Wednesday, July 7, 2004

A Turning Point

By Susan Carver Williams

As everything unraveled on a 25-year marriage and my husband moved out of the only home our daughter had ever known, I felt huge relief our only child was 20 at that time - it made everything simpler. Or so I thought. Because she wasn't a minor, I didn't have to negotiate about custody and child support, didn't have to put up with his coming around to see her, didn't have to try to explain the inexplicable to a young child. Mostly, though, I was relieved because I thought it would be less complicated emotionally for her at that age. She was away at college, a young adult, not subject to the day-to-day difficulties or emotional turmoil of her parents being in two households.

In an attempt to ensure that my crushing hurt did not affect their relationship, I had said to my daughter and her dad that the nature and quality of their relationship from that point on would be up to them. I would not interfere, but neither would I facilitate. I tried to be glad when I saw his phone number on the phone bill from her college dorm; but I'll confess that on more than one occasion in those early days I slipped into revenge fantasies, wishing with more than a little shame that I could be one of 'those' divorced parents who use their children to 'get at' an ex-spouse. My anger waned in intensity over the following months, but on occasion glowed white hot, briefly and unexpectedly, for reasons that still elude me. At those times, I exercised that remarkable ability so many women have to feign: pleasantness and serenity while simultaneously holding down an ugly knot of hurt and anger that clamored for attention the way curdled milk waits to erupt from a soured stomach.

I observed my daughter's next few years mostly from afar as she concentrated on her studies, became active in a sorority, made new friends, played on her university's tennis team, enjoyed snow-skiing, camping, boating and beach trips with friends, and fell in and out of love. I naturally wondered at times what impact the end of her parents' 25-year marriage might have on her. From what I could see, my daughter's strong spirit, sense of independence, self-confidence, good humor and zest for life were serving her well. After a while, I even congratulated myself on our having handled things in a way that had left her relatively unscathed.

Reality hit hard one evening during her Christmas vacation six months before she was to graduate from college. That's when my daughter taught me an important lesson - children whose parents divorce are forever changed, regardless of their age or life situation when the split happens. Sitting at the dinner table that night in my new house, which still didn't feel like home to either of us, she hesitantly told me she was dreading her college graduation.

"All my friends' families will be coming, and there are dinners and receptions all weekend," she said, putting her elbows on the table her father had sanded and stained when she was a little girl. "And every time you see or talk about Dad, you cry and feel sad. I can't tell one of you not to come. You're my parents. It makes me not want to go through graduation."

I felt as though I'd been hit with something big and hard.

I couldn't breathe. And then tears - those damn tears – began to course down my cheeks and drip onto my chest. I felt hot, and the light over the table seemed to spin and flash as I struggled for composure. I was stunned and stung - stunned to discover that my involuntary tears had cut so deeply into her life and soul; stung that my hanging on to sadness and a sense of loss were responsible for her wanting to skip an important milestone in her life. I didn't believe for a second she really would miss the festivities, but to know she saw my continued grieving as an inevitable dark cloud over her graduation weekend was devastating.

I've always believed that actions follow thoughts. Now would come a test of that belief. "I know it wasn't easy to say that," I managed to mutter. After a pause and a big sigh I continued, with a note of determination in my voice that I didn't feel. "It's six months until graduation. You know both your dad and I love you and want your graduation and all your special moments in life to be unmarred by what's gone on between us. I promise you that on your graduation weekend, you don't have to worry about my crying. We'll be fine."

And we were. Tears did fall that day, but they were shared with my ex-husband as we stood arm in arm watching the daughter we'd raised walk across the stage to accept her diploma. He even carried an extra handkerchief for me, as he had all those years we were married. That's when I knew my choice to spend time with him during the months after her sad dinner table confrontation had been worthwhile. By "practicing" being cordial and friendly, by sharing everyday conversation and meals, by saying why I was doing this, I had moved beyond the automatic response of tears. I think we actually ended up enjoying ourselves; and it wasn't long before I realized that forgiveness had crept into my heart, softening that hard knot of anger and hurt.

It was a turning point - not only for the three of us but for our extended family and friends as well. Now my sister and mother and friends could once again be friendly without feeling disloyal to me. The cordiality and friendliness we felt that spring has continued in the years since, making subsequent visits with our daughter more enjoyable for everyone. And now we're all immersed in planning another milestone - our daughter's wedding. In the fall, my ex-husband and I will sit side by side once again, on the front pew in the church this time, perhaps sharing a handkerchief once more.

A beloved teacher once said to me, "Forgiving may help the forgiver more than the forgiven." She was right.