The lyrics to Kenny Rogers’ song, “The Gambler,” looped in my head for weeks before my wedding: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk and when to run.”
I’ve long believed the Universe communicates with me through songs. Also through billboards, books and seemingly “random” conversations. But mostly through music. I didn’t understand the message, though.
“You’ve got to know when to walk away, when to run.” So, my choices were to walk away — or to run?
But the song also said, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em.” Like Jim Carrey’s Dumb and Dumber character, I thought, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”
Minutes after my boyfriend proposed, I found myself popping a Xanax. The proposal wasn’t a surprise, I knew it was coming. I’d even helped pick out the ring. My brain (head) said my fiancé was a catch and I was lucky to have found him. Yet, the entire year leading up to our wedding, my gut (heart) told me something was off. My body seized with doubt and anxiety.
I didn’t understand what I was feeling. I hired a “wedding jitters” coach, consulted psychics (two of whom told me not to marry my fiancé) and pumped my friends for confirmation that I was doing the right thing. They nodded reassurance, told me he and I were meant to be, then planned my bridal shower and booked tickets to Hawaii for the wedding.
Only my friend Jen had the guts, the day before the wedding, to ask, “Are you sure this is what you want?” I glared at her in the mirror. “Why would you ask me that??”
My head said hold ‘em
It’s been fourteen years since we threw the world’s most romantic wedding in Maui, shared with a hundred friends and family members. For the rehearsal dinner, our wedding party rowed us ashore, like royalty, for an authentic luau under a full moon. The next day, a Hawaiian guitarist plucked the chords to “Blackbird,” my favorite song, as I walked up the aisle to meet my groom. We recited our vows under an ocean-view huppah and danced the night away. I felt like a princess in my white dress and updo hair.
My “something old” had been a hair comb refashioned from a tiara my mother wore to her own wedding day. My parents’ marriage lasted more than 50 years, so wearing it would bring good luck. In retrospect, instead of desecrating the tiara to create a more contemporary hair comb, I should have just worn the damn thing as it was. Suffice it to say, the trajectory of our marriage did not follow the same good fortune as my parents’.
My new husband and I spent much of our honeymoon fighting, starting with the beer he insisted on finishing before our three-hour trek on the windy, narrow road to Hana. I wasn’t his mother, he reminded me. Besides, we couldn’t afford this honeymoon, why were we even here.
I put on my rose-colored glasses and reminded myself that everyone said the first year of marriage was the hardest. No one told me it would start on our honeymoon, but hey, we were both overachievers.
A week later I found myself in ripped jeans and an oversized t-shirt, sweating in the back of a Minnesota pick-up truck, hauling what seemed like a thousand boxes of our belongings. Later that night, we passed out in separate twin beds in his mother’s house.
The honeymoon was officially over.
I’d agreed to try living in Minneapolis, where my husband was based as an airline pilot, so he wouldn’t need to commute to Los Angeles, where we’d met. He was miserable in L.A., the place where I had friends, a home and an entertainment career. He promised we’d live happily ever after in Minneapolis.
I’d take a sabbatical from Hollywood, I told myself, maybe write a book. I approached the move like an adventure: found new friends, a new favorite coffee shop and a writing facility called The Loft.
Before I knew it, I stumbled into working on a hit television show. And then another one after that. Both just happened to be based in Minneapolis. What I thought would be career suicide — leaving Los Angeles — turned out to be the complete opposite.
Upping the ante
We decided to start a family. I was inching toward 40, no time to spare. Meanwhile, the stress of our mismatched union mushroomed daily. After two miscarriages — two chances to reconsider whether I should stay in this marriage — we conceived our daughter. I’d felt her spirit around me for years. I knew we were destined for one another. I began to realize, though, that I did not feel the same way about her father.
I tried to make the fairytale work. We engaged in various forms of therapy, actually got fired by one of our therapists. Her last words to us: “Good luck.”
I attended Al-Anon meetings, though he wasn’t technically an alcoholic. If there were groups for rage and depression, I didn’t know about them. All I knew was, I felt alone and needed support. I spent a lot of time crying in my car.
Unlike my marriage, my career was thriving. I quickly rose to on-staff senior producer and writer at my TV job and remained there until my daughter was born. At which point, a chunk of career ambition dropped out of me with the placenta. Being a mother felt far more important. I’d hoped wife would also be part of the package, but the fate of our marriage continued to stand on shaky ground.
My heart said fold ‘em
I developed a chronic cough, sometimes there was blood. Doctors could not find anything physically wrong with me. Then, a visiting friend noticed that the cough began when my husband entered the room and stopped when he left.
I prayed to whatever holy force would listen, “Please put an end to our misery.” I didn’t have the strength to up and leave on my own. Every time I’d reach critical mass and feel ready to walk away, he’d say just the right thing to make me believe things would change. They never did.
It took a few years, but the cosmic off-ramp finally appeared. My soon-to-be-ex left to train with the Army Reserves. Then, against all odds, his unit got deployed to Iraq.
I looked up to the ceiling, my hands clasped. “Thank you.”
I didn’t want him in danger. I just wanted him gone.
Before he left, we separated. During his leave, we discussed divorce. When he returned home, we filed.
Anyone who’s been through a divorce will tell you: it’s one of the most excruciating experiences of your life, particularly when a child is involved. It’s not just a breakup, it’s the death of a dream. The one where we were all supposed to live happily ever after.
I’ve since remarried and so has my ex. My daughter has been shuttling between two homes since she was 2. She hates leaving one of us for the other and doesn’t understand why we can’t all live under one roof. Usually, she’s flexible, sometimes resistant. I encourage her to talk about her feelings with her father.
“I can’t,” she says. This worries me.
She’s eleven now. I decide it’s time she knows the truth, at least partially, so she doesn’t follow in my footsteps.
“When I met your father, he made me feel so special. I thought he was The One. But my body told me a different story. I didn’t understand it. He was a great guy. Smart, funny, handsome and it seemed like he really loved me. But I felt so much doubt in my heart. I let my head talk me into doing something that my body — my heart — knew wasn’t right for me. Do you understand?”
She blinks and nods her head. “I think so.”
“Your father is a good man. He just wasn’t the right man for me. I’m absolutely certain, though, that we were meant to have you together. We needed all the ingredients between us to create the fabulous human that you are.”
I emphasize how important it is that she always listens to her gut, the way her body feels about things. Our heads are so prone to chatter and fear — like my fear that I’d never meet the right man or have a child if I didn’t board the train in front of me. Our hearts always know the truth. And we have to speak our truth. That’s something I didn’t do with her father.
Know when to hold ‘em
As soon as he and I filed for divorce, I met my now-partner. When we compared timelines, we realized that we’d both been single at the same time. We worked in the same industry. We might have met and had kids together. But fear had stepped in and delayed the timeline. We tried to add to our blended family, but it was no longer possible. This too, I’ve had to accept as meant to be.
“With him, it was the opposite,” I tell my daughter. “My head told me I should worry about how fast we got together, how impulsive and sure he was about moving in with us. But my body felt calm. It felt right. My heart said it was OK.”
It’s been almost ten years, and we have our ups and downs. My mind and body still do battle, but never again will I go against my heart.
Hopefully, neither will my daughter.
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