“Just sign your name here, write today’s date here, and you’re done,” said my divorce lawyer pointing to the blank spaces. I signed my name, wrote 6/8/18 in the indicated spot, and slid the paper across the desk to the notary, who applied that squeeze-y thingamajig to make it official. The notary, a woman of almost no words and even fewer emotions, took her leave. The lawyer stood, shook my hand, smiled, and told me that once a judge had signed the decree, it would be official. He bid me farewell. And that was that.
I stepped out into the street and squinted away the shining sun. (Why is the sun shining right now?! IT SHOULD BE AS CLOUDY AS MY HEART!) I put on my sunglasses and headed to my car. I passed people having coffee at tables at an outdoor cafe, business people striding down the street with importance, people chatting as they waited for the bus. Ordinary scenes of an ordinary day, except it wasn’t an ordinary day. A couple of tears appeared beneath my sunglasses.
Although this is what I wanted, this is the thing I put in motion, it felt strange to close a major chapter of my life with the stroke of a pen, and so weird that everyone was going about their business as if nothing has changed. Of course, nothing has really changed. We’ve been separated for five years, and I was cognizant that things weren’t working for long before that. My intellectual self was satisfied that we finally made it official. But my emotional self wondered why I felt so melancholy.
My mind keeps going to that scene in the movie Terms of Endearment when Shirley MacLaine’s character realizes her daughter, whose death she knew was coming after a long illness, has died. She wails, “I’m so stupid! I thought it would be a relief!” I don’t feel anything quite so dramatic (and divorce is only a sort-of death), but I identify with misreading how I would feel once this was over. I did think it would be a relief, but I did not count on a renewed sadness over something that I thought I’d long ago accepted.
The icing on the melancholy cake was on that very same day when I got home from the signing, my daughters asked to watch home movies, which, by the way, they almost never do. They didn’t know what had just transpired, but kids have amazing radar, don’t they? On the screen was I, a young mother, laughing with my kids, a tiny Maddie jumping around and talking a mile a minute, and a baby Emma learning to clap her hands and shake her head no. There was my now ex-husband (whoa, that sounds weird) helping Maddie do handstands. Moving pictures of a life I once lived; everyday scenes of a family being a family. Just yesterday, but also a lifetime ago. It put a fine point of the finality of it all, and was a reminder of how rich and full much of that chapter of my life was. It reminded me that there was love. It reminded me of just how much water rushes under a bridge in the course of 23 years.
It took about seven weeks for the decree to be processed and the judge to sign it. I opened the email from my lawyer on a scorching hot summer day and just stared at the attached decree. There it was in black and white. Huh. Marriage begins with an official document and ends with one. It was a period at the end the longest sentence I’ve ever written. I was glad and sad, realizing once again how odd it is to feel opposing emotions at the same time.
Two of the walls in the basement rec room display scads of framed family photos – a kind of still This is Your Life montage. For some reason I can’t quite identify, I’d held off on taking them down for years. Maybe because it just didn’t feel right to remove the ones of my husband and his family while my girls were still living at home? Maybe it was because the divorce wasn’t final? Maybe because packing away the relics of another life was too painful? I don’t know. But several days after I received the decree, I knew it was time to take them down, which issued another little jab in the gut. But it also felt like a turning point that I was able to finally do it. Making the walls bare again was both a literal and figurative cleaning of the slate. So I turned on my playlist, cranked up the volume, and danced the photos into their boxes. I was feeling a bit celebratory by then, actually.
But then, just as I’d found my groove dancing and singing along to my 80s favorites, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now began to play. I’d listened to this song – the beautiful orchestral version – a million times when my marriage was beginning to fall apart and I’d cried every time I heard it. It was the soundtrack to my life at the time. I stopped to listen once again and it felt equally poignant, but different. The song still made me ache because it’s that damn good, but it felt like one final ache, an appropriate coda for this period in my life. And though I know the reality is that it was just a coincidence that it played at this moment, I felt that the universe wanted me to hear it one last time in this particular way as I packed away evidence of a different life, of my illusions, of my clouds.
The thing is, as nostalgic I felt in these moments of official ending, as much as tears fell for what was, that official ending also signaled an official beginning. I know (I know!) how trite and self-help-booky it sounds, but moving on is liberating. Accepting that love and life change is crucial to well-being. Acknowledging that good decisions can be as painful as they are exhilarating is healthy. Redefining family is normal – family is what you make it. Doing it all with kindness instead of animosity is a carefully crafted gift. I don’t remember the song that came on next after I’d considered all these things during Both Sides Now, but I do know that I felt lighter, happier, and that I danced alone in my basement. Onward, I smiled to myself. (My cats just stared at me perplexed and wondered what the hell was wrong with me.)
You may wonder why I’m sharing this part of the story, the (probably boring) details of the finale. And someone recently asked me how I could bare myself so publicly on this topic. This is why: when I wrote the post Now You Know about my decision to end my marriage, the outpouring of messages was incredible. So many people, women and men alike, reached out to share their stories with me, to tell me how their story aligned with mine, or to simply tell me they understood and supported me. It was medicine for my wounded self who didn’t know how to talk about it in person, and I had unwittingly given given a spot of medicine to them, which was more therapeutic to me than I can describe. Loss and gain, love and strife, pain and happiness, indecision and action are universal. My story was your story, too. And maybe still is.
So I end with this advice that I learned in this protracted process: recognize and embrace the messy borders, the blurred and confusing lines of love, feeling, and family; acknowledge that there is pain in taking the steps you know are the right ones; accept and appreciate the past and its lessons just as you rejoice in the possibility of the future; and, close a chapter of your book with dancing and celebrate the magnificent possibilities of a clean slate.
It’s never too late to make the life you want.