Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The "D" Word

“I think we should use the code word ‘pomegranate’ to mean divorce from now on, because I truly don’t want to hear the ‘D’ word in our conversations anymore. K?”

I was home on my day off, texting my husband Mark at work. He had left in the morning while I was still under the covers--not saying goodbye, not kissing me, his shadow moving heavily through the darkness around the foot of our bed.

“For example, last night you would have said ‘If we get a pomegranate, it will be because of Nick.’” Nick is our 27-year-old son who has schizoaffective disorder, which one doctor helpfully described as both schizophrenia and bipolar disease.

“That sounds much better,” I continued. “Or if I was in a fit of pique, I could shout, ‘I want a pomegranate!’”

I added this last bit just to entice him into the conversation. Pique isn’t my current preference. Lately, I almost never threaten divorce. A divorce would be just another huge problem to deal with, when I could use a few trauma-free years.

I waited. I’ve grown good at waiting. Nick has taught me that. I’ve had conversations with my middle child in which almost all I do is wait. He won’t hear me in the moment. He refuses. He takes a stand against hearing. But later, perhaps, an idea I’ve suggested will take hold.

A few seconds passed before Mark texted back. “I wish I had a big glass of pomegranate juice right now! Oh, I mean divorce juice.”

“No ‘D’ word!” I countered.

“What about when I_mean_pomegranate?”

“I don’t think you ever mean that!”

“I could say Dover sole.”

“Hahaha! Good idea!”

“And then, if I wanted Dover sole, I could say trial separation!”

“Deal!”

I love my husband’s sense of humor, which has come in quite handy over the years. I also love his big, bushy eyebrows—over the top, like Groucho Marx; his gymnastic brain; his secret, little heart; and his quick metabolism. At night, under the covers, he’s my private blanket-warmer.

But there are also things I don’t like, such as his moodiness. His mood goes up and down more often than a bride’s nightie, as my late father might say. Mix that with his manly disinclination to question his own behavior, add my womanly inclination to make nicey nice, and you have a recipe for dysfunction. And yes, we have that. We have that a lot.

The irony is that I don’t mind, really. Dysfunction is my home. I feel comfortable there. I wouldn’t know what to do with Heart’s Ease if Helen slipped it into my drink on Sparta, deciding in her queenly way what pain I shouldn’t feel.

Mark and I are both children of unhappy marriages. That could explain things. Our parents didn’t like each other much, but they never divorced.

I remember thinking at a very young age that my mother was wrong not to divorce my father. I vowed that if I was ever stuck in a marriage like hers--in which my father, bipolar, made her life miserable--I would get one myself. Divorce has always been in my toolkit.

And social strictures notwithstanding, there isn’t much wrong with divorce. Countries with the highest divorce rates also have the best records for women’s rights. A woman who can get a divorce is a woman who is capable of independence because of fair property, employment, and human rights.

True love? Soul mates? Until death do we part? Bah! I’ve seen the product of buying that bill of goods. One friend’s husband comes home after 30 years to say he’s fallen in love with a younger woman—that hokey old tale. Another friend falls in love repeatedly only to decide, upon reflection, that the object of her great passion isn’t God’s gift, but a curse. A third loses her true love to alcohol. Yeah. There’s that.

Then there are all the people I don’t know who are harmed by our myths about love and marriage: men who kill their ex-wives because if they can’t have them, nobody will; women who kill themselves because their husbands left; men who kill everyone because the universe disappoints their fantastic expectations.

In my world, romantic love is hooey. Love is not a gem you find in the forest if you’re lucky and then enjoy for the rest of your life. Love is a struggle. Love is a peeling back of layer after sometimes-stinking layer in a possibly-doomed effort to get to the bright, shining center. Love is a two-person project. In my world, it makes sense to stay married when both are working on it, and to get a divorce when one stops.

The trouble with my world is it requires constant re-evaluation. Does this tender day make up for that horrible one? Has he given up completely, or is he just taking a break? Have we finally crossed the line? Can—and should—this marriage be saved?

This mental state reminds me of quitting smoking. If I tell myself I can have a cigarette sometime, my mind always wonders if now is then. It’s far easier to decree that I can never have one. Then I can put cigarettes out of my thoughts.

Perhaps that’s what I’m doing now—making it easier on my mind—by trying to take divorce off the table, after so many years of having it on.

But perhaps to maintain the equilibrium, just as I stopped suggesting divorce, Mark started in. I don’t like where he put the compost bin? Maybe we should get a divorce. I don’t think he’s taking the right route to Britex? Maybe we should get a divorce…

Recently, we were in the midst of a divorce-themed fight when we accompanied our eldest to her lab at Stanford, where she’s getting a PhD in Genetics. We sat squished together on the tiny couch in her cluttered office while she went to the back to check on the fruit flies. Mark had his phone out and I mine as we argued back and forth silently via text, thumbs tapping.

“We’re a terrible match,” he texted that day. “You obviously think so, too.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t! In fact, I quite enjoy being married to you. I find it amusing and interesting and fun. I just wish it would go down differently when we fight.”

We both paused and simmered over that information, staring down at our phones. “You two look cute!” our daughter called out, passing by the office door.

The length of this contentious marriage is pretty impressive—31 years come September 24—but is that a sign of health, or sickness? What exactly is the difference between perseverance and perseveration, anyway? No one knows. And if they tell you they know, they’re probably delusional. Stick that in your DSM-5.

Still, that longevity is one reason I want to take the “D” word out of our vocabulary—I’d like to make it to 32. And the weight of shared days adds complexity to our relationship which can’t be replicated.

Over time, Mark has made deposits in the bank of goodwill which cover his debt when he behaves like an ass. At the birth of our first child, when I was lost in a miasma of fear and pain, he was the one who leaned in close, gripped my hand, and whispered into my ear, “Swim up. Swim to the top.”

Twenty years later, when the doctor telephoned to discuss the results of my biopsy, saying cheerfully, “If you have to have breast cancer, ductile carcinoma in situ is the kind to have!” Mark was the one who rushed home from work, breathlessly bursting through the front door and crushing me into his chest.

And a year after that, on the sunny summer afternoon when two policemen stood in our kitchen to tell us that our youngest child, a high school senior, had been taken to jail for conspiracy to rob a bank, Mark was the one who shared my stunned and incredulous look.

The list goes on.

I know a divorced and remarried woman who concluded that she had just exchanged one set of problems for another. And so, like a country and western singer, I want to stand by my original man.

Who else would feel a tsunami of pride when our eldest puts on her white lab coat? Who else would understand, despite evidence to the contrary, that our youngest isn’t a dangerous criminal, but an impulsive and credulous youth with a capacious heart? And who else would continue to hold out hope for our middle child, nine years deep into his mental illness, now homeless with a pregnant girlfriend in tow?

No one would.

I want to take divorce off the table for the good of our three grown-up children, yes, because we’re better equipped to respond to their crises and triumphs as a team. But mostly I want to do it for ourselves. Because Mark knows me better after 11,000 days of marriage than any new man or woman ever could. Because I want us to form a more perfect union, and we’re not done. And because I never learned how to eat a pomegranate.


Are you supposed to chew or spit out the seeds?