How I Built A Family From The Ashes Of Another

If I hadn’t spent those years feeling like a stranger in my own home and deserted by those dearest to me, the welcoming smiles wouldn’t have shone so brightly.

Not long after my parents announced their separation, I met my college roommate’s mother for the first time. Jen had always spoken warmly of her mom and plainly about the divorce that had consumed their family, but it wasn’t until after college that this woman became a concrete voice bound to my own by our comparable situations.

She called me following a series of brutal fights with my mom, fights where we got in each other’s faces and said things that we’d like to think we didn’t mean but absolutely did at the time. “I know it feels personal,” she said, in a voice that could have soothed me to sleep. “But take it from me. Your mom can’t think about anything else, not even your pain. Especially not your pain. It’s not fair and certainly not right, but it’s what we do to cope.” To this day, I am immensely grateful to Jen’s mom and the 15 minutes she took that evening to flex my empathy muscle and help me feel less alone.

In an effort to provide more support for other Adult Children of Divorce, I wrote columns in 2013 and 2014. Reading them now is almost as disorienting as the actual experience itself had been. Looking back, I’m amazed that I survived that much ugliness, and I’m relieved that it was temporary. That my parents can now lift boxes together when I move to a new city. That they now text each other regularly and amicably.

Divorce is a terrible process for everyone involved, but others tend to misjudge what exactly makes it so terrible. At the Christian school I worked for at the time, my well-meaning co-workers eagerly announced that they were praying for my parents to reconcile. “Oh, Jesus, no,” I gasped. “Don’t do that.” Particularly in circles where divorce is still taboo, I had trouble explaining that the situation was a kind of necessary evil, one that would eventually move us all into healthier relationships with one another. It was also difficult to convey my sense of abandonment after close family and friends – people who were initially supportive of my parents’ decision – suddenly split after the ink was dry on the divorce papers. As much as I wanted to trust that these disappearances were more about our friends’ own judgements and insecurities than about any of us, I felt enormously betrayed.

Then, in 2013, the universe delivered me a new friend named Sheri. On the other side of divorce herself and with two college-aged children, Sheri understood exactly what my parents and I were all going through. Like my roommate’s mother, she became an invaluable resource and a barometer for my feelings and quandaries. In turn, she was able to consult me for an ACOD’s perspective before broaching certain topics with her sons. She eventually introduced me to her lifelong-friend-turned-partner, and their story of reconnecting after decades restored my faith in love’s triumph over loss. I discovered that when you look for the Sheris, the glimmers of hope in an otherwise treacherous time, they can fill your life with a joy and comfort you once found impossible to imagine.

Some of these glimmers are old friends who stand with feet planted firmly in the ground when everyone else has gone away. “You should come to our Sunday dinner tomorrow,” my best friend Joey suggested one afternoon. The Sunday dinners that his parents hosted were family traditions that had gone on for as long as I’d known him. They were loyally attended by Joey, his two brothers, and his grandparents, whose 50th anniversary I’d assisted with at the local parish, if “assisting” meant stuffing myself with brie and apricots and kneeling to take pictures of the happy couple dancing.

The whole house lit up when Joey’s mother sang to herself over the stove, swatting him away with a spatula in the same manner she probably did when he was a child. Did they regret inviting me, a dangerous reminder from the outside that things fall apart? But before I could feel like enough of an imposter to leave, his mother motioned for me. Joey and I were serendipitously born on the same day: The hands that delivered me delivered my best friend mere hours later. Now, his mother’s hands smoothed back my hair. “You know you’re always going to be my daughter,” she told me. “There will always be a place for you in this house.” It was the first time since the divorce that someone had seemed to regard my parents and me as actual human beings, not sad stories to be reluctantly associated with.

If one of the five senses is lost, the others intensify. This is because the brain rewires itself so that its capabilities are not wasted but redirected to other pursuits. If I hadn’t spent those years feeling like a stranger in my own home and deserted by those dearest to me, the welcoming smiles wouldn’t have shone so brightly. I might have missed out on spending Easter with the family of an old friend who now lives in Tennessee, whose place at the table they graciously gave to me knowing that the holidays can still be hard. I might not have appreciated the kindness and trust of my boss as deeply when she opened up her home so that I could stay close to a conference, arranged fresh hydrangeas on the table and meticulously labeled every cabinet and drawer. I would have missed out on seeing all the love in their homes. I would have missed out on all the love they had to share.

Doing the right thing, or not, is a flicker between a cold shoulder or a jubilant wave, a closed door or an open one. The choice takes a moment. The impact lasts a lifetime.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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