How do we find the words that create new beginnings? There is a blank space, an open book with pages to be filled and the confusion of not knowing where to start. I was asked to write my story, in part as a healing journey and in part to support other women brave enough to tell theirs for a book titled, ‘That’s It, I’m Out of Here‘, compiled by Steffi August.
I called my story UNWILLING ENDINGS, because I lacked choice in others decisions. So here is a bit of my back-story.
“Tears are a river that takes you somewhere. Tears lift your boat off the rocks, off dry ground, carrying it downriver to someplace better.” Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Like the ugly duckling being pushed out of the nest into the big chilly unfriendly world, I landed on my backside with a thump. This was followed by weeks of grief, trying to find some understanding of why my passive-aggressive husband, who was unwell, would suddenly end our 35-year relationship.
It happened quite out of the blue. On a Friday night, early in 2014. There were no words to follow his. My breath was caught in lungs that were being compressed by a ribcage that was sinking in on itself, squeezing the life-force from my being like a cold cloak falling over me.
The carelessness of it all, the absolute finality. He was done. He was saying: “That’s it! You’re out of here!”
Thirty-five years done and dusted – over the wine glass beaded with moisture at the local. He couldn’t even wait until we got home. Was he that eager to be rid of me? Like I was nothing. My wounded heart suddenly started pounding in my chest like it was going to reach out of me and rip his throat out. Later, as the hot tears and grief tore through me, threatening to slay me in cold blood, I wished it had. He had looked at me with such cold eyes. The air was cold, the wine was cold, he was cold. The night air was so cold I couldn’t suck it into my starving lungs. There were noises coming from inside, from friends who knew us socially only. Just as well: they might have seen the ugliness of him before I did.
And then he lied. The words came out of his mouth with studied indifference, landing on the table between the beer, with the label in tatters, and my wine. They scrambled to pick themselves up, dragging themselves together to form the sentence. “This thing between us: it’s over,” he said.
This thing was our marriage. Beaten to death by my dark menopausal depression, by my work stress, by my time being taken to nurse my mother to the end of her cancer journey. She didn’t have that long to go. Could he not wait?
But this was all about him though, wasn’t it? He wanted me to mother him, not be concerned with a dying mother. I thought he was an adult. I thought we had been through the fire so many times that nothing could tear us apart. I loved him too much to see the small selfish man he was. There was no one else, he said. He lied.
At some point I must have taken a breath.
At 53, being in the world on my own for the first time in my life was terrifying. I had grown up the fourth of five children in a rural family. I met my husband-to-be at 18 and married him at 20. At 23, I had my daughter, and at 27, my son arrived. While I had taken a few days or a week out here and there, I had never lived on my own, ever.
It was his decision; he did not intend to discuss it. I was cold to my core. This was my whole life. I thought my heart had broken into a thousand pieces. I had no idea that he had someone else, or that he was so very good at lying. Cheaters are like that. It was not the first time he had indulged in an affair, and I had lived through it before. I was not sure I wanted to live through this. In fact, dying was an option: a very good one.
For me the year 2014 was a time of unwilling partings and grief-ridden, soul-tearing endings. My mother had suffered a broken hip, breast cancer and now bowel cancer over a period of five years since her beloved, my dad, had passed away. I have no regrets at my decision to be with her over those months. She had been my best friend for many years and somehow, in the space of time when Dad died, we had lost each other. Finding our way back to each other was healing for us both. Looking after her was a privilege. I would make the same choice again, willingly.
The year began with me nursing her through what I knew were her last months. It was heart-breaking at a time when I was also dealing with my husband ending our marriage. Apparently, he had NEVER been happy with me, while naively I had believed he was my soul-mate. Not having him by my side, while I learned the skills needed for palliative care devastated me. I seemed to be operating in a fog; everything from my heart to my skin felt raw.
I still hear my mother in her last days, so gracious, so grateful, so willing to leave us. I hear her encouragement to step out into a new world, a brave world, an exciting world without looking back. She held me in my grief and devastation at losing the man I loved so dearly, loving me through her own physical pain and ailing body. She made me laugh hysterically at old jokes, she held me when I cried, she encouraged me to begin again with my head held high. No one has your back like your mother. As sick as she was, she was fierce in her support, patient in her listening, and amazing in her capacity to just be there. At the time, I was crying constantly – buckets of tears that seemed to have no end.
How do we find the words and actions that create new beginnings? There seemed to be a dark space at the bottom of my heart, a nothingness for me to sink into. For a long period of time, the wish to end this life and join my mum was very strong. The fact that I am here to write these words is still a surprise to me.
Where is the beginning of this journey to be found? Is it in the soul-tearing grief of having my life partner decide that’s it—he was out of there? Or is the beginning in the little girl inside me? The little girl who held tight to a withered hand, as she watched her mother walk across the bridge of life into the beyond without a backward glance? The little girl who howled like a wounded animal for the loss of her precious companion?? I knew she was glad to go, leaving me broken-hearted and grieving. Clinging to my children, leaning on my sister, trying to make sense of a senseless time. Somehow through it all, I kept breathing.
Death is such a final thing. As my mother surrendered to cancer with all the grace she could muster, I wondered why I could not feel any grace toward my husband walking way, refusing to join me on this journey to the death of the woman who had treated him like a son for over 30 years. I was stunned that the man I had always viewed as strong, ethical and compassionate ironically turned out to be weak, selfish and surprisingly, the world’s biggest liar. I could not believe that this person, who threw me on the trash heap, while proclaiming he wanted to be friends, could not even bring himself to visit the woman who had been more of a mother to him than his own. Could not bring himself to pick up the phone and ask me if I was all right, could not ask me if I needed any help or support.
In hindsight of course, I realise he was making whoopee with his new love and was not even giving me a thought. When the end came and we had a funeral to organise, he finally came to the family house – and sat, and sat, and sat. After not being anywhere near me for over 2 months, he didn’t give any thought of how that would make me feel. I was so torn, quickly arranging to do things for the funeral so I could leave. I missed an important traditional ‘church night’ with the family, where everyone who wished to could share their stories and offer prayers for Mum. I could not stay in the same room as this man, who by his refusal to allow me to grieve with my family showed his total disregard and disrespect for me. Once again.
Looking back, I understand that he was trying to show that he knew how to do the right thing. But like the words falling on the table between the beer and the wine, in his smallness, he did not have the capacity to understand how distraught his continued presence would make me feel.
We buried Mum with Dad, reuniting them at last. My heart still warms as I see, in my mind, the vision of my nephew by the open grave waiting for us. Dark glasses on, tears dripping, he launched into a beautiful haka as the spirit moved through him. I hear his father calling from the side in support, and then his sister joining the cadence from where she stood holding the handle of her grandmother’s coffin behind me. I looked across the coffin at my daughter, holding the handle opposite mine, tears in her eyes as the magic of this moment with her cousins touched her. The heart in this undid me.
I had delivered the service she wanted, carried her, with my daughter, sisters and nieces, from the chapel to the vehicle and then to the graveside. As she was lowered to meet Dad, my children held me on my feet, and he, the man who had discarded me so brutally, thought it was important in this moment to tell me how sad he was about Mum. Too little, too late. Surprisingly, I didn’t actually care how he felt in that moment.
Following the funeral, the family gathered back at Mum’s home. Not surprising, my husband also arrived. And stayed and stayed, until I wanted to collapse onto the floor and wail my grief to the heavens. Instead I did what I do best when unable to deal with situations. I ran. I hid in my bed early in the evening to get away from him. Yes, he had the right to be there to support his children, but it was one of the most difficult days of my life. I needed to keep the peace for the sake of my children. He will never understand the true cost of that day when his sense of entitlement took from me the ability to be with my family in grief. That was the day I felt the first cracks in my love for him begin to appear.
When it was all over, I tried to pick myself up, to be brave and to look on this time as a new beginning. But now we were entering the battle to determine who got what and how to divide our property. It was interesting that the man who never arranged anything in his life was suddenly bombarding me with emails containing the phrase ‘my lawyer’ several times in each missive. I felt battered by the wild punches thrown with every email, phone call and text message. I had believed that I was strong and independent. I was not. I was sore and sad and lonely and depressed. In every communication we had, I was accused of being angry. I tried hard to hold back tears. I was so desperately sad that there was nothing left in me for anger. It took me another 18 months to feel any anger at all towards him.
I knew I had to employ a lawyer, and eventually did so. It broke my heart all over again to sit through expensive appointments laying my life out on paper. I gave in to everything. There was no heart left in me to fight. It still was not enough; there was no let up, no period of grace because, to this man who had always felt hard-done-by, everything is always someone else’s fault. In this case, it was mine. He was out of there and I was paying the emotional price.
I tried to move on. Living alone for the first time in over 50 years was a shock and, as I howled my grief into the pillow every night, I wondered a thousand times if this would indeed kill me. I could hear Mum saying to hold my head high. I listened to my sister who, in her own grief, was trying so hard to support me and keep me on this earthly planet. I wondered many times if it was worth the effort to keep breathing at all.
I think the hardest thing was lack of physical touch. After over 30 years in a relationship that thrived on touch, where my hand was held every night when we went to sleep, hugs were daily, kisses were lovely, and I was held whenever I was emotional or shaky, suddenly there was nothing. And this, of all things was almost too much to bear. Everyone who knew us, who saw us as a physically close and loving couple, was stunned at his decision: as stunned as I was.
A friend recently said to me that life changes all the time, and we are offered opportunities that will point us in the directions in which we need to move. I don’t know about that, but what I do know was that I was scared.
Another friend said to me, “If it doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough.”
But I didn’t need big. I needed a soft place to fall. There wasn’t one.
Following the furore of Mum’s departure, I found the silence of my rented house to be deafening. My family had shrunk too, going from five of us, to three. My older brother and sister had a neighbour telling them that he had seen my husband and me taking things out of my late father’s shed. They never asked me what we may have been removing. They assumed we were stealing. At the time I felt embattled and bemused by my siblings’ nastiness and subtle accusations which confused me. I wish they had just asked. I would have told them of the projects we had in Dad’s shed that kept my husband tinkering with during the hours I visited my Mum. Projects we didn’t have room for at home. Projects Mum asked us to remove so there would not be a ‘bun fight’ over who owned what when she passed away. Little did she know that the bun fight was going to happen anyway.
But my brother and sister never asked, and I have never had an opportunity to defend myself. We have not spoken in over two years now. I still do not know how to defend myself against accusations that are never made out loud. And, in hindsight, it is about their issues with Mum. If it had not been this issue, they would have found something else to blame me for.
No home, no husband, no mother and half a family. Life is sometimes served up in buckets instead of cups. Being alone, I discovered there were so many things I could not do, because I had never had to do them. I had to learn fast. I felt useless at changing oil in a car, lighting the fire, taking my motor cycle for a warrant, buying a new car, lifting and carrying heavy items. Then there was opening stuck jars, hammering a nail in straight, moving furniture, and fixing the bed when it broke on me. All a learning curve, which had me melting down in tears every time I failed.
But failure is a very good way to learn.
Looking back, I can only say that more than two years on, my husband is well: still walking, talking, breathing, and working full-time. My darling Mum has been in the ground for over two years. So who needed me more?
I know I would make the same choices again. I wonder if he would.
I also know that I loved him too desperately, more than I cared for myself. Now I know that in all things, my first responsibility is to myself, my happiness, and my health. With these things taken care of, I can then be of service to others. It is my job to look after my own heart, not trust it into the care of anyone else. It was a hard lesson to learn.
I took to writing poetry, writing my grief and sorrow and learnings. A year-long poetry course helped me sort through, and write out, the tears, until I could see clearly again.
So my journey has become one of learning to love myself. To understand that loving another so desperately is detrimental to one’s well-being. I have learned to live alone and love it. I do. I love my space, love only deciding for myself. I love not needing to be constantly asking or begging for approval. I love having the opportunity to make life what it needs to be for me. I love making a decision which, right or wrong, moves life along without having any undermining comments of, ’Well I would have thought you would do it like this, or that‘ – or any way but the way I have done it. I love not having my confidence undermined with insinuations: that I am wrong in the decision, wrong in disciplining the children, wrong in the choice of furniture, of colour, of clothing. Always wrong.
I have fixed my bed, replaced the battery in my motorcycle, ridden it to Wellington, and bought a new car among other things. I can do these things and will continue to do all these things which, for too long, I relied on someone else to do.
Of course, once you are back on your feet, no longer howling into the pillow at night, able to fill your time with activities alone or with friends, being all right with your own company, life will serve another curve ball. Right when I thought I had it all sorted, knew what I was doing, started to go out and meet people, and was just regaining my confident – life does it again.
After nearly 17 years with the same company, I have lost my job. Redundant is not a fantastic word. Apparently, redundancy is about the role, not the person. What about the person performing that role? Is there no thought that human beings may be affected by these decisions? I guess this is another story. Restructuring has me facing the same theme: That’s it, I’m out of here!
So, another ending to grieve.
What’s next? I am scared, but that’s good. Because if I wasn’t scared, it would not be a big enough event to get me out of my comfort zone and into life once more.
I am choosing to waft for a few months, to take the time I didn’t take when my marriage ended or when Mum died. It feels good as I pack up and store my stuff. I plan to move closer to my children. Wwoofing for a few months will give me breathing space as I make my way slowly down the country, meeting people, learning new things.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I look back and see the patterns of behaviour that I ignored when I was in the midst of it all. The times when my husband had a hankering for another woman and would spend all his night texting someone, ignoring me, making my home a lonely place to be. It took me a long time to realise I was very lonely in my marriage. The lack of emotional support had me in a state of constant anxiety.
Sometimes, I think back to his words, as he shattered my world. Every time I asked him to do something, I was ‘telling’ him what to do. When we had a discussion, I was ‘growling’ him. He said he had never loved me and thought he would have to wait for me to die to be happy. He thought he should have left me 20 years earlier. I wish he had. Perhaps there would have been an opportunity for me to have a new life, have the other children I wanted but was not allowed to have. Perhaps with someone else – but too late now.
I still do not believe the marriage was bad. There had been good times: many of them. We laughed a lot, did interesting things, travelled, rode bikes, played music. We danced, sang and filled life with as much abundance as we could muster. But, of course, this was not enough for someone who always felt some kind of lack.
The day came when the drama of life, time taken from the relationship by life’s events, sounded the death knell in his mind long before I heard it ring. Among those happenings were my ailing mum plus my depression, triggered in part by a micro-managing boss, in part by menopause, and in part by a resentful husband slamming the door every time I wanted to discuss things. Coupled with the constant work on the property, and with his health issues, I guess it all became too much. Deciding I could not possibly look after him and Mum at the same time, he decided to get out of there.
It broke my heart again and again, that he did not love me enough to trust me to look after him. That he could only see the time I spent with Mum, and hear about the misery of my job, and decide that it was not enough for him.
Again in hindsight, I realise that in some ways I have also done him a tremendous disservice. I believed with all my heart that he was honest, had integrity, held the same values as I do, had a backbone, and was truly the strong man I needed to support me. As I projected this image onto him over the years, he tried hard to live up to it, to be the person I believed him to be. It must have been hard for him, and the cracks showed from time to time. I ignored them. My mistake. The reality is that he is a serial cheater, and has a weak personality while being a nice man. He was always the class clown, always funny socially and charming with the ladies. He is clever an amazing Mr Fixit, but is a self-confessed lazy man. If I reminded him that something needed to be done, it was perceived as telling him what to do or growling him, which obviously, he resented. Living in an unfinished shed for 17 years should have made me understand that better.
Projection is insidious. It affects the person in many ways. I looked at him with rose-tinted glasses and made him into what I needed in my mind and heart. It was wrong not to see who he really was and acknowledge him in his strengths and weaknesses. I wonder if this is what made him constantly irritable: angry at everything, critical of everything. He told me I was always angry with him, that I growled a lot, and made him unhappy. Maybe I did, though I didn’t feel angry – just frustrated. As he projected his irritability and anger onto me constantly, that is what he saw in me.
So we both had a part to play in this mess that was a close and loving friendship in many ways, but a bad combination for a continuing marriage. He wasn’t happy, and his resentment of all that I am, caused him health issues, while I blithely thought I could love hard enough for both of us. I believed that we had enough between us to weather the hard times. I was wrong and I am so sorry for both of us for the wasted time.
But now I am asking – what’s next? Maybe somewhere out there in my future there will be someone who will like me as I am, and who will say, ‘That’s it – move in here!’