So she lifts her chin and squints at me To assess what I think I know She says, my heart has some dangerous neighborhoods So beware where you try to go
They say that the truth will set you free But then so will a lie It depends if you’re trying to get to the promised land Or you’re just trying to get by
– Ani Difranco, Promised Land
When I was in college, my girlfriend and I drove forty five minutes into Rochester, NY, the closest city to our tiny college town to see a Tibetan monk speak about his time as a prisoner to the Chinese. He was a small man, though we were at a distance. The classic bald head and the red and orange robes draped ceremonioulsy around his body. He was an elder. He walked and spoke slowly. He sat the whole time and there was a penetrating silence between his words. He chose his words carefully and spoke in his beautiful, soft, native tongue. An interpreter relayed his story of truly unimaginable torture. I remember few details except for the instruments.
There was a table set up next to his chair and microphone with rolls of fabric sitting atop it. As he described in detail the particulars of his torture, he delicately and lovingly unwrapped each instrument: wands with electric ends, whips with burred ends, stone balls at the end of chains. He held each up for us, the audience, to see as he described in detail how each was used on his body, on the very body that sat before us. With the same delicacy and care, he would wrap each one back up in the fabric and return it to its place on the table. I have never forgotten the care with which he held these tools that had brought him the most repeated and excruciating physical pain a human can experience. How could he love them like that? How could he hold them and wrap them and describe their purpose with such care and presence? His way with those instruments left an indelible mark on my consciousness. I think about it, I see him in mind’s eye, more often than I would have ever imagined I would on that night of my junior year of college, over 15 years ago. I will carry it with me for the rest of my days, I am sure of it.
I met your dad’s girlfriend the other night. They have been together for a year and half, a significant portion of which overlapped with our marriage and not quite three quarters of a year after you died. She wasn’t the first, I now know too well, but she was the last. I found out, for certain this time, that he was sleeping with other women when I was in the hospital after my uteran repair. We went to therapy and agreed to be monogamous as we navigated your loss and rebuilt trust in our relationship. We spent six months in therapy working on it, or seeming to, and five of those months he was sneaking off with this woman from his work. He lied about it until the bitter end, even after I told him I knew about her. Even after he essentially led me to finding out.
They are moving in together soon. She has met your sister and sees her occasionally on the weekends when she is with your dad. Vesta seems to enjoy her. I assumed the relationship wouldn’t last long considering its origins, the timing so close on the heels of our life without you and how she seemed to be the key out of a marriage he apparently didn’t want to be in. The key I handed him, saying it was over if he cheated again during that time. But she has stuck around and I know why, because so did I. That woman who I was, only a year in the past, who would tolerate a “good enough” relationship, who would excuse his excuses because he seemed so dedicated to and in love with us, that woman I was who I don’t even recognize anymore. Who, now, on this day and all the lessons I’m learning in light of it, would stand for none of it, knowing now what a nearly lethal weapon it could become.
I wouldn’t send my kid to childcare without meeting the caretakers first, so I certainly wanted to meet this woman who will be living with my child on the weekends, becoming part of her family, doing things people do with kids on days off, together as a family, being in the bed she crawls into at night when she wakes and doesn’t want to be alone. I had to meet her. I had to get a sense of her. For myself, I couldn’t allow the space between Vesta’s life at our house and her life at her dad’s to grow so cavernous. So, I arranged it through email. She agreed in her reply. I tore apart nearly every word she wrote, finding self-righteousness and defensive sewn throughout. And then I balked. I spent the day after getting her reply angry, sad, mournful and anxious. Wanting things to be different. Wanting him to be who he said he was. Wanting to go back to good enough. Wanting to not have to welcome this particular woman in to my daughter’s life, into my family’s life, by so concretely acknowledging her existence and legitimacy through meeting her.
But I’m a mom. There are too many broken homes in which the child gets caught in the middle, creating strategies in their little minds and hearts to make everything okay, to smooth out the tension and awkwardness between their parents and their parents’ significant others. My living child has been through enough. Losing her brother and navigating a house and family weighed down by grief, then the tension that was palpable in our home before we broke up, then the negotiating two homes and not being able to see her dad as much as she needs and wants. All before the age of six. All between the ages of three and a half and five. She doesn’t need my bitterness and hurt and their awkwardness and tension around me upon our eventual meeting. These grudges are harbored for lifetimes for some and, despite my strong desire to be rid of the whole situation, I don’t want her to have anything like that. I want her to see grown ups being grown ups and dealing with the hands they are dealt with maturity and if I can muster it, even a little grace.
But I balked and had all these strong emotions and didn’t think I could sit across the table with this woman without revealing my hurt and anger and vulnerability to her. I didn’t want her to see it, to see me. I asked if we could talk on the phone instead and she also agreed, saying she preferred in person but understood.
I talked to your Papa that day of sadness and longing and he got me turned back right. He spoke to me with his own anger and hurt but also his deep, true and fierce love of your sister and me. He reminded me of who I am, of my values, of my priorities. He plucked me out of the loop of that sick dynamic that I ever so often still fall into. It’s not me anymore. I’m not her anymore. I’m a new version. I’m angry and sad and have my longings but these will not prevail. My devotion to raising a resilient child who learns healthy relationship skills, who is empathetic and forgiving, courageous and with strong boundaries around how she will be treated will endure. I’m raising a child who is watching her mother continually ascend and break through barriers she never imagined she would have to, let alone be able to. And I’m trying to do so with love and grace. I’m trying.
That day, after taking to Papa, I had an amazing massage with my beloved massage therapist. She did amazing work on my neck which is so tight and knotted and locked down. I left there feeling like a giraffe, a long, strong neck floating up to the heavens. I left there feeling on top of the world, my spirits inexplicable lifted so much so that L thought I was drunk upon my return home! I checked my email and saw that your dad’s girlfriend, S, had written me back suggesting we could talk that evening. I replied and said that actually, I would rather meet in person. She agreed and told me what she was wearing so I would recognize her. It took me a back that I wouldn’t recognize her, that I have never seen this woman who has taken up so much space in my mind for over a year.
I drove to the restaurant and called you in and called in all of my angels. I asked for guidance to keep with my intention during our talk, to stay true to the reason for this meeting: Vesta and the highest good for our family. And you came, of course, in an instant and you stayed, of course, through the whole evening.
She was there when I arrived. I walked in and sat down as my best self. I was relaxed and at ease and completely untriggered. She told me she was nervous and I became the one putting her at ease. I asked her to tell me about herself and she did: her education, her travels, her family, her job. My imaginings about this meeting all had me being on the defense, not saying much and letting her talk, staying stoic and guarded, perhaps even intimidating (though I doubt I much of an intimidating presence!). But in real life, I found myself sharing about me, too. We talked about my career and nutrition, about growing up in small towns and dealing with crazy weather, about school choices for Vesta. To my astonishment, I found that I liked her. I found that I liked her a lot. I found that she seemed like she could be a wonderful addition to Vesta’s life. As we talked, I began to identify with her. I think we look alike: brown hair, prominent eyebrows, my pre-babies figure, except of course she has many inches on me (who doesn’t?). I found her to be intelligent, well traveled, thoughtful, present, ambitious and passionate, a type-A, she said and I identified with all of that, as well.
Perhaps because of that indentification or how much I was truly enjoying her company, I began to worry for her. I began to feel protective of her. I began to project. After an hour or more, we started talking about the hard stuff. I said too much about my relationship with Danny, about how he treated me, about his relationship length lies and cheating. She took it in and asked me questions and rebuffed at my continual apologizing. I hadn’t planned on saying any of this. My concern was Vesta and doing what I could to drive home the point that this is a traumatized child, who at year two of incredible tumult in her family, will have yet another transition to a new home with a new woman living with her on the weekends, who will not need nor deserve another transition and loss should they break up, the two of them entering into a relationship that began in secrecy and infidelity, that I was telling her was nothing new. But it morphed. I held that intention but it also grew to encompass S. That she is all of those things I describe above but also naive and vulnerable walking into this relationship, as I was all of those things not that very long ago.
I recognize within myself that I know nothing of their relationship, that there is the possibility that it will be different for them. I find that that is my hope. I find that I hope that he has found he love of his life in this woman and that he will step up to that and be the man I always hoped he could be. I also recognize that there could be some sabotaging on my part. That it makes sense that I would be vengeful and meddling under the guise of trying to protect my child from another upset in her life. Perhaps there is truth in that but if so, it is not a truth I am aware of. I have not been vengeful. I have not acted on my baser impulses but let them burn up inside of me. And truthfully, sitting across from her, enjoying and connecting with her, I felt relief. I felt relief to not be a part of that dynamic anymore. To not be in the crazy-making confines of a relationship with fog for a foundation. The freedom I have now in my life to live in trust and honesty in my relationships. To have found a place in this mess of a life I never would have found had I stayed in that marriage. 20/20, as the say.
I also felt relief around Vesta. He’s a lot of things but dumb is not one of them. This is an awesome woman. She already has concern and love for Vesta. She is choosing a relationship with a man who already has a child. It seems to me that she embraces his child, too. Having met her and learning a little about her, I had 100% relief about her being in Vesta’s home with her dad and being in Vesta’s life. I can imagine her presence being an enhancement for Vesta. That is a relief. That is a burden lifted.
Our meeting also put me solidly in my role as a parent. I have spent all of Vesta’s life trying to shelter her from hardship and trauma. Even this meeting, with my grasping for some control over Vesta’s fate in her life with her dad, was the pointless exercise of trying to protect her. If anyone knows that life throws you devastating and impossible curve balls, it’s me. If I have learned anything in this 26 month journey it’s that resilience is the most important skill that we can hand to our children. It’s not the avoidance of pain and suffering and uncomfortableness: it’s the ability to weather it, to get ourselves through one step at a time, and often, one breath at a time. The actions of those we love have consequences on us that ripple out beyond us to our family and friends and communities, whether joyous and loving or hurtful and tragic. My job as Vesta’s parent is to help her identify her emotions, to feel them and notice them and navigate them. To plunge into them to find out what they are telling her about the situation, about another person and most importantly, about herself. My job is to help her find her voice and to encourage her to use it. My job is to show her that, actually, everything is not going to be okay, but eventually, with tears and talking and going inward, we make everything be okay. We find ways to not be beaten down by life despite its pummeling. We find hope and love where there is none and then we make more of it and let that ripple out from us. I know all too well, I know it viscerally and undoubtably, that despite our best intentions and efforts, we cannot protect them for hurt, disappointment, trauma, not even death. But we can give them tools. I want to teach Vesta that being true to herself is what matters. That building a community of family and friends who love and support her to the end of the Earth, like the one I have, is the best defense against this often brutal world. I want to build in her the reserves she needs to be authentic, honest, vulnerable, strong and brave. I will fuck her up, I already have. I’ll do it wrong and miss the mark and cause her the very hurt, disappointment and trauma I have so wanted her to avoid. But I will also do my best to prepare her for that. I will do my best to teach her to protect and care for herself and those she loves and those who hurt her and those she hasn’t ever met. I will do my best to heal my own wounds, my own disfunction to be able to provide her with all of this.
I told S that night that she is a gift to me and I meant it. I have felt that way all along really, even in my worst moments. But before it was shrouded in hurt and anger and hatefulness. No longer. After meeting her, I see that she was also my key. That I wouldn’t be the woman I am becoming now, I am now, without her. I would still be okay with “good enough”. I would still be in the dynamic of mistrust and suspiscion with the person I should have none of that for. I have been freed, in a way. I thought for a long time that she just walked in a replaced me, took over my life, stepped onto my path with her child free life, healthy uterus, youth and beauty. Unmarred, unburdened like the mess he left behind. But sitting across from her, I realized on a deeper level than I have so far that I don’t want any of that anymore. I want this new life that I have. I want more from myself and more from my relationships. I want to be well and staying in a sick relationship would only hinder or even make that impossible. I love him still and probably always will. I loved him deeply, profoundly and whole-heartedly and I don’t have any regrets about that. He was my person for a long time and I accepted and ignored his shortcomings to stay together because I wanted him in my life more than I wanted to see the trouble underneath. That’s what we do in relationships, or so I thought, I don’t know anymore. I acknowledge and own that I had my part in our dynamic. That I have my own shortcomings, blind spots and unhealthy ways of relating. I did my best, especially under the circumstances, and what else can we do but our best in each moment? And now I am free to build my own life based on this stronger, more secure, braver and bolder person I am becoming. Sometimes the gifts we need in our lives come in the ugliest packaging. It’s hard to know at the outset what is a blessing and what is a curse and it’s rarely as black and white as that as time unfolds, anyway. It’s a mystery how it all happens.
I have the best step-mother on the planet. I have been saying that maybe we will get a Kathy out of this deal and Vesta will have another mother who loves her to no end, who loves her like her own, like I have, like we have in my step-mom and Vesta’s Nona. I want Danny to be happy and whole and fulfilled. I want him to be able to be his best self for his daughter and all the women who love him. I want Vesta to be surrounded by grown ups who love her and teach her well and support her. That is the vision I am holding for our family, whomever we welcome into it.
I don’t include the story of the monk to make comparison to pain or saintliness. I certainly wouldn’t change places with him and I don’t believe I have any where near the enlightenment he has come to. I include that story because it speaks to me of possibility. It speaks to me about tenderness. How we can hold gently and with love that which has hurt us, damaged us, even nearly destroyed us. I, too, can unwrap my instruments of pain and share them gently with others in the hope of making connection and deepening empathy in this world, of creating some change, some deeper peace in the people who I come in contact with. I, too, can wrap them back up with care and presence and put them aside and leave them there until it’s time to pick them back up again. To find what new lessons for me time has brought them. Ani Difranco also wrote “Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right” and I think the reverse is also true: every weapon is a tool if you hold it right. If we hold it with tenderness, if we hold it with love, if we hold it with forgiveness. If we transform our defensiveness into lessons and growth. If we lay down are armaments and open our hearts, especially when it feels like the last thing we should do. Every weapon is a tool if you hold it right.