A blogger friend shared a bit with me about his recent divorce last week. And he’s a man who thinks, not a man who leaves relationships lightly. Another friend struggles with a recent upheaval in her life, trying to find the bravery to face what lurks just below the surface of everyday life. And they make me remember . . . it takes a whole lot of messy and chutzpah to be a real human being. For those of you brave enough to attempt that task . . . a few thoughts from the road I’ve traveled.
I’m supposed to be on vacation but I’m having a miserable time.
Turn back the clock more than a decade, circa 2010. The scene: Mackinac Island, a quaint little place in northern Michigan, at the peak of the summer rush. Throngs of vacationers milling about the town, historic Fort Mackinac, biking the island’s paths. My two young sons, my husband at the time and little ‘ole me are part of those partaking of fudge, summer sunshine and what is supposed to be a little R&R.
I’ve visited this island since I was a very young girl, par for the course when your parents are native Michiganders. As an adult, though, I’m giving my kids what my parents could never afford—a chance to stay on the island instead of ferrying back to the mainland each night. My inner child—the little girl with the big blue eyes, wayward hair and an inner (if not outward) sense of adventure—well, she is thrilled. After years of begging for a single night on the island, she gets several.
The furthest thing from my inner child—my very adult self—is aware that something has been amiss in her marriage for some time. But her upbringing—12 years of Catholic school and a mother who could have run a convent—remains despite her modern demeanor. Marriage is for life, forever, you grin and bear it, you power through it, perseverance is rewarded in the end. Do you have a platitude of your own to offer? Please, be my guest.
We have photos of this trip. Photos that I used later that year to grace our Christmas card. My boys playing on the rocks near the lake, posing in front of the hotel gardens, playing with the cannons in the fort. If you just looked at the photos, it appears to be an idyllic trip. No one would know it was very much the beginning of the end.
I think, in part, I have my inner child to thank for that. As much as she was not one to contradict the adults, she knew what was what. She had an intuition not yet honed but oh so instinctual and on target. She could read a room’s emotions just by standing in a doorway. And this trip is full of emotions.
The substances my husband has been ingesting—which I have no idea is happening at the time—caught up with him on this trip. He was “too tired” to climb the flights of stairs up to Arch Rock. The boys and I did it and took the requisite pic, without him. I suggested we forego the easy route around the island and instead bike through the center of it so the boys could see some of the cemeteries dating back to the War of 1812. Traveling through the middle of that island is like traveling back in time, truly. My eldest and I bike ahead and then sit, wondering, by the gravestones. Where are they, my husband and my youngest? What seems like many moons later, they appear, with my husband cursing at me and –telling me he is likely to have a heart attack because of the hills we must bike. And then his nose starts to bleed and I give him the tissues I always have on hand because—well, I’m a mom.
When we finally get back to the hotel, the three of them take naps, exhausted. But I need air. I need room to breathe, to think. I take a walk. And instead of walking toward the throngs in town, I head up, up, up. Up the steepest hill to the road where the grand dames of this island sit, proud and majestic. These old homes, visible from the ferry, are a sign of a former, simpler time. There’s no one on this road but me. I can’t hear anything but the water and the birds. And that’s when my little girl whooshes past me—hair flying in the wind, favorite red tennis shoes barely skimming the pavement. Away she goes. She turns back to face me: “Remember this?” she asks. “Remember what this feels like? Freedom? Innocence? Happiness in the moment?”
In that moment, I do. The stress, the hunched shoulders, the sad eyes—I feel them slip away. And I walk, a little faster, with a little more energy, and I think—THIS. This is what I miss. Me. Independent, brave, strong, free. Unedited.
She laughs and skips ahead. “You could be like this every day, you know. If you’d just face it. Move away from what makes you sad. Move toward what makes you smile. It’d be like staying on the Island every darn day.”
Children do oversimplify, don’t they? But she may be right. I’ve done all the interventions—multiple marriage counselors, work on myself, more self-help books than you can count. I’ve looked at said marriage counselors and stated unequivocally: “There’s only so much I can—or want—to change. We’re down to my core. And I’m keeping that, thank you very much.”
In the end, when your soul tells you it’s time to go, time for new lessons, new love, new happiness, new things that might scare you but will make you grow—you listen. But it takes a former you—a little tiny you with bright red shoes and unruly hair and sparkling eyes—to get your attention. She is near the age of your kids and reminds you that children are resilient. That temporary unhappiness caused by extreme upheaval in their lives is something they’ll recover from—even learn from—but permanent unhappiness in their home has the potential to cause irreparable damage.
“It’s time to go back to the room,” you tell her, partly because these ruminations scare you too much. But she pleads for more time. “Just a little farther. I’ll stop talking. Just take in the view,” she says. “And feel what you feel.”
And there, at the top of an island you’ve visited for decades, the tears come. Silent and streaming, they won’t let you ignore her counsel anymore. You flash back to a scene from your walk-in closet a few months prior, in which you closed the door and sobbed into a sweater so your boys couldn’t hear you. And you prayed to just get cancer and die so you wouldn’t have to continue in a life that was so miserable. See what those damn platitudes can do? Except then you remember—your kids. And they need you. And by the way, what kind of fresh hell have you entered when you would prefer to die than to face what you need to face and get back to really living?
Up here, on the bluffs, you see it all so clearly. You see how far you’ve sunk and that it’s time to begin rising again. You don’t yet know why but your marriage hasn’t worked in a long while. And it’s time for a life that works. And as you contemplate the younger you who skips along ahead of you, you realize it’s the adult you that is the only one that can bring this life into existence. And you realize that many will say this means you lack character, stamina and the morals to honor what was supposed to be a lifelong commitment. You mentally leave those people by the side of the road before having to physically do so in the coming months.
Holding your own inner child close, you take a tiny resolute step toward your own happiness.
But that’s a story for another day.