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June 20th, 2014 - Julie Batten

~It’s fair to say that some of the photographs that have been taken of my children over the years have inevitably become more indelible than others.

 

There’s a memorable photo taken ten years ago on June 20th, in which my family is gathered around the eight-foot-long pine, fat-legged dining room table celebrating my second daughter’s twenty-second birthday. In the photo, her face is alight with the glow from the candles, her mouth puckered into the “O” for making birthday wishes. She is lovely; her long brown hair, the hair that presented as an upright mohawk on the day of her birth and has ever since refused to be smoothed, was then and is now a thick mane of soft waves. In high school, she was voted the prettiest girl in the class upon graduation and in this picture, albeit almost five years hence, she still is.

 

That dining room table was the site of many happy occasions over the years; often my husband and I chose to host the Christmas and Easter gatherings there, events that pulled well over fifty members of our combined extended families together. The chaos was exhausting, and made for some of my most treasured memories in that house. My husband is from good people, a tight Irish Catholic family that didn’t always totally accept me (as the girl their brother brought back from New York City one Christmas), but who had the grace to keep their thoughts to themselves. On my daughter’s birthday in 2014, none of them were present as my husband and I had divorced four months before, after twenty years of marriage.

 

As much as Jonathan loves his kids, his retreat to the lake district in New Hampshire, to the embrace of his family of origin, somehow manifested in an inability to find middle ground with the family of his own making. As such, I’m not even sure he was with us on the day this photo was taken. His brothers and sisters had rallied around him —as a family of hockey players, they are nothing if not a team. So while the photo portrays yet another celebration in our lovely home on the hill in a tony suburb of Boston, I know that at least one of the wishes my daughter wished for on that day must have been for a return to the love that had been shaken from the trunks of that elephant-sized table.

 

What my children didn’t know was the distance that had grown between their father and me had started long before we walked out of the courtroom, 114,020 days after we’d said “I do.” I remember feeling numb, like the sound of that gavel on the judge’s desk had split me in two, splintered my very soul. I loved their father—still do— but the busyness of our household, his business trips, the lack of personal time and my stalled career (it wasn’t financially possible for me to continue my writing career with four children, four years apart), had started to deplete my oxygen supply. Divorcing him was a desperate attempt at coming up for air.

 

I had met a writer of some notoriety at a writing conference I attended in Brattleboro in October of 2010, some six years after Jonathan and I had last slept in the same bed. We had kept up pretenses for a long time, running kids to practice, celebrating holidays and keeping our acre of heaven in oh-so-green shape for many seasons. On the night I met the man with whom I would spend the next tumultuous fourteen years of my life, the Vermont sky cleaved open to a panorama of twinkling lights, more stars than I’d ever imagined might exist in the heavens. I came home from the conference and told Jonathan I’d met a man who I didn’t know if I would ever see again, but that he’d touched my heart with his words, his charm, and I was startled.

 

It would be another year after my own divorce in 2014 before Rishi*, the man I had met, would divorce his wife, leaving her alone with their two girls. I was uncomfortable being the “other woman,” someone who could break up a marriage, especially where children are involved. But I was assured this was a marriage that had been over for some time, that he had already moved out once and come back and been further entrapped by a second child. That the fighting was damaging the girls and it would be better for all when it came to an end. Having existed for so long myself in such a place—deprived of true physical and emotional intimacy—I understood the complications, the possibility of that mind-bending stalemate. Rishi and I would stay together against all odds as his behavior skidded out of control over the next few years as he racked up two DUI’s and numerous other boundless transgressions, including return fraud at Home Depot. That, too, was startling.


But I was in love.

 

I would have forgiven this man anything, even these perplexing forays into a kind of darkness that seemed so foreign to my life—to my existence with Jonathan in the previous twenty years. In those years, Jonathan and I had shared the responsibilities we accumulated jointly, albeit in the imbalanced manner of a traditional marriage where the obligations of home ownership and parenting become their own coat of mail, and a sacrifice worthy of its own knighthood. With this new man, this raven-haired poet with the Santa Claus laugh, whose parents had traveled here from the steamy streets of south India, there was an excitement that brought my own inner poet back into focus. I felt alive again, like I was within inches of the surface. I could see the light prickling the water where it met the air and he was just above it, hand outstretched over the side of a boat big enough for two. What I didn’t know was that when I emerged, he would be gone, the love I thought within grasp, merely a mirage.

 

I didn’t know what the terms gaslighting or narcissism or codependency really meant until I met Rishi, but I do now. I’ve read all the literature in an effort to make sense of my ordeal, an ordeal that has carried on for over ten years and just this week ended with the sale of the house that we resided in together for the past four years. Just this morning I received a threatening letter from his attorney telling me that this man, this once-upon-a-time love of my life, demands an 80/20 split of the proceeds. I’m not surprised.

 

Meanwhile, the house that held the fat-legged table in the photo is long gone. Lost in a short sale the year after Jonathan was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease and I was diagnosed with a rare intramedullary (benign) spinal tumor that had been growing inside my spinal cord since I was nine years old. Fast forward eight years, and Jonathan is now in hospice in a nursing home, and I would be hard pressed to make it to the exit in time in a burning building with my gimpy leg.

 

I’ve somehow managed to hold onto that fat-legged table, as if its’ own legs might stand in for the spindly things upon which I perch.  It still carries barely legible indentations of numbers and letters left behind by my children through the years, their small hands growing more lean and deft as they moved across its surface, finding words and sums that might challenge the uncertainty of a family gone wrong, each year bringing them closer to the way out.

 

I will forever be thankful for the lessons my children, and these two very different men have taught me. I am more whole and alive than ever before—older and wiser, as they say. But I will also forever be saddened by the toll my efforts to get here has taken. In walking away from their father, I’d hoped my children would see that if things are not right, there is always a different path to be taken. Little did I know the path taken would be no better and very likely much worse, than the one I was on. But then, there is a lesson in that, as well, yes? One about perspective and transparency and the wiliness of our hearts’ incessant yearnings. Seldom are things—or people—what they appear to be.

 

Our transgressions are never anything less than a cry for help.

 

And that is perhaps what I hope for the future: that my children, who are all doing well and taking life for all its worth (loss has a way of clarifying the now), will ultimately be just as forgiving and kind as life demands of them, and that the “O’s” of their birthday wishes will only ever be forward facing and heartily distributed across their future like a song sung only for them, without end.~


 




Julie Batten is a graduate of Bennington Writing Seminars, founding director of the Glass House Shelter Project (GHSP) and mother of four amazing, fully emancipated adult children. She is passionate about being a social justice advocate for women, especially those over the age of fifty who compose the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in America. She likes to bike and garden in her spare time.

 

 

 

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