What My Parents Taught Me About Loving And Leaving—And Loving Again

It was the morning of my 21st birthday when my mom brought me to her therapist's office to tell me she and my dad were getting a divorce. It was a cold day and the harsh wind was intensifying the hangover I had from throwing down as many shots as I could before 1 a.m.—the time my neighborhood bar shut down—the night before. The shelves and tables were decorated with those green potted plants, the ones that are nearly impossible to tell if they're real or fake unless you touch them. That was how I felt about that day, about that moment that I sat there hearing the words come out of my mother's mouth: Is this real, or is this fake, and how can I tell this time?

This wasn't the first time my parents split up, and I can't, with any degree of certainty, say it will be the last time either. This was something my parents did, something they still do. I can't remember the first time my parents split, but I'm sure my older sister does. She has a mind for those things, a steel trap for all of the dark moments. I don't envy her for that, but I do love her, and respect what she carries that I cannot. She remembers all of the dirty secrets, the fights, the low-blows. I remember sometimes my dad didn't live with us, and sometimes he did. I remember sometimes my parents kissed in the kitchen over a pot full of spaghetti, and sometimes the dinner table would be one short.

The first solid memory I have of one of my parent's breakups was when I was maybe 12 years old. My dad moved into a small room in the back of the furniture refinishing shop he owned. My sisters and I never slept over, but he had us come by for dinner at least once a week. All he had was a toaster oven, a mini fridge, and a hot plate, but he made the best roasted chicken and potatoes I had ever had. Or at least that's how I remember it. That, and how old he suddenly looked to me, sitting there on his twin bed under a harsh fluorescent light. It wasn't too long that he stayed there until he got pneumonia, and my mom let him move back home. It wasn't a big discussion. Like the time my mom transformed our den into a separate bedroom for herself, I came home and suddenly things were different. Suddenly, my dad was home again.

But they would split up again. My dad would always be the one to leave. Usually, after a few weeks of moping, my mom would start going to the gym and getting her hair done again. She'd call up old friends and spend her Wednesday nights at the Legion's Turkey Shoot. I'd wake up to her laughter bounding up the stairs from the kitchen where she sat sipping Kahlua Sombreros across from women she hadn't seen in years. She even got another boyfriend once, someone even older than my father, who is 15 years her senior. But it never lasted long. I'd come home, and my dad would be there again. It was a cycle I could count on.

I thought, sitting there on the too-firm couch, maybe this time it will be different. My mother kept using the word divorce, and it felt so permanent, so heavy. Through a handful of tissues held up to her face, she apologized to me over and over again. I sat, staring at my feet and wishing my headache away to no avail, until the therapist asked what he was paid to ask. "How does this all make you feel, Sadie?"

I was honest. I told him that I was happy my parents were making it official. I admitted that my 13th birthday wish was that my parents would split up for good. It wasn't that my life at home was so unbearable or unpleasant. I had a happy home, happy sisters, loving parents. But I knew that they didn't always love each other, and part of me always hoped my mom would find a man to sweep her off her feet, take her dancing, fly her to Paris. I thought there was someone out there for my dad who could appreciate the love songs he wrote, the ones my mother had long since gotten fed up with. Maybe someone who didn't mind his drinking so much. So I told my mom I was happy for her. I told her no, she didn't let me down. And no, this wouldn't totally screw with my head.

What I didn't tell her is what her and my father have taught me. Seeing them fall apart, then pull each other and themselves back together, I learned that love is anything but easy, and it rarely makes sense. I learned that forgiveness is possible, and infidelity isn't the end of the world if you don't want it to be. I learned love is work, and it's ugly and it's messy, and you don't need to apologize for it. Not to yourself, to your partner, not even to your children.

My parents are back together again. In the days after the therapist's office, my dad got his own place and I went back to college, but six months later, I came home to find his dresser filled again. They don't talk about their splits often, but they don't hide them either. Some wounds, even years later, are still tender; there are certain names we shouldn't utter, certain holidays apart we don't reminisce on. But I don't judge my parents for their splits, for their reunions, or for anything they might do next. I can only be grateful to have always been loved by them, and to have learned what exactly love can mean.

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