Friday, September 30, 2005

Sabbatical from Marriage

I have never shared, with anyone the fact that the day I married I jumped from the frying pan directly into the fire, and that is where I stayed for 27 years. Until, the day I decided to take a “vacation from marriage,” a sabbatical of sorts, during which I hoped to reclaim that raw-material person I had left behind in my youth before I started to play the roles our culture demands of women. It was a bold gesture, one never taken by generations of the women in my family, some women friends called me brave, others disapproved heartily, and each member of my family thought I was crazy.

Everyday of my life, up to that point, I had always been for each person in my life what they expected I should be. But for once, I didn’t take into account what others thought. I was working on pure gut reaction. Suddenly, words had a way of slipping out of my mouth unbidden before my mind new they had been formed, and so, when I announced my intentions to my husband, I shocked us both. It was not until I was standing among the packing boxes in the middle of my first solo apartment, 40 miles from my home and job, that I began to realize the ramifications of my impulsive decision. I had altered my life and I was left holding freedom in one hand and guilt in the other.

As resident nurturer of not just my household but, that of both our families, I had spent the last 27 years sustaining others while neglecting myself in the process. Now, it was my turn to retreat, repair, and, I hoped, regenerate myself. Was I being selfish or smart? Perhaps an inner voice was leading me, I thought. Perhaps living apart from family would allow me to reconnect to the internal strengths that I thought once were mine. I felt that in time if I were patient enough to wait for the thaw then all would be mine once again.

In reflecting back on that first year, I realize how much it was about saying yes to such things as spontaneity, risk taking and, of course being open to that big wonderful new world. I began to revel in the raw experience that heightened the intensity of my days----not unlike a child who is guided by her wonder and curiosity. Oh! What a wonderful new taste was added to each day by not having to run each thought or action through someone else’s reaction filter first. What developed over time was a kind of knowing that didn’t so much involve my head but rather my senses. I came to understand that I am as unfinished as any of Gods creatures. What’s more my husband, and family were equally unfinished. That was the great message………to transcend ourselves again and again and to know that those with whom we come in contact are in process as well.

Once reinstating a relationship with myself, it was time for the greater challenge--- that of reconnecting with my husband. The reassembling of my marriage would have never happened without my year of solitude. Taking time away from each other was, in retrospect, both necessary and appropriate.

When I left I provided my husband with a listing of all my concerns and the areas where I felt we each needed to focus our efforts for change, making it clear that I would not be back until he could show that he was in agreement and trying to address each of the items on his half of the list. Initially, he declared that our relationship had no problems other then the ones I fabricated and he had nothing to correct or make amends for. He swore that I would be incapable of supporting myself and announced to the world that I would fall flat on my face and come running home begging for his forgiveness, and seeking his protection, within six months. So for the first six months he sat and waited for my return and we did not speak at all. Then he took a “hell with her” attitude and went in search of other ladies to prove I was not needed, making certain that our daughter (and friends) kept me informed. Each time she called all I would say was “Where is he on his list. That is the only updates I’m interested in hearing, otherwise your father is not a topic open to discussion.”

About the one year mark, and after the initial shock, anger, and finally discord that came with the realization that I really was serious and could survive without him, my husband started to take a penetrating look at those experiences most would choose to bury-----weeding out self-indulgence and wishful thinking—in order to determine his destiny with or without me. He started to question what roll, if any, did he play in this turn of events, how much of my decision had to do with his lassitude? Where my demands reasonable? Was it his preference to be alone or together?

There was no question that we both needed the space to understand the roots of our relationship and the values around what we had created together. We had become estranged because of reasons no more complicated then laziness, indifference, ignorance, and selfishness. Mixed with that arrogant “good old boy” attitude that “I am king of my castle and you are but the lowly serving winch that is supposed to be subservient to me and kowtow and provide my every whim” that had been fed by way too much alcohol consumption for a dozen or more years.

Once he made the decision to recommit, I let it be know that he had to freely join me in wanting to fight for an openness in which the faults of the other could be admitted and discussed so we could unlearn and relearned what was keeping us away from the immediacy of our lives and our connection with each other.

The second year was spent in dating (courting if you what to call it that) minus the fire of old passion and mired with problems and illusions.  In “The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm says, “Nothing, especially love, can be mastered without practice—and practice involves discipline, concentration, patience, and supreme concern.” Through trial and error, yielding and resisting, retracing and reinventing, dependence and interdependence, we began the task of reassembling out lives together. The year was spent crawling toward the inexpressible. There was no model to follow. We were two unique souls who merged 29 years before, and out of that union appeared an original couple, impossible to replicate.

At the end of the second year he moved into my small apartment. I refused to give up my own space until I was assured that we would be able to continue the process of moving forward and besides our daughter, her fiancĂ©e and our grandchild were living in our house. My husband’s allowing them to come and continue to stay (now going on 6 years) was just one of the many kinks in our relationship to be ironed out. Suddenly, we did not know how to be together.

After more then a quarter of a century of sharing a life we did not know how to cohabitate. We were so polite. Foreign words like “May I’, “Do you mind” “Please and thank you” filled every sentence. Out of our vulnerabilities a new way of being together began to be discovered. The unfinished elements of our relationship would continue to rise and fall, like incoming tides, constantly and irresistibly moving within us.

Then suddenly, four months into our rediscovery period, and seven years after first being diagnosed with COPD a massive lung hemorrhage put him in the ICU on life support and it appeared that our new life would end before it had really begun. As the time neared for him to be ready to be released it was apparent that he would never be able to manage the stairs to our second floor apartment. I also had to question if, (or for how long) he would ever return to work. Did it make sense to relocate to a new apartment when we were making mortgage payments on a more then adequate house? In the end my practical side won out and we moved back to the house I had left 2 ½ years earlier.

But, the balance of our new and blossoming relationship was forever recast. He was now more dependent, but less willing to be, then at any other time in our marriage. Suddenly, all the new rules could not be obeyed or enforced and it was too late to return to the old ones. We were once again floating in the limbo land of the lost, and having to find ways to rewrite the rules while trying not to sacrifice our new found harmony.

Our life became one long battle to find ways to prove the doctors wrong and cheat the grim reaper, without loosing our sanity or sacrificing our newfound oneness. Death, the threat and the reality, in all of its ugly forms, sights, sounds and smells began to dominate our lives. We enter the cycle of good days, bad days, and worst days. Hardly a week went by without having to juggle employment with doctor’s appointments and hospitals stays. The struggles to maintain the needs of a household and provide 32 different medications plus in home and portable oxygen on my salary alone also became the norm. One financial crisis would be averted only to find that six more had taken its place. The six months we were told to expect and tried to cherish grew into a year, then two and finally ended 8 long years later after once again being placed on and weaned from a life-support machine only to return to the small apartment that we now shared to loose the fight 32 hours later.

As I watched the remains of my husband of 37 years being removed from our home I new that our marriage was still unfinished and that it would always remain that way. I had to question how I would go about closing the book on a marriage that was never able to write the final chapter. I couldn’t help but contemplate all the ways the man that had just left me, was different from the man I had married so long ago. I questioned whether my life, like our marriage would now also remain unfinished. Would the yet to be written chapters of my new life as a widow find the answers to questions that still eluded me. Would this new and forced “sabbatical from marriage” become permanent, or would it be a temporary period of retooling and refitting to emerge as a new and more deluxe model ready to be accepted by the husband of the future.

Now two years later, I have to wonder is this as good as it gets. I question, will I ever have the opportunity to put into practice all the lessons learned during my 37 year training period? Does experience and trial by fire count for anything worth while? Will anyone see it (and me) for the treasure it is? Will there be someone that will want to tackle the job of helping me to finish the fine turning on this life I have been trying to rebuild?

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