The Loves of My Life

I have been thinking a lot recently about the phrase “the love of my life”. I hear the concept frequently, in music, conversation, and stories. It denotes exclusivity and a hierarchy where one stands out above all others we have loved as the most meaningful, unique, and special. This goes along with an idealized view of love wherein there is only one connection in an entire lifespan that is the “real” one. Dropping this mythical standard and objectively looking at the way relationships really work, I see that the loves in my life do not exist in relativity to one another. There are many, they are different, and they are all the loves of my life.

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Some of the loves of my life

My daughters are now 14 and 18; I have spent the better part of two decades being their mom. I have written before about how much I am in awe of them (“Thing One and Thing Two”). Like every parent, my love for them is all-consuming, piercing, and deep beyond measure. As much as my own parents shaped me, those girls are integral to who I am; their happiness makes me happy. Their sadness breaks my heart. They are the loves of my life.

My sisters are my best friends (yes, another flawed superlative, but it makes the point). I have written before about “The Triad”, and what they mean to my life. Our shared origin begets a sublime comprehension of one another. They are an unwavering source of comfort to me. The three of us see each other completely, without filter, and the unconditional acceptance between us is a permanent oasis in the scary unforgiving world. They are the loves of my life.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had a volatile relationship with a boy from my home town. We lost our boundaries and became inextricably connected. The relationship was unworkable in the long term because of its intensity and our inability to co-exist without extreme drama. The heart break when we parted ways was excruciating. Even though that was more than 20 years ago, thoughts of him still send my heart fluttering. I will love him always, even if I never see him again. He is the love of my life.

I spent 18 years with my ex-husband, and in many ways we grew up together. We built a life, had two kids, and had innumerable happy times together. As our marriage ran its course, we were able to create separate lives while maintaining an enduring friendship; we continue to cheer each other on along our respective paths. Ending a marriage is painful, and I regret the hurt we had to go through to get here. He is an amazing person, the father of my children, and he is the love of my life.

Today, I live with a life partner, and we have very little in common on the surface. He is a musician and a soft-spoken dreamer; a contrast to my logic-driven, black and white tendencies. The time we spend together is fulfilling and fun. Our differences give our relationship texture and intrigue, and I learn immensely from seeing the world through his eyes. We support each other constantly even without always fully identifying with each other’s direction. We reflect the best in each other. He is the love of my life.

I have always been surrounded by an abundance of wonderful people, and I am grateful the love that has graced my life. Co-workers, friends, running partners, and even family members have come and gone over the years, with connections ebbing and flowing as they naturally do. Some of those have become lasting bonds that I will always hold on to. They are all the loves of my life.

 

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Warm or Cold

I talk a lot about my “modern family” situation, which after six years feels normal, stable and healthy. Sometimes, though, things happen to remind me how difficult and painful it was to get to this point. Our modern family was once typical and traditional; the transition to where we are now did not come without enormous loss. A few months ago, one of my older daughter’s classmates was killed in a car accident on her way to high school. Our experience is a fraction of the pain her friends and family are enduring. The tragedy of that child’s life ending has sparked my memories of the time my family as I knew it disintegrated. One person’s sorrow does not exist in relativity to another’s, and it is fruitless to compare my experience to the death of a child. But it has renewed my memories of loss, and even more so my gratitude for what replaced my “lost” family.

My memory of the evening our family said good bye is at once rife with clear details and a surreal blur of the most intense emotions I ever experienced… my children, my heart, their arms wrapped around my neck holding on as if for dear life…the four of us (my husband, myself, and our two daughters) wracked with sobs so deep and overpowering we could not move…my soon-to-be ex-husband and me, clinging one last time to each other and the children we both love so much, awash in the regret of having hurt each other, overpoweringly sorry for not having been able to figure out how to keep it together.

We sat as a family for the last time on the stairway of our empty house, holding each other, crying for hours. Every few minutes one of us would verbalize some detail or feature of the “old” life we would miss, sending us into a fresh spasm of collective sorrow. So much passed between us during that evening on the stairway of the house where we had spent our final months as “The Coleman Family”. Four hearts shattered that night as we came face to face the profundity of our loss.

They moved to Vermont the next day, and there I was in that vacant house in Colorado for one last day before moving to my new place. The echoes of the quotidian life of a “normal” family where everywhere. I could almost hear my six-year-old daughter yelling down the hallway, “Mom, is it going to be warm or cold out today?” as she had done every day while picking out her clothes for school. The absence of that humdrum question to punctuate the morning felt like a gaping hole in my life; the silence roared at IMG_0569me. I missed their mismatched socks littering the house, their bickering, the barbie doll graveyard they always left in the living room. I missed them asking me what we would be having for dinner, even though I had hated the drudgery of responding. I missed waking up before they did in the morning and admiring my sleeping beauties. A big part of me was gone. I was not sure I would survive that grief.

Over time, a new rhythm emerged for our family and gradually it became less painful. We are a distance family, enabled by technology, airplanes, substantial disposable income, and our love for one another. At some point several years into this configuration, we all realized it was working and that we were happy. I don’t think any of us will ever say this is an easy way to live, but we all appreciate the fact that we are, in fact, still a family. The conventional features of a “normal” family are nowhere to be seen, but we have not lost the heart of it; we have not lost each other.

13880366_10210351357206522_5432846519791015578_nThe death of a child in the community reminds us to hold our own tighter and not take them for granted. While I still miss the daily “warm or cold” question ritual, I cherish the new things that have replaced it – the daily FaceTime calls, the weeks we spend together in Vermont, the adventures we have traveling, and all the little ways we have found to continue as a family of our own design. I am on a plane to spend the next few days with my daughters in Vermont as I write this.  I will hug and kiss my children tonight, and I am blessed.

 

Thing One and Thing Two

Every parent thinks their kids are special. The universal biological function of reproducing turns us into doting, obsessive chumps. We see our kids’ idiosyncrasies, talents, weaknesses, and emerging personalities through the unique parental lens that makes us simultaneously blind and omniscient about these beings of our creation. I am a typical parent in this regard. As Thing One (age 17) and Thing Two (age 13) grow up, I have a new perspective on my girls. This may be something we all go through as our kids begin to knock on the door of adulthood. Regardless of the universality of it, what I feel for them these days is novel and pleasantly surprising. This is a distinctive mix of gratitude, respect, intrigue, and admiration. I am inspired by the unassuming wisdom and dignity of my children.

Lolo
Beautiful Lolo

My girls have not had an easy childhood. While it started out “normal”, I blew their worlds apart when they were 5 and 9 years old. That year, they lived through my tumultuous transition from heavy drinker to non-drinker and the flailing search for identity that accompanied that transition. The same year, I threw in a move across the country to Colorado, so they had to change schools, leaving behind their friends, family, and everything that was familiar. A few months later, their dad and I realized it was time for divorce, and he and the girls moved back to Vermont without their mom. Things stabilized after that year, and our newly defined non-traditional family settled into a rhythm of monthly visits from Mom and summers in Colorado. Five years later, I can happily (and with some degree of incredulity) report that they are not only well-adjusted, but clearly thriving.

As I think back to my own childhood, I cannot fathom what this has been like for my girls. The security and stability of everything they knew was suddenly removed from

Lily
Beautiful Lily

their lives. Their grace, strength, and magnanimity in the face of that upheaval was extraordinary, especially given their tender ages. Now that they are older, I am overflowing with gratitude to them for their kind hearts, their flexibility, and their affability. They have instinctively and naturally worked with their dad and me to forge happiness within a family structure for which there is no existing script. They are authentic, open-minded people who have survived broken hearts at the hands of their own parents and wear the resulting scars without resentment.

I have not deluded myself into thinking all rough waters are behind us or that my girls will never experience angst from what they have been through. I used to worry I had caused them permanent and fundamental damage. They have made it clear that they are ok, and I can settle back into the routine worries of “normal” parenthood. They have and will continue to have shithead moments, just like the rest of humanity. They are growing into themselves; the same strength that got them through before shows up every day as they do life with gusto. They try new things, express themselves, and share themselves with the world. They are great people, and It is not an exaggeration to say I am in awe of them.

The Triad

Years ago, my ex-brother-in-law coined the moniker “Streets Triad” for my two sisters and me. I like this because it connotes a kind of superhero-ish tribe, and it fits. Although he has long been expelled from the family because he just couldn’t hang, the Streets Triad carries on. We are a group of loud, strong, successful, quirky, neurotic forty-something women. The combination of us is intrinsic to who I am.

My sisters are among the most important people in my life and they are my best friends. They infuriate, aggravate, motivate, entertain, and comfort me in a way that only they can do, and without trying. It is a natural dynamic borne of having moved through childhood with one another as constant (and often unwelcome) companions. There has always been a zero-tolerance policy in our family for anything resembling pretension, and this is reflected in each of us. When we are together, the authenticity becomes so concentrated as to be overwhelming. The level of eccentric hilarity and strong-mindedness in any room occupied by the three of us is a thing to behold.

While we are different people in many ways, there are some unmistakable Streets Triad hallmark characteristics. The most obvious is extreme candor. For better or worse, you IMG_0584never have to wonder what a member of the Triad thinks of something. Over the years, we have all developed self-awareness that has tempered this quality. So, the occasions where we unwittingly offend, embarrass, or overshare are much less frequent than they used to be. But time has not changed the fundamental tendency of the Streets girls to be uncommonly direct. As anyone who has spent time with our family can attest, straightforwardness fills the space when we are together. The result is often uproarious; I suspect that the uninitiated walk away from their first triple Streets encounters with shell shock from having been exposed to such a high frequency of what many people consider “things you don’t say out loud”.

Along with our frankness, the Streets Triad shares an outlandish sense of humor. Laughter is the soundtrack at every get-together. The subjects that amuse us most tend to be lowbrow and juvenile, and no bystander is safe from our silliness. Just last month, Britt jokingly threatened our brother-in-law with a punch to the butthole, except she was inadvertently talking to a stranger who happened to be walking next to her. The three of us were doubled over with laughter at this for several hours that evening. This kind of thing is just what we do!

The Streets Triad embodies drive and strength. Two of us have trained for and completed Ironman triathlons. The third is retired from the Marine Corps at the ripe age of 44 after having achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. We have successful careers. We are all at the tail-end of raising amazing kids. We have all handled the tribulations of divorce and rebuilding with fortitude and grace. When I think about it, I marvel at the job our parents did instilling in us this dauntlessness (they were definitely not the wholesome helicopter types).

The bond of sisterhood is substantial. When we fight, it is with ferocity. When we laugh, it is from the heart, because we are celebrating ourselves and each other. When I am afraid, the knowledge that they are in this world with unconditional love and support for me is a comfort like no other. Looking at them feels like seeing parts of myself in a mirror, and that reflection is beautiful.

 

The Other Woman

There is a person in my life who occupies a very dark place in my heart and mind; my thoughts and feelings about her make me question my integrity. Every time I hear her name, a hard nugget of bitterness rises in my chest. I feel anger and disdain at the mention of her. Sometimes I catalogue her faults; everything from her annoyingly frizzy hair and bushy eyebrows, to her outdated fashion choices, to her self-righteous smugness, to her pollyanna way of rejecting anything that is even slightly “inappropriate”. The problem with all of this is that I KNOW she is a perfectly decent person, her hair is just fine, and she has never really done anything to me. But, as the girlfriend of my ex-husband, she is a daily presence in my children’s lives while I am not. My irrational resentment of this fact is sometimes unbearable, and sometimes it consumes me. I know I must reframe this in the interest of my own emotional well-being, as well as for my children.

As I consider the patterns of my reactions to The Other Woman over the past couple of years, I notice that there are layers. The outermost layer is like a wild animal, primitive and raw, wanting to eliminate the threat she poses by tearing her apart, limb by limb. My daughter mentions over the phone that The Other Woman braided her hair before bed last night, and my mind is flooded with a vision of slamming The Other Woman’s face into a wall. My blood is boiling, but I say, “Oh, that was nice of her,” as matter-of-factly as I can manage and change the subject. Once the visceral initial reaction passes, the next layer is like the reaction of a petulant child. I run through the index of The Other Woman’s failings that I have stored in my brain and assure myself that although she is with my children (in my fucking place!), she is inferior in every way, so her presence cannot possibly pose a threat to my relationship with my daughters. Her weakness of character, bad taste, and poor sense of humor cannot hold a candle to me, right? The final layer is where my civilized adult mind steps in and returns me to a state of acceptance, albeit reluctant and tenuous. I remind myself that this situation is of my own design, and that The Other Woman really is a good person, and that she has no intention of taking my place or interfering with my relationship with my daughters. In fact, she is a positive influence in their lives.

My typical approach to problem solving involves casting the brightest flood light I can find on an issue. This is my way of disarming things; I feel compelled to remove as much of the unknown as possible so I can clearly assess and handle things. I tried to apply this to my relationship with The Other Woman, thinking that if I could have a candid conversation with her, we could clear the air and I could stop this cycle. I even had a little hope that we could have some kind of ongoing rapport. I initiated the conversation, she told me what I already knew; she doesn’t want to take a motherly role with my kids. That was the extent of her interest in interacting with me. It was profoundly unsatisfying. She was completely oblivious to the drama and emotional energy that was happening on my side of this relationship. I got the impression that to her, dealing with me was a mundane incidental interaction like you have with the receptionist at the dentist’s office; a polite and utilitarian transaction with no import beyond the exchange itself. My attempt to shine a light on the problem revealed what felt like bare white walls with nothing but a smooth unyielding surface, no texture, no warmth, no softness.

Clearly, my standard tools were not right for the job of finding peace with the presence of The Other Woman in my life, and I have since returned to the repeating loop of vitriolic anger followed by petty bitterness and unquiet settling. One thing I learned from my initial attempt to change this was that the problem is mine alone. The Other Woman is not impacted by nor concerned with the difficulty I experience around her existence. In some ways, this gives me a bit of satisfaction, as it supports my paradigm of her inferiority and allows me to cast myself as the bigger person, and even a bit of a martyr. But, that satisfaction is artificial and hollow. As they say, “anger harms the vessel,” and my search for a way to gracefully empty this vessel continues.

My Firing Squad

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Three years ago my kids moved to another state across the country from me with their dad. He and I realized it was time to release one another to build separate lives. With a great deal of respect and love for one another, we carefully constructed a new arrangement for our family. I live in Colorado, they live in Vermont. I travel to Vermont every month to spend time with them, staying in the house where they live with their dad, my ex-husband. They spend summers with me in Colorado. Aside from the obvious heartache of being apart from my children, the hardest thing about this is the constant self-doubt which is inextricably combined with judgement (both real and perceived) of others.

 

I wish I didn’t give a fuck what you think, but I do. I don’t give enouimagegh of a fuck to change the way I live my life to gain your approval. But I do care enough to try to convince you that it’s all good. If I could carry on without hesitation, I would spend zero time or energy worrying about how the world might view my choices. But here I am, desperately searching for the words that will make you understand that I AM a good mother.

Every time someone asks me if I have children, I feel like I am standing naked in front of a firing squad whose bullets are judgments with the power to strip away my validity as a mother. In order to preempt the bullets, I feel the urgent need to simultaneously apologize for and justify myself as I describe my family situation to anyone. I want you to know that I love my kids as fiercely and deeply as any mom out there, and that the way I am defining motherhood is good for my daughters. If I can somehow find the right words for the 30-second elevator spiel about my family, you will see that my beautiful daughters are thriving. You will know that there is a functional and love-filled partnership between their dad and me, and you will be happy for us. If I don’t paint the picture just right, you will shake your head and lament the sadness of the situation. Then I will have to re-convince myself that it doesn’t matter what you think and that I am not a failure.

I am exceedingly grateful to my ex-husband for the grace and care he puts forth to make this work. He is a full-time single parent 75% of the time, and he is spectacular. He lets his ex-wife stay in his house for a week every month, for pete’s sake! He makes it possible for me to have an active role in the daily lives of our children. He solicits my input on things like bedtimes, food choices, and talking to the kids about sex. He makes sure we Skype every day, and he makes it possible for me to attend parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments by phone. He could easily cut me out of these things. He is doing the heavy lifting, and I am chiming in from 2,000 miles away without any of the the toil or hassle.

The scenario we are living is exhausting, difficult, and expensive. It is also healthy and beneficial to all of us. Ironically, I am a much better parent under these circumstances than I was when we were living as an intact-white-picket-fence family that could have been the poster child for the American dream. Unhappiness, fed by alcohol and denial, plagued our “perfect” life. We successfully carved out a better way of being. I am proud of us for making this work. Someday, I will stand before the firing squad and be impervious to its bullets because I will have found a way to stop giving a fuck.

Dog Years

Zoey Dufresne
Zoey Dufresne

The other day I was cleaning out a junk drawer, and I came across the ID tag from a beloved former pet, Zoey, the sweetest yellow lab in the world. I couldn’t believe how this little piece of metal with no remaining practical purpose in my life elicited such a sudden and strong emotional reaction from me. One minute I was sitting on the floor matter-of-factly sorting through a pile of broken pens, thumbtacks, random keys and paperclips. The next minute tears were running down my face as this symbolic trinket brought a rush of memories and feelings for which I was really not prepared.

Zoey was our first “child”. We adopted her from the humane society, and Zoey was her original name. We decided to keep it so as not to add to the trauma of transition, but we did add the middle name “Dufresne”, after Andy Dufresne, the main character in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption”. She had exhibited such a calm dignity and a quiet sweetness (much like the character in the movie) among the yelping chaos around her at the humane society that this addition to her name was natural. The day we brought this beautiful sweet being into our lives, we went from “couple” to “family”.

Zoey was with us for six years, through all of the joys and heartbreak that came with the births of our two children, the death of my mother, and our own growing into middle adulthood. We moved across the country with her, twice. We nursed her back to health from a spinal injury that left her paralyzed in her hind end for several weeks. She went camping with us, she patiently let our toddlers climb all over her and slobber on her ears (Lily even poked her in the butt with a little toddler finger once, and she just stepped away without drama), she snuggled with us when we were sad. She spent the last two years of her life with the top of her head perpetually encrusted in dried baby food, yogurt, and oatmeal as she never missed sitting at her post under the high chair at meal time. During those years, it would have been hard to imagine life without Zoey. And then, one day, rather unexpectedly, she was gone, and there was a hole in our family, and our hearts broke and the sadness was almost unbearable.

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It has been eight years since Zoey died, and in that time the family that she left behind has become almost unrecognizable compared to what it looked like when she left us. We are divorced and live two thousand miles apart. The perfect family with the white picket fence, two beautiful children, and the family dog disintegrated into oblivion. We are all happy and healthy, and life is good. But, seeing that dog tag, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of loss and failure, because it represented the road we thought we were on when Zoey was with us. If you had told me the day we brought her home and started that little family what it would eventually become, I would not have believed you. And it makes me wonder what other unexpected twists and turns are in store. And it thrills me, and it scares the shit out of me.