I know someone who’s going through a divorce right now. I don’t know the particulars except that it involves a house, cars, financial assets, and children. The children are older, so the damage won’t be as severe as if they were younger, although, as with any divorce, the financial hit alone can create emotional and psychological trauma. In addition, from what I can tell this is coming from the wife, as it almost always does, so I hope it wasn’t a surprise. I don’t think that’s likely, but you never really know what goes on in people’s minds, even a spouse’s. All of this is to say that divorce ain’t easy, even in the best cases, and there aren’t any of those.
A mutual friend advised me to wait a while before reaching out. So, I sent a text a week later offering to sit with our friend, drink whiskey, and listen to George Jones together. “If that sounds appealing,” I told him, “then I’m your guy.” I hope he found it helpful. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was offering some insight from my own experience, since that’s just what I did when my marriage ended.
In the summer of 2009 I sat on a plane headed back to Washington, DC from Rome, listening to the airline’s music channel. I clicked through hip hop, reggae, jazz, American songbook, indie, and classical music before settling on country. I wasn’t a big country music fan, although I liked Willie Nelson and Hank Williams, Jr. I had also taken my wife to an Alan Jackson concert, surprising her at dinner by leaving the tickets on her plate when she went to the restroom. When she came back she seemed more shocked than happy, which should tell you something about the relationship, which ended not long after.
As I sat on the plane listening to country music, George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” came on. I’m sure I heard the song before, but this time I hung on every word, every chord. As cheesy as it was, by the end I was crying. I remember there being another four or five hours before we landed, and I could barely contain myself. My wife had left me, moving back to California from DC. We agreed that we needed some time to figure things out between us. Never mind that her mother had already done all the figuring, but that’s another story. By the time she left, things had gotten so bad we were barely speaking to each other. We slept in separate bedrooms, had separate schedules, lived separate lives.
Then came George Jones. I wouldn’t say that the song alone slapped me into reality. It did slap me, but realizing that I loved my wife and wanted to save the marriage took time. That may sound strange, but by the end we came to hate each other in one breath and love each other the next. I tried explaining this once to a friend, an older Jesuit priest, who had insisted that you can’t love someone without liking them first. I was visiting him in Belize. We argued about this until finally we just sat in silence on the screened porch of his rectory, watching the sun melt into the horizon. It’s not so easy explaining the love-hate connection to someone who hasn’t experienced the intensity of marriage or parenthood (see Love Hurts).
I did experience an epiphany. It came as I sat at an outdoor cafe near the Vatican, waiting to take the metro to the airport for that same flight. As I sat with my bag and carryon, a family of four walked by. The two kids, a boy and girl, played happily while their father and mother looked on, talked, and strolled along. As I think back on it now, it wasn’t what they did that made such an impression on me but the way they did it. I remember how joyful the scene felt. I remember how joyful I felt. They looked happy and in harmony not just individually but as a family. I knew right then that I needed to ask my wife to come back and that we would make the marriage work. I saw the truth.
Here’s the thing about truth. I won’t go so far as to say that everyone has their own truth. That sort of thinking leads to absurdity and even cruelty. But there are different perspectives on the truth. As it turned out, my wife’s perspective didn’t match mine. When the plane landed I called to tell her what had happened and that I wanted to get back together. She reacted the same way she had reacted to the concert tickets.
Maybe I should find another song.
Image credits: feature by Maxwell Collins; 1 Corinthians 13 by Leighann Blackwood; stones by Available Psychologists. Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) and the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”