rose to wake up. I found myself reflecting on what it was that drew me to him all those years ago. I may have chosen safe, but there was sexy and exciting to Mark when we first met. Mark was unlike any man I had dated before. He was quiet and humble, despite being quite remarkable and accomplished. He was the opposite of me in personality. I was the more outgoing and outspoken one. I said what I felt. I knew it bothered him sometimes that I often spoke before I thought. You either loved that about me or didn’t. I think, in hindsight, he may have just tolerated that part of me. He was a thinker, not a man of many words and certainly not words that would be perceived as opinionated, unfiltered, or judgmental. Those would be my labels.
It was hard to find anything about Mark to dislike if you were his friend, acquaintance, or just met him. It was the little things that began to pile up, then the resentment sometimes in the moment, sometimes in reflection. And sometimes, every so often, he found ways to indirectly make me feel I was less than perfect. I will own that. I know that. But on the flip side of that was also the need to feel like I was worthy of loving, that he thought me beautiful or sexy or something positive. Compliments were not dispensed with Mark. I think his analytical mind just assumed I was to know those things. Those realizations happened slowly because I was truly happy in those moments in the beginning, Our relationship started slow. That was different for me, too. I liked things fast and spontaneous. I liked knowing how things were going. I liked knowing how a man felt about me. Mark offered me none of that. He kept me guessing. In my younger days that would have driven me crazy. But with Mark, it kept me on my toes. I could tell he liked me. That part was easy. But his commitment to me and the pursuit of a long-term relationship was often frustrating. There were many times over the three years we were together before he finally proposed that I questioned what I was doing in the relationship. I would ask myself what it was about him that kept me there. And I would ask him what it was about me that kept him in the relationship. He was never able to answer that question. It wasn’t that he thought I was beautiful. I do not know if he did. I was a self-assured woman successful in my career. I would tell myself I did not need a man to validate me as a human. Turns out, as the years went by, I was starving for validation from Mark. I wanted to know why he loved me; what was it about me that attracted him to me and what kept him interested in the relationship? He would scoff at the mere mention of those questions. And his inability to answer them festered, grew, and began to burn a form of resentment in my soul.