“How are you doing?”
When my ex-husband and I separated, it was a mundane question that became virtually unanswerable. Often, a friend would quickly blurt it out with a smile, only to realize who she was talking to, and she would visibly draw back, afraid of the answer. Other times, it would be almost whispered out, in sympathy or caution. Regardless of how it was asked, it always filled me with a writhing mess of emotions, and I had no idea how to answer.
More often that not, an insane little voice in the back of my head would whisper, “Tell them about the shirts.” I almost giggled at the thought, but in retrospect, it was actually quite fitting.
“Tell them about the shirts.”
I had been separating out the closet in the master bedroom, putting his things into boxes for his new apartment. Items that I had packed and unpacked through six moves, I was packing for the final time. At times it felt mundane, and I was able to pretend that this was normal. But the shirts . . . the shirts. I was packing up his shirts . . . shirts that had hung with mine in the closet for nearly thirteen years . . . and suddenly I was hit with this monstrous wave of grief.
There were shirts from every season of my marriage.
The first section in the closet was of shirts I had bought and he had worn. I had washed, ironed, and hung them with care in the direction he preferred. These were the shirts that worked for him, and I would wash, iron, hang, repeat until they were no longer serviceable. They would then be replaced with a nearly identical shirt and the cycle would begin again.
Next came shirts that I had bought for him that he had never worn, being either a cut that felt uncomfortable, or a color he disliked, but I had liked. Those shirts had hung in the back of the closet, unworn, but with too much emotional baggage to be donated or thrown away. I saw them as hope: things he might potentially one day wear. Maybe we would go somewhere fun, or he would just be looking for something different or new. He, however, saw these as failures lurking in the back of the closet, and was unable to deal with them. This was the largest section, unfortunately.
Some hung like tombstones: relics of thinner days, special occasions. At times, especially in the beginning, I would think of where we had been, and where we might go. In the end they just felt like abandoned hope or broken promises.
This is exactly how I felt about my marriage.
Marriage in general is a seemingly endless collection of mundane tasks, and we had some that we did well enough. Our performances were adequate. Sometimes we failed or fell apart, but we were able to get back up again. Most of the time, though, we suffered from an intense miscommunication of ideas, ideals, and expectations.
And I was packing them all up for the last time.
This was a realization that simultaneously filled me with immense pain, but relieved me of tremendous pressure. I was packing away years of crushed hope, guilt, grief, frustration, anxiety,and pain, but I was also packing away the visions and goals I had for my marriage, and also for my family. I was packing up the known, comfortable but dysfunctional present, and staring into a cold, unknowable future.
So how am I doing?
Sometimes I still don’t know how to answer that question. I guess I would say that I’m fine . . . except for the shirts. I would bet that your answer would be similar. We all have shirts we’re facing: changes we’re doing our very best to cope with, or bittersweet endings that are becoming fragile beginnings as we move from one phase of life to another. My shirts are somewhat painfully public; everyone seems to have some idea of what is going on. Sometimes what we’re dealing with is in the closet, though: hidden, but just as much of a burden. We all still get up every day and face them, alone in our experience. The least we could do is not be afraid to connect with each other, and acknowledge each others’ struggles. It helps.
So ask me. Keep asking.