I started dating my high school sweetheart at fifteen. We were engaged and married in our twenties. Our daughter was born before I turned thirty and now, at age 32, I’m single for the first time in seventeen years.
This is how my first week as a single person went down after I spent seventeen years in a relationship.
The first thing I noticed when I returned home was that the cedar bush in front of our house had died. It felt strangely symbolic. “ I’ll need to get him to pull that out when he gets home ,” I thought to myself. As the words permeated my brain, a realization came with it, which hit me hard. He wasn’t coming home and I wouldn’t have his help pulling out a dead shrub.
I unlocked the door and pushed it open. It felt different and a little less bloated. I had spent the weekend at a friend’s cottage to give him the space he needed to clear his stuff out. Gone was the living room couch, the coffee table, a bed, some smaller appliances and his clothes. It was as though his presence in the house had evaporated overnight. In many ways, it did.
I stood in the center of the room and looked around. I breathed in the moment knowing that my life was forever changed and I got to work.
Three hundred and twelve Lysol wipes later, I felt as though I had successfully wiped his DNA off of every surface in the house.
The first step in reclaiming a space that we had shared for so many years. A house we purchased together. The house in which our daughter had her first steps.
I spent the rest of the first day wiping surfaces, including my tear-stained cheeks.
After packing my daughter’s lunch for school, and realizing the entire thing was carbs (and not the healthy kind, either), I headed to the grocery store to pick up some fruits and vegetables. I grabbed a shopping cart and meandered through the aisles.
I grabbed hummus and put it back (I don’t eat hummus regularly, he did). Snagged two cucumbers from the cart and put one back (I don’t need two cucumbers now, one will spoil). Loaded a jumbo size box of dishwasher detergent pucks into my cart before realizing that the smaller size was likely more appropriate.
I checked out, walked to my car and loaded the heavy bags while tears fell to the ground. I texted a friend to ask, “It’s totally normal to burst into tears post-grocery shopping, right?” She told me that I would eventually find my new normal and until then, to feel all the feels. I was feeling them, alright.
Even though we had separated a year prior and lived together throughout that time, I felt like I was only now going through the emotions that come with a break-up. The idea that I was truly alone now began sinking in with each breath I took.
Alone. Woosh. Alone.
Days Three Through Five
The days that followed felt fairly routine and thankfully, kept my mind occupied. I had my daughter most of the time through that week, as my hours are a little more stable than her father’s are, and my mom came to stay with me a few nights in there, too.
I spent a lot of time at furniture stores trying to find a couch. I also spent a lot of time cleaning and organizing.
The trick to a break-up, I’ve learned, is to put systems in place that help with the overwhelm that comes with realizing you have to do everything by yourself.
I wrote out the garbage and recycling schedule and stuck it on the fridge. I did up a whiteboard calendar and stuck it in a prominent place in my office. I used at least one hundred and sixty-two more Lysol wipes as I felt that the extra dust in the house weighed too heavily on my mind.
When the house felt organized and cleaned through, I changed my focus to the yard. I bought a lawnmower, I sprayed weed killer, I pulled prickly plants while cursing under my breath. I swore, a lot. I asked the guy at Lowe’s for help when I realized that the stone I wanted and the bags of mulch were ridiculously heavy.
As I worked in the dirt, my thoughts came back to the cedar bush in the front yard. I decided to give it a go and see if I couldn’t pull it out myself.
Cedar bushes are notorious for spiders, so I sprayed an entire can of Raid on it before going anywhere near it and almost considering setting the thing on fire, too. Knowing enough about chemical reactions, I figured that wasn’t wise so I just waited for the Raid to do its job.
After leaving ample time for all of the spiders to meet their maker, I came back to the bush armed with a shovel, gardening gloves and rusty shears. I started by chopping off the branches and did so, one by one, until I was left with a spoke-filled stump.
I stuck my shovel into the ground and leaped on top of it with all of my force. It didn’t budge.
After trying this method for what felt like hours (it was probably five minutes), I began to feel that old familiar feeling of defeat creep in. I placed the shovel and the shears back in the garage, closed the door and went back inside.
I cried in the shower, as the dirt fell away from my skin, wondering if perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this single life thing. Sleep was fleeting that night.
I knew, from the helpful schedule I had tacked to the fridge, that it was black box day. I had done an Internet search, earlier in the week, to find out what went in the black box and I was extremely proud of how neatly organized my recycling was. All of the cardboard boxes were perfectly flat and the paper cups from my coffee stacked together like a Russian nesting doll. It was recycling perfection.
As I hauled the boxes to the curb, I felt accomplished. I hadn’t had to think about the recycling or the garbage in seventeen years as it was never the thing that I did. We had naturally divvied up the roles and responsibilities and this didn’t fall under my territory. But, here I was, conquering something that other people just do so naturally.
After finishing up the garbage and pouring the last of the mulch into the flower beds and carrying the last of the yard waste bags to the roadside, I went inside, showered and laid on my bed with a book.
I felt victorious. I felt happy and I realized that I hadn’t thought about what I was missing that day… I had only felt hope. I fell asleep feeling settled in my decision and excited for what I would accomplish the following day.
The next evening, I eyed the cedar bush with such fury that I half hoped it would incinerate before my eyes and make my job a little easier. It didn’t. I kicked it, but that didn’t help either.
The cedar bush sat there, all proud and rooted in the ground, mocking me. It silently told me everything that my lizard brain was feeding me with frenzy: “You’re not good enough. You can’t do this. You’re not going to be okay.” I kicked the cedar again.
I turned to my daughter, who has playing with her Cinderella carriage nearby, “Put on your gardening gloves sweetheart. We’ve got a stump to destroy.” Grinning, she pulled on her miniature gloves, grabbed a spade and joined me at the stump’s side.
Together, we whacked and hacked and chopped at the roots of the bush. Around and around I went, digging in the dirt, every root cut symbolizing freedom. Every movement in the stump sending me a spark of motivation.
About twenty minutes in, my daughter looked at me and said, “Mommy! I think we can get it out now.”
And, we did. We grabbed that stump together and yanked it out of the ground. We cheered triumphantly and tossed the stump into a yard bag and, for good measure, we kicked the brown paper.
As I sat on the front step of the house with my daughter, each of us with a glass of cold lemonade in hand, I realized that we were going to be okay. I knew there would be moments ahead that would be difficult and I knew that there would be times when I would need to swallow my pride and ask for help but here we were.
We destroyed the stump that had nestled its roots so firmly in the ground.
We were free.