by Laura McKowen
It’s a Saturday in November and I’m lying on my daughter’s twin bed at her dad’s apartment. The way the early afternoon light falls on this room—where she sleeps and plays and gets dressed every other week, when she’s not with me—it’s unfamiliar. Her bed is small and bouncy, made for a body lighter than mine. The comforter scratches.
I lay there and watch her color at the craft table on the other side of the room. The same table was in her playroom when we all lived together; I forgot she still had it.
She looks older than just a few days ago. It's always the way—she changes when I don’t see her. Her lines become longer. The shape of her nose changes. New freckles appear. Or she gets a bruise and I don’t know what caused it. She comes back to me as my girl, but it always takes me a while to re-acclimate to her body, her impossibly blue eyes, the shapes her mouth makes when she speaks.
I say, “What are you drawing, baby?”
“Shopkins. Wanna help me?” she replies.
“No thanks. I’m going to read,” I say. “We’ll get ready for the play soon.”
I came over to stay with her while her dad went to an appointment. Later we’ll go to her play together, a family of three usually disjointed, together for a few hours.
But I can’t read. I keep looking around her room—at the furniture, the clothes, the puppy poster on the wall, the Halloween pumpkin-shaped bin of markers she’s picking from as she draws—with wonder and disbelief. She has a good life here. He's a good dad.
I check my phone and come back to my own circle of thoughts: about the man I miss, the things I should be writing, the fresh muscle-aches from running earlier. I turn on my side and tuck the open palm of my hand under my face, cupping my cheek. I close my eyes and think, this was once impossible. Sometimes I’m afraid to look at it all too closely, lest it break: this balance we’ve struck, this place of okay-ness and acceptance and even friendship.
It feels less fragile than it used to . . . but I’m still caught in awe, often.
My therapist asked me last week during our first session if I was in love with my ex-husband, if I loved him once.
“Very much,” I said. “Still do.”
“Why didn’t it work?” she asked.
I looked up, took my time. I never quite know how to answer this question. From which point do I lead? A short answer discounts the complexities of loving someone. A succinct answer doesn’t allow for the many competing truths that ran alongside the one that mattered most: I had to go.
“It just wasn’t right,” I said.
Three years ago when my husband moved out of our home, I couldn’t picture today’s scene. I hoped for peace, forgiveness, healing, but couldn’t have imagined the particulars: the specific smell of his home, piles of folded laundry I’ve never seen, the familiarity of his energy.
It took a couple years to separate our belongings.
Just last week he delivered back to me a box that included, among other items, extra copies of our wedding invitations and the binder I made to organize all the wedding plans. When I picked it up, samples of my dress-fabric fell out. For matching purposes, I suppose?
I leafed through the pages, the neat way I’d filed important documents in plastic, the tabs I made. Huh . . . I say to myself, thinking the whole system is so unlike me. I then removed all the documents from their plastic casings—the catering agreement, the menu, the wedding dress alteration measurements, the bridesmaid dress order slips, the flower order, the table seating plan—and threw them away. But I kept the empty binder and leftover invitations; they’re still bouncing around in the backseat of my car. Why? Some things we do never really make sense.
“Every relationship is an assignment,” says A Course in Miracles, and I consider this often with him—the unfairness of these assignments, because so often they run in conflict to our plans. The plan was to get married and stay that way. The plan was to fall in love and keep growing together in the image of husband and wife, then baby, maybe more, in a single home, not two, not divided.
It became clear to me at some untraceable point: I could keep to the plan, but to do so meant something essential in me would die off. I couldn’t live with that.
As I lay there on her bed, I’m struck again by the ways our relationship healed me. How he loved me solidly and unquestionably and how this rewrote the mangled bits of my story, like straightening out a twisted recording tape. I wonder what I’ve given him. Our daughter? Not so much a gift I gave as one I received. Our exchange feels inadequate, inequitable.
Does one person always take, as the other receives? How does he see it?
I do her hair in French braids and put a touch of makeup on her sparkling eyes for the stage. He comes home and we shuffle her out the door, walk to the play and get her prepped for the stage, silently enjoying the brief relief of shared parenting—a role we are both so used to performing solo.
The play is a take on the Ugly Duckling story. When she first comes out on stage she takes her hand to shade her eyes from the bright lights and searches for us among the crowd. When she spots me, I wave. Then he waves, and she beams back. Perhaps the best loving gift I can give him . . . is to keep on loving her well.
Perhaps my assignment is to accept forgiveness. Or maybe my big part has yet to come and today is just another day of rehearsal.
About the Author
Laura McKowen is a mama, writer, light-seeker and recovery warrior. She believes we desperately need each other’s most honest stories—to know that we are not alone, to learn how to move through life, to remember who we are. She writes at lauramckowen.com about her struggles with addiction, her journey to sobriety and love of all kinds. Her work has been published on XOJane, The Mid, Scary Mommy and Elephant Journal, among others. She resides on the north shore of Boston with her six year-old daughter and is currently writing a memoir. Connect with her on Instagram here and Twitter here.