I survived a divorce in 2015 with a two-year-old and a four-year-old underfoot and an emotional minefield to wade through.
About 16 months after my former husband left, I spent five weeks at my grandmother's bedside when she suffered a stroke. I watched my grandfather hold her hand after more than 60 years of marriage, and I lived through the raw pain of what came next when it was her time to pass on. I will never, in all my life, forget what I witnessed between the two of them.
Timing can be excruciating and painful sometimes when it feels like life hands you one heartbreak after another, but in hindsight, I can see how all these pieces were working together to teach me what I couldn't learn any other way.
A few months after her passing, the seasons finally changed, and fall weather arrived in Georgia on the first day of October. I drove a few winding roads to my grandfather's place that morning and accompanied him to my grandmother's grave site to place new flowers on her grave. It would have been their 62nd wedding anniversary.
My sister and I walked the cemetery a bit with him that sunny morning and watched him take out flowers that were hardly faded and replace them with new ones. Huddled over the iron vase in the bright fall sunshine on what would have been the beginning of year 63, he carved a bit at the tough foam base of the arrangement and fit it snugly on the metal marker.
He is honest and real and can do hard things. Do men exist like that anymore? I honestly don't know.
I remember running into an acquaintance a few months after my grandmother passed, and she asked me if my grandad was meeting women yet with plans of another wife. I didn't even know what to say to that. He is in his eighties and spent a lifetime with her. There are tears in his eyes still when he talks about her sometimes, and there was not yet grass fully on her grave. Is this really how people do it now? They just skip all the hard parts and move on to the next distraction?
I have reached the two-year mark of my divorce now, and I can see that something happens to you when spend time alone and do things you never thought you could do, when you carry the impossible. I take out the trash. I sleep alone. I pay the bills. I've attended real estate closings alone. Weddings alone. Parent conferences alone. Soccer games alone with my chair for one. And at first it is all terrifying and depressing, but then you break through that initial moment, and it liberates you from everything that tied you before. I'm doing hard things, but I'm okay. What you want in a partner is a list that begins to change with the first passing seasons of your time by yourself, and the bar creeps a little higher each time.
And in the midst of all that, my grandmother got sick, and I watched my grandfather do all of the hardest things. The taking care and the letting go. Never once in those last days did he try to control her pace as she drifted. He just left a sacred space between them for her to do what she needed to do in order to walk on.
He is 6'2 with clear blue eyes and an uncommon steadiness and more strength and integrity than anyone I've ever met. I was there in June when a hospice nurse told us it would likely be less than a week or so until the end, and after the nurse left, I could hear him sobbing in the room where she was laying as I waited downstairs. Never once pushing her to abide by his own plans and always holding steady in the hard work of compassion.
I hear talk shows and see articles shared online where people talk about marriage tips and what to do when you are struggling in a partnership. I'm realizing that people think marriage is hard these days because you aren't always happy. Because you feel tired and you work too much and the kids are always demanding something and the other person can't make all that go away. Is that hard? Really? Because now that I've seen what the hard part actually is -- the grieving and the accepting and the letting go -- burnt dinner on the stove or noisy children or a cluttered bathroom counter don't seem like a cause for unhappiness. Whatever "happy" means anyway; it's always a moving target when you depend on the other person to provide it.
It's all connected though, I think. If you can't do the hard work of putting aside your own selfishness in the earlier years, what do the later years look like? It took 62 years to build what they had, and I understand that. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that maybe the little things are actually the big things. Honesty and integrity start with lending a helping hand and showing respect and saying I'm sorry and meaning it. If I knew then what I know now. But isn't that always how it goes?
I'm so grateful for every bit of it -- my own pain in the earliest days of discovering something that felt like a knife's edge, the itchy pain of being alone and figuring out what it all meant after the dust settled, and even the hardest pain of watching this season happen in the lives of the couple who was always my fixed center point and likely always will be.
I never thought my 35th year would find me single. I can see that I'm a misfit in a world of speed dating and swiping right and perusing the dozens of possible matches waiting for you on your phone. But if this season of my life has taught me anything, it is to be true to yourself and value strength of character and steadiness and honesty above all else. I'm grateful for the chance to start all over and do it right. And I don't care how long it takes. The truest pieces of a life well-built always grow slowly.
Katie Mitchell writes regularly on her blog, Mama the Reader. Follow along there or on Facebook as she explores life as a writer, a reader, and a single mom.