My dad walked out on us in 1989. I was 7 years old. He took his suitcase and walked out the door without a word. My mom explained later that he wouldn’t be living with us anymore.
I cried. I did not fully understand what that meant, but I knew that it meant that life as I knew it would change.
That same year, my mom’s parents — my grandparents, and the main people who had been caring for me up to that time since both my parents worked — were dying. They were in their early 60s. My grandfather was on the brink; my grandmother had just been diagnosed with the same aggressive cancer he had and she was declining quickly. My grandfather would die in the hospital days after my dad left. My mom could not tolerate my grandmother dying in the hospital too, so she brought her home to our house to care for her herself.
My mom dropped an alarming amount of weight during that time. She ran herself ragged emptying vomit pails, changing bedsheets, and placing cold compresses on my grandmother’s forehead, all the while shielding my sister and I from the gravity of what was going on.
Meanwhile, my father moved into a rundown apartment complex not far away. He took some of the old furniture my parents had in storage, but nothing more. A couch. A table. That was it. He had us every other evening and every other weekend, a pattern that would persist until we turned 18. In the early years, he had no clue what to do with us. He subsisted on TV dinners, so he fed us TV dinners, too. He otherwise barely spoke to us; either the TV was on or he was buried in a book.
Fast forward. I’m now an adult, talking to my mother about my own divorce, trying to understand it. She told me then for the first time why my father had left. She said he told her he could not be the person she needed him to be to get her through her parents’ deaths. It was just too much.
It was good she waited so long to tell me that. If she had told me in the years before I knew my father, I might have hated him for it. By that time, though, I was well apprised of his limitations. My father cannot handle experiencing emotions, most of all his own; he stuffs them down deep. I have never seen him cry (or even tear up), and do not think I ever will. The magnitude of an emotion like grief for the loss of a parent undoubtedly made him want to crawl into a cave somewhere, never to be heard from again.
For his part, my father has hardly spoken of the reasons why he left, so I only have my mother’s version (and I imagine that is all I’ll ever have). The most he’s said is that it was what my mother wanted in the end. But especially in recent years, he has referenced feelings of longing and regret about his past with my mother. He’ll say things like: “Maybe if I had been more like how Jimmy is with you, your mother and I would still be married.”
Then a few weeks ago he told me about a trip to Nashville he had planned for them. “At first, she wanted to go,” he said. “All the arrangements were made. Then, at the last minute, she wouldn’t. I don’t know why. She just suddenly changed her mind.”
That was the extent of the story, as he told it. He had planned a trip to Nashville for them. She had said she was going. At the last minute, she changed her mind.
It wasn’t the story that caught my attention, but that when my father told it, I detected a rare pain in his voice. He seemed upset that he still had no clue why she had changed her mind. He seemed mournful that the trip never happened.
Then just this past Friday, my mother randomly said to me: “I wonder what things would be like now, if your father and I were still together.”
I was a little taken aback that she would express that wayward musing to me, her daughter. I told her I couldn’t imagine them together today, and that most likely, they’d be in an unhappy, distant marriage–unless one or both of them changed.
“You know we almost got back together once,” she blurted out suddenly.
“You did?” I said. “When?” It was the first question that came to mind; I couldn’t help myself. Every child of divorce has some fantasy of their parents reconciling. My parents were so clearly ill-matched that I did not indulge in this fantasy often, but still, I needed to know when in the course of my young life this magical event could have occurred.
“It was within a year of him leaving. He invited me to go to Nashville with him. We were supposed to reconcile on that trip. I didn’t go. I wonder sometimes if I should have.”
Nashville…the word triggered a memory but I was having trouble placing it. Then I remembered my dad’s story, and it all came together.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “You backed out at the last second. He’s still hurt about that.”
“Ugh,” she said. “Well, what could I do? After what he said to me, and how he left, right when my parents were dying? I just couldn’t be with him anymore.”
“I understand,” I said, and I did. “But I think he thought you were willing to forgive him, because you had told him you would go.”
“That’s right,” she said. “Right before we were supposed to leave, I changed my mind.”
I didn’t get to finish the conversation with my mother because I had to catch a train to Long Island, but it nonetheless occupied my mind the whole ride home.
I don’t blame my parents for their choices. I believe they did the best they could with what they knew at the time. And, honestly, I’m not sure they ever could have been happy together. What troubled me though was how much energy they both still have on this memory–this trip to Nashville that never happened–over twenty-five years later. My father seems to still wonder what he could’ve done differently to get my mother to go; my mother seems to still question not going.
It wasn’t just a decision about the trip, of course; it was a decision about their marriage. The difference between a life together–and not.
When I left my ex-husband, I was clear in my choice. Hurt, yes. Jarred, frightened, alone, certainly–but clear. I have never once entertained the thought of reconciling. I have never once questioned my decision to leave. I have never once wondered how things might be different if we were still together. Not in the days or months after I left him, and not during the years before I met Jimmy.
I have had a couple of “Nashville” moments, though. Pivotal choice points that, in retrospect, irrevocably changed the course of my life. The two that come to mind are the day I married my ex-husband despite deep reservations, and a day only three months later when I told him I was leaving him–but then chose to stay.
I wish I hadn’t stayed. I wish I’d left back then. I know we all want to say “I wouldn’t change anything about the past because then I wouldn’t be who I am now,” etc., but, I think that’s just a coping mechanism. If I could go back, I would change that. Not at the price of losing what I have now, but, if you isolate just that moment of my life–I’d change it.
I can’t, though. And I’ve come to forgive myself for the choice I made. I too did the best I could with what I knew at the time.
I think the main gift of the work is that if you apply it faithfully (and that is easier said than done–it takes courage, honesty, and a willingness to “go there”), no decision is truly difficult and the risk of regret is nonexistent.
My mother’s anger, indignation and pride prevented her from forgiving my father. My father’s unwillingness to access and express his emotions prevented him from doing whatever it took to save his marriage. What made their choices difficult was not the circumstances, but their own limitations. Had they approached things differently, they still may well have made the same choices they made–but I believe if my mother had forgiven and my father had risked, they would not have the lingering unsettled feelings they have now.
That’s when you end up with a “Nashville” moment, and with it, the sting of regret: when you make a pivotal choice not from your authentic feelings, but from your filters and limitations (i.e., your fear and your ego). The inner self watches it happen in despair, unable to reach you over the noise.
The truth: I didn’t love my ex-husband at the time I married him. I married him out of fear. I was 19 and living alone in Honolulu, thousands of miles away from everything and everyone I knew. At first, that was what I wanted–to say “screw you” and run away without looking back–but a year in all I felt was deep loneliness and fear. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, and never would.
But then I met this man who wanted me more than anything, despite all my flaws. I saw him as my one and only chance to finally belong and be loved.
If I had been willing to love myself instead back then, things would have been different. The red flags I saw before we married–and the major one that occurred only three months after–would have caused me to walk away.
This is why working the work the way it’s meant to be worked is so damn critical. The decisions we make matter, greatly–they fundamentally alter the way our lives go. There are no re-dos, and there IS a such thing as “never.” There IS a such thing as being troubled by regret over a pivotal life choice you made twenty-five years ago.
In PSPLife, we dial down the intensity of it all. Don’t worry, it’s not LP! Jim Grant is not going to get in your face and scream at you like a drill sergeant with tears falling down his face, the embodiment of your inner self trying to shout over the noise of your stubborn ego, pleading with you to cut the shit because it’s ruining your life.
You can relax.
Does that serve us? Does it serve me? Of course, it isn’t up to this group or any program or any person to create that level of rigor in my life–if that’s what I want, I have to muster up some courage, plug into what’s really going on, and generate that rigor myself.
Do I, though? Or do I avoid it, soften it, make it easy on myself, because Heaven forbid I get too uncomfortable?
Here’s the thing: I don’t want anymore Nashville moments. The costs are too high.