Mike got cold feet the day before we flew to Mystic, and the seat beside me on the plane is empty.
Mystic, Connecticut, is the hometown of my former husband, Bill. It’s also home to the First Baptist Church, with its towering white pillars and tall steeple where we married. The church is on a hill that overlooks Mystic Pizza and around the river where his family all still lives.
My three children were born there, and we lived in Mystic for seven years before moving cross country for work. We visited the aunties, uncles, 10 cousins, and Grandma every summer and most Christmases until their father and I divorced a decade later.
For two more summers after the divorce, my kids still traveled with their father to visit his big, beautiful, loving, and kind family.
Then cancer came to visit.
Bill died just four months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. I would also like to point out that he never smoked a day in his life. He was only 54.
At just eight, 10, and 11 years old, our kids lost their father. Not that it’s ever easy to lose a parent, but their dad missed proms, graduations, first loves, and next year our daughter will walk down the aisle with me, instead of her dad at her wedding.
We didn’t have an ugly divorce. We had our differences, but co-parented well and raised our children with respect, love, and kindness no matter what our family circumstances looked like.
When Bill got sick, I did my best to put aside our differences, make amends, and ensure that my children would always remember the best of their father. I became the keeper of their memories of him. I remembered his smile, how his laugh sounded, and knew that he valued commitment to his job, to sports teams, and a good dinner out.
His funeral was in Mystic and I was there: mother of his children, 12 years his wife, two years his ex. The awkwardness of being the ex in the funeral receiving line paled in comparison to the utter devastation I felt for my children. My heart was broken for my former mother-in-law, who lost her son, and yes even for myself, the one who chose to divorce. I had just lost a former lover and my valued co-parent.
For years after, and on this day, I travel back to Mystic for family gatherings. It was important to me and the family that they spent summers and Christmas with their family. The family is a lifeline to their father. They knew Bill from birth; I didn’t even meet him until he was 38.
I am not the only “Keeper of Memories.”
My kids have spent a lifetime of summers visiting Mystic with trips on Uncle’s boat, lobster feasts at Grandma’s house by the pool, and bonfires at Auntie’s on crisp summer nights followed by blueberry pancake mornings. Bill’s family is my family. Just as I set aside the awkwardness, so have they. I am welcomed with my children to weddings, baby showers, and rides on Uncle’s boat. These beautiful people have been part of my life for over 20 years.
Mike and I met about six months after my divorce, although we didn’t have a solid relationship until after Bill died. I am grateful for that because it gave me space to whole-heartedly support Bill in his last few months without any sense of loyalty to another relationship. I also worked to repair and strengthen my relationship with his family.
My kids have grown up with Mike around. He has been part of our lives for the past 11 years. We now have quite a large, blended family with my three kids and his four, like the Brady Bunch plus one. We lived in two houses, maintaining two separate households until the kids started to fly the nest just last year.
It was an emotional and physical struggle to have a life partner in a separate house. After Bill passed, I was a solo parent who was mom and dad, taxi, cheerleader, and breadwinner. I worked full-time, raised my brood, and tried to have some kind of a relationship with Mr. Brady, who had four children of his own.
Mike was adamant that we live separately for the sake of the children. Mine had been through a divorce and the death of a parent. His had been through a divorce as well. For the most part, the entire bunch has almost reached adulthood unscathed, so it was the right choice. They had space and security without the stress of actually being a blended family. They are brilliant, sensitive young adults who care deeply about our collective family.
I share this to tell you that we lived an unconventional life. It wasn’t easy, and when I cried for a white picket fence life, Mike often reminded me, “Normal is a setting on the washing machine.”
On trips to Mystic, I’ve always left Mike behind. But as the years pass on, and the grief-filled memories fade, I keep hoping that someday we all might be ready for him to join us and not acknowledge the awkwardness.
I could almost feel his fear last week when Grandma called to insist we stop in for spaghetti on our first night in town. A few days later, we got an invite on Uncle’s boat. Mike said he felt trapped and if he felt awkward on the boat, there was no way to leave.
Was I trying to fit him inside my box?
His divorce was nothing like mine. Quite the opposite, and he has deep wounds. He can’t understand why I enjoy Bill’s family. Honestly, he thinks I’m a little weird. I would like to better understand how he feels, but he’s a quiet soul and this is all I know with certainty.
Perhaps he feels as though he’s stepping into the shadow of someone else’s life? I’m asking him to visit someone else’s hometown (not mine) and someone else’s family. Mike is forever the outsider who moved into the shadows of what Bill’s life may have been. I can understand that he needs space, and perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to fit him inside my box surrounded by my white picket fence.
But haven’t we made our life deliberately living outside of conventions?
After we arrived in Mystic, I got a text from Mike telling me he bought a plane ticket to New York to see Phish at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. Early the next morning, with just his backpack and water bottle, he stepped off the plane and taxied to the Museum of Modern Art. He spent the day at the museum texting me pictures of his favorite Georgia O’Keefe flowers, Van Gogh pieces, and a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. I texted back pics of me with the family dogs. We Facetimed during Phish, and his last pic was at 4 a.m.—him sleeping on a bench outside the airport under the stars while he waited to catch his early morning Sunday flight back home.
Later that day, I flew home with a full heart knowing that because he said no, he had space to be perfectly himself. Mike’s N.Y.C. Day of Fun captures his soul brightly.
And I would never want him to step into the shadow of someone else’s life.