During the first year after my husband moved out, I ignored the ironclad rule of divorce and children: that every child will assume blame. Because my son Erik -- a preschooler at the time -- did not broach the subject, I came to believe that we were the one family worldwide to escape this truth. We were special and -- quite possibly because of divine intervention -- we did divorce better than the poor average lumps.
Thankfully for both of us, a book left behind two decades earlier by a departing roommate resurfaced, setting the stage to break the silence on blame. The Massage Book changed our lives forever.
I had referenced The Massage Book when Erik was a colicky infant. The only three things that calmed him at times were fresh air, the hum of the dryer and long strokes on his little legs. By age 2, he had come to prefer facials. Lying in his crib, he would look up at me, take my hands, and guide them to his cheeks with his eyes closed in anticipation, and my fingers would draw a path around the lower edge of his cheekbone. By age 4, sleeping now in a big-boy bed, a back massage became an indispensable part of his bedtime ritual, often the only time I touched my child of perpetual motion for longer than a second.
Thoughts surfaced during this time that were easily blown away by the changing winds of a typical day. "Can anyone else buy me?" he asked once, as I stroked his back. "When will I die?" "Am I real or stuffed?" During one massage, he told me that he will cry "happy tears" when he and I get married. (Long live Freud, who transformed Oedipus' story from a myth to a complex.)
A year after the divorce, Erik said the words that changed our family's course.
"It's my fault Daddy left," he said. "If I was perfect, he wouldn't have left."
We weren't special after all.
I kept stroking his little spine and told him that no, the reason Daddy left had nothing to do with him. It wasn't his fault... It wasn't his fault... It wasn't his fault, I repeated rhythmically. God! I thought you had taken care of this mess! Erik became stone still as my heart seemed to break 365 times, one for every day I let him silently suffer the blame.
Erik woke up joyful, a feeling I hadn't witnessed in him since the pre-divorce days, and I woke up to the job of helping us both face our feelings and thoughts, no matter how unpleasant, how painful, how much they whispered to us that we failed.
"Why does massage feel so good?" Erik asked months later, as I massaged his neck and scalp during an unhurried goodnight. How could I explain? Touch was the best I could offer him, an anchored message of unconditional love and strength, messages that had sailed away in the gusty, post-divorce winds.