I wrote last year about the notion of a "good divorce." Unfortunately, both after that post and after Thursday's, folks have confused that concept with the idea that I am suggesting that "divorce is good." Folks, there's a world of difference between saying that sometimes, given the circumstances of the marriage, divorce can be the best option for all concerned, and saying that divorce is, a priori a terrific activity in which everyone ought to engage regularly!
Death, for example, is not a good thing. I am still just beginning the process of coming to terms with my father's death last month. But the fact that death entails loss and sadness doesn't mean that there isn't such a thing as a "good death." (I believe my father had one.) It doesn't mean that we can't mark a death with ritual and prayers; it doesn't mean that in the end, when it finally comes, those who die and those who survive can't be grateful that the long struggle is over at last.
I held my father in my arms in his final hours. I saw his rapid, devastating decline unfold over eight hard weeks. I've learned a lot about death this year. And yes, I've been divorced three times, so I know a bit about how marriages end. I am a deeper, richer, better man for having gone through my father's death experience with him as best I could. I am a deeper, richer, better man for having gone through these divorces. If I had my way, there would be no death -- and marriages would last forever, too. But in our fallen world, our bodies are marked for death, and our individual lifestyle choices play only a partial role in the length of our lives. And just as bodies age and change and decay, so too do relationships.
My parents divorced when I was small. If you read my father's obituary, you'll note that among his survivors are listed his siblings, his four children, and his former wife -- my mother, as well as my stepmom. My parents had a very civil, even cordial divorce; they remained great friends till the day my father passed on. My mother and stepmother genuinely love each other, and as a result, my brother and I are very close to our half-sisters. Indeed, I consciously never call them my "half-sisters", as that would seem to devalue the closeness of our bond.
As we shared the experience of Dad's death together as a family, I thought to myself over and over again how damned grateful I am that my parents separated when I was a boy of six. (Yes, I was hurt by the divorce. Indeed, the wounds of that divorce stayed with me a long time. But as a young adult, I got to know plenty of people whose parents stayed in unhappy marriages for the sake of their children; I found that these folks were no better equipped for adulthood and maturity and mental health than I. Look, on some level, Phillip Larkin was right! No matter what parents do, together or apart, they inflict wounds. The wise child grows into the adult who can forgive.) The point is this: my life would be so much less rich if my parents had stayed married! I can't imagine life without my gentle and kind stepmother, who has loved me unconditionally for thirty-plus years. My sisters, now grown women of 27 and 24, are beautiful, talented, loving, wonderful human beings. They are my dear friends today, and without my parents' divorce, they would not have come to be. I cannot think for a second of my own childhood hurt without thinking of all that I have gained.
Earlier this year, I wrote this post in tribute to my mother. Here are three relevant paragraphs from that post:
My parents divorced when I was six; my brother and I were raised by a single mother. (Our father visited regularly, and theirs was -- thank God -- a civil and even cordial separation.) It was not easy being a single mom to two very young sons. We might have lived in Carmel, but money was tight at times, and my mother had to cope with all of the anxieties and doubts that come in the aftermath of a divorce, separation, and the assumption of sole permanent custody.
But as we talked about on Saturday, my mother also gave a great gift to my brother and me: she always made it clear that she wasn't sacrificing her life for us. From the time we were small, our mother always took time for herself. She had her poetry group, her work with the League of Women Voters, and other social and community activities in which we were not involved. Now mind you, she was a loving and devoted mom! My brother and I grew up knowing we were cherished and protected and cared for. But we also knew that our mother did not exist merely to meet our needs -- she had a mind of her own, wants of her own, and she was going to make time for herself as well as for her sons.
What my mother wanted to do, and succeeded in doing, was liberating us from the horrible pressure of living our lives to pay back a mom who had "sacrificed everything for us." My mom had seen too many parents devote everything they had to their children, with their only joys coming from their kids' successes. She had seen some of those kids grow up into anxious and guilt-ridden adults, who were continually haunted by a sense that their mothers and fathers (more often their mothers) had given up so damned much for them. There are few burdens more awful, she felt, than having to live a life that justifies all of your parent's sacrifices!
Had my parents not divorced, I doubt I would have learned these lessons nearly so well.
Death hurts. Divorce hurts. No one looks forward to divorce eagerly on their wedding day, but few look forward to death when they are young and vital, either! Some marriages will end in death, and others in divorce, but they will all surely end. While love endures past the end, marriage does not -- Jesus makes that pretty darned clear. That's okay by me, frankly. I will see my father again on the far side of the Jordan. And when we all gather at that river, I will be with my mother, my stepmother, and all of those who go before and, eventually, come after. And it won't matter at all what promises were made, what promises were kept, and who started over with whom. What will matter is love, a love far more powerful than the vows we exchanged in its name.