I grew up in a home where my father wasn’t married to my mother. My maternal grandfather was aware my father was seeing my mother, and my paternal grandmother knew that my father was seeing my mother. Both families knew my father had children with my mother. There was no ceremony to consummate their relationship and, if ever there was, it was the birth of my brother, my sister, and I. We consummated that relationship.
I have no idea when or how my father met my mother, or what brought them together. We’ve never had that conversation. But it is likely that my dad saw her in our neighborhood - my paternal grandfather’s house and my father’s house were in the same general area - and my mom lived in my grandfather’s house. So here are three children, but no ring on her finger, nor was there any traditional ceremony of recognition. However, there was a general understanding that without a ring or recognition, there was some semblance of loyalty and commitment to raising my brother, sister, and myself together.
My mother’s situation may not be the reality of women in mainstream American society, which is a good thing. But then, equally within this American mainstream, there is a pervasive culture that kills my spirit. The pervasive culture I am referring to is divorce. Divorce tears a family apart and ruins relationships built over years. My heartbreak has always been about moments children are made to choose between father and mother.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to be a character witness for a colleague who is also a relation. I have known him for as long as I have lived in the United States. I know how much he adores the daughter he shares with his ex-wife. I am very much aware of the extent to which he went to marry his ex-wife and relocate her to the United States. I know how much he wants to be in the life of his daughter. But here you have a mother who is deliberately building walls between a father and a daughter, and frustrating attempts at a healthy relationship in the process.
If I had my own way, there wouldn’t be any divorce. But I also affirm the words of the hymnist Leighton Hayne, who wrote that “…by many deeds of shame, we learn that love grows cold.” For that reason, I am open to the idea of divorce - as difficult as it may be. But I do not understand how and why we so suddenly forget the love which first brought a couple together, and then become so bitter to one another that the children who consummated our marriage become a pawn in our sad saga.
There’s a story of a husband who came home with divorce papers, confessed to his wife that he was seeing someone, and asked her for a divorce. The disappointed wife couldn’t believe her husband, but she agreed to sign the divorce papers on two conditions: first, that they would both act civilly in the presence of their daughter, so she would always know that mom and dad loved her. Secondly, she asked that he carried her to bed each night for seven days. The man was surprised. Those are easy, he must have said to himself. I can accomplish them without breaking a sweat.
The first request wasn’t complicated - he could fake being all nice in the presence of his daughter. The second request, however, was. Each time the husband lifted her, she recounted a story that took them back to the very place he emotionally didn’t want to be. Those stories took them to their first night out for dinner. Those stories also took them to the night of their wedding. And those stories took him to the night when her water broke at home with their daughter. He was familiar with the stories. He knew how much those stories meant to him. Those are the very stories that bind a couple together, and it is within those stories that we find the strength and a reason to behold each other, and lift each other up, even when we have more than enough reason to walk away from each other.
After the last night, he couldn’t go ahead with his plans to divorce his wife; the memories written on his heart were so transformational. He went back to the lady he was seeing and plainly told her that he loved his wife, and that he was going back to her. It was, however, too late; the wife had died. But before she died, she left him a note, a kind heartfelt note about her love for him and their daughter.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. It is a day dedicated to sharing love with the people we love. Yes, there may be times when we can say with such gusto that we don’t love such and such person any more, that we’ve moved on. But I don’t really buy that and never will, for love is too costly a commodity for one person to say he/she doesn’t have any more for the very person whom he/she couldn’t wait to embrace. Trust me - if I could love a total stranger, then I can still love that someone with whom I once fell in love with, because I believe what Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 116: “Love isn’t love that alters when its alteration finds… Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out, even to the edge of doom."
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. You may be on the verge of divorce, or you have already signed your divorce papers. I may not know how bitter you are, or how bitter your partner may be. But one thing I can say is that you cannot "out-bitter" each other, nor can you close down shop on each other. There’s a part of you - and there will always be a part of you - which is familiar with the good old stories. You don’t have to remember all of them - or even some - but if you do, let them shape your temperament, and let those stories remind you of that unique ‘gift’ that first brought you together.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. You may have some elaborate plans or you may have none - that’s alright. Whether you do or not, remember what first brought you together.
Life is lived in stories, so go ahead and create more beautiful and wonderful stories. For, those stories maybe the only way we can be civil even in the midst of divorce, save our relationships or bring life and energy into those relationships.
Happy Valentine’s Day.