“Wow, you’re getting married, starting a new job and moving…all at the same time?”
This was the most frequent question I received in June 2010 when I shared my upcoming plans. Often the person shook their head and added, “That’s a lot.”
I usually smiled and shrugged. It was a lot. I had been through lots of a lots, but this time it felt liberating, like a snake shedding its skin and becoming smooth again.
I was in our musty basement — sorting, purging and packing. Cardboard boxes occupied every inch of the green indoor-outdoor carpet. I positioned a folding chair in the middle of the mess and sat down and surveyed the room. I realized my life was strewn all over the floor for me to examine. Two sturdy banker’s boxes in the corner caught my eye. They were filled with divorce documents: my victim impact statement, police reports, restraining orders and a psychiatrist’s custody evaluation.
I closed my eyes and sighed deeply.
What should I do with two boxes that are a time capsule of the last ten years of my life? A transformative and tumultuous period that started when we moved from Ohio to Wisconsin, because I thought moving to a new city could save our sixteen-year-marriage. But with the help of intensive therapy, I soon realized the marriage wasn’t worth saving. My decision to leave sparked a chain of events: my husband holding me hostage, his arrest, divorce proceedings, custody disputes and probation officers; single parenting; years of ongoing therapy examining everything, but focusing on why I was attracted to a narcissistic partner and how I normalized and covered his abuse.
In the middle of it, I met Tom, who was on his own journey of self-discovery after a lifetime with a sociopathic father. We were two wounded people who defied conventional norms and spoke about therapy and meds on our first date. I was instantly drawn to his honesty and vulnerability.
Those ten years nearly broke me, but I survived and am stronger as a result. At forty-eight, I had finally accepted myself and found a partner who accepted me as well. As I thought about the next decade I was consumed with fear, but mainly hope and optimism. The next ten years would include getting acclimated to a new job, being a wife again and helping my husband become a stepfather and my daughter and son get accustomed to two healthy parents.
I stared at the boxes and began to put them in the recycle pile. After all, it was two boxes of pain and drama I didn’t need to keep. But I looked at the boxes again and saw them differently. They were two boxes of perseverance and grit that aided me in becoming me — and I wasn’t ready to let them go. I grabbed a thick, black sharpie marker and wrote “DIVORCE SHIT” across the cardboard and put them aside.
I’m sitting in our living room, sorting, packing and purging. I’ve started a new job in a city 400 miles away. Tom and I have been married nearly ten years and have just purchased a house in Ohio, returning to the family I left nearly twenty years ago. We’ve become accustomed and grateful for a relationship which is supportive and trusting. We laugh daily. He has become my children’s father. We are nervous, but excited to start life in a new city.
I walk down to the basement and see the DIVORCE SHIT boxes staring at me from the metal shelf. Maybe now is the time to throw them away, I think. Instantly, I feel anxiety at the thought of losing them. I’m protective of these souvenirs, which represent both my pain and resilience.
There are other boxes there too — childhood mementos, report cards, a portfolio of writing from my first job as well as the kids’ artwork and handmade cards. And I decide these things all represent my life, the beautiful parts and the messy. It’s one perfectly imperfect life, and I’m taking it all with me to the next home.
Julie Cole received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in The Columbus Dispatch and Brevity blog. She also tells stories through stand-up comedy and story slams and was a finalist in Ex-Fabula’s Storytelling All-Stars.
Julie urges you to donate time and/or money to Black Lives Matter and other organizations that support racial equality and justice.