Wellness is not measured by the amount of broccoli you eat or the number of miles you can run. It is not found in the number of punches on your yoga membership card or the double digits of your sit-up count. Wellness is not indicated by the reading of the blood pressure cuff or the size indicated on the label of your jeans.
I used to think I was well; I had all of the above mastered. My lean, muscled body spoke of the intense workouts it was subjected to along with the strict vegetarian diet that was used to fuel the exercise sessions. I awoke before dawn to ensure that I could fit a workout into my hectic schedule as a middle school teacher. I fit long runs in on open evenings or on the weekends. I watched everything I ate, avoiding meat and keeping a careful eye on the amount of fat consumed. My favorite way to spend the weekends was working in my extensive garden or going on long hikes in the nearby North Georgia Mountains.
I used to think I was well. But I wasn’t. All it took to strip away all the physical manifestations of health was a few short sentences. A text message, sent across the country on a sunny Saturday afternoon, arriving unexpectedly on my phone.
July 11, 2009 12:38 p.m.
I’m sorry to be such a coward leaving you this way. I am leaving. Please reach out to someone to let the dogs out as I am leaving the state. The code for the garage is 5914. I’m truly sorry but I can’t do this anymore. Please give me some time to come to terms with my decision. I will call you in a few days. I am sorry that I have failed you.
When two become one, you aren't able to see yourself clearly.
Fear gripped. Legs collapsed. Brain stuttered. Lungs heaved. Gut clenched. Body trembled. World shattered. Visceral. Violent.
My father’s arms engulfed me as I lay shaking on the floor, my body and brain rebelling from my new reality.
“What can I do for you? Do you want me to call Mom?,” my dad offered, seeking a way to comfort his only child.
“Yes, please,” I responded, forcing the words out through my locked lungs.
He reluctantly left me in a heap on the hallway floor of my aunt and uncle’s house as he moved to the dining room to make the call to my mother in Texas, whom he had divorced decades earlier.
My brain barely registered his soft, yet strained voice in conversation several feet away from me. My hands gripped my phone with urgency, willing it to send another message. Wanting this to be a mistake. A joke. Anything but real. A little anger pushed through the initial shock, enough for me to summon the courage to flip open the phone, using muscle memory trained over years to scroll down twelve names to Mr. T, the nickname he used to put himself in the phone he bought for me years before.
“Hello. You’ve reached T of MMS. I cannot come to the phone right now, but please leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as possible.”
I took a deep breath and left a message, almost unintelligible through my tears, my shaking, and my heaving chest. “T, I don’t understand. What is this? A text message? Sixteen years and a text message? Please don’t do this. Not like this. Call me. Please.”
I closed the phone, severing the connection.
It sat there silent. Taunting me. I opened it again, this time to send a text message, What about the dogs? Are the dogs okay? Call me.
It remained silent, the screen dark.
My father was still in the other room, pacing the length of the dining room table as he and my mother searched for a plan. Meanwhile, my mind flashed upon the last week, looking for explanations, answers. Anything.
T had returned from a business trip on July 1st, four days before I left our home in Atlanta to visit family on the West Coast. We had spent those few days together, enjoying each other’s company as we took care of the mundane responsibilities of daily life and celebrated Independence Day. I searched the memories, looking for a clue, but none was forthcoming. He was as loving as always, never hinting that he was drafting the text while embracing me. On the morning of my trip, he walked with me into the airport, helping me with check-in and baggage. Just outside security, next to the black and red poster declaring forbidden carry-on items, he hugged me fiercely. We kissed, full passionate kisses. Pulling back slightly, he reassured me, “You’ll be back before you know it. I love you and I’ll see you soon.” I just couldn’t make sense of it all.
Nothing existed at those moments other than my broken body collapsed on the hardwood floor and my black and silver outdated Nokia flip phone. I alternated between gripping it until my fingertips were white from the pressure and flipping it open, willing a new message to appear on the screen. That phone, the deliverer of the death sentence of my marriage, was the only possible connection I had to my former life. It was my executioner and my security blanket in one.
My dad finally settled his body next to mine on the floor. He held my hand that was gripping the phone, his tenderness contrasting with my rigidity. He delivered the information from the call with a soothing voice, trying to keep himself calm and impart some comfort to me. My mom was going to call my friend Sarah to check on the dogs. My dad and I were going to immediately drive from Eugene, where we were visiting my aunt and uncle, back to Seattle, my dad’s home in order to catch a plane back to Atlanta. My aunt came to us, crouching down so as not to loom over our crumpled bodies. After being informed of the plans, she lifted me onto the bed, where I was left with a box of tissues while my dad called his wife to have her arrange airline tickets.
The bed, although softer than the unyielding floor, offered no comfort. The tissues were simply something for my other hand to grip. Shock had shut me down. As I lay curled on the bed, others packed my belongings and made the preparations to leave. I was helped off the bed and led out the door to my dad’s waiting Miata, my things already in the trunk. I robotically pulled the seatbelt around my body, never lessening the grip on my phone in the process. The five hour drive was largely silent; I was still too stunned to speak and my dad’s poor hearing didn’t allow for conversation in the noisy car.
I used that time to reflect back on my marriage. Memories flashing through my mind like pages through a photo album.
T and I met in 1993 at the Kerrville Folk Festival, a hippie-inspired haven outside of San Antonio. I had recently sworn off dating, but I welcomed a friendship with the funny, smart, and creative sixteen year old. Although we were both from the San Antonio area, our homes were 30 minutes apart. Our early friendship was dependent upon the phone, as T had no car and, as I was still fifteen, I had not yet obtained my license.
As weeks turned to months, our friendship became the primary force in both of our lives. He realized that our feelings had developed into love; I was too stubborn to see it yet, as I had decided to eliminate romance from my life.
The first time he told me he loved me, he said it in German. I did not translate it until he left that night.
Our first kiss was in my car, stopped outside his house, after our first time out alone together. It had been 7 months since we met.
It was not a first kiss for either of us, but it felt so new and so powerful that I could feel my entire body swell with the emotion and passion of it. I realized loved him. In English.
I decided to lift my ban on dating.
We had been inseparable in the sixteen years since that kiss.
My memories were interrupted by the woodpecker sound of my phone ringing. My stomach dropped. I opened my hand, revealing the window on the cover of the phone, hoping, expecting, to see his name appear on the screen. Instead, my mom’s name was emblazoned on the phone. I felt a strange blend of disappointment and relief. And although I wanted - no - needed to talk to him, it was not a conversation to look forward to.
Opening the phone, I uttered, “Hey.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I am so sorry,” she said through sobs. “I talked to Sarah. She and Curtis went over to the house. The dogs are okay. It sounds like they were alone for a while, though. They were out of food and water and there was a mess all over the basement. She cleaned up and gave them food and water. They’re okay now.”
“Was there any sign of him? Anything?” I questioned.
“No. Reggie went with her, though, because they didn’t know what they were walking into. I warned her ahead of time that they may find him dead. He may be suicidal.”
“I know. I thought so too," I replied. “None of this makes sense.”
After hanging up with my mom, I called Rebekah to thank her. I received one additional piece of information from her. She said there had been a letter placed on the kitchen island. She had not read it; its contents would remain unknown for another 12 hours until I could get back home.
The first leg of the journey came to an end as we pulled into my dad’s driveway. The opening garage door revealed his wife, standing in the doorway, holding two plane tickets with my packed luggage and a bag for my dad by her side. After a brief stop to use the bathroom and say goodbye to his wife, we were back in the car, heading to the airport for our 9:20 p.m. departure to Atlanta.
We waited outside the last gate in the concourse to board our flight. The airport was slowing down for the night, the stores closing and more people leaving than coming. I spent the time looking over the text messages from T that I had received since he dropped me off at the airport.
Mr T 7/5/09 6:49 am
Love ya!!! Have a smooth flight and be safe!
Mr T 7/5/09 7:41 am
I told ya I’d stay in touch!
Mr T 7/5/09 3:05 pm
Mr T 7/5/09 3:08 pm
Welcome to Seattle!
Mr T 7/5/09 3:12 pm
Ok. For the record dill pickle cashews are really weird!
Mr T 7/6/09 8:12 am
Morning to you too! Have a nice run?
Mr T 7/6/09 8:14 am
Ha! I assumed you’d already be going out of your mind for a quick five miles. Did you have a good night last night?
Mr T 7/10/09 11:14 am
We’ve had so much rain it sounds like a waterfall in the backyard!
Mr T 7/11/09 12:10 pm
Hey! You okay?
Mr T 7/11/09 12:12 pm
Sorry – I didn’t know I’d missed your call until now. Love you big big!
As I read these, I was compelled to send him another message.
7/11/09 5:54 p.m.
Reb has dogs. My dad is taking me to atl tonight. Where are you? Are you ok? I can’t believe 16 years ending with a text.
My mom texted me during the flight.
7/11/2009 3:39 p.m.
I’m worried about you. Are you OK? Core thing right now is to keep breathing. Medical stuff could be playing a big part in how you are feeling and thinking, distorting things a lot. Also, depression can have a genetic cause, when there is family history of alcoholism. I care about you. How can I help? Please let me be of support. I love you and want you to be OK. Remember, first thing is to keep breathing.
7/11/2009 7:32 p.m.
P.S. Depression and lack of sleep can both really mess up thinking and feeling, getting things really off base from what is really true. I’m here for you if you want to talk or write. Love, Mom
7/11/2009 7:37 p.m.
PPS-one other key factor to be aware of is the effects and impact of burnout. I have been concerned for years about your pace with work and how that pace destroys a person over time. When burnout accumulates, it can slide downhill pretty quickly, being a huge wake up call.
The flight was another endless yet timeless five hours. I was rigid in my seat against the window, my left hand gripping my dad’s right and my own right hand still gripping the phone, even though it had been powered down for the flight. Early Sunday morning, I finally reached my house: relieved to be there and petrified of what I would find. The house felt empty, although I could hear the familiar sounds of the dogs barking from the basement. My eyes quickly scanned the rooms, searching for the “whys” and the “hows.” I spotted a deliberately placed paper on the kitchen island and I began to read, scared to touch the paper, as though it would make the words somehow more real.
Lisa, I’m afraid there is no easy way for me to say this – I’m leaving. We have had a long and rich life together but I can no longer live this life anymore. As I told you several months ago, I feel as though we have been drifting apart for a number of years. It was a gradual thing but I can honestly say that it has reached a point where I no longer can share time with you without wondering when I can be away from you again. I can’t keep living this lie – it’s not fair to either one of us. I will continue to support you as best I can from wherever I end up. I will continue to work for ****** but I would appreciate if you didn’t involve them in this matter. We had some amazing times together and I will treasure these memories for the rest of my life. I think people change as they experience life and unfortunately we have grown so far apart that I simply cannot relate to you in any way. I know that this will hit you very hard and for that I am sincerely sorry. I have never wanted to do anything to harm you in any way but in doing so I have made myself unhappy for many years. I know that once you recover from the shock of this you will bounce back and live a happy and satisfying life – a better and more honest life than I could ever hope to offer you. Everything I have left behind is yours and all I have taken is my clothing and the equipment I need to make a living. I will never ask you for forgiveness or understanding. I am a coward who couldn’t tell you to your face that I am leaving. If I don’t do this now then I probably never will. I need my life to have some sort of meaning to it and unfortunately working in the basement of my house and watching tv and playing video games isn’t it.
I’m sorry but my life is very quickly becoming that of my parents. No matter how much I see that, it feels like there is nothing I can do to change the path that I am on. From this point on there is nothing more that I can say other than how sorry I am for leaving you in this way. I will do everything I can from this point forward to try and make this as easy on you as possible. I didn’t strip the account to leave. I sold everything downstairs that I felt was part of the old me that I so desperately need to leave behind.
Sixteen wonderful years.
Half my life.
A text message.
A fucking text message.
A letter left behind.
A typed, unsigned letter.
How could something so rich and so all-encompassing, end so succinctly and so impersonally? Summed up and dismissed in 140 words or less. Needing action, but having no direction, I purged the closet of his leftover clothes, shoving them into garbage bags intended for Goodwill. I grabbed his books, stacking them in the garage. It felt purposeful.
My dad went to work in T’s office, clearing the custom basement room of the detritus of T’s life while searching for clues that would provide some answers. No answers were unearthed; only more questions arose. Why did he take all of the financial records after 2005? Why was there a prescription for Cialis? Did he take his computers and software, or sell them as implied in the letter? And most importantly, why did he do this.
The normalcy evident in certain areas of the house haunted me. He did my laundry and placed my folded clothes in their normal location. The fridge had been cleaned out of perishable foods. The cat’s litter had been changed, the dishwasher run. As he was packing his car to leave his life behind, he continued to live its details.
The house that night was vacuous. Alien. Unfamiliar. Haunted. Artifacts of a shared life strewn about, taunting me. Whispering false hopes.
Since he would not respond to me, I began to find myself having imaginary conversations with him, responding to his letter. My first interpretation was one of shock, anger, and disbelief.
I’m afraid there is no easy way for me to say this – I’m leaving. Yeah – I got that from the text message. Thanks. We have had a long and rich life together but I can no longer live this life anymore. Why is this in the past tense; you sent me loving messages mere hours ago? As I told you several months ago, I feel as though we have been drifting apart for a number of years. And I was furious that you kept that hidden for a number of years and only told me when I pulled it out of you. It was a gradual thing but I can honestly say that it has reached a point where I no longer can share time with you without wondering when I can be away from you again. Knife through the gut, twisted. Why do you always tell me you miss me and can’t wait to see me again? I can’t keep living this lie – it’s not fair to either one of us. True – this is not fair to me. I will continue to support you as best I can from wherever I end up. That’s nice, but not my first concern. Where are you? Are you drifting on the currents? I will continue to work for ***** but I would appreciate if you didn’t involve them in this matter. Strange. Why are you mentioning your employer? We had some amazing times together and I will treasure these memories for the rest of my life. I agree that it has been amazing; I am not sure how much I’ll be able to treasure them after this ending. Besides, if you have been unhappy for years, when were the times real? When did you begin to pretend? I think people change as they experience life and unfortunately we have grown so far apart that I simply cannot relate to you in any way. You were relating just fine yesterday – what the hell happened? I know that this will hit you very hard and for that I am sincerely sorry. Apology not accepted. I have never wanted to do anything to harm you in any way but in doing so I have made myself unhappy for many years. WHY DIDN’T YOU TALK TO ME? I know that once you recover from the shock of this you will bounce back and live a happy and satisfying life – a better and more honest life than I could ever hope to offer you. This sounds rather blithe; do you actually think that I can recover from this like it is a case of the flu? Honest is a strange word choice. Everything I have left behind is yours and all I have taken is my clothing and the equipment I need to make a living. I’m not exactly worried about stuff at this point. I did notice, however, that you took all of the financial records along with the computer that is used to pay bills. Interesting. I will never ask you for forgiveness or understanding. Good, because they are in rather short supply right now. I am a coward who couldn’t tell you to your face that I am leaving. Coward is exactly right. If I don’t do this now then I probably never will. Why now? I need my life to have some sort of meaning to it and unfortunately working in the basement of my house and watching tv and playing video games isn’t it. Your choice to do those things. I also noticed that you took most of the DVD’s and video games. Interesting. I’m sorry but my life is very quickly becoming that of my parents. How? You are so different from your father; we are so different than their marriage. No matter how much I see that, it feels like there is nothing I can do to change the path that I am on. That doesn’t sound like drifting. Where does this path go? From this point on there is nothing more that I can say other than how sorry I am for leaving you in this way. You should be. I will do everything I can from this point forward to try and make this as easy on you as possible. So we start off as difficult as possible and then you want to be helpful? I didn’t strip the account to leave. Why is this here? Does this relate to the strange bills I received while you were in Brazil last month? I sold everything downstairs that I felt was part of the old me that I so desperately need to leave behind. Did you sell the computers? Games? Software? Most of what I see missing is what you need to make a living. Did you sell your work equipment? Something here doesn’t feel right.
I use the term “tsunami divorce” to capture the shock and utter devastation of this kind of break-up. My biggest fear had always been losing him; I could not imagine a future without him by my side. I had never been an adult without T. I now faced a life without a life-mate. He had become fully enmeshed in my existence; teasing the strings of him out of me would take time and a patient hand. I needed to find where he ended and I began.
After being together for so long and from such an early age, I really didn’t know who I was without him. Of course, we had our own interests, our own friends and hobbies, but no area was untouched by the other in some way. I defined myself through him. I was part of a partnership.
Weeks earlier, in a summer staff development session at school, I was asked to write three words that defined me. After a moment’s consideration, I wrote:
Now, all of those were in doubt. Who was I now? By fracturing the bond that had joined two into one, he had forced me to begin to define myself, by myself. The first step in reclaiming my life, in finding balance, is to see myself clearly.
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