I spent a couple of hours Tuesday with a woman who’s going through a divorce. She told me at length about what she’s going through and what led to her divorce.
After 24 years of marriage, this woman filed for a divorce a few months ago, because she found out last February that her husband had been cheating on her with multiple women over the years. He’s the last person she would have ever suspected of being a cheater. They were very active in their church and he had always seemed like such a moral and ethical man. He wasn’t just a member of his church, but was an active leader.
He had emotionally neglected her over the years, ignoring her for the most part, but she stayed with him because “at least he doesn’t cheat on me.” She said when they first married — when she was 27 and he was 24 — she made excuses for him. “It’s just because he’s younger and immature,” she said she thought. Eventually, she grew accustomed to being ignored.
They were both software programmers when they met. She gave up her career to raise children, and her skills are badly out of date now that she needs a job. He moved up through the ranks of a major bank to a senior management position over the IT department. Although he had a very high income, he spent little on her. He took her to cheap restaurants and said they couldn’t afford nice places — which never bothered her until she discovered the expensive places where he had been taking his mistresses for all those years.
That’s the question she’s left with. Why did he do all the things he did? And why did she accept what little she was getting from him? She didn’t believe in divorce, but she nows says if she had understood 20 years ago what she understands now, she would have left him just for the emotional abuse of neglect, which she now says was worse than any physical abuse could have been.
She’s left alone now in a small apartment, crying more often than she wants to admit — asking, “Why?”
I don’t know that I have a point to make from her story. It’s just a brief portrait of a hurting woman who’s lost her trust in people — and is questioning her faith in God — because of the way she allowed herself to be treated. There’s not really a larger point. It’s just a glimpse. But I have two other stories to tell along with it.
For the past three weeks or so, I’ve been thinking about two incidents I watched during the week of Christmas. I’ve wanted to write about them, but I didn’t know what point I wanted to make. I’m not sure there’s really a point to make about any of them — other than just sharing the experience of feeling human misery that comes when families somehow fail.
The stories are just imperfect fragments of observations of families in turmoil of one kind or another. And, honestly, they’re emotionally powerful enough that they disturbed me. I’ve had to get some distance from them to avoid being upset by them, especially since I came from a family with its own dark side. As much as I can now, I’m going to tell you the stories and try to get myself out of the way.
It was Christmas eve and I was eating at the Chick-fil-A near my house. I was in the booth at the back where I normally sit. A man and two young girls came to the booth next to me with their food. I’m guessing the girls were around 5 and 6 years old.
The man had a couple of sacks with him. It quickly became obvious that this was a man meeting his daughters to give them their Christmas presents. They seemed happy to be seeing their father and happy to be opening presents.
My impression is that the two girls are starved for attention. It’s hard to say how I felt it. Maybe some of it was simply the power of suggestion. But they were both eager to talk to him — competing for his attention — as though they were trying to get everything said before this man would exit their lives again.
I heard parts of their conversation, sometimes enough to know the full context and sometimes just fragments.
“Daddy, when you’re here again….”
“Daddy, what do you do with this thing?”
“Will you come back soon, daddy?”
“What does this thing do? Is it like yours? I want one like yours.”
One of the girls had asked for a fishing rod, and she wanted it to be as much like her father’s as possible. He told her that maybe he should keep it so it wouldn’t get lost or broken until the next time he could see her.
“If I take it home, I can practice in a mud puddle in the yard,” she said. “Please let me take it home and show mommy.”
They talked. The girls asked the inevitable question.
“Why can’t you live with us and mommy?”
I couldn’t hear his very quiet answer, but I could see the face of one of the girls as he spoke. It was a hurt look that was also kind of blank, like the stare of someone who knows what she’s going to hear, but who’s hoping for a better answer.
And then it was time to go, according to the man.
“Can we stay a little longer, daddy? Please?”
But he said he had to return them home to their mom. The girls were quiet and had the resigned looks of those who can’t have the thing they most want to have. As they walked out, the younger of the two started to cry. The man didn’t seem to notice.
And then they were gone.
Two days after Christmas, I was at a McDonald’s late in the afternoon. A middle-aged couple sat at a table near me with no food. Just a few sacks. They appeared to be waiting for someone. They weren’t dressed nicely, but they appeared to be clean. They had the look of people who might shop at a thrift store, not because they’re trendy hipsters, but because it’s all they can afford.
While the woman was gone to the restroom, three children came in and made a beeline for the man. They were accompanied by a woman who looked both stern and bored. I suspected she was a social worker, and that suspicion was later confirmed.
“Daddy, daddy, daddy!”
The children cried this out as they ran toward the man. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen children and a parent as happy to see each other as these people were. There was a girl who was about 9 years old. There were two boys who were around 7 and 6.
They all crowded around the man, hugging him tightly. He closed his eyes, like someone who was afraid his joy would disappear if he opened his eyes to find the children not really there.
The girl was quickly looking around for her mother, and the father explained where she was. About that time, the mother returned and the girl ran to her, holding on very tightly. The two boys then did the same, but it was the girl who seemed incredibly desperate to hold onto her mother.
The social worker sat at a table about 20 feet from the family. She looked bored. She plugged her phone into a power outlet and proceeded to pay attention to the screen. It didn’t feel so much that she was trying to give the family privacy — what sort of privacy can you have in the middle of a busy McDonald’s? — but more that she was bored and had seen this scene play out so often in the past that she was jaded to it. She was just doing her job. She might have been a decent woman. She might have even cared about her clients at one time. This day, though, all I saw was boredom.
Over and over for the next hour, I heard both parents telling the children how much they loved them, sometimes to the whole group and sometimes to one in particular. The mother especially didn’t seem to be able to stop herself from touching her children. She kept hugging them close — first one and then another — and at other times, she would just reach out and hold the hands of the various children. She seemed fiercely emotional about how the meeting was affecting her.
It became clear that the children were having their Christmas meeting with their parents. There were a few bags of cheap toys which the mother doled out to her kids. The boys mostly seemed to get the sort of toys that transforms from one thing into another and flies around being heroic, at least in the mind of the user. I couldn’t tell what all of the girl’s presents were, but some of it was makeup. There was also a small notebook that she wanted to use as a diary. There was a small sample-size bottle of perfume that the mother explained had been a sample that one of her co-workers had given to her.
“What did Santa Claus bring you?” the father asked. And the children mentioned a couple of meager gifts they had gotten “from Santa” a couple of days before.
One question kept coming up from all of the children.
“Why can’t we go home with you?”
The girl was the first to raise the question. She seemed serious, as though maybe things might be different if she just asked again. The father and mother looked at each other and there was a pause.
“I can’t help it,” the man said. “I want you home with us. I love you so much.”
The conversation turned to other things. They kids played with their toys, and there was quiet conversation that I couldn’t always make out. The two boys were playing with their flying toys, having some sort of battle, when one of them broke off from play and went over to his mother and looked at her plaintively.
“Can we go home with you, mama?”
The woman put her arms around the boy and held him tightly. I couldn’t hear what she said to him, but it obviously wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
Soon thereafter, he got quietly upset. He sat near her and stared off into the distance for a couple of minutes and then he put his head down on the table. I couldn’t see his face — because he was covering it — but his body was slightly shaking with quiet sobs.
He tried to recover his composure and then showed his mom a cut he had gotten on his knee playing the previous day. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was important to him that he show her. About that time, the dad arrived at the table with a tray full of Chicken McNuggets.
For a few minutes, they were just a normal family. If it hadn’t been for the social worker sitting in the background paying attention to her smartphone with her earbuds on, I wouldn’t have thought there was anything different about them than any other family.
I heard snippets of conversation that were surreal in how normal they sounded under the circumstances.
“I had to stay in bed until 1 o’clock in the afternoon.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” the mom replied to something.
The youngest boy told something funny and disgusting.
“Gross!” the mom said with amusement and feigned disgust. The boy laughed happily.
“When do you go back to school?”
“When January gets here.”
After they ate, they played with their toys and kept talking. The dad let the girl paint one of his fingernails with some sparkly pink nail polish.
Then the boys went to the play area with their dad, where they tore across the place with reckless abandon. The daughter stayed behind and talked quietly with her mom.
At one point, one of the boys — I don’t recall which one — came running back over to the table where his mother and sister were talking.
“This is the best day ever,” he said with a huge smile.
And then before long, it was time to go. The three children didn’t want to let go of their parents. The boys held onto their dad and the girl didn’t want to let go of her mother’s arm.
“See you the next time,” the man said with sadness in his voice as the coldly businesslike social worker herded the children out.
As they left, the parents smiled and waved. The mother blew kisses. As soon as they were gone, the mom broke down and cried. Her husband put his arm around her shoulder, but didn’t say a word. They slowly walked out the door in silence. They walked across the parking lot and got into a car.
I don’t know the circumstances faced by either of the two families I observed. I could make guesses, but it doesn’t really matter right now. I’m not interested in who’s to blame. I don’t have any lessons to draw.
I just know that there are hurting people all around us. There are families falling apart and in crisis that tears up the lives of people who need each other and love each other.
I wonder today where all those children are. I wonder how they’re doing in school and in the homes where they’re living. I wonder how they’re dealing with being separated from parents who they love and desperately need.
More than anything, though, I wonder how this is going to affect them in another decade or two. What will they feel as they grow up and learn to numb their feelings in various unhealthy ways?
People all around me are hurting. They’re usually invisible to me. In these few cases recently, I’ve been able to see glimpses into the pain of people I don’t know.
I don’t like what they’re going through. More than that, though, I don’t like it that I have no way of helping to make their pain go away.