holding heart

My ex-husband’s new wife was a mystery to me until three years after our divorce. She and I did not meet until then because my ex always protected her from me, and he was right to do so; I hated her more fiercely than I could even begin to measure.

When he left me in 1998, we had been living together for twenty-three years and married for eighteen of those. In the midst of raising two teenaged children, we were watching his career take off while mine faltered. I grew anxious and depressed. He grew remote. Nevertheless, I let myself believe that we were happy — even as we moved apart into silence.

Marital counseling came next, and the weekly sessions were grueling. Bereft, and devastated by what was happening to us, I sobbed my way through both truth and rejection, while he told me — candidly, brutally — why he no longer wanted to live with me. Then, after an eighteen-month trial separation, he left me for good.

Over the following year, he and I sat next to each other at attorneys’ tables, as we moved through the rigors of the no-fault divorce we fancy in the U.S. today. Our attitudes were civilized, but the pain my husband caused me seemed just as grievous as that which my mother caused my father when she left him nearly three decades before, in a court trial. The anguish over being deserted never seems to change.

To my surprise, my soon-to-be ex remained aloof during our wrestlings over alimony, and there was also a peculiar ambiguity in his approach to me — a subtle tenderness that was confusing. Later, I would realize that this was just his love for our history and the happier times we had shared, rather than any desire for me as a woman, or for our marriage. But that ambiguity led me to continue to hope for reconciliation.

Then I heard from mutual “friends” how he now reveled in a freedom he’d not enjoyed since college. Still, it wasn’t long before he left dating and clubbing behind for a woman about ten years younger than I, someone he’d met at the very onset of our troubles.

She was a trophy catch — the kind that a thriving Silicon Valley venture capitalist like my ex could only dream of: beautiful, sexy, savvy, smart, and markedly successful. Most impressive of all, perhaps, were her three Ivy League graduate degrees, and her position among the powerful and the prestigious in her field. Neither child nor ex weighed down her coattails. No post-pregnancy tummy disturbed her figure. No worry lines bracketed her smile. At one time, she had dedicated herself to her career. Now, she also dedicated herself to him.

Though the legal process ground inexorably forward, I continued to count on time to bring him back, even while I heard about the places to which he and his new paramour were happily traveling: a visit to our younger son, who was spending a semester in France; a trip to the Olympics in Australia, with couples who had once been our friends. I had been replaced. And I hated her for it.

Scalded by a love I couldn’t forget and memories that wouldn’t stop, I sold out my share of the house to him, and bought a smaller one in a less-fashionable town. It wasn’t long before the two of them became engaged and moved into our former home together. Flooded with loss and despair and rage, I blamed her for every bit of our break-up. It was easier than blaming him.

But then the months piled up and the years went by. I got another dog. I watched my sons go off to college. I began to date and found one particular guy who seemed like a keeper. He moved in with me and lent support as I recovered from an acute bipolar depression. He helped me to find the confidence to start a new book.

Fury began to abate, jealousy to dim. It was a slow evolution, but one morning it occurred to me that I didn’t resent her so much anymore. Slowly, I came to tolerate the stories my kids told, breaking their silence about her.

I learned how she’d taught herself to cook basic meals; how she’d advised them on a variety of topics; how she’d helped my oldest locate the socks that matched his suit, only an hour before her wedding; how she’d showed my youngest the right way to iron a shirt. She provided them with a home away from home, and a Mom away from Mom. With reluctance, I began to see that she was supporting my children emotionally, as well as recognizing their dependence on her.

Little by little, envy and bitterness were replaced with a growing sense of gratitude for this woman whom I had never met. Over time, I realized that the greatest gift I could offer my kids was simply to accept the new role she played in their lives. In the end, my love for them trumped all my hate for her.

One afternoon, I drove over to the old house to pick up the boys for my custody weekend. I did not, as usual, sound the horn or wait for them to bound out the door as I arrived. Instead, with my legs shaky beneath me, I made my way up to the stoop and rang the bell. I could barely breathe.

She opened the door. Somehow, she did not look surprised to see me on her front step.

I extended my hand, and she grasped it, firmly.

“Thanks for taking such good care of my kids.” Emotion crowded my voice.

“I love them,” she replied, with a deep and utterly sincere smile.

“I’ve wanted to meet you for a while now.” As I said this, I realized — with a jolt — the truth of it. She had no children of her own, and now she shared mine. I was glad that she loved them.

“I can’t believe it’s taken us this long,” she answered. “Would you like to come in for some tea?”

Time passed and the relationship between us grew, albeit in small ways. She and I conferred over the progress of the boys. We had lunch on our own, and discussed not only the challenges faced by our family of six, but our personal lives as well. We became confidantes of a sort, distant in some ways and yet intimate in others. I might never go shopping or to the movies with her, yet we would share some of our most private thoughts. In accepting her, I had accepted the divorce, and where only family had once bound us together, true friendship began to take hold.

At the 100th birthday celebration for my former father-in-law, I embraced my ex-husband’s wife at the house I had once called my own. At dinner, I sat to her left while she took my former spot at the head of the table. What seemed remarkable to me was that not even the wisdom of my centenarian ex-father-in-law could have anticipated the sea of change she and I had created for ourselves.

Being there at my old dinner table seemed odd, but it did not rankle. No longer did I feel the pain of having been replaced. Instead, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of wonder, one that came from the recognition of how much we had all gained — rather than how much I had lost. Forgiveness had brought me peace. And in that peace, love took root and held fast.

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