By Robin L. Flanigan
Spring 2016: Annalie asks if her father and I are going to split up. I wave away the question and explain to my 11-year-old that of course not, all couples fight.
Summer 2016: Annalie asks if her father and I are going to split up. I stroke her shoulders, acknowledge we’re arguing more than we should, and tell her we intend to work things out.
Fall 2016: Annalie asks if her father and I are going to split up. I pull her into my chest, lay my cheek on her head, and tell her I don’t know.
Guests say we have the prettiest yard on the street.
It is a cool spring and the tulips are blooming. They hug the walkway to the front door, line the front of the house, peek from beneath the Japanese maple.
Patrick and I planted the flowers with Annalie last October, around our 18th wedding anniversary. It was soon after we’d broken the news to her that we were going to separate for six months. The plan was to use the time to focus on what needed to be fixed, then reconcile.
“I don’t know how I feel about planting these,” Patrick had said, trowel in hand, while Annalie fetched gardening gloves from the garage. “What if we’re not together when they come up?”
It’s now May. The tulips are yellow and red and purple and blush. Arranged in shallow vases, they bring splashes of color to our recently remodeled kitchen. The one on the table, bright as a lemon, opens and closes depending on the time of day.
Patrick wasn’t here when the tulips started blooming. He has a one-bedroom apartment one neighborhood over, across the street from a school with a playground Annalie loves to visit. She comes home all dirty and happy and I point out that the jacket she promised to pick up is still on the floor, and I make her finish the homework that’s due tomorrow, and I remind her to look at the list we’ve created to help with her nighttime routine.
She gets ready to brush and floss. I retreat to my closet and fall against a wall, trying to muffle the sobs.
In one sense, I can relate to my tween daughter more than ever. I loosen my grip on the past, eager for freedom and a future full of promise, but then clutch at that past when I feel scared, sad, nostalgic. I picture being truly on my own, but I’m not ready. Not yet.
“So, how are you and Daddy doing?”
Annalie’s tone is remarkably casual; she may as well have asked whether the dog has been fed. I stare at the “Hillary 2016” bumper sticker still on the fridge—signs of unfulfilled expectations are everywhere, it seems—and try to make a complicated answer less complicated.
I have been doing that a lot lately, like when she catches my watery eyes in the rearview mirror and asks, “Are you OK, Mom?” and when she prods me to explain my sudden silences.
Today, she gets the truth. “We’re doing really well, actually,” I say.
Patrick and I no longer get tangled up in our differences. We talk, even laugh, almost daily. We have become friends again.
“Does that mean Daddy will be moving back in soon?” Annalie asks.
I look at her round cheeks and the freckles that speckle her nose. I know what she wants to hear.
Instead, I find myself admitting—to her? to me?—that we don’t think that’s going to happen, that things are good precisely because we are living apart.
Annalie nods without expression.
I ask if she wants me to get her father so we can talk about this together. He comes over on Sunday afternoons— a ritual we came up with to continue spending time together as a family despite the separation—and is in another room, reading the newspaper.
“No,” she answers. She doesn’t sound disappointed or angry or sad—only perfunctory.
I wish I could crawl inside her body and find the hurt hiding there. The hurt has to exist, because it is everywhere inside of me.
“Sabine lives up the street from Daddy,” Annalie says on the way home from school. “I was thinking I could walk there when I spend the night with him on Thursday.”
I approach a green light, willing it to turn red, needing the pause. I had no idea there were plans for her to spend the night with Patrick, away from home, on Thursday. When had I gone from putting my child to bed every night to seeing her only on certain nights and alternate weekends? Not ready for something as official as a custody agreement, or for Annalie to feel her world shift more dramatically than it already has, Patrick and I sync our calendars weekly before deciding when she should sleep at his apartment. Had I missed something?
I learn by evening’s end that those plans were never official. Annalie had proposed the idea to Patrick that morning and, without an immediate answer, had turned fantasy into fact by afternoon.
Tricky concepts, fantasies and facts. I’ve had a hard time differentiating them in my marriage for years.
Annalie had said she would make me breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day, but it’s 11am and she’s still sleeping. I have spent the last four hours writing, practicing French, and watching Netflix, trying to ignore the rumbles in my belly.
At noon, I ask Patrick to wake her. He’d slept over so I could stay out late last night; we still rely on each other rather than sitters. In fifteen minutes she is next to my bed—a plate of eggs and pastries in one hand, a glass of milk in the other.
“This might be hot,” she says, handing me the plate.
Annalie leaves to bring up her own dish, and when she returns, Patrick is behind her with his. She crawls into bed beside me; he sits in the chair at the desk. I take comfort in this scene. Annalie knows we’re both there for her, even as we struggle to figure out how to be there for each other. That’s what really matters, I tell myself, even as I take in the wedding picture across from the bed—the one where we’re dancing at the reception— and want to retch with grief. We look so happy there, holding hands and smiling.
In an older picture on Patrick’s desk, he has thrown me over his shoulder along the Outer Banks shoreline. Our smiles there are genuine too. The years hadn’t yet fractured us.
Annalie and I toast each other with our pastries. In a bit she’ll hand me a card that has a button glued next to her signature and a note: “I love you more than a million buttons.” I will read it with tears in my eyes, then look from her to my husband, my heart aching with both love and lament.
Life is dizzying. Depending on the hour, I am thriving, bursting with hope—or I am wary, shut-down and tired. Like the tulip on the table, I open and close, open and close.
Author update: Writing this essay helped define one of the most difficult periods of my life, and I’m so grateful Motherwell chose to publish it. I am also grateful—and happy to report—that after seven months of separation, my husband and I reconciled.
Once a beat reporter for newspapers, Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer and essayist currently querying agents for two nonfiction manuscripts. More at www.thekineticpen.com and @thekineticpen.
This essay is part of our Motherwell original Divorce and Parenting series.