I had wanted to be something in the world once. A teaching degree, a Masters degree, and several academic honors hang framed on my study wall. I might have had any number of careers but at twenty-five I made a choice and let the world go on without me: Bedside for my mother’s cancer right after college slid into marriage, morphed into children, and landed me in a seaside community buffered by comforts. A few decades later I was looking at fifty and an empty house. And hiding in the laundry room.
Four years out of college my best friend whisked me to France when my mother became terminal, and proposed over flaming omelets on Mont-Saint-Michel, an ancient French Monastery stranded by the tides at the edge of the northwestern coast. Despite the earnest look on his face I hardly noticed the romantic setting. I was all out of emotions: My mother was dying from ovarian cancer far away in Seattle and I was worn out keeping her and myself together. As the velvet box slid across the table my reasoning seemed so reasonable; we knew everything there was to know about each other, he loved my family, my mother would still be there for my wedding if we hurried. So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.
Nobody put a hand on my shoulder and counseled me to avoid making big decisions in times of big grief. Nobody warned me that grief was not a reliable emotion on which to base life-changing commitments. I had pushed the three-diamond heirloom ring on my finger with relief, chose the road most traveled and said yes yes yes to my oldest friend. I was tired. Marriage seemed an easy answer.
I looked down at the sparkling ring and said quickly, “How fast do you think we can pull off a wedding?”
Twenty years later, three talented children, one suburban community, twenty slack pounds heavier an invisible net began to cinch tight.
So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.The first episodes began in the laundry room, folding the never-diminishing pile of sports shorts, lacrosse jerseys, strings of candy-colored thongs, hipster boxers, and my faded, elastic granny panties. I discovered I couldn’t breathe. All I could hear inside my head was, I am nobody.
Then I closed myself in the coat closet and cried.
Was this empty nest syndrome, my second child departing for college at the same time my youngest decided to head to boarding school? In truth, they were all ready to go: happy, adjusted, busting at the seams to grow into adulthood.
Was I an ungrateful bitch, not appreciating my safe community, successful husband, beautiful family? No one could doubt my love, devotion, and dedication to my family. I sobbed into the raincoats hiding my despair; I wanted to do something else with my life, only I had no idea how to start again or where to start again. I wasn’t ungrateful I just wasn’t done. Who thinks this way?
My struggle intensified as the house got quieter. Anxiety chattered in my head, You only have yourself to blame, as I tried to catch my breath while the dryer tumbled. Back to gratitude! my mind raced. My mother had died at fifty-one-years-old. I was lucky to be alive to see my children grow. I shoved my saggy underwear behind the detergent and put a smile on my face.
* * *
The garage was staged with bins of extra-long sheets, towels and pillows for the two dorm rooms. Moving old photo boxes out of the way, a picture of my husband and his former live-in girlfriend, sitting an inch apart on a couch smiling at each other, dropped to the floor.
The photo haunted me for days.
He married you out of pity.
He loved your mom and wanted her to know you were taken care of.
But what froze my blood was,
He had never smiled at me like that before.
But let’s be honest, what was he looking at? I filled the days, months, and years with too much food, alcohol, and projects. Caregiving of other relatives took a toll on me all over again. I gained weight, had high cholesterol, and drank martinis nightly by the double. Filling my time and my belly had not filled my soul or made me attractive. Her face in the photo glowed, her chestnut hair swirled around flawless skin. I had stopped looking in the mirror.
The cost of my decision over that omelet flambé was finally here: I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years. I had sledded down the slippery slope of taking care of everyone else, riding a comfy cushion under my butt into oblivion. How could I possibly salvage anything of that twenty-five-year-old now?
When the house was empty of children we began to eat dinner in front of a news show every night, our meal balanced on knees, his laptop open beside him. I was bored to tears and brought to tears that this was how my life would continue to unspool forward. I lay awake at night, stroking my dogs, devising plans: I will go back to school. Find part-time work in a shop in town. I was qualified to be a dog walker, a cook, a housecleaner. I pulled the pillows over my head.
I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years.
First, I thought, first I should salvage the marriage. I set a table for two, lit candles and prepared a nice meal the next day.
“Now we can focus on us for the first time in years!” I said, clinking our wine glasses together.
“Did I tell you I am going to Europe next month to extend the company?” he replied.
Could I have been any more invisible than that moment?
As his words hung between us I stacked the dishes and felt a bizarre rush of relief. In some ways, being apart would be good for both of us. As he chatted on about his trip, I suddenly realized that I had no intention of just sitting here waiting for someone to decide to come home for a meal. I wasn’t angry. I was certain.
I sat at the computer the next day and typed random requests into Google:
Continuing Education Classes Knitting instructor Writing courses
I applied to a workshop in Seattle, noting at the beginning of my essay,
“I am not pretending I know how to write. I just want to try.”
Someone in the program wrote back,
“Welcome! This is great. Here is what we recommend.”
Someone wants me?
Just one line, from a stranger. In rapid succession I scoured Craigslist for rentals and found a furnished flat for a six-week workshop, put down the deposits with my own inherited money, secured dog sitters, emptied the fridge, put the garden to bed, and found a ride to the airport.
“I’ll be back after you return from Europe,” I said as he packed. But both of us knew this was the defining moment of something else. And I had defined it. Unprecedented. Exhilarating.
* * *
A friend said to me before I left, “We are so confused, you were the ultimate mom, you did everything perfectly, why do you need to go away?”
My dog sitter said, “Do you know everyone is talking about you? Wondering if you are getting divorced?”
I shouldn’t move forward, but everyone else can?
* * *
The first hour in the flat I watched the clouds flick the tips of the snow-capped Cascade mountains and listened to the silence. Not fearful, just acutely aware I was making big, irrevocable decisions based on advice from a stranger. Would this work out? Did it matter?
At a second-hand store down the street I purchased two wine glasses, two plates, and a vintage tablecloth dotted with plums. I felt the blood zinging through me.
Who did this? Somebody.
I took a deep breath and went to bed alone.