50% of all marriages end in divorce. With the exception of freak accidents like getting stuck forever in the hole at Lake Creek Rapid, 100% of the marriages that survive end in one partner watching the other die. I had more than one person ask me after Jim died if I had less patience or tolerance for those folks that divorced. As if it were a less noble end to a relationship, or as if they did not try hard enough. When asked, I was still in the post traumatic stress disorder phase of my grief. I was still exhausted. Every time I closed my eyes, I slipped back into his last hours. All the items surrounding me, all the photos on my computer, many of the stories, were of Jim’s final year. In reality, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would ever choose to get married, or choose a long-term “til death do us part” kind of commitment. Who, in their right mind, would ever sign up for this kind of thing?
Divorce and death are different. I have never lived through a divorce, but I know that my recent “tired” post rang true for some friends of mine that have. So, death and divorce share common ground. They both result in grief. Grief takes energy. Energy expenditure makes us tired. But, they are different. Divorce, from my inexperienced perspective, is characterized by increasing distance. The act of dying or watching someone die, holds elements of increasing dependence.
I don’t think any couple gets married thinking it will end, and I don’t think any couple just wakes up one morning and says, “Gee honey, I think we should get divorced.” Distance happens. We live in a society that treasures independence, following your individual dreams, and pursuing happiness. Jobs, kids, community involvement. It takes a lot of work to keep the relationship high up on the priority list. Distance happens. There are stressors on every couple. Economic downturns, change in roles when having children, the empty nest when those same children leave, the loss of youthful energy. Distance happens. People make new friends. Sometimes it is easier to pour out your heart to a girlfriend rather than navigate the mysteries of talking to a man. Distance happens. Sometimes there is a precipitating factor to a divorce. Incompatible career or child rearing goals. An affair. Questioning of sexual orientation or identity. Distance happens. Jim and I came very close to divorce on more than one occasion. There were times Jim was horribly low on my priority list, and times where all I felt like was the maid getting thrown scraps of his attention. We both came precariously close to affairs. But, as my wise brother once pointed out, affairs don’t happen in healthy relationships. Distance happens.
Divorce is characterized by increasing distance. Much like the game of “wider wider”, you can jump the distance when it is small, and with practice you can jump further and further. Eventually though, the distance becomes too great, and it is no longer humanly possible to jump that far. Divorce happens, and then the chasm of distance swallows you. There is the distance from your ex, there is a distance from shared possessions and financial security, there is time when you are distanced from your kids in shared custody, and reconfiguring of couple friendships and ex in-laws creates an especially cruel kind of distance. Distance happens slowly and gives you time alone to figure out who you are as you journey forward.
Dying, or watching someone die, holds elements of increasing dependence. The dynamic in our relationship changed the minute Jim was diagnosed in September of 2009. He needed me. Desperately. At first just to navigate the medical maze, to the last months of interpreting his communication, to the final days of helping him take meds, eat, shower, shave, brush his teeth, get into or out of bed…and eventually to die without horrible pain. We became incredibly dependent on our community. Rides to radiation, meals, money and friendships that just never quit. Social services like Hospice and SSDI. The school district, the staff and students, and the teachers union. I needed Jim, and my children. I needed Jim to hold me when I cried, to love me, and to tell me, “this is hard”. At a time when our kids should have distanced, we were all depending on each other. Emerald was home every other weekend her first semester of college and called at least 20 times during an 8 week wilderness course. I depended on Jasper’s school day being the one normal thing in our lives.
Now that Jim is dead, the pit of loneliness threatens to swallow me sometimes, but the dependence continues. Emerald and I still talk, text or Skype all the time. I am making her a care package for the first time in my life. Jasper hugs me everyday. I know my time living with him is coming to an end, and I wanna get in all the touch I can. He has such great hair. My kids need me. I am not a divorced parent, I am a single parent. It is me, 24-7, no 50% custody. With Jim’s death, there is no cruel reconfiguration of couple friendships and in-laws. We all need each other far too much. I am dependent on Jim’s financial and gear assets for my continuing livelihood and pursuit of happiness. When the pit of loneliness threatens to swallow me, there is always a friend that throws me a line. Flowers and juice delivery, an invite to watch a TV show, an email that says, “this is where I am at 8 months post..”, texted song lyrics while I am cooking dinner, a smile when I show up bleary eyed for swimming, my morning runners that scare me by screaming at the first sight of the sun, a gentle touch hello that just says, “I am here”. I am so dependent on that continued connection.
So, the question was, “Do I have less tolerance or patience for those that divorce?” No, they deserve my compassion. Divorce and Distance. Death and Dependence. They are different. They both hurt. They both cause grief. Grief takes energy. It makes you tired. And yet, now that I am out of the PTSD phase, I don’t question the sanity of saying yes to the commitment. Jim and I had our distance. He, being the better athlete, was able to jump the chasm better than I, but it took hard work on both our parts (and a chunk o change poured into counseling) to bridge that gap. Jim and I learned to depend on each other. I still depend on everyone around me. And you know what? Even given the statistics of doom, I’d sign up for it all again.