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Janice Harper Headshot

Breaking Up Is Weird to Do

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Shortly after my parents separated when I was a teenager, I asked my mom if she and my dad planned to get a divorce. "Oh, no!" she assured me, "that's not necessary." I felt a momentary sense of relief before she added, "We divorced years ago, right after the war."

"The war" was the Second World War, which is to say, back in the forties. Long before I was born.

The startling revelation that my parents had divorced decades prior and that my own birth was somewhat less than legitimate left me rather astounded. I had always assumed that my parents were married, given that they lived together, had four children and called each other husband and wife -- albeit not always in a nice way.

"What do you mean you were divorced in the forties?" I asked, "You can't be serious!"

"Oh, yes, I divorced him alright and he had it coming, let me tell you. We just couldn't agree on anything, not even who would move out of the house. So neither of us did."

I wasn't sure if that answer explained an awful lot, or made their marriage (and divorce) all the more confusing. In the end, I decided to consider it pretty funny.

It turns out, I had no idea how funny divorces could be until I worked for a divorce attorney. As the humorist Jean Kerr once said, no lawyer is every really happy with a friendly divorce. It's like a mortician finishing up the job only to have the corpse sit up on the table. And I happened to be working for a very good attorney, the kind who could sever conjoined twins and make sure his client got the only liver. So as you can imagine, I saw some really unfriendly divorces.

Now, I know that people are never at their best when they put their lives in the hands of an attorney, which as far as I'm concerned is as it should be. Attorneys are, after all, professional troublemakers with shatterproof hearts; at least we hope that to be the case for what they cost us. The last thing anyone needs is a nice attorney. It's like hiring a Canadian hit man. They're bound to end up shaking hands and apologizing for the gun, once it occurs to them how impolite it is to execute a person.

But I discovered fairly quickly that not even Alley McBeal would have had the patience to endure the emotions of her clients had she specialized in what is so wrongly termed, "Family Law." Nothing brings out the underbelly of our souls more perversely than breaking up with someone we once swore 'till death do us part.

There I was, about two days out of college, and happily employed as a legal secretary. My job was to greet the aggrieved, take their calls and type up legal briefs on this amazing new machine called a word processor. I quickly began to learn what divorce does to otherwise sane people once their private lives are turned into public records.

There was the couple who fought -- endlessly and at hundreds of dollars an hour -- over who would get the table lamps and duck decoys. By the time the matter was settled, they could have each purchased their own well-lit hunting lodges for what they paid to squabble over their knick knack duck collection. That was a couple, I concluded, that didn't really want to divorce but once they got started thought they had to see it through.

Then there was the woman who arrived in a state of absolute panic. Her husband had come home with muddy footprints in his underwear and could not explain the grass stains. Turns out he was frolicking with his mistress on the school playground very late one night and the Fruit of his Looms got trampled.

"And now he wants a divorce!" our client wailed, flaying her hands all over the place and blubbering like a toddler. "I can't get a divorce -- I'm Catholic! If he divorces me I'll never go to heaven!" She spent weeks calling frantically, trying to stop the divorce to save her soul, and found little solace in the fact that she had a good attorney and would get the house and then some. "Please don't let him get away with this!" she cried, "I'll do anything to keep him!"

Then one day, she arrived for her appointment looking like an entirely different woman. She was dressed impeccably if not just a touch provocatively, her skin was tanned, her hair cut, styled and lightened and her gnawed off fingernails perfectly manicured and conspicuously missing the wedding ring she'd vowed would get her into heaven. She'd never been so calm or self-assured, as she took a seat with the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the smile of a saucy vamp who'd just done the dirty with the handyman and found his work had met her satisfaction.

"Do you think we can get this divorce settled soon?" she asked, as if making small talk. "I just can't wait for this whole thing to be over," she said half to herself as she admired her shiny nails.

It seems a relative had died and left her loads and loads of money. His relative, to make it even better. So much for an eternity in Hades; she'd found heaven here on earth and there'd be no more dirty underwear hung out to dry in her most comfortable future.

Then there was the client with multiple personalities who was hoping each could get alimony, and the embattled drug dealers who lived in a storybook mansion that looked like something out of a Disneyland exhibit and didn't fight over where they'd live, but whether they'd live and which one got sent to prison. Or the client who was in his seventies and had been married for nearly fifty years but just decided he wanted to die single and was willing to leave his wife alone and broke for the opportunity to do so. Strangely, he was murdered shortly after in a drive-by shooting; who'd have ever seen it coming?

Each client came with a story, a story that spoke of tragedy, comedy and drama in every frantic phone call. For many, divorce stripped them of the camouflage of social pretense and they came to us in all their gory glory -- angry, self righteous, unconcerned about anyone but themselves, and least of all their children.

But for most, divorce had yanked their future out from under them, stripped them of their identities, their homes, their families and their pride. They arrived in our offices traumatized and confused, seeking only peace and finding only combat. With only children, money and material possessions to argue over -- since matters of the heart matter little to the law -- divorce transforms relationships to resources, with battles over duck decoys somehow feeling worth the hatred.

My own parents finally got back together again, once they found a house big enough to house them separately and peacefully, and they lived oddly ever after. And I finally got fired from the divorce attorney's office, when one of the partners caught me playing "Yer Cheatin' Heart" on the Dictaphone equipment (he had issues).

You just never know what might get you tossed out the door, whether it's because of country western music or trampled underwear. And once it happens, there's no telling what's in store. But whatever comes your way, just take a deep breath and remember, the other guy gets the table lamps and decoys. You go for your future.