The Cabbie & The Divorcee

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A funny thing happened on the way to the airport. I climbed into the taxi that pulled up in front of my hotel, bleary eyed from a lack of sleep and decent coffee thanks to an early wake up call. Still, I was in a cheerful mood, happy to be going home to the people I love.

My cab driver nodded and smiled, quietly detecting whether or not his passenger wanted to engage in conversation. He started making small talk with me about the weather and some big movie shoot that was causing detours around neighborhood streets. It was a pleasant and lighthearted chat.

As we traveled along the expressway, he shifted the conversation to family. I learned that his daughter is 11, and his son, 6. His wife is expecting again in October. Baby number three came as a surprise. They had given away all of their baby clothes and toys just a couple of weeks before they found out they were pregnant. Oh, and it’s a boy.

His wife is the love of his life and he is speaks adoringly of her as the mother of his children and as his partner in life. She works full time, so in the evenings he insists on making dinner for the family while she puts her feet up. A former restaurant chef, he enjoys cooking for her, and is especially delighted to cater to her whimsical cravings.

When they married, his mother told him two things: to always treat his bride like a queen and to always let her handle the finances. He got it half right. Within a few short years, he had made a series of unwise financial choices that left them deeply in debt. They nearly lost everything and he admitted that he would cry on his wife’s shoulder every night. With barely enough to buy milk to feed his infant daughter, he felt so helpless about the situation that he considered suicide just to free his wife from the burden of embarrassment he had caused.

Too proud to accept a loan from his family, including a brother who is a successful doctor in New York City, he decided to sell his home to avoid total bankruptcy. They downsized to a modest apartment in an affordable but less desirable part of the city until they could get back on their feet again. Today, he continues to work hard and takes nothing for granted. He is out of debt and is proud to owe nothing to creditors. More importantly, he said, he has the freedom to buy his children whatever they want and to take his family on nice vacations.

He told me that he may never have a big bank account, but he knows he is a rich man.

Some people do not like “oversharing” because it somehow pushes unseen social boundaries, but I was riveted by his account. By the time we pulled up to the departures area, I felt as if I’d been invited to a place of honor at his table. The man had poured out his soul in a very intimate way. He didn’t expect me to reciprocate and asked nothing from me except to pray for him and his family and said that he would do the same for me and mine.

I wondered whether he revealed himself so openly to every passenger that slid across the backseat of his taxi, but I choose to believe he doesn’t. It seemed too sincere, too unrehearsed for it to be anything less than an attempt at genuine human contact. For a moment, we were just two people headed in the same direction.

What particularly struck me was that the cab driver was not ashamed about exposing his flaws and his fears, his weaknesses and regrets. He was seemed proud of what he’d been through, like Elton John’s Levon, who wears his war wound like a crown.

It made me think about my own story and I recalled the first time I told a room of complete strangers about what I’d been through. It was at a support group for divorced parents. Sharing what happened actually helped me to feel less isolated. I was in a safe environment, surrounded by people who understood what I was feeling without fear of judgement. It was liberating.

When we share with others, it bridges the gap between us. More importantly, by laying bare our experiences, we claim ownership of our past and give ourselves permission to put down what we don’t want to carry alone anymore.

I suppose that is really the point of maintaining a blog such as this. I am putting myself out there because I don’t want to carry around this pain anymore. I choose to retell my story so that I might achieve understanding and perhaps someday, forgiveness – but also in hopes that what I say here might resonate and help someone going through the same thing not feel so alone.

At the same time, I think it’s important not to cling to our stories. At our divorce support group, we would start each meeting by going around the circle, introducing ourselves by our stories. Soon it started to bother me that I was leading with the same narrative. Yes, this terrible thing really did happen to me, but no – it does not define me. I refuse to wear my war wound like a crown. I don’t need my story to be my badge of honor, lest people think it’s the most interesting aspect of who I am.

“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts,” Salman Rushdie wrote.

So now, when given an opportunity to retell my story, I try to relay it from a higher perspective – what did I learn from this experience? Why was it a good thing that it happened? How is my life so much better for having lived through this? Why do I feel so happy and grateful today?

I truly believe that by expanding my viewpoint of the circumstances, the more rewarding my story becomes and the freer I am from it.

Life Outside the Cocoon

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When my marriage capsized, I felt a wide range of emotion. Shock that it ended abruptly and so heartlessly. Anger at the hand I had been unfairly dealt. Humiliation that I had no control over what was happening, why it happened and that it had been happening for so long. And there was sadness, great sadness – not over losing him, but over losing the dream.

Yet, along with the darkness, there was an undeniable sense of relief. It sounds weird to say, but part of me was actually glad it was over.

In fact, I wanted to rush through the five stages of grief as quickly as possible. Why devote my energy to mourning (heaven knows he wasn’t grief-stricken so why should I have to be) when it could instead be used to hurry up and get on with rebuilding my life? My heart would surely repair itself with time. I had much better things to do.

I told my counselor that I resented needing to take the time to heal. I just wanted to rip off the emotional Band-Aid and move on.

“You remind me of a butterfly,” she said. “Have you ever really stopped to watch a butterfly?” Well, of course I had, suppressing the urge to roll my eyes as I awaited the follow-up cliché about personal transformation.

“Butterflies move very quickly and don’t stay in one spot for very long. They are always on the go. But every once in a while, they need to land in a safe spot where they can rest their wings and renew their energy.”

Okay I get it, I thought as I prepared for a reprimand to slow down. It didn’t come. Fortunately, my counselor was never one to lay on a guilt trip.

“Did you also realize that if a butterfly doesn’t break out of its cocoon, it will die?” she asked. “Perhaps on some deeper level this is how you felt in your marriage – trapped, holding your breath, unable to leave for any number of reasons. And maybe this explains the sense of relief you now feel.”

That was a breakthrough moment for me. I had never even considered that the reason I was now so eager to move forward was because I’d felt restricted over the years. My 20-year relationship had become a cocoon that prevented me from growing into my true self even as I’d continued to evolve from within it. My ex, on the other hand, had not changed. He was still the self-seeking man child he had always been. I was exhausted from trying to grow for the both of us.

And now that I was free, I wanted to shake out my new wings and get on with flight. (“O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”)

My homework that week was to be aware of and to watch for butterflies as they appeared around me. I was to think about everything they went through to transform themselves from caterpillar to a winged creature. How they risk everything to become butterflies. How amazing it must feel to discover their destiny – that they have the power to fly.

Coming to terms with my own transformation was liberating. It also released me from a great deal of hurt. Knowing that I had been ready to undergo a metamorphosis for years but that I needed to shed my marriage if I was ever going to fly helped me to find gratitude in reaching the end of that relationship.

Now when I catch a glimpse of a fluttering butterfly, it is a reminder of my own wings. A symbol of change, yes, but also unfettered joy.

“Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you.

You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think.

You were born worthy of love and belonging.

Courage and daring are coursing through you.

You were made to live and love with your whole heart.

It’s time to show up and be seen.”   

(Brené Brown)

My Ex’s Best Friend

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Roy Lichtenstein leaves it up to the viewers to decide what has just transpired in his 1964 painting of a tense phone call titled Ohhh … Alright ...

Thank God for call display.

It not only saved me from blindly picking up the phone one afternoon, it bought me a few milliseconds to process who was calling. Someone I hadn’t heard from in more than five years. My ex’s best friend.

I wrestled with letting it go through to voice mail, but reconsidered at the last moment. I didn’t want the ball left in my court and have to call him back. It was better to get this over with. My breath caught in my throat as I answered on the fourth ring.

“I bet this is a name you never thought you’d see again,” he joked as if he’d read my mind about the call display.

“Uh, yeah, this is quite a surprise,” I stammered.

And then there was a lengthy pause. I assumed he was calling to sell me something; a desperate attempt to meet a quota by dusting off the ol’ Rolodex and reaching out to long lost friends, with an emphasis on “lost.”

He and my ex have been best buddies for more than 25 years. They became fast friends at the office and then outside of work, playing baseball and golf together before bringing their wives and later, their children into their friendship circle. We socialized as couples, and his wife even cared for our baby daughter for a few months when I returned to work after maternity leave. They helped us move into a new home. We exchanged school pictures of the kids and annual Christmas cards for years.

While the four of us got along well, it was clear that the two male friends remained the nucleus of it. Naturally, that continued after my ex and I split up. Both he and she remained friends with my ex, even curling in a mixed league on a weekly basis. I understand that it is written in the man code to be honor-bound even in the face of dishonor, but I was still hurt by it. I never heard a peep from them again, not an expression of sadness, not a single word of condolence (not even from one wife to another), not a Christmas card.

And now here on the phone was my ex’s best friend, his amigo, his brother from another mother – who by the way, is standing up for my ex as best man at his wedding this summer. He said something about needing a favor from me (Really? A favor?) requiring my professional expertise.  “Perhaps if we could just meet for coffee this afternoon…?”

I hesitated and didn’t try to hide it in my voice. I wanted him to hear the trepidation. I wanted him to know I wasn’t about to drop everything to help him out like I once would have. Like a friend would have.

“Please,” he said, sounding desperate which he most certainly had to be to call me of all people. “I’m not sure where else to turn right now.”

“Okay,” I replied. “I can squeeze it in tomorrow.”

I wrestled with what to do and more importantly, what to say and how to act. If he was expecting me to be all warm and mushy as we caught up on each other’s lives, he would be sorely disappointed. Instead, I would go in with my eyes wide open and my guard completely up. I no longer considered him trustworthy because to this day, his loyalty remains to the person who betrayed me and irreparably broke my trust.

In a way, it reminded me of Survivor, where your very existence in the game depends on with whom you are aligned. This person made his alliance and chose to plant his flag in the sand without hearing my (unedited and unrevised) version of the truth or bothering to check in even once on my well being. Yet, here he was, begging my tribe for flint so that he could build a fire.

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Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2007 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

Of course, I was torn. Part of me wanted to turn him away into the cold, dark night to remind him that decisions have consequences. But the better part of me chose to be a compassionate human being capable of sharing my resources so that an opponent doesn’t needlessly freeze or starve to death.

I arrived at the meeting a few minutes early to find him already waiting. He looked pretty much as I remembered him, just older. I imagine he thought the same of me, although he greeted me with a kind compliment instead. We awkwardly hugged hello and he bought our coffees. I remained on alert and stiffly guarded.

“Before we start, I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what happened between you two,” he said, his eyes teary. “When I first found out, I was beyond furious at him. But you know how much he means to me and how much we’ve been through together. Eventually I had to decide that I can still like the person without liking what they did.”

I wish I could say that his words meant something to me, but they didn’t. I’m not sure if that was because it might have come as greater comfort years ago, or if it was because as I looked at him, I only saw an enabler. A deserter. A member of the rival tribe. The only relief I felt at that moment was that he’d addressed the glittering pink elephant in that coffee shop.

Attempting to make small talk, he asked about the kids and about “the new man in my life.” I did not engage because quite simply, he no longer has a right to any intimate details of my life. I also didn’t want to say anything inadvertently positive or negative that would make its way back to my ex. My life has been fodder for enough golf course gossip between them, I’m sure.

I steered the conversation away from the personal, focusing only on the present and professional purpose of our meeting. As it turned out, he was in the midst of a career calamity and needed some crisis management advice. I nodded and took mental notes but through it all, kept my cards tight to my chest.

“Just so you know, I didn’t ask him about this first. He doesn’t even know we’re here today,” he admitted and for a brief moment, there was a small, sweet taste of victory to be secretly meeting behind my ex’s back. Still, I wondered, why me? “Because you’re one of the most creative people I’ve met and I thought you’d know what to do.”

So, you guessed it, I agreed to help him out. Not because he’d flattered me or because I felt sorry for him, but because that is what I do. When someone asks for help building a fire, I give up my flint and help them chop wood.

Two weeks later, I learned that he told my ex everything about our meeting and how I’d come to his aid. Zero discretion and obviously, an equal amount of loyalty to me despite what I’d done. At least I hope he expressed it in such a way that reflects I am a good and kind person and not some kind of chump or a sucker for being willing to help out. You never know. That’s the risk you take when you give a rival tribe flint for fire. Either they can gratefully invite you into their camp to share the feast or they can burn down your hut in the middle of the night.

I doubt we will ever cross paths again and I’m not sad about that. But if he ever needs another favor someday – I will still pick up the phone, remembering that when it comes to people you’ve left in your past, always be kind but be cautious as well.