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What I Have to Say
I have sent Craig at least thirty letters since the stroke. I know it sounds old-fashioned, writing letters to my ex-husband, but that’s just how I am. My friend Susan keeps telling me to give up—Craig’s in France right now, focusing on his business and he doesn’t have time to respond. But I know that’s a lie . . . we both do. Because time is not holding Craig back, it never has.
I’m not sure why I’m so determined to hear from him. I’d say it’s more out of fear than anything else. The fear that I may not recover and that things could still work between us. Or the fear that I may be alone for the rest of my life, however long that may be. I remember I woke up the morning after the stroke, and a nice colored nurse told me about my condition, how I’d have to stay here in the hospital for awhile. Until I was healthy, at least. As she put some drops in my eye, she mentioned Craig. “Honey, you must really love that man. You was mumbling his name all night.”
But how could I feel this way towards him? In the later years of our marriage, Craig was never good to me. I made him breakfast every Saturday: fluffy egg whites with shredded cheese and two slices of toast. He would push the eggs around on his plate, never looking up to shoot me a single glance of approval. I’d sit down and pour us each a cup of coffee, with extra sugar in his, and before I could tell him about my week, he’d stand up and wash his half-eaten plate off in the sink.
“Julia, I’m really sick of this paint color. Did you pick it out? It looks like something you would choose. We need something lighter” he’d say, before I opened my mouth.
Next week it would be grandma’s old clock—how the ticking bothered him. Then the windows. The carpets. My tomato garden. And finally the attacks became very personal. Had I put on weight? Why did I never cook anymore? What happened to my teenage beauty? Couldn’t I wear something other than that itchy-collared jean jacket? And I’d just look down, biting my lip so hard it would turn a hypothermic blue.
For eight years we were married. And I’m not about to say that it was the worst eight years of my life because in all honesty, I did enjoy being with Craig for some time. He wasn’t always so condescending and verbally abusive, and I wasn’t always so submissive to his every need. It had started off like any other young marriage. I’d hold his hand almost possessively, as we talked over warm tea and bagels. He would listen to me as I spoke, nod his head and laugh at my lame attempts to make a joke. I talked about him all the time, to the point where “I” and “me” no longer referred to just myself but Craig too.
The first time my mother met him, two months before the wedding, she warned me that there would be disappointments from time to time. She said that his carefree nature would not last forever, and I would be upset to see the passion dull.
“Maybe you should think this through a little longer, Julia. Craig, he may seem nice now, but let’s be honest, he might not be the guy for you. I love you, Jules, but you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into” she said. I didn’t like to hear this, especially from my mother. The look she gave me said it all. She had been there and experienced this before—infatuated by another, she immersed herself in something that seemed much deeper than a summer romance, only to be followed years later by . . . I hate to say it . . . heartbreak.
The moment that she told me this, placing her hand on my knee, I pulled away. My eyes were swelling with hatred as I looked at her and told her how she didn’t care about my happiness. She was so consumed with jealousy—to see me with a man I loved, while she mourned over her own divorce and losses—that she would do anything for me to stay at home and grieve with her. I told her I was twenty-three and didn’t need her advice. I didn’t really need her at all. And as I left the room, I turned to her with one last request. “Don’t bother coming to the wedding.”
I dragged Craig out of my mother’s living room, not allowing him to finish his wine or conversation with my siblings and grandparents. I blatantly lied to my family, telling them that my friend Susan was very sick, and we had to leave. As we were driving back to Boston, I tried to convince Craig that I was alright and I just needed to see Susan, but my throat ached as I tried to constrain the tears. My temples pulsated with anger. Or was it sadness?
That night, my mother called and left an apologetic message. I didn’t return her call, but she was persistent and continued to call each day, begging for my forgiveness. Every time I heard her voice, I would slump in my chair, shoulders curled over my heart and guilt gnawing at my chest like an invisible animal. I did something I swore I’d never do. I stopped speaking to my mother. And I told myself that it wasn’t my fault. She was the one who didn’t understand. But in truth, that was all she wanted to say—that she understood all too well.
The day of the wedding I expected to see her there, not because she considered it a way to restore our relationship (if anything, it would have the opposite effect), but because she wanted to be there for me. She knew there’d be no way I could explain to anyone why my mother wasn’t at my wedding—how immature I was acting, pulling away from my own mother: the one who had first cupped my infant body in her hands. When my father, who had hardly been a part of my life, walked me down the aisle, I saw her sitting in the middle of the second row. She seemed to be masking her depression with lots of blush and a slender smile. I tried to disregard all of the thoughts that kept leading me to the conclusion that this was my fault. This is what I had made of a once loving woman. A loving relationship. I hated her for doing this to me.
It took me a while to finally say, “I do.” I’d never considered the magnitude of those two words until I was up on the stage, staring intently at Craig and thinking to myself, “Do I?” Do I love this man? Do I want to spend my life with him? Do I believe that my mother was trying to hurt me? When I spoke those two words, I tried to affirm my belief that yes, I do believe all of those things. However, as Craig leaned towards me, hooked his fingers around my waist, and gave me that magical kiss, it was far from a fairy tale moment. I had just lied to everyone here: my closest friends, the pastor, my in-laws, even my family; and I couldn’t help but think that makes me the world’s most selfish person. A wave of guilt came crashing down on me once again.
After the honeymoon my remorse leveled off a bit, only to return when I was reminded of my mother. Sometimes Craig would comb the tangles out of my wet hair, and I’d think of my mother’s soft touch. Or when Craig and I saw kids on the street, tugging at their mother’s jackets, I insisted that we walk the other way. A couple of weeks after we had settled in our new apartment, Craig planted the question I had been dreading since the wedding. “Are things alright between you and your mother? You haven’t mentioned her in awhile.”
I set down my Oprah magazine and rubbed my temples. “Umm, well, we’re just going through a bit of a rough patch. There was an argument and some hurt feelings, but it’s no big deal.” Another lie. Was my nose growing yet?
“Oh, ok. I guess I don’t know all of the details, but I think you should try to make things better—”
“You know, Craig, you’re right. You don’t know all of the details and this is none of your business. I’ll work things out with my mom, but I don’t need you to talk me through it.”
Craig didn’t mention her for another five years. That’s because five years later, he changed and so did our relationship. His mom passed away, and unlike me, Craig was close to his mother. A few days after the news, Craig started yelling, and he was not just releasing his anger but letting me know how he felt about me. My existence was hated. So that year, I went into severe depression. I could hardly bring myself to eat a meal, and as my body shriveled away, so did everything else in my life. I gave up what used to give me the greatest pleasures in life: writing, cooking, and tending to my garden. My friend Susan told me that it was time to leave this man . . . he was ruining me, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. After all, that would mean my mother was right.
Craig agreed to marriage counseling. I was surprised that he wanted to stay in this, but he was unemployed at the time and couldn’t deal with divorce too. On top of counseling, I thought that perhaps the solution to my melancholy spirits could be found in a pill. The doctors prescribed medication after medication, and I tried to exercise daily but nothing was working. Then, two years later, I finally found the answer to my heartache.
Craig was having another breakdown (which consisted more of fits rage than anything else), and I decided that I’d try one of the marriage techniques recommended by our counselor: consolation. Unfortunately (or so I thought at the time), all he said was, “You have no idea what it’s like. You’re mother could die and you’d debate over whether it was worth going to her funeral!”
I didn’t respond. And I wasn’t even bothered that he spoke to me so cruelly, but I was bothered that he was right. I learned something valuable about humans that day; I learned that we deal with our emotions differently but no matter how we deal with them—Craig with his yelling, me with my depression—the emotions will continue to eat away us, until we decide that the only way to cope with loss is to rely on something greater than ourselves. So, that day, I prayed.
I don’t know the last time I had prayed. Or if I ever had. My family only went to church on Christmas and Easter, almost more as homage to our ancestors, who were devout Catholics. But something told me that there was no way I could get through all of this by myself. No drug or man could heal me in this state. So I went into quiet meditation and prayed to a god that I’d never believed existed.
“Please, let me be happy again.”
I forgot to end with “amen” and I even forgot to address God formally, but at that point it didn’t matter. I wasn’t enlightened, nor had I entered nirvana, but I heard a calm voice telling me what to do.
“Julia, you need to move on.” In other words, it was time for the divorce.
The process was much longer than I thought it would be, but I was convinced that life could only get better after Craig was only a name that would come up occasionally. Our lawyers battled the legal issues for months, and finally it was decided that he would up with the apartment, but I didn’t care. When I signed my name on the final contract, I was convinced that I would hear my mother taunting, “Ha! I told you.” But that wasn’t at all the case. I heard her, really heard her, for the first time since the night I broke away from her. She told me that she was proud of me—proud that I had learned a great deal about myself over the last eight years and proud that I could at last admit that we were more alike than I’d ever known.
Now, as I write to Craig, I realize that I’m really writing to my mother. Each apology, each word scribbled out of the rifts in my heart, are for her. Not everything written on these letters is what I want to say but what I have to say. I’m the one begging this time. And all I can bear to think is how the silence must’ve shamed her.