Like my parents and grandparents before me, I had no doubt my husband and I would still be together when our silver and golden anniversaries rolled around. Not that any of us had perfect marriages. But we’d all made it through difficult times. After 20 years of marriage, however, my husband left, disassembled our family, and never returned. A decade later, I would disassemble our dream house and, in so doing, unexpectedly find the strength to begin again.
In 1997, my husband and I and our two young daughters moved into our new home. From modest beginnings, we had achieved the American dream: college educations, marriage, family, good jobs, growing retirement accounts, and the capstone—a title to our own house in Brownstone Brooklyn. A few years later, he had an office romance and sued me for divorce. The dream imploded.
New York was the only state in 2003 that hadn’t yet adopted no-fault divorce. Hoping to save my marriage, I opposed his false allegations. Perhaps his girlfriend would disappear, allowing us to heal our rift and reunite our family. Besides, what greater gift could I give my children than modeling a marriage that had overcome one of the worst kinds of betrayal?
He and the family court had other plans. Divorce is about money, not saving families, my attorney warned me. I’d once practiced law in the big leagues, but when it came to family court, I couldn’t have been more naïve. The harder I fought for my marriage, the more judges, lawyers, and my husband opposed me.
People have often wondered how I could still love a man who’d done what my husband had done. Of course, I was in pain; I even contemplated suicide at times. Of course, infidelity was unacceptable. But my grandfather, the minister who’d married us, said this at the altar: “We are willing to give in proportion as we love.” I placed no limits on love and ordered my heart around my grandfather’s words.
I successfully opposed the divorce action, and the court dismissed my husband’s charges. But he merely moved to a state that had adopted no-fault divorce. Out of options, I now fought for my house. Relocation is the third biggest stressor in life, behind death and divorce. The children and I deserved some stability.
I got the house, but within a few years, could no longer afford the mortgage. One daughter had already graduated from college and the other was on her way. So, I set about hauling out the lifetime accumulations of our family. Selling our dream house entailed taking inventory of my possessions; I didn’t realize how deep an examination it would trigger of myself.
Wife, stay-at-home mom, ex-lawyer, Brooklyn, my home, and every one of the thousands of possessions around me in my four-story house had served as reference points for decades. And I’d clung to each one of them. Remove them and what could possibly be left for me, especially at midlife?
The Supreme Court has said that marriage is an entity greater than just the two persons who unite in matrimony. That was true for me and my husband. After our children came along, we interlaced our lives even more. As if the task of cleaning out wasn’t enough, how could I untangle the threads we’d woven over decades?
Perhaps that’s why the cultural messages I kept getting to simply hurry up and “move on” baffled me. One divorce judge had even ordered me into chambers. Frustrated with my talk of marriage and motherhood, she offered her antidote to my anguish—another law job, a nice condo, and a boyfriend.
Whenever I thought I’d made progress exorcising my husband’s ghost—finally tossing his stocking one Christmas, ridding the closets of his clothes, returning his mother’s menorah and the Father’s Day cards he’d left behind—I’d inevitably unearth something else, some thing, some memory, or merely see the reflection of his brown eyes in those of my children, and break down all over again.
“Mix your emotions with wisdom. And concentrate on what’s important. Try letting the rest go.” That’s what a meditation teacher had told me when I’d gone to him for advice early on in the divorce. Intellectually I understood, but my heart hadn’t been ready, my grief so raw.
Wife, stay-at-home mom, ex-lawyer, Brooklyn, my home, and every one of the thousands of possessions around me in my four-story house had served as reference points for decades. Remove them and what could possibly be left for me, especially at midlife?
I mourned and grieved on my own timetable and accomplished what I set out to do. I honored my vows and stood up for my marriage and myself as a woman and mother. I raised girls into women and saved our home in order to allow my children to grow up there.
A decade after my husband left, however, it was time for the real work of digging up my buried pain. Facing a completely empty nest, at last, I focused on my own future. I’d done a little house painting over the years and bought myself a new bedroom set, but most everything in our home had remained as it was—stuck in time.
“I’m horrified by divorce,” a friend from church told me one night over dinner. “It’s a cutting, only you can’t really tear marriage asunder particularly when you have children. So, there’s this constant agitation over what can’t be done.” He’d put into words the unease I felt trying to deconstruct the evidence of our union. And yet how else could I finally heal without depriving all that we’d assembled of its meaning? All except for the children, that is.
Every item in our house passed between my fingers. I stared each one down. The wedding photos that had been locked away in a cupboard. My wedding gown, still pristine in a long blue garment bag at the back of my daughter’s closet. I split up all our collections and separated out each constituent part—the Art Deco furniture, the masks from our trips abroad, the china cabinet chock-full of wedding gifts.
I’d exhausted myself for so long trying to grab the floating pieces of my past and patch them back together. The only way to make peace with my losses was to let my dreams go.
For years I’d kept the profile my youngest had written of me in second grade—the year her father left—pinned to my bulletin board. She’d called me “strong and brave.” With the reference points I’d lived with for so long now falling away, once again, I too began to recognize the woman my daughter had seen. And as floor space emerged, I envisioned the possibility of a new beginning for myself, suddenly realizing that my happiness would always come from where it always had—inside.
In the end, I sold my house, paid off bills, and simply left town.
But first, I walked through my home and said goodbye. As I did, I heard the echoes of empty rooms, the same sound I’d heard years ago after my husband had moved out and called me from his new apartment. Then it was the echo of his new life. This time, the sound was the echo of mine.
Beverly Willett is the author of the new book, “Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection.” She now lives in Savannah, Georgia.