It was Christmas Day. New just-played-with toys were scattered all over the house, wrapping paper was overflowing the trash cans, and the boys were still riding high from candy-filled stockings and the excitement of Santa's visit. To keep things "normal," I had asked my husband to sleep on the couch on Christmas Eve so that he could see the boys on Christmas morning. We had been separated since Halloween.
He was the textbook adult child of alcoholics. He lied when the truth was easier, he was impulsive, self-loathing, non-communicative and more. I began to see these traits in my children and asked him to leave to get help so that we could break this cycle of his family. I knew that with help, and because I believed he was a good person, we would get through it.
As he was leaving, I walked him out through the garage.
"Can we talk?" he asked.
"Hang on," I said.
The boys were two, four and six years old. I couldn't leave them unattended for more than a few minutes. I opened the door to peer inside. Through the kitchen and into the living room, I saw the Christmas tree lights shimmering, the stockings flung on the floor, toys and candy strewn about. The smell of the tree hit me as I scanned the kitchen still covered with Christmas morning donuts and cookies. The boys were quietly playing. The middle one was watching a Christmas movie, the youngest was riding his new tractor and the oldest was playing his new video game.
I turned back into the darkness of the garage and closed the door to see my husband sobbing. In ten years, I had never seen him cry. I looked around to see our life in the shadows. Christmas boxes were awaiting pick-up. Bikes, rakes and tools were haphazardly arranged. Boxes of outgrown clothes were awaiting the next boy's growth spurt.
"Ask me any questions you want," he said. "I have decided to be completely honest and tell you everything."
"Have you ever cheated on me?"
We had many problems, but nothing I believed was insurmountable. I always believed he was good person. He kept telling me he was a good person, and I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe that when he "worked" until 10:00 at night and didn't answer his phone for hours, that he really had left his phone in the bathroom. I wanted to believe that when he shut off the computer every time I walked into the room, he really had just finished using it. I wanted to believe that the excessive cash withdrawals from ATMs were for lunch. But these doubts prompted me, and the question came out of my mouth without a thought or hesitation.
"Have you ever cheated on me?"
"Um, well, not really," he said.
Not really? That was not a definitive answer to my question. That question should have a definitive answer, and at that moment, I knew. I felt invisible. Everything I knew to be true was a lie. As I listened to an endless description of what specific acts he believed constituted cheating, I felt as though I had left my body and was watching this scene from above myself.
"Hang on." I had to come back to myself and needed to check on the kids.
I opened the door to check on the boys. They were getting a bit restless, running around the living room, flinging toys up in the air as they giggled and shrieked. Frosty the Snowman was blaring from the TV.
My mind replayed the last week as I watched them. The Christmas Eve service at church, the Sunday School Christmas party, making cookies with my parents -- all of it seemed so normal. I told them to finish the movie and I would give them a bath.
When I turned back to the dimly lit garage, I began to ask questions with surreal calm. He started to sob harder and harder as he related a tale of infidelity spanning five years of our ten-year marriage.
"I don't know," he said.
"What do you mean you don't know?" I could not fathom his answer.
"I don't know who they are."
"Too many to count."
At that moment, my two-year-old came bounding out of the house, all grins and wanting to play. The bright light of the kitchen fell on my husband's tear-streaked face. I stepped to block my son from seeing him, scooped him up and carried him back inside. I asked my 6 year-old to play with him for a few minutes before their bath and I would be right back.
"I don't have any more questions," I said. I turned back into the house filled with lights, music and the sweet faces of innocent, giggling boys and I shut the garage door.
Between the Big Confession and the New Year, I felt a bizarre sense of calm and relief. I had a defining moment of clarity that made my decision to leave my husband definitive. I didn't flail in the limbo of indecision. I had no doubts and no regrets. With my decision made, I felt a bizarre sense of elation. Elation in spite of the fact that my husband called crying daily, sent flowers regularly (too little too late? I mean, really, the lack of self-awareness boggles the mind), and finding that I was buried under a pile of months of unpaid bills. Telling my children about the divorce and seeing their devastated faces was the hardest thing I have ever done, however, I knew I was doing the right thing. Not everyone knows that and knowing is a gift.
After the meeting with the lawyer on the first day he was available after the holidays, I went home. The Christmas decorations were still up looking haphazard and worn and the lights hadn't been turned on in days. My children were with my mother. I cried harder than I have ever cried in my life. And then I got up, undecorated my house and went to get my children. I knew that my responsibility was for my children and myself. And I was free.