Years ago, when The Boy was still small, he and I watched the movie Lilo and Stitch. For those unfamiliar with the premise, Lilo is an orphan being raised by her older sister. Stitch is a space-alien-critter who happens into their lives and (of course) endears himself to them over time. There’s a poignant moment near the end of the film where Stitch, referring to Lilo and her sister, says, “This is my family. It is small and it is broken, but it is good.”
This was the moment when The Boy, all young and naive and bright-eyed, enthusiastically said to me, “Just like us, Mommy!”
I had to hide out in the bathroom crying for a good hour or so.
Single parents will understand. That whole broken-family thing will nail you in the gut every time. It doesn’t matter how great a parent you may be, or how the world is changing to accommodate different family structures. Single parents always feel second-best. And they always worry that their kids do, too.
I thought of that Lilo and Stitch moment recently, as I found a copy of the DVD while I packed up the last of my belongings still remaining at my former home in the wake of my recent divorce. Here’s where my convoluted life probably requires some ‘splainin.’ The Ex, about whom I’ve blogged until y’all likely wanted to scream get over it already, is not my first ex-husband.
That’s right — I’m 41 and twice divorced.
The Boy’s father — let’s call him Tee — and I met when I was young and foolish and he was old and horny. He was a lot older than me.
So much older that, after my family first met him (whilst I waited for the dropped jaws to to be retrieved from the floor) one of my smartass brothers deadpanned, “Well, I think it’s nice. Dad didn’t have much of a father figure. He could use someone to look up to.”
In the face of such quips, I did the only thing I was likely to do at that stage of my life. I married Tee. It didn’t take us long to realize that what we’d done was idiocy. Two weeks after the wedding, I packed my bags and left.
And then I found out I was pregnant.
In hindsight, I think Tee and I get an ‘A’ for effort. We did our best to make the unworkable work. Ultimately, we parted ways, fought and made a couple of attorneys richer for a while, then settled into co-parenting amicably. Tee adored The Boy and was always a great dad. For a number of years, Tee actually worked for my family, managing their golf business. He played golf with my father and brothers. He joined my family for holidays. It was about as good as it gets for an odd couple like us.
Still, I was ever aware that The Boy and I had this awkward, broken little family. His father was old enough to regularly be mistaken for his grandfather. I wondered if we would ever escape the weight of past errors.
Then I met the man you now know as The Ex. He was handsome and funny and, I thought at first, just quirky enough to fit right into our awkward, broken little family. I dared hope he might be Stitch to The Boy’s Lilo.
Over time, though, their relationship became one of the major issues in our marriage. They were just too different, and I was forever caught in the middle. There were other issues, too — stuff I couldn’t make up for any novel. As one who appreciates life most when it’s drama-free, I knew something had to give.
So, once again, I found myself divorced. I worked my tail off to keep things amicable, and before long I landed in the most unusual of situations: living as The Ex’s neighbor. Serving as his housesitter and dogsitter while he was away on business trips. Continuing to help him with management of our former home and rental properties.
A neighbor teased me as I helped The Ex dig one of our tenants out of the snow that had drifted against the apartment door.
“Forget about you writing another book. He should,” he said, nodding at The Ex. “He took your house and your dog in the divorce, and here you are still taking care of both! Now that’s a story!”
Haha. Funny neighbor. There’s a guy who’s lucky not to have taken a snow shovel to the face.
But a lightbulb went on.
There’s keeping things amicable.
And then there’s being a doormat.
The Ex had not been particularly kind to me for years. I walked on eggshells in my own home. When I begged him to help save our marriage, he was willing to do exactly nothing to that end. And yet, every time he appealed to me for help, I was there.
I began to wonder why.
I also began to wonder if I could truly move on while living so close to him that I saw him daily. We would walk and drink beer together at the dog beach while our pups played. Sometimes it seemed nice, as if we should win a medal for being the Best Divorced Couple Ever. More often, though, it was just weird and painful. Sad.
A child’s movie might seem an unlikely catalyst for change, but when I found that Lilo and Stitch DVD, something clicked.
I’d been small and broken too long.
The question was how to move forward. I took inventory.
The Boy is currently living with Tee, attending community college, and trying to figure out the path ahead.
I have plans for a small house I’d like to build. I need to save money toward that goal while helping The Boy pay for college.
Meanwhile, Tee has an in-law apartment in his home, something he and I had spoken about recently. It’s been in need of renovation since he bought the house years ago, and he wondered if I might be interested in doing the work in exchange for an affordable place to live. At first, I thought he was crazy. It sounded like the sort of thing likely to end in an episode of Dateline.
But then again?
Maybe not so much.
Tee and I have functioned as friends and coparents for over 15 years now. And I realized that, while I have been living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s no longer the right place for me. Every lovely aspect of the area is steeped in memories of The Ex. And if the memories aren’t enough, there he is in the flesh: driving past the front of my house in his car, past the back of my house in his boat, walking on the beach, calling me for help with this or that.
While there may be no geographic solution for most problems, this may be an exception.
One of my very best friends lives right across the street from Tee, on the river where she and I swim together as often as possible in summer. Several other good friends live in the same neighborhood. I don’t know what’s in the water there, but it’s Good People Central. And I need good people around me right now.
So I’ve found someone to sublet my little piece of paradise for the duration of my lease. I’m working on making the apartment at Tee’s my own, an affordable place to call home while I find my way forward. The Ex seems to understand that I need to move on, and has promised to enlist a proper dog- and house-sitter.
Here’s a snapshot of my life right now:
I am 41 years old.
Escaping my second ex-husband by moving into an apartment owned by my first ex-husband.
And feeling better than I have in a while.
Truth is stranger than fiction, right?
The other night, Tee and The Boy and I were surveying the progress on my new digs, talking and laughing, and a thought made me smile…
This is my family.
It is small, and it is broken, but it is good.