I walked into Starbucks with an agenda. The drive across town was terrible, the torrential rain made a mockery of my dilapidated windshield wipers, and I had to park in an unfinished, muddy gravel lot as far away from the coffee shop as I could possibly get; my damp, tangled hair resembled a wet cat on my head. It was dark already at 4:30 and the warm lighting of the coffee shop, the hiss of the milk being steamed, and Burl Ives singing “Holly, Jolly Christmas” did nothing to deter my foul mood at having to be out in inclement weather.
I saw my estranged husband and the second he made eye contact, I looked away, quickly approached the counter and mumbled my order to the less than enthusiastic barista. When I felt Brian behind me, I focused my attention on a collection of Michael Buble Christmas CDs perched on the counter—this actually helped me maintain my defensive and impudent mood. Never was much of a fan, to say the least.
Carrying my grande cup of hot coffee, I followed him to the tiny table and it was then that I noticed how pale and small he seemed; both of us paler and thinner these days; the divorce diet wreaking havoc on our exhausted physiques. We looked at each other for several minutes, neither of us knowing how to begin. After 14 years of marriage (the last six being the quietest) we did not know how to talk to each other. We fumbled, we stuttered, we held our breath and looked at our cold hands encircling our coffee cups as if the necessary and eloquent words we struggled to articulate might appear on the table itself, offering respite from the awkward lack of ability to speak. When did this happen? Was it a year into the marriage? Ten years? Was it your constant military deployments or my impatience and high and unreasonable expectations that led to what I call the quiet, constant disintegration of our marriage? What was it exactly that brought us here, to this tiny coffee shop to say the things we both needed to hear as the cold, winter rain fell outside? We took the opportunity to try and tell the other what “it” was and why we shut down; essentially emptying our quivers of every insult, every criticism, every deal breaking reason our life as one came to its tragic demise. Two things happened during the fusillade of aspersions we cast upon each other’s character and the tearful tirades of finally articulating what we each needed or just plain wanted and didn’t get. First, neither of us defended or objected to what the other said, no matter how painful it was to hear, and second, it was the first time I saw my husband cry. In 14 years, he never could show defeat or weakness—two characteristics unbecoming a soldier, and in his mind, a man.
We sat there for a solid two and half hours and our coffee cups had long been empty. Like two people who have been together a certain number of years, we were oblivious to those around us who may have heard us lament the trials and tribulations of a marriage at its end. I was, for once in my life, thankful for the back drop of the Christmas music turned up entirely too loud. Aretha Franklin wailing, “O Christmas Tree,” lapsing into O Tannenbaum, and, finally, her tribute to Baby Jesus interlude in between the English and German drowned out our volleying insults.
Suddenly, Brian looked at me and asked simply, “Can you forgive me, Mare?” Immediately on the defensive, I tilted my head back, drew in my breath and tried to formulate a response. Was this a way to ask me if we could reconcile? No, I was not going back to how things were—how WE were. I agreed to meet with the sole purpose of easing the transition, working out emotional and logistical details necessary to ending our marriage. As if he read my mind, he added, “That’s all I ask.” I lowered my head and reached for his hands and said yes. I asked for his forgiveness, too, for what I had done. With no preamble or hesitation, he also said yes. In those seconds we grew up.
Forgiveness, like love, is not earned. Trust, respect, friendship—those are all earned, but love and forgiveness must be given freely, unconditionally. We love the unlovable, our children, our friends, but not in order to receive it. It is the immature, the selfish, who love with the hope of getting it back. Pure love given does not require pay back, or even recognition. Forgiveness is the same, as it should never require any expectation of restorative justice. Forgive those who trespass against us—whether they know it or not. Luckily, Brian and I were able to say the words, “I forgive you.” In time, maybe I can say the same to myself.
I had been loving him with a broken heart for quite some time and his forgiveness was, for me, his way of letting me go as his wife; a wife who was never satisfied, who set him up for failure with my unreasonable expectations. We’ll have a love, but it will be one of a different sort—a love not based on desperation, loneliness, or any sort of unfulfilled dependence. We have a 12-year-old daughter to consider, and although we may never be Bruce Willis and Demi Moore “close,” we will certainly maintain civility and a parental relationship to get her unscathed, as best we can, to adulthood. Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but we may have a better divorce than marriage.
I drove home to an empty house. The smell of winter and wood smoke as I entered the front door offered little in the way of comfort and consolation, as it usually does this time of year for me. I went to bed knowing we had crossed an emotional Rubicon. We had touched on the beginning of our new normal; a life apart, doing only what we did best, and that’s being parents.
The question remained—and still remains—If he can forgive me for committing the most damaging and devastating betrayal that exists within a marriage, why can’t I forgive myself? With time and painful introspection, perhaps forgiveness will come. I don’t have to “earn” forgiveness from myself, either. I also know that if I don’t forgive myself, I will be no better to myself or to anyone else than what I was in the marriage I left.
I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note—torn in two, and burned up, so that it can never be shown against one. ~Henry Ward Beecher