“The good news is, I’m alive! The bad news is, I fell in a crevasse.” These words came to me while my husband, Doug, was driving down from Paradise base camp on Mt. Rainier to return home. “What?” I asked incredulously. It was past the time I was supposed to call the park service and I had been hemming and hawing for some time. They were probably just later than expected. “I am ok, I will tell you the details when I get home. We are about an hour and 1/2 out.”
I hung up the phone. I suppose I should have been grateful that the call didn’t come from the ice ledge he fell into with a salutation that could have been his last. But I didn’t know whether to cry or get angry. So when he walked in the door of our Bellevue home with a big grin on his face, I succumbed to a stronger emotion: I smacked him on the arm and said, “don’t ever do that again!”
Mountain climbing had long seemed to me a selfish pursuit. Doug was super active and exercised about 5 days/week. When our kids were young, he had joined the Mountaineers and took 2 series of classes that lasted a couple of years, gulping up weekends of climbing, nights of classes, while I held down the home front. I didn’t have a paying gig at the time so my world was cooking, cleaning, driving, wiping, singing to, “time-outing” and otherwise cajoling our daughters. Eventually I jumped into the music scene in Seattle and we negotiated time off to pursue our “selfish” things.
Whatever Doug does, he does with gusto. I used to tease him that he even relaxed with intensity. He would sit down with a book – and burst out with, “Oh yeah – I am so relaxing tonight!!” I found it kind of comical and I tried to keep up with his pace to make him happy, but found that moving at the speed of sound made me anxious and uptight and eventually really put me under for a few years. That and postpartum depression. Let’s just say it wasn’t a pleasant season. I wanted to keep up with him, but was overwhelmed and found that my soul was nurtured with quiet when I didn’t have the kids with me, not climbing mountains or biking 20 miles. It felt like he was in perpetual chatty motion or work, driven by a sense of movement toward goals that I couldn’t grasp. I avoided conflict. He pushed to get a response from me in ways that weren’t the best for feeling close to each other.
We changed so much during those years. We had met while studying theology and I was smitten. I guess he was too. But he waited to tell me he loved me until he had decided I was “the one”. After graduation, we were married: a farmer’s daughter from rural Washington and a banker’s son from Ohio. It was a cool day in June surrounded by a crowd of friends from around the globe that we exchanged our vows. We moved to Seattle to be closer to one of our families.
Doug went back for a third degree in engineering. He is renaissance kinda guy, whose curiosity matches his bounding energy. We were poor in those days, had our first baby on food stamps, and Doug started a consulting business in addition to his full time job.As the kids were growing, I worked in peace, justice and coffee. Meanwhile our spiritual paths diverged and it became increasingly difficult to make decisions together. About anything. This lead to anxiety and isolation for both of us, and more than a little therapy.
Things happened. We kept missing each other. In 2014, after nearly 23 years of marriage, Doug and I decided that every path we had tried to connect hadn’t worked for us on the deeper levels we needed. I needed closer emotional attention and affection. He needed to feel more central in my life. I needed to trust his values, which had shifted significantly away from the ones that brought us together. He needed me to listen better and follow through more consistently. I was fearful of his expressions of anger. He needed me to express my feelings more intensely. It became clear that Doug wanted me to be an equal in our financial relationships which was truly impossible given our different fields. We were a weather system that devolved into torrential storms of rage and fear – of me pulling back into myself and he working every spare minute. We didn’t handle disagreement well. Compromise always felt skewed to me. And likely to him. Our shelter was our kids and we had some sweet times here and there. But over the years, the threads we brought to the weaving of our marriage were so messy with so many holes and out of place loops and unmatching colors that even that was not enough to create the warmth of love we both craved.
Around that time I was called to a position as a “Reconciliation Catalyst”. Yeah, go ahead, laugh. The irony didn’t escape anyone who was privy to our tensions. My primary job was to connect US constituents with the work of global partners doing anti-violence work. Think rape as weapon of war, sex trafficking, violence in the home. Easy stuff like that. I moved to Louisville, KY and traveled about 40-50% of the time learning and growing and calling people to the world in new ways. I came back home a lot. Therapy continued when I was home. It was clarified what felt like the only option. I still grieve writing this, though it is more manageable.
One day as our relationship was shifting to a new incarnation, I was walking through Cherokee Park area of Louisville listening to my footsteps and the birds, absorbing the shifting light falling through the trees and admiring the dark red brick homes that lined the park. A thought crossed my mind. It was, “I wonder if love built those walls…. and I wonder if love is still in those homes.” And then I felt like God reached in a swoosh right between those houses and touched my arm and said, “If love can build a home, then love can tear it down.”
That thought was counter to everything I had been taught about pain and loss and love. Love doesn’t tear homes down, right? That made no logical sense. But I knew in that moment that it could be made true. And I knew that was the only way my marriage could end “successfully”. I felt incapable of anything else. I still loved Doug but his unhappiness was too much for me to bear any longer. At least that is the way I felt it. Now I know it was mine as well. We just expressed it differently.
But this idea that everything could be done with love was something I internalized. I don’t think this is about me being some saint. I won’t be sewing a rainbow suit and scattering fairy dust nor ringing charming Dalai Lama bells any time soon. I am certainly capable of every failure and sin and have partaken in more than a few of them, lord knows, but in that moment I realized a truth that was deeper than the truth I had assumed my entire life.
What if it was true that I was incapable of anything but love with Doug and that our relationship had to change in order for us to be whole and free and loving to each other? What if this midlife crash required us to go deeper into the love we have for each other in order to evolve into something better? What if the path to authentic life and well-being was in truly letting go of what we had created in our weakness and childish fervor? Could it be true that something significant had to break so that we could live in love?
This became our path. With few exceptions. It was something we both wanted. I remember saying, “no one needs to write our book but us”. We have now been divorced a year and 1/2 and are closer than we have been in years. It was not easy. There were some very very bad times before all the paperwork was complete. But ultimately, we are coming out of those years into a new place. Our adult children are learning that they can trust us to be there for them as always. Together and apart. We go out for drinks or dinner when I am home and I sleep at the house now. It can be a little discombobulating sometimes, but it is still very good. And I am so grateful.
When we told the kids (the very worst day of my life), we told the truth. They were 18 and 20. We still loved each other. We created an amazing family. We just couldn’t find each other and were completely exhausted from disagreeing. Being married unhappily for all of those years took a huge toll on our well-being, and it was time to create a different “us”. We would always be family. And we are.
I cannot overstate the blow this has been to our family, especially to our girls who we have wounded more than even ourselves, and I am sure in ways neither they nor we can fathom. I wish there had been a third way, but we couldn’t find it. They are resilient and love each other and us so well. They are finding their way with courage and determination and are able to value both Doug and my quirkiness. They know us better now, as we can be more honest. There is even some humor about our brokenness from time to time that stings, but also feels appropriate and a reminder that healing is a life long process.
I was just in Seattle for the memorial service of my long time mentor and Presbyterian peacemaker, Helen Hamilton. I have been reminded of one of the most important things she taught me: “Sometimes peacemaking is as simple as saying thank you.” So I want to continue to say thank you to Doug. We have had many private moments asking for forgiveness. But I feel like I want to do this publicly.
Doug, I would never be the woman I am without our nearly 23 year marriage. You have taught me to power through difficult seasons. You have believed in me when I could not believe in myself. You have given me so much humor just by being you: jumping up in the morning chatting away; giving me great quotes like, “if I were a woman, I’d be a lesbian” and singing to Tom Waits music in character; you have pushed me to be physically active for my health’s sake; you have accompanied me through two births and been present to our daughters in a way few men are. You were an excellent provider – far beyond our needs. You have accommodated my woo woo tendencies and forgiven my failures. You have set an example to me of what a man can be in changing definitions of masculinity and gender roles. You have encouraged your family to forgive me and love me even through our divorce. You are a good man and I have been so blessed to spend 1/2 of my life by your side.
Your (and my adopted) beloved Granny told me years ago: “The Beck men make good husbands.” And you were. We worked hard. We were each other’s first lovers and it was a blessed part of my life. We did the best we could most of the time. There was laughter and anger and growing up we did. I will always love you, my friend, the father of our children, and I look forward to loving each other in new ways as the seasons continue to change. I would do it all again, Doug. If time has taught me anything, it is that I would do it all again.
I read recently that if 60% of a relationship is good, consider yourself successful. I wish I had understood that years ago. But now, here we are making our way into new ways of being – and enjoying much of it. For you, for me, and for our family, may the best be yet to be.
*Funny side note: I sent this to Doug before I posted this and he gave it the green light. The only changes were a couple of dates. Which is so like him.