Friday, January 27, 2012

The Lady on the Plane

It was August of 2010. I was on a plane travelling from Phoenix to Charlotte, sitting in first class for what I thought would most likely be the last time. The flight itself took about 4 hours. As always when travelling, I was acutely aware of my surroundings, taking time to watch the other people boarding the plane and imagining their stories. I was careful to make observations of my seatmate without being too terribly interested; sideways glances and polite smiles allowed me to sum her up quickly. She was older than me, perhaps close to 60. Very pretty, way too much makeup and possibly some plastic surgery. Her face was too smooth, too devoid of wrinkles. She was dressed elegantly, a flowing yellow dress covered in flowers and a smart matching cardigan. Nice shoes, expensive bag. She carried herself in such a way that made me think she was unapproachable. She was quiet, and she kept to herself, as did I. After 3 ½ hours or so on the plane, when I had tired of reading and put my book away and the silence became too much to bear, I complimented her dress. By the time we exited the plane, we knew each other’s stories, she had given me her phone number and we hugged tightly when we went our separate ways at the baggage claim.

“I like your dress,” I told her. I was timid, I was tired, and I was unsure how she would respond to striking up a conversation and this late point in the flight.

“Why, thank you dear,” she responded, genteel and very southern. I had underestimated her. She turned out to be far from unapproachable; she was warm and kind.

We made idle conversation for a few minutes; the standard ‘are-you-heading-
home-or-are-you-visiting?’ type of thing. She was picking up the last leg of her flight in Charlotte. She was headed to visit her daughter and meet her newest grandchild for the first time.

She asked about me, did I have any children?

My heart felt heavy, my stomach twisted. Should I tell this stranger that yes, I do have two beautiful children, and I am making this trip so I can tell them I’m leaving them with their father and indefinitely moving to Phoenix? She would judge me, I knew she would. I was new to this, still struggling internally in a way that broke my heart and drove me a little crazier every day. This decision was life-altering, for me and everyone close to me. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. And it wasn’t even close to over yet, it would never really be over. I was about to go to what used to be my house and tell my children that I was leaving. I’d been gone about 6 weeks, they were already beyond confused, and I was going to tell them that I wasn’t coming back. I was going to pack the few things that were mine into an SUV and drive away across the country.

All of that raced through my head in a matter of seconds as I contemplated whether or not I should tell this beautiful stranger the truth. For some reason, I decided I would.

“Yes, two kids. A boy and a girl, 5 and 3.”

“Oh, wonderful. I have a boy and girl also. Although they’re grown now.”

Somehow, in my shame and fear, I quietly ended up spilling my metaphorical guts. I told her everything. My husband, from whom I was now legally separated, was emotionally and verbally abusive for several years without my even being aware of it. I had been aware of it for the last 2 years. I had tried unsuccessfully to leave him twice in those 2 years. I had originally planned to go to Phoenix in June for a 10 day trip to spend some time with my father, who is very ill. We were going to take a trip to Colorado for my stepmother’s college reunion she had organized.

Shortly after I had broken the news to my husband for the third time that I wanted a divorce (which he again refused to accept), and shortly after he had begged me to go to Phoenix a little earlier and stay a little longer to try to figure things out and make sure this was what I really wanted (which I refused to do - how could I leave my children for six weeks?), the universe handed me a surprise. My stepmother called to tell me my father was even more ill than I had been aware of, and sometimes she breathed a sigh of relief when she realized he was still alive each morning. Could I please come visit early and spend some extra time with him?

So I went early. I stayed for 6 weeks. My husband brought the kids out to see me after a few weeks, and he tried again to get me to change my mind. They went home, and I stayed. At some point shortly after their visit, I don’t really remember when (the days ran together - I was so tortured by what I was thinking of doing that sometimes I just lay in my bed listening to music and crying for days at a time) I made the decision to stay in Phoenix indefinitely. I had been considering it for a little while, doing research on mothers who left their children, as if knowing there were other women who had done the same thing would make it better, when my stepmother took me to dinner one night and posed the question that had been in my head but I hadn’t been able to say out loud... “Have you thought about staying here in Phoenix and just giving him custody of the kids?” Her saying out loud what had been in my head, what I had been unable to admit to myself was what I really wanted to do, made it real. It didn’t make it right, and her suggesting it wasn’t what made the decision for me, but it helped.

I had agonized over this, considered all my alternatives, and I still kept ending up in the same place. I hadn’t worked in over 6 years. We had decided together when I got pregnant the first time that I would stay home and raise our children. He made it clear over the years that it wasn’t “our” money, it was “his.” I had nothing, nothing saved up, nothing to fall back on. I had nowhere else to live, nowhere to go, no hope of supporting the kids on my own. Logistically I couldn’t figure out how I would be able to stay in North Carolina, leave him, keep the kids and survive financially. I had already been told by an attorney during a consultation months earlier that I would be the one who would have to leave the house because I was initiating the separation. Where could I go? He certainly wouldn’t help at all. He was angry and he was hurt and I understood that then and I still do now. What he never stopped to consider was that this had been going on for years and he never saw it. I had begged him about 5 years earlier to go to counseling with me, I tried desperately to fix what was wrong with “us,” but he refused to see it, refused to change his behaviors, refused to participate. So when by this, the third time, I told him I wanted a divorce and he suddenly began making an effort, it was too late. I was done, I was broken.

And so I told my husband of my decision to stay in Phoenix. This time, he not only accepted it, he told me he had already cancelled all the bank accounts and credit cards that were in both our names. He had retained a lawyer and would have the separation agreement drawn up immediately. Would it be all right if our official date of separation was the day I left for Phoenix?

My father, stepmother and I went to Colorado for 10 days. It was such a strange trip...everything there was so beautiful, so breathtaking, and there was so much to do. But in my downtime I began informing friends of my decision. I began the painful process of losing many of those friends and without realizing it, alienating the ones who were left for fear of them choosing to abandon our friendship first. I did more research on mothers who leave their children and the paradox of the social acceptance of fathers who leave. I was terrified, I was ashamed of myself, and I was broken. Not just by my decision, but by the years I had spent with someone who was controlling and mean and spiteful.

We returned to Phoenix from Colorado and shortly thereafter I got on this plane at this time and sat next to this woman with the pretty dress and the kind eyes that I hadn’t noticed at first and I told her my story. Instead of judging me, instead of telling me what a horrible person I was, she surprised me by telling me her story. And it was so eerily similar, it brought tears to my eyes. Thirty years ago, she had done the same thing under similar circumstances. Her husband had been a lot like mine, her children were small like mine, when she finally made the decision to leave him. She had a job at the time though, she was a flight attendant and frequently travelled. Instead of having custody of her children and then having a nanny or babysitter raise them, she allowed her ex-husband to have custody. Simple as that. She made a choice that was the right choice for her at the time, the only choice she could make.

Of all the people on that plane that I could have sat next to, I had been seated next to her. The universe had handed me yet another surprise. This world is so big, and everyone has a story to tell...but somehow I ended up sitting next to this woman and hearing this story. And it didn’t make my decision the right decision, but it did make me realize that I wasn’t alone. I had, by some cosmic coincidence, been seated next to the one person who could show me that she had gone through the same thing and come out of it on the other side, intact and whole. She remarried several years later, was still happily married. She loved her kids and they loved her. Everything wasn’t always roses and rainbows and sunshine, but she was okay.

I was so far from okay at that point I was in another galaxy. But hearing her story, not being judged for mine, was a gift. She was just so...kind. I was grateful then, but I am even more grateful now. Grateful in a way I find it hard to explain...and humbled. The world is so big, and everyone has a story to tell, but sometimes we are offered a kind word or two, someone to share our story with who really understands it. Some might say I was just in the right place at the right time, and that may be true. But I think that a force greater than all of us that I don’t understand (and really, I hope I never do...that’s part of the beauty of it for me) put me on that plane that day next to her to give me strength for what I was about to do. I ended up losing the little sticky note with her phone number on it, and I don’t even remember her name. But every now and then, I think about her and I offer a little gratitude to the universe for my being in the right place at the right time, and I hope that someday I can be that person for someone else. I hope I am lucky enough, even if I never know it, to help someone else the way she helped me.

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