Saturday, November 3, 2007

Sixty, Divorced and Starting Over

Chapter I – The Surprise

What if you wake up one typical day and your spouse looks you straight in the eye and suddenly says “I want a divorce.” Now I’m not talking about couples who have been having marital problems for months or even years, but ones who have had a comfortable marriage with a home, children, financial ups and downs and all the normal routines associated with 30 + years of marriage.

For me the fateful day came the first week of spring. My spouse came home one evening, sat on the couch and said he wanted to have a talk. I turned off the news on the TV and got comfortable in my lounge chair and smiled as I waited for him to say something. Suddenly the words came out like thunder in a summer storm. “We’ve had a good marriage for some thirty years and now I want a divorce.”

I was totally unprepared for this scenario! What the heck brought this on? We had been married for thirty three years, had two children, (boy and girl) one married, one in college, both living on their own, two grandchildren and two dogs.

I had recently had surgery, a total hip replacement, and had only returned to work the week before. We had been talking about selling the house and moving to Florida. Jim was officially retired from a government job, collecting a pension and working part-time for a law firm that collected back debts as an investigator. I was still working full time as an executive assistant for a national office supply company. We were not in the best financial shape, but we were managing.

We had lived in our home for 26 years, taken modest vacations off and on, given our daughter a wedding, enjoyed a social life with friends and even maintained a decent sexual attraction to each other. What was happening? Why didn’t I see this coming? What did I do wrong? These questions raced through my mind as I tried to stay calm and not sink into a flood of tears and outpouring of emotional rage.

What came next was shocking, damning and just plain mean. Still stunned and unable to speak, Jim continued with his reasons for leaving without any prompt, for I had not even been able to mutter the question of why. “You’ve let yourself go and I can’t take it anymore.” Okay, I understand this is a typical excuse some people use to pump themselves up when contemplating divorce to mask a more deep and insidious excuses for running away from the responsibilities of a long term marriage. But even I, naïve to this whole turn of events knew it was something else.

Granted, I had put on extra weight. Right after my fiftieth birthday I went menopausal and developed high blood pressure. I even suffered a ministroke. Before the operation I had suffered two years of slow and debilitating pain on my left side, I had difficulty walking and even had a few falls. I had stupidly just dealt with it without seeing a doctor or getting tests done and as a result my weight increased. Finally Jim had encouraged me to go and get it fixed.

I was stunned when the doctor showed me the x-rays. My entire left hip was being eaten away by degenerative arthritis. In my childhood and through my teens I had been a ballet dancer and active in other sports including synchronized swimming and fencing. Though after marriage I had pretty much moved on to being a parent and taken a full-time job I still swam, played softball and took up bicycle riding as often as I could. After forty I gave it all up, too tired and too busy trying to keep our family together during hard times. We never really have a lot of savings even with working two jobs to help keep the kids in a private school.

After the operation I was determined to recover as quickly as possible, exercising, dieting and getting some of my strength back. I lost close to thirty pounds but I knew I still had a ways to go. And now one week after I return to work, having been out for three months, Jim tells me he wants out. What a crock! I knew there had to be more. The fog was lifting now and somehow I sensed he had been planning this for some time. This wasn’t a sudden decision. Something else was going on. And then he said it. “This was a mistake.”

Now there’s a slap in the face! What was a mistake? Our entire marriage, having stayed in it so long, what? My mind was swirling with images of thirty some odd years of ups and downs, lovemaking, heated arguments, crisis after crisis, happiness, joy and sadness, all the events that fill a life when you share it with someone. A mistake, is that what this was? I finally got up from my chair and walked across the room, my cane in hand. As I limped pass him , I lowered my voice and just said, “do what you have to do.”

I wanted to scream, cry, curl up in a tiny ball and just die. It was so surreal. But years of discipline at keeping my emotions to myself kept me from doing any of that. Besides, I refused to let him see me break down in front of him. I had to think and I had to do it now before I turned into a total wreck. I would cry later. But Jim wasn’t finished. He had his speech all laid out and he had a plan. Sitting in my office he pursued the issue. He would give me the house, taking only a few items like the 35 inch TV some pictures and the dogs but he would make sure I was taken care of. Now this was laughable.

Jim was a financial disaster. Though he made a modest income he always felt the need to spend it as quickly as he made it. I was the saver in the family or at least I had tried. But every time I tucked some away, he managed to create a crisis so that we would have to use the savings to get us out of debt. It had finally come to a head when our daughter was getting ready to get married. He had managed to talk me into refinancing the house to help pay for the wedding. But we couldn’t keep up the payments and he had decided to file for bankruptcy on his own, leaving me out of it. When he did it, he had kept it from me saying, “he hadn’t wanted to worry me”. But I had found out and my reaction was one of near panic. What could I do? I was back to working one job only and trying to make do. Jim had retired and thought we could live on his pension and my salary alone. It took me a year to convince him to get a job again. I even had to write and send out resumes for him. When he did finally get a position, it was barely enough to keep our heads above water, but I never dreamed he would take it so far as to declare bankruptcy.

In a way the entire situation was partly my fault. I knew Jim’s weakness and I should have spoken up and demanded he act more responsibly but I hated confrontations and in the end I deferred to his judgment convincing myself that he could handle it. Basically I ignored the problem.

Now he wanted me to have the house. This to me was a euphemism for “I’m dumping everything on you.” I was not fooled. I was about to be deserted and left holding the bag. As he talked about who should tell the kids and our friends I was struggling with the reality of my situation. As he discussed his plans to move out, I was trying to grapple with what and how I was going to survive this. And then the most unimaginable thing happened. Just as I was on the brink of a meltdown he had the nerve to ask if we could make love one last time for “old time sake”. Now I was livid. I had been told I had lost my desirability, that our marriage was a mistake, that he was leaving me and all he could come up with was if he could take me to bed one last time! My primal instinct was to claw his eyes out then take a knife and cut “it” off, but instead I shoved him out the door and locked myself in my office. Head in hands, I sat at my desk staring at the wallpaper on the screen of my computer. Oddly enough it was a picture of a scene from Star Trek, (yes I am a Trekker!) the bridge of the Enterprise with the crew from the Next Generation. The tears had started to well up in my eyes, having held back from breaking down up until now. Looking for help from the enigmatic Captain Picard, I whispered “what do I do now?” A voice strong and unflinching spoke back…”Engage”.

The next morning I got up, fed the dogs, got dressed and mechanically got into my car and drove to work. Fortunately the office where I worked was only five minutes from our house. If I had had to take the freeway or traveled any distance at all I may not have made it because I was so numb and terrified at the same time. I sat in the car in front of the building for at least ten minutes trying to pull myself together and get my “game face” on. I never liked appearing sad, angry or distressed in front of people. To me it had always been sign of weakness or trying to solicit sympathy from people and being too self-absorbed, but mostly it was because I didn’t like seeing other people unhappy just because I was. My mother use to say “try not to look so miserable. No one wants to see your pain.”

I had tried putting on make-up that morning, something I only did when I was going out or feeling ill which is kind of bizarre when you think about it, two totally opposite events with different emotional status. Going out to a party, the movies, dinner with friends are all happy occasions where you’re feeling good and looking forward to a happy time. I also used make-up when I had a cold, suffered through that monthly emotional turmoil and even in the hospital when I had to have my gall bladder and appendix removed and ended up spending 26 days there because I got pneumonia and crashed because of an allergic reaction to the antibiotics. I even put on make-up and did my nails before I went into the hospital to have my children! Now I needed it to help me get through this first day after the last night of what I had thought was a very good and stable marriage. I wasn’t ready for this, but is anyone ever?

Walking into the office I put on a happy face and readied myself for a full day of work which I hoped would help me avoid thinking anymore about my situation. Walking toward my office I suddenly realized I was alone, no not in spirit but in reality. I was the only person in the office! I had arrived an hour early. God was I out of synch! Entering my office I turned on the lights and started up the computer. Well at least I would be getting an early start on things. It was a Tuesday, a week before the end of the month which meant I was going to have monthly and quarterly reports due so it would be an opportunity to get ahead of what normally was a very hectic time.

But first I needed coffee! Being first into work had its down side. It meant I had to make coffee. I could take a computer apart and add modules to the motherboard, install disc drives to the CPU, add printers to existing terminals, fix the copier when someone left a paper chip or staple attached to a document, but make coffee? Not!! Off to the kitchenette I trudged determined to do this one thing right. Searching the cupboards I found the can of coffee. Deftly I read the instructions on the back. ‘One level tablespoon per cup’. Okay…Looking in the drawers I searched without success for a proper measuring spoon. Nothing! All that was there was a huge cake knife, a can opener and endless supply of plastic forks. Not even a plastic spoon! Memo…buy a set of measuring spoons at the Dollar Store. Well I guess I’ll have to pour it in and estimate, I thought to myself. Opening the lid I was surprised to find a measuring scoop inside. Viola! All was not lost. Now where do I put the coffee? (I told you I wasn’t good at this!) Filters! Yes, I vaguely remembered that you are suppose to use a filter that goes in somewhere at the top so that the water can run into it and then down into the glass coffee pot. I found the filters and even managed to correctly place one into the ‘catcher’ at the top of the machine. Now all I had to do was add the coffee, turn it on and wait. After about ten minutes I had a full pot of dark brown ‘roasted’ heavenly smelling coffee. Not bad for my first time, after all I usually drank instant at home. Feeling as though I had accomplished something new without any problems I went to the fridge, got my milk, my Hershey syrup, and my whip cream. Starbucks has nothing on me! With my oversized coffee cup I proudly poured myself some java and headed back to my desk. Leaving my office door open I could hear as my associates entered one then two at a time. The day was beginning.

We were a small office of about twelve people. The nice thing was that everyone talked to each other whether to just say hello or sometimes to chit chat about their weekend or what they were planning for the week and weekend ahead. Today was no exception. One of the salesmen saw my light on and popped his head into my office to say ‘good morning’. Noticing that something was different he complimented me on my dress and make-up thinking I was going out later. “You don’t have a job interview or something?” I smiled and said no, that I had just been in the mood to do something different that day.

My best friend whom I thought of as a sister came in next. Her office was across the hall from mine and we spent a lot of time in work and outside of work together. Surprised at my early arrival she stepped into my office and immediately gave me a look.

There was no escaping Joy’s intuition. She knew me far too well. We had been working together in the same department for over seven years and had been best friends and sisters for all that time. She had been the administrator for the branch manager when I first started working for the company and had been influential in having me hired. She had also helped and taught me all about personal PCs and Office Windows.

Before that I had worked with mainframes and system wide terminals at a local hospital as the Data Processing Supervisor. I had been a programmer in Fortran, COBOL, Pascal, RPGII, Basic and the like, working with IBM mainframes and Business Data Processing Computers. I basically knew nothing about Microsoft or the personal computer revolution. When the hospital was sold for the third time in two years I saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to move on. I then took a job as a manager for a chain of video stores because the owner knew me and found my infinite knowledge of movies very useful. I had grown up in the movies during the fifties and sixties, having spent a great deal of time going to movies and watching them on TV, something I inherited from my mother who was also an avid fan. I spent part of my time programming the stores computers to look up titles and cross reference by them by categories, stars and even directors with sub categories by Academy Award winners, dates and which ones were in black and white. I loved organizing things.

Joy was now staring at me. She knew something was wrong. “Okay, what’s with the make-up?” For a moment I weighed my options. Do I lie and deflect the question or do I just break down now and spill the beans. Before I could answer fate stepped in and distracted us both.

From the hallway a cry could be heard as someone called out “Geezus H. Who made the coffee?” I lowered my eyes as the Manager walked by my office. Lamely I raised my hand and said I did. “How much did you use?” It turned out that when you use the scoop which was conveniently left inside the can one usually measured out three scoops. I had measured out twelve, one for each cup. Memo- buy coffee that’s pre-measured! Everyone took the mistake well and Joy proceeded to make a fresh pot laughing and joking about my inexperience in the use of simple domestic household appliances. I stood by watching, having dumped my own cup out before I had even had a taste.

Crisis over I went back to my desk and just plopped in my chair. Joy followed, not having forgotten our earlier beginning of a conversation. There was no escape. I would have to tell her now. Asking her to close the door, I looked her straight in the eye and told her the whole nightmarish story of the events the night before. The tears, the fears and my shaking were unabated now. But I had a friend, a sister who was not about to let me deal with it all alone. After a hug and a few well chosen words about Jim’s ancestry we just sat there in silence. I was drained, but it felt good and I knew it would be alright.

As we sat there discussing my next course of action my phone rang. Clearing my throat I answered it with my best phone manner voice. It was my son, Jamie. His father had called and given him the news. He was understandably upset and worried about me. He said he was coming right down.

I couldn’t believe it! Jim was calling the kids, our friends, everyone we knew to tell them he was moving out and that our marriage was over. He had effectively pre-empted any hope of my first being able to cope with this disaster and finding a way to minimize the avalanche of gossip and rumors. The cat was out of the bag and my universe was spinning out of control. I needed a life raft and a way to put order back in my life.

Chapter II – The Plan (coming soon)

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