I was 32 when my husband and I separated. I had three small children, ages 5, 3, and 1. I’m not going to lie – “hard” doesn’t even come close to describing what it was like, and there were times when I thought the pain would kill me. Once or twice, I found myself crumpled on the floor of my children’s bedroom, tears pouring down my face as my tiny children surrounded me with their little arms, not knowing how to help their mother. No one wants to see their mom cry, ever. And when you are little, the only thing you can do is cry with her. My world spun out of control, and I would sometimes find myself getting mad at my kids for the dumbest things. A few scattered toys, or an unmade bed. I called her “Mean Mommy” – the other woman who would show up sometimes and take over. I needed my kids to understand that that woman wasn’t me. But she was me, she was just me in pain, and how do you explain that to a 5 year old? Counseling helped. So did time. And so did my uncle Mike.
When the kids and I went to Florida that first summer after their dad moved out, we stayed for two weeks. The kids had a blast – Marco had just turned 2, Nacho and Emma were 6 and 4. My mom was my everything person, my guardian angel. She was always by my side, reading my body language, taking over if needed, sitting back if not, and finding ways let me have some time on my own now and then. My dad was another thing altogether. He didn’t want his children to suffer, that was true. But it was harder for him to handle the pain. And at a time when I needed to be able to lean on him, his strength was no comfort. It was instead overpowering and often came across as demanding and critical. He was the ultimate control-freak, and this one thing – his daughter’s divorce – escaped his control.
Those two weeks in Florida might have been pretty miserable for me had it not been for my uncle Mike. Two years younger than my dad, Uncle Mike and my dad had a lot of great things in common. They were both highly intelligent and quick witted, and it was hard to be in a room with both of them and not find yourself laughing, even against your will. They shared all kinds of interests, they both loved sports, history, antiques and politics. They could talk for hours and never run out of things to say. But where my dad couldn’t tolerate the bad stuff – suffering, pain, sadness – Uncle Mike accepted that these were necessary parts of life. A Vietnam veteran, he was no stranger to life’s darker moments, and rather than run from the hurt, he knew that the only way through was straight ahead. He understood that we grow from pain, and that in suffering we find courage.
And so it was that Uncle Mike, who in his earlier days had taken to throwing himself out of airplanes with a parachute strapped to his back, decided to take me parasailing. It wasn’t quite diving out of a plane at 13000 feet, but for this fairly non-adventurous mother of three, it may as well have been. (Side note: My husband had been parachuting a couple of years earlier, and I was very happy to stay on the ground with the kids. I had joined him on a glider plane once before and I didn’t need to go up there again. I do horizontal and vertical well, but that third plane messes me up every time – I don’t even tolerate swings well.) I was genuinely scared, and Uncle Mike knew it. But we would go together. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to me, and I trusted him completely. I have no memory of getting on the boat or taking off into the air, but I remember flying, the wind on my face and Uncle Mike beside me. There is no better place to bare one’s soul than suspended from a parasail. At 30 miles an hour and 400 feet above the water, your secrets dissolve in the wind. For the first time in months, I felt free. Our sail was over quickly. After about 20 minutes, we began the descent back to real life. Seated once again on the boat, no part of my reality had changed… I was still getting divorced, my kids were still tiny and dependent, and I was still struggling. But I had given some of my sorrow to the wind, and replaced it with courage, and suddenly, everything felt a little lighter.
I signed my divorce papers in October of that year. Although it was my big brother I talked to the night before, it was Uncle Mike’s gift that gave the strength to push through.
Postscript 1: I used to think that I wouldn’t wish divorce on anyone, ever. But, as hard as it was, and as much as I suffered, and low as I got, getting divorced freed me just enough to be able to find my strength. So it’s not divorce that I don’t wish on people, it’s not being able to face the suffering. If you need to get divorced or some other life-changing risk to genuinely stop suffering, to find your strength, to spread your wings (everyone has them, even if they can’t see them), then damnit, get divorced, jump out of the plane, pack your bags, quit your job… Suffering is going to happen, one way or another. Set your eyes on it, walk right into it and know that, if you keep walking, you’ll come out on the other side.
Postscript 2: Since that summer, my brother and dad have both passed away. My uncle Mike has been a source of strength for me for 15 years. He is one of the most generous, compassionate people I know. He finds humor in everything, even when laughing feels inappropriate. Uncle Mike is 73 and has advancing Alzheimer’s. The last time we saw him, just a few months ago, he knew that he knew me and my children, and he knew that he loved us. My aunt asked that I write a story about him and me. I hope that this memory will remind him of how much he is loved.