I’d always thought that my mom divorced my father because she felt he disregarded her, but there was more to the story, which I didn’t learn until I was an adult. She’d fallen in love with a man named Jack, whom she’d hoped to marry.
She’d met him at work, where she’d been his supervisor. He was engaged at the time but pursued her anyway. She showed me a picture of him she still carried in her wallet—a moderately good-looking man with a crooked nose. She claimed they never became lovers because of her scruples about cheating on my father. After she had her partial hysterectomy, Jack visited her in the hospital and told her that he couldn’t marry her now because he wanted children. Besides, his fiancée had threatened to kill herself. “But I know that you’ll be OK,” he’d told my mom. She admitted to me then that part of the reason she’d taken Doug and me to California was to avoid seeing him—because they moved in the same circles. The only other thing she told me about him was that his mother used to beat him when he had asthma attacks as a child.
And what seemed perplexingly apparent to me at the time was that my mom didn’t seem to harbor anger at Jack for his shabby treatment of her. When it came to my father, however, she couldn’t talk about him without fury. Refusing to believe he’d become as incapacitated as he was, she continued to see him as malingering. She’d only agreed to such a small amount in child support, she explained, because she’d imagined that she would remarry.
I, on the other hand, wanted to wring Jack’s neck for breaking up my parents’ marriage when he did. He couldn’t have been more wrong about my mom being so self-sufficient, although no doubt it was convenient for him to think so. Though I’ve never blamed my mother for divorcing my dad, I believe that, if not for Jack, it probably would have happened later rather than sooner, which might have made all the difference to Doug and me. Because, as damaged as my mom and dad both were, when we were a family they were able to compensate to some extent for each other as parents, so that Doug and I mostly got the best of them. After they divorced, all we got was the worst.
What my mom had always showed to the world—and to me—up until that moment, with a kind of bravado, was the façade of an independent woman who didn’t need a man in her life. So it was a revelation to me that she was so in Jack’s thrall that she used to call him long distance just to hear his voice—then hang up.
She’d been ready to exchange one deeply troubled man for another, I finally came to understand, and considered him the love of her life.