My parents divorced when I was 15 years old. It was scarring, one of the most painful periods of my life, but as I look back, I see that it was the best thing for them and ultimately, for me as well. I have now been married for 38 years, I have grown children and a grandchild. Life has worked out normally and beautifully. I sometimes wonder why my ideals of romance and my sense that life is good remained so intact.
There are a couple of things that my parents did that I believe helped to keep my dreams of finding love intact. Though their lives were in shambles and their hearts broken, my parents remembered that ours were broken, too. They knew that they had removed forever the family they had promised would be there for me to grow up in. And they felt the enormity of that. They are Greek, and they had failed at that thing that Greek people hold so dear -- they had failed to keep the family together. And they knew it. But here is what, in their Greekness, they did for me that I so often see is missing for clients of mine and even some friends who have been through divorce family trauma. They demonstrated love and forgiveness in practical and visible ways and I am grateful for this and aware that forgiveness is a learned behavior that can become inter-generational, that we can pass on forgiveness just as we can pass on pain, in fact while we are passing on pain.
Two (not so) Simple Things
My parents, though they were filled with their own, very apparent pain, continued to speak respectfully of each other to me. They did not run each other down, understanding that if they did, they would be running down not only each other, but my ideals and dreams of love as well. Because the first love the we grow up in, that we are held and embraced by, is the love of our parents, not only the love they have for us, but the love we look at as children, the love they have for each other.
I remember at a particularly low moment when my father had sent me a plane ticket to visit him and I was thinking about whether or not I should go. And I had good reason not to; Dad was a serious alcoholic and visiting him was often visiting pain. But then staying home and not seeing the father I had loved all my life was pain, too. There was no easy solution. I will never forget what my mother said that got me on the plane: "Well, he's your father. And he's had to settle for the crumbs of fatherhood." When I asked her what she meant, she said, "This is the man who raised you and adored you, he worked so hard to give you a good life. He never wanted this for you, for himself, for any of us." That she could say that gave me the courage to live the life I had rather than reject it because it wasn't the life I wanted. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.
My mother went on to have a very successful second marriage, which was living proof that love and life can renew itself and we had, by many accounts, a wonderful stepfather for much of our lives.
My father dealt with his part in an old world kind of way that, upon reflection, touches my heart and keeps a channel of love and forgiveness open and alive. He continued to tell me all my life, until he died of alcoholism when I was 23, that my mother was a good woman and the only woman he would ever really love. He especially said this when he began to live with another woman. I think in many ways it was true, but knowing my father as I do, there was more to it than that. I think it was his Greek way of telling me that I was and always would be the child of people who could love and hurt and forgive and love some more. I think it was his Greek way (remember, this is the culture that invented Oedipal triangles and all manner of complex family dynamics) that I was the cherished child of love. He understood that if I thought my mother was no longer lovable, I would feel, in some deep place in my heart, unlovable, too. He understood that my identification with my mother as a woman and the marriage of my parents would trump any thing else anyone could say along the way. And he knew it was his job to uphold and speak of that love even though his own heart lay in pieces.
This is what my parents gave me.
And there is one more thing. My mother often recalls her sadness and guilt at watching as the life she/they meant to give us disappeared. She also remembers my friends at that time and the fun I had with them. And she says in an almost half-conscious way, "I felt I had nothing to give you but I was just glad that you were getting something from somewhere." Though my mother was working on two cylinders for those years, she had the wisdom and the love not to undermine what I was getting from others. She did not speak derisively of my father, grandmother, church, friends or activities. She gave her tacit and sometimes more than tacit approval of my attempts to keep myself happy. And so did my father. In their Greek way, they understood the deep and lasting sorrow that inevitably visits a family who is breaking up, they saw the heartbreak on their children's faces and they didn't serve up platitudes like "it wasn't your fault," and "Daddy and Mommy still love you but we just can't live together any more" and think their job was done. Though those sentences are important to say, they are after all only sentences, words that all too often cannot work their way into and through the the mind of a confused and hurting child. Kids absorb through all of their senses, words are often last. They need to see and experience forgiveness to internalize it. It wasn't that my parents handled the rest of the breakup so well, they made endless, sometimes reckless and often rather inevitable mistakes. But they didn't tell us not to feel the searing pain we were in. They stood by and somehow stomached it with us. And because they did not try to take away my pain. they did not take away my lessons, my ingenuity at managing my life, my self reliance, creativity and resilience which I was building a day at a time, an hour at a time. And they did not take away my joy. Because joy and love and goodness are always there to find again, if we pass through the pain that is standing in their way.
What I Did
I also made some good choices. I was young and all I was interested in was somehow feeling better. And it turns out that feeling better leads to thinking better and acting better. I was lucky enough to be a child, a girl child of the fifties. I was not surrounded by the kinds of quick fix options like drugs that have become such a scourge today. And I had a clear and living lesson in my father as to where turning to alcohol for pain management wound up. I remembered what I had been taught; when you are in pain, find a way to help those who are in need. I volunteered at the hospital and took care of the oldest people there. They were so appreciative of my attentions to them, they made me feel valued and great. I turned towards my support network with a vengeance, I stayed close to church, my grandparents and extended family and changed from a school I had to drive to to one in my neighborhood where my friends were within walking or biking distance. I had fun, I kept up my normal activities as best I could. I joined the church choir. I got a job to fill in lonely hours that losing my father and the presence of my older siblings created and made some of my own money. I opened a bank account which kept alive my dreams of a better future, a future that I was taking practical steps to build. I was a joiner, I soaked up safe places like a typically resilient kid, absorbing any kindnesses anyone extended my way with gratitude and humility, I knew that I was in no position to be picky and particular. I needed friends, I needed attention and I needed love from anyone willing to extend it. And truth be told, it was a huge relief to find my own way to caring and connection. I learned that all my needs didn't have to be met by my parents and siblings, that there was a world out there ready to be nice if I could let it in, people ready to help me if I could ask and ready to share their good feelings, the best thing of all, with me if I could open up to them.I did my part, too.
The self-reliance and self-starting that I learned out of necessity became the foundation of the rest of my life. And this is the gift I gave myself.