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Spring is the most hopeful of the seasons. The pleasures of summer are yet to come, but close; the deaths of all the flowers yet to bloom seem far away, impossible. When they first fell in love, it was a welcome spring after a long, hard winter. When they looked into the future, all they could see were long, sunny days, a seemingly endless vista of happiness. There were no fears, no shadows. But their summer, like all summers, came to an end sooner than they imagined, and they found themselves surrounded by fallen leaves and dead flowers, winter ahead.
He was so glad when his mother died. He was sixteen years old, and all he could think of was that he was finally free of her alcoholic rages and their consequences. His brothers were much older than he was, so they were out as much as they could be, and his father worked two jobs, so he was always, always the target of her vodka-fueled anger. He never told anyone how much he suffered at her hands. Looking around at the black-clad mourners, he felt completely alone, the only one not grieving. He could have danced on her grave.
Years later, he learned that his mother had been sent away to foster care when her mother died. She was molested by her foster father until her real father remarried, had two sons, and had her return home to be their unpaid nanny and maidservant. In order to escape, she got married as soon as she could, to a good man who loved her. But she couldnít escape the demons of her past, and she couldnít talk about them. She tried to drown her shame and anger, but after a few drinks, they took over. She was helpless once again.
4/4, Four/four, itís her birthday. She used to joke with her English-born husband that her birthday was ďthe same in both languages.Ē It should be a lucky day, a happy one. But both she and her husband are gone, their children left behind to mourn their passing and think questions that can never be answered. It would have been an eventful birthday, too: 75. The kind of milestone that calls for a big party and big party faces and a big cake and big lies. They have never told the truth about her; why start now, when itís too late?
"No-one will ever love you." "Youíll never amount to anything. Youíll be a clerk in a dime store your whole life." Her mother has said these things all her life, the litany of her daughterís projected failure. Still does, even when the daughterís marriage passes the decade mark; even when she becomes more successful at work than she ever thought; even though she has good, close friends. Her mother says this when both her husbands left her, when she has never worked a day in her life, and is living on welfare. For her, the daughter is the failure.
When these two come together, at heart they are still the children frightened of their mothers, so accustomed to feeling powerless and valueless that they canít imagine feeling anything else. They need safety, security, a predictable life where they arenít prey to moods and rages. They believe they can build this together. Maybe thatís what love is, a shelter from the storms of the past and the scars of the present. Recognizing the same need in each other, they see it reflected back as love. And maybe it is. But it might just be the illusion of a false Spring.
Of course their mothers have affected their behavior as adults. More or less predictably, too: he, the son of a raging alcoholic, is the calmest person she has ever met, and itís unusual for him to finish a bottle of beer Ė she jokes with him about his taking a couple of sips and then just abandoning the remains. She, the daughter so rejected by her mother, seeks approval elsewhere, mostly from men. She gets it, but itís never enough. She will never tell him her darkest secret: she has cheated on every man she was ever with, including him.
He introduces her to his parents, full of pride. He lists her accomplishments, and his father and stepmother listen, smiling. She leaves to check on dinner Ė the introductions taking place in her apartment Ė and his father leans forward, saying, ďSon, sheís
Ē in a warning tone of voice. He, too, had married a very pretty, attention-seeking woman, which had resulted in a few barfights over the years. His current wife was not at all pretty, but she was good and kind and they loved each other. They were much happier than he was in his first marriage.
Her parents, now divorced, find their daughterís choice a little odd. They would not have expected the most frivolous of their children to choose someone so solid, so conventional. But sheís nearly thirty and they should give her credit for having some sense. And they themselves have not been all that sensible in their own lives: the father left the mother for his daughterís boyfriendís mother (and then left her for another woman), and the mother is determined to marry someone half her age. So the daughter is hardly the one with the worst judgment in the family, she reasons.
She has never wanted to get married, or have children, for that matter. She disliked dolls from the start, finding them creepy, and never had fantasies about a big white wedding. As women she works with get married, she is floored by the cost of the production, over in one day. These couples could put a down payment on a house instead! And how can you spend thousands of dollars on a dress you only wear once? None of it makes any sense to her. And her attitude makes no sense to those who chase that dream, and catch it.
He does want to get married, of course. He was married briefly when he was very young, and it surprises her that heíd want to try the same thing again when it worked out so badly the first time. They move in together, and thatís enough for her, but itís not enough for him. He makes this clear. He believes that if they marry, theyíll always stay together; she believes that they should stay together as long as they want to be together, with no laws or bureaucracy involved. But it means so much to him that she finally agrees.
He canít believe his good luck. He feels as though he has captured an exotic creature. Everything she does enchants him. He loves it that she reads Victorian novels and weekly tabloids. He loves it that she enjoys eating in diners as much as she does in fine restaurants. He loves her delicious, creative cooking and the way she sings while she cooks (even though she canít sing). He loves her bold independence and her beauty, the effect she has on people when she walks into a room. He loves how she loves, whole-heartedly. He thinks sheís perfect. Heís wrong.
The whole wedding thing was a shock to her. Because the date they set was two months after they told people they were getting married, the assumption was that she was pregnant, and no-one had any compunction in asking her if that was the case. At first she was appalled by the rudeness of the question; then she got used to it. Good thing, because throughout the years of their marriage, they were constantly asked when they would have children. The response ďNeverĒ didnít stop the questioning. And questioners obviously considered the couple to be selfish or just plain wrong.
The truth is, they were both terrified of having children. She was convinced that she would be as bad a mother as her own had been. Sometimes it really bothered her how alike they were: self-centered, luxury-loving, impractical, spoiled, lazy. She liked to think that she had some good qualities that offset these, but she knew she didnít have it in her to make the sacrifices required to be a good parent. And if she couldnít be a good mother, she didnít want to be one at all. He, scarred by his own mother, agreed. They never regretted their decision.
She soon learned that there was no such thing as a simple wedding. As soon as you tell people youíre getting married, you are the recipient of unsolicited advice and bad ideas, ridiculous demands and unrealistic expectations. Itís impossible to make everyone happy. The biggest lesson she learned was that every bride should do exactly what she wants, have the wedding she wants. Itís her day, and she should please herself, especially since she canít possibly please everyone (or anyone) else. So thatís what she did: small civil ceremony; vintage gown; dark chocolate cake; a bouquet of deep red roses.
He knew she loved jewelry. He wished he could give her a diamond as big as the Ritz, but he could only afford a diamond as big as a Motel 6. He worked two jobs to get it, a confession he made only after they were married. Her sister offered to go with him to choose the ring, but he preferred to do it on his own, with the result that he chose one she didnít like. He gave it to her, anxiously, and she smiled and told him she loved it, when inside, she was saying to herself,
They couldnít afford a honeymoon, so they spent their wedding night at a grand hotel instead, in a lovely suite. After the ceremony, they and their friends repaired to the suite, drank champagne, laughed and reminisced until the early hours of the next day. When they finally went to bed, she realized that she was getting a cold. Her throat was so sore she couldnít sleep, despite all that champagne. He went out to find a drugstore that was still open, and when he returned, unable to find one, she was asleep. It was an inauspicious beginning to their marriage.
Since she was still under the weather the next day, her father and brother cooked dinner that night. Her brother had been a professional cook at one point in his checkered career, and her father had taught her everything she knew about cooking. It was a magnificent dinner, served on the good china with her grandmotherís ivory-handled silver and crystal wineglasses. As he watched her laughing and talking with her family, cold temporarily forgotten, he realized that she would always belong to them, not him. He shook off the thought, deciding that this would change over the years. It didnít.
She would do anything for her family, and she did. Financial support, emotional support Ė she never questioned it when they needed her help. Neither did she consult with him about it. If they needed money, well, it was hers to give. She worked, they had separate bank accounts and split all the expenses, so she didnít think he would mind one way or the other. He did, but he didnít tell her, so the resentment built up over the years. She visited them often, but he didnít go with her, preferring solitude to seeing how alone he really was.
She loved her father more than anyone in the world. He was her best friend. He knew all her secrets, and still loved her. They cooked dinner together at least once a week, and talked nearly every day. When he retired to his native England, she promised to visit him at least once a year, and she did. The non-stop flight was nearly twelve hours each way, but she got used to it. Her husband only came with her once. He wasnít comfortable in her fatherís house. When her father died, he didnít go with her to the funeral.
Later she realized her fatherís death was the beginning of the death of her marriage. When she returned from the funeral, shocked into near-insanity by the magnitude of her loss and the terrible duties that accompany the death of a loved one, he was appalled. For more than a decade, he had thought she was perfect, and she had not only fallen off the pedestal he had placed her on, she had fallen to pieces. He was helpless and horrified in the face of her overwhelming grief. He couldnít help her, he couldnít see her like that. He turned away.
She turned away, too. She couldnít bear to see him look at her like that.
Where is the carefree girl I married? Who is this weeping look-alike?
She started to cry in private, never in front of him. It became her secret vice, her release. She was scared: one day, she walked halfway to her office before noticing her surroundings. She couldnít remember how she got to where she was standing. Another day, she was writing a check to the gas company and couldnít remember her name to sign the check. She just stared at it blankly.
Who am I?
Crying became almost a guilty pleasure for her. She worked her usual long hours, walked home up the precipitous hills, waiting for the moment she could be alone and weep. All day, she felt the ache in her throat build, begging for release. Sometimes she barely got through the door before bursting into tears. Sometimes she cried into the bath towels. Sometimes she lay flat on the soft rug in the living room and cried her heart out, her body shaken by deep sobs. The crying took her over so much that she couldnít even think. She was completely possessed.
He knew nothing of these private sobfests. He was relieved that she wasnít collapsing to pieces in front of him anymore. It struck him to the heart when she did. He just wanted her to be happy again.
Maybe sheís beginning to feel better
, he thought.
Maybe the worst is over
. After three months or so, he asked her if she was ďover itĒ yet. She stared at him. ďOver it? Over it?!Ē she exclaimed. ďItís not a cold! You never get over it! Youíre never the same!Ē She ran from the room, leaving him stunned, staring after her. Never?
She fell asleep exhausted. Four hours later, she woke up, and remembered all over again. It was an emotional ton of bricks hitting her in the chest as she lay there in the dark. She could hardly breathe. She looked at the clock Ė only a few hours left before sheíd have to get up and start the cycle all over again. She just wanted it to stop.
I can understand why people commit suicide
, she thought.
They just want the pain to stop
. She could never do that, though. She went to read on the couch, wait for day.
Eventually, she cried less and less. She replaced the crying with exercise, walking three miles to work and back each day, going to the gym. She liked feeling her body respond to the challenges, and concentrating on her form and her breathing made it impossible to concentrate on her grief. She discovered that exercise did, in fact. reduce stress (and, in her case, panic attacks). It also helped her break the bad sleep cycle she was in. She was beginning to feel better. She could imagine light at the end of the tunnel, even if she couldnít see it yet.
She had never looked better, but she had never felt worse. Grief, exercise, and the slow demise of her 15 year marriage were taking their toll. She was slim, pretty, and despondent. She hosted her family and friends for Thanksgiving that year. Everyone said how great she looked, how beautiful the apartment was, how perfect the food and wine. Her sister found her on the roof of the building, sobbing in the rain. ďI canít go on like this!Ē she said, and her sister agreed gravely. They stood together in the cold rain, knowing that things had changed forever, again.
The marriage was dying, but it wasnít dead yet. They still loved each other, even though they had drifted apart. They both believed it could be repaired, though neither took out the toolbox and got started on the project. One day, she discovered his stash of porn on their shared computer. She stared in disbelief, feeling as if she had been hit hard in the stomach. She left the images up, and when he got home, he knew she knew. He begged for forgiveness, said he couldnít explain it. She tried to forgive him, tried to stay, but she couldnít.
Their marriage staggered on, but it was mortally wounded. She asked him to go to counseling; he replied that he didnít believe in it, so there was no point in going. At that point, she realized that she was the one who was going. This half-life would go on indefinitely if she didnít take action. A friend offered to take her in. She spent the day packing, trying not to drown in memories as she packed item after item. When he came home from work, she told him she was leaving, and burst into tears. He just stood there, silent.
Now itís winter. The depths of winter, when it seems impossible that flowers will ever bloom again, trees green with new leaves, grass grow. The world is cold, barren, muffled under a blanket of snow that has long ago lost its first, fairy tale luster and is now downtrodden, dark with footprints and tire tracks. Itís unimaginable that one day, the world will look different, will be beautiful again, that there will be hope and maybe even joy. But it will. It just wonít be the same as it was before, and they will walk it alone instead of together.
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