across miles

Loving someone you can’t have makes you cynical, C. writes in a long message to me. The time stamp tells me it is late when she writes. She’s been up for hours.

He sends her a card in the mail – a Thanksgiving card, with a turkey on it. It says, “thinking of you across the miles.”

“Across the miles?” she asks me. Her voice sounds tired on the phone later when we speak of it. “Does he mean across the five miles from his house to mine? Or do you think he means the miles of bullshit he’s put me through? Across the metaphorical miles? Because that’s my guess.”

The holidays can be hard on the heart, it seems.

I walk with my friend K. in the afternoon. It is unseasonably warm for late November. The sky is streaked with pink. She is one of my two friends in divorce mediation. The last session did not go well. He mutters insults under his breath at her and when the lawyer leaves the room, he snarls accusations. “If he had shown this much passion during our marriage, we might not be getting divorced,” she says. We walk past a marina where white boats are tethered to the dock. She’s moved out, has her own apartment, which she’s already decorated for Christmas. It’s light-filled and airy. There is a view of water.

“It’s fine, though,” she says, as we are heading back. “Every time it gets a little easier.”

“And what of P.?” I ask about the man she fell in love with, before she knew that she would leave her husband. “Not thinking about him until January,” she says as we turn the corner to her street. “Check back with me in January.”

We are sitting on a rock formation near a man-made pond in the middle of a sprawling corporate park. The pond is stocked with koi and our children watch in delight as the fish come right up to the rocks, open-mouthed. My nephew pets one like a cat. My sister hands out the snacks she extracts from her backpack. It seems impossible that her bag could hold all that she pulls from it: Popcorn, crackers, bottles of water.

“It’s been a hard few months,” she says, in a quiet moment. Our husbands have wandered away with the children, so it is just the two of us. The sunlight creates rainbows in the jet spray from the perpetual fountain.

“I couldn’t understand what was missing from my life. I have everything I’ve always wanted, but something still felt missing. I think I have figured out what’s been missing all this time.”

I suppose that I expect to hear her say – finally, after all these years – that she wants to learn more about her adoption. That she is thinking about searching. I expect her to ask if we could plan a trip together – back to Korea, to see what we can find out, if anything at all. I am not expecting what comes next.

“I think what has been missing all this time is God. I’ve found God in my life, and I’ve never felt more at peace.”

If there is one thing I have learned when it comes to discussing matters of faith with members of my family, it is that I will quickly come to sound shrill and strident and angry. It is not a conversation in which I tend to present my best self. So I am silent for a time, give her the space to continue speaking. About how she is reading about prayer, praying all the time. Learning how to pray. “I don’t think I ever learned how,” she says. She wants me to say something.

She says: “I just feel so much peace now. I want everyone to know this happiness, this peace that I feel.”

What I say is only this: “I am very happy that you have found something that brings you peace.” She seems unsatisfied, though and the conversation that follows goes a little like this:

“Do you believe in God?”

“I don’t know that I do.”

“What do you think happens when you die?“

“I don’t think anything happens when you die. I think we just die.”

“But what is your belief system? What do you believe in?”

This last question irritates me more than the rest, the way she says “belief” and “believe” like the words themselves are magical incantations. I take a deep breath and dive in. I speak slowly, choose my words carefully, keep my voice at an even volume.

“I think the assumption that one needs to have a whole system of consistent beliefs is false. I think it’s also a false assumption that our lives are supposed to happy, that we are supposed to be at peace. I think to be human is to struggle with the very nature of our human-ness.”

She pauses. She, too, is choosing her words carefully. “And you don’t think that’s kind of sad?”

“Yes, I do think it’s sad. I think life is sad. I think that the fact that we go on at all – in the face of sadness – is what makes us human. The struggle. I guess I believe in the struggle.”

My son runs up to me with a long stick in one hand and a leaf in the other. “I’m going fishing in the pond,” he shouts at us. “I’m using this leaf as bait.”

“Oh, that’s good.” I say: “Be careful,” as he runs back off again. “And remember, this is just pretend,” I call out after him.

In my first job after college, I worked with a woman who was a poet. She had been through the graduate program I would later attend myself. As a young woman, she fought fierce battles against her depression, her bipolar disorder. “I would take the bus from Butler to my workshops, and then, when I was done, I’d get on the bus and head back.” Butler is the psychiatric hospital where for several years, she was an inpatient. She tells me this one afternoon at a staff luncheon. We are standing in a corner of the meeting room while we watch one of our co-workers carry in a sheet cake, set it on the conference table, light candles.

“I can remember riding along Blackstone Boulevard around the holidays when all the houses were lit up and decorated, thinking those people who lived there must be so happy. Because how could you possibly hang all those strings of tiny lights, tie all those bows over the doors, if you were not happy? It seemed impossible.”

I remember my mother’s far less generous interpretation. “Anyone who can spend all that time putting decorations on the outside of their house, you know it’s because they are unhappy inside.”

“They’re hiding something in there,” she’d say ominously as we passed a particularly bedazzled home. “You can just tell they’re hiding something.”

Back at the corporate park, my son has grown frustrated. We’ve moved on to another part of the park and there are smaller, shallower ponds without fish in them. “I want to fish for real,” he whines, poking his stick around in the water. “Well, you would need to have a real fishing pole,” I tell him. “And we’d have to go to a lake or a pond where we were allowed to fish.” He throws himself to the ground and moans. I look away. When I look back at him, he is on his feet, but leaning down to watch the path an ant makes across the stone. “Look, an ant,” he says and as I am about to respond, he brings his sneakered foot down on top of it, hard.

“Why did you do that?” I ask him, a little too loudly. He does not answer.

A few minutes later, I take him aside. Tell him that I understand he was frustrated and angry. But that doesn’t mean that he can hurt other people or things. “Do you understand?” I ask him, my face right up near his. “Just because you’re angry or sad does not mean you can hurt other people or things. Do you understand?”

He looks down at his shoes. “Yes.”

I send my other divorcing friend a message when I get back. Tell her I am thinking of her. She writes back: “This was our first Thanksgiving apart in twenty years.” Then: “It was fine. A little sad, a little lonely. But mostly fine. Spent time with my family. Visited with old friends. There were moments that were lovely, even.”

On the drive back from New York, back to the life I have chosen, I think about my sister’s question. About my belief system. About whether my own inability to find God has left me bereft in significant ways. “Doesn’t it make life seem sad and empty without a purpose, without thinking there is some sort of plan for you?” she had asked, but there was no time to answer before the kids came swarming back, shouting and reaching for our hands.

Had there been time, I think maybe I would have tried to say this: Empty? No, I don’t think so. A little sad, a little lonely at times. Many, many lovely moments. And mostly, fine.