"They've invited us to the wedding," I announced casually to my fiancé, Rob, over Sunday brunch. If I broadcast this news lightly, I reasoned, it might belie the bombshell potential inherent in the words: ex-husband, invitation, and wedding. There wasn't an easy way to present this equation.
He looked up from his newspaper and paused slightly before answering "But we don't have to go... do we?"
Now it was my turn to pause.
"Well, we don't have to," I countered, "but diplomatically it might be the best move." If we turned down the invitation, there could be hurt feelings and years of ramifications ahead of us.
His face clouded over as he processed the information.
"We could make it fun," I said, trying a different approach. "We could make the most of my wicked ex-wife status. I could wear a red dress and we could sit in the back and watch his relatives glancing over nervously, waiting for my head to spin around."
That pitch fell flat, too.
"I'm fine with whatever you want to do, but I think it's weird."
It was hard to argue with that.
My girlfriends seemed to share this dim view. I heard a resounding chorus of Why would you do that to yourself? It's like some sort of emotional masochism.
Perhaps it was but there were other factors to consider. What made this unusual invitation difficult to turn down was that it came at the behest of my six-year-old daughter -- the glorious product of a short union with said ex-husband. She was performing flower-girl duties and wanted her mother there as witness to this new marriage. It also became apparent that on some level she needed my endorsement; she needed to know that I was ok with this new arrangement. And if this was what she needed, after living with the aftermath of a messy divorce, I felt at least I owed her that.
It was a magnanimous gesture on their part. After a difficult divorce, my ex and I had managed to forge a very decent co-parenting relationship, but I wasn't quite sure I was ready to see him with his beautiful new bride -- and our daughter -- cavorting by the beach as a newly minted family. It was not a scenario that would leave me unmoved.
Happily by that point, I had my own fiancé to contend with and wasn't facing the invitation alone. I had moved on with my life, too, but I had been the one who initiated the split and it had become ugly -- with many of his family members weighing in -- and the prospect of rubbing elbows with my former in-laws began to take on nightmarish proportions.
"By going you make him look like the good guy -- and he's not," one girlfriend said, irritated that I would even consider it. The divorce had elicited less than stellar behavior -- from both sides -- and had produced deep scars all around. She wanted to know why I would deliberately put myself in the enemy camp and marinate in it.
"It's time to get past all that," I insisted. "Besides, what better way is there to announce that we've all moved on, that we've buried the hatchet?"
"Isn't there an easier way to do it? It's strange that he even invited you."
She did have a valid point. The whole concept was bizarre. Who actually wants to go to their ex-spouse's next wedding? Why would any woman sign up to watch her ex-husband profess undying love... again? It was like watching a rerun of a familiar show, featuring the same supporting cast of characters (at least half of them) -- but with this one key principle role replaced. It felt jarring to the psyche, somehow. And I couldn't imagine that his new bride was thrilled about me being there, either.
Despite the lingering doubts, I dove in and RSVP'd yes.
After the debate about attending was over, there were other challenges to address. Precisely what was the wardrobe etiquette for an ex-husband's wedding? They failed to cover that in our court mandated co-parenting classes. The invitation specified cocktail attire and nothing in my closet seemed appropriate. Black sent the wrong message (grieving ex-wife?), white was always out of the question and I didn't own any colorful, cheery-looking I'm-delighted-to-be-off-loading-my-ex-husband cocktail dresses. There were some fabulous red candidates but my wicked streak didn't dare extend quite that far. Although, I did allow myself an indecent amount of fun telling salesgirls that I needed to find something to wear to my ex-husband's wedding -- and then watched their jaws drop in response. (This announcement was unanimously followed by some version of Girl, you better look good!)
I settled on a beige, silvery-colored dress that didn't fit well but by that point, I didn't care. The event was siphoning too much energy and I couldn't wait for it to be over. I brought the new dress home and tried it on for the approval of my style counsel -- my mother and my daughter.
"I don't even know if I should be going," I said in an aside. "Well, someone needs to make sure the bride goes through with it," my mother quipped.
My daughter -- a burgeoning fashionista -- rummaged around in the depths of my closet for suitable shoes. After excavating in the bowels of the closet, my daughter emerged triumphant and produced a dusty, long-hidden pink bag containing delicate silver Badgley Mishka shoes with crystals along the strap that sparkled as the light hit them.
"Wear these ones, Mommy. They're perfect!" she declared.
"Ah, yes, I remember those," I said, and laughed at the irony. Her radar was remarkable; they were the shoes I'd worn to marry her father. My mother recognized them instantly. She looked down from her perch on the bed as I tried them on, gave a snicker and noted dryly " Oh, wear those! If he happens to notice you can tell him you only wear them to his weddings."
The day of the nuptials arrived and we cruised up the coast to Santa Barbara. I squeezed Rob's hand all the way. How could one be nervous for a wedding that doesn't belong to you? And yet, I was. My stomach was in knots. What was required of me? Was I supposed to make polite conversation and pretend that this was a natural setting for an ex-wife? The entire scenario seemed ripe with the potential for disaster. It seemed like a Saturday Night Live skit waiting to happen, with possible run-ins with former friends, in-laws or the ex. I cry at weddings of people I don't know, let alone one that was so emotionally charged. What would my fiancé think? Would he misread tears as tears of regret? I worried that our attending might end up hurting him and I desperately wanted to avoid that. His ability to show up for me, regardless of what it cost him, was something foreign to me. It spoke volumes of him and his level of commitment that he had consented to accompany me on this crazy adventure.
I needn't have worried. The day took care of itself. It was a gorgeous wedding. The bride was stunning. Serene and resplendent in a backless white gown, as she looked out to sea with her groom. I had never seen my ex look happier. He was beaming. I was moved to (discreet) tears to see our daughter, so graceful and composed, embracing her role in the ceremony. Afterwards she frolicked about on the grass with her cousins, reveling in the celebration and I exhaled for what felt like the first time all day.
Later, during dinner, I watched my ex and his bride as they stole a tender moment together in the corner of the dining room. It was as if I were seeing him for the first time; he was a person totally unknown to me. He had his arms around his new wife, protecting her, as if she was a tiny delicate flower and a strong wind was approaching. They were clearly in love in a way that we had never been. It was riveting to behold and yet also tremendously liberating. He had found a far more suitable partner than I and they were both basking in the warmth of this new love. That moment was worth far more than mere court documents stating that we were divorced; the spiritual bonds to each other were officially released.
I looked over at my fiancé, so stoic and strong beside me, willing to do whatever it took to make our life together work and I felt a tremendous rush of gratitude for the way things had worked out. Inspired, (and with a few champagnes under my belt), I raised a glass to give an impromptu toast -- to an instantly hushed room. I gave a toast to honor the two of them, to her role as my daughter's stepmother and their new life together. It was one of my finer moments.
Click through the slideshow below for photos from my ex's wedding: