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Good Letters

It is darkest night, and it is the last night my four children will ever go to sleep thinking their mother and father will always be married. Tomorrow we tell them it’s not to be that way.

My heart quails at the thought of what we have planned, how it would be better to slap each of them full in the face. An unbroken home is something we swore we would give them, no matter the cost, no matter the cost.

Some costs can’t be borne. In bearing them you inflict pain on the very ones you claim to love. This is what we tell ourselves, at least, and I think sometimes it is true, though I can’t explain, any more, why we are divorcing.

I know the reasons, the deeply hurtful, personal reasons. But I can’t string them into a narrative that makes sense. When I try to set them down piece by piece, the way a lawyer might forge an argument, say, or a bricklayer might plant his path in scored earth, I lose my way.

I can’t explain why now the burdens are too great. Two years ago they were not. They were not even too great in the second before we wept and agreed to dissolve what we swore to uphold. Some days I think we decided to divorce because we must; other days I think we must divorce because it is what we decided.

Sometimes I think we are doing it because we each of us came to the brink one night, and neither of us blinked. No marriage survives if nobody blinks. Is that all this is? Two souls too weary to fear the abyss?

All I know to tell my children is that sometimes you get a wound, and if you scrape that wound every day, it will never heal. This is your mother’s heart, I will tell them. I’ll insist that they will see me every bit as often as they do now. This is the silver lining in my work commute. We have already lived in quiet separation for a year, disguised by my job. Someone said absence makes the heart grow fonder. Someone said this.

I will explain to those four upturned faces that we love them, that we love them more than ourselves. But already, those unspoken words sound hollow. We are either too stubborn or too weak or too angry to give them this gift we swore to give them. Don’t we love them enough? Don’t we?

I haven’t been able to focus on anything, for very long, in months. The last chapters of a novel remain unedited. I forget, on planes, where it is I am going. I lose entire paragraphs in conversations, and can only nod, and smile, and work to keep the tightness in my stomach like stone, because to let in food or air will only soften it and then I will vomit or scream or both.

My babies, I keep thinking to myself. My babies. What will happen to my babies?

I try to remind myself that the messed-up kids of divorce are being raised by messed-up parents who got divorced because they are messed-up. It’s a spurious causation, I insist. But then, I am a lot messed up, and their mother at least a little.

And now they see that a love can dissolve, that people who love each other and live together can undo their bond. What great insecurity will this unleash in their hearts? My babies.

There is no prayer that gives comfort, no bottle that brings enough forgetfulness. I drink too much and I rage at the night and still nothing will change the reality that the two of us together cause more harm than good to one another’s souls. What damage does a soul-weary parent do to a child? How much more or less is this damage than the harm of divorce? What dread mathematician knows the answers?

Some people tell us not to do this, and others say they are not surprised, and others look at us like someone they love has died.

I return to math, to statistics, to the consolation that most people who have buried their children don’t last. People will forgive us, I think. They have to forgive us. Even our children have to forgive us, don’t they?

Letting myself be forgiven, feel forgiven—that’s another mystery entirely.

I used to think it was an exaggeration, the depiction of a parent throwing out his arm, in a braking car, to catch his forward-lurching child. Then one day in the rain I hit my brakes and found my arm wrapped across my nine-year old’s chest, because this is what you learn to do, you learn to catch them when they toddle and fall, to put your flesh between them and the hard point of impact.

How are you supposed to protect them when that impact is you?

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website

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