A cautionary tale.
I woke up at 5:30 this morning and started crying. Nothing's wrong, don't worry...but there is a story that I need to tell that has been weighing on my heart for about 8 months. It seemed to be healing, but yesterday I started to work outside in the garden on the first beautiful day here this spring, and it hit me again, and I felt sudden tears ready to fall.
Last July 4 while camping, we received a text from our neighbor of 14 years. We were riding ATVs about 70 miles from nowhere, with only one spot on the whole mountain where there was any cell reception, and we were there when her text hit my phone. I immediately opened it, because I figured she was texting to let us know that our pigs were out, or the water main was broken and flooding everywhere...the usual stuff. Instead, my mouth dropped in shock as I read it. She was letting us know that her husband had been killed at 1 a.m. that morning in a motorcycle crash.
I attended his funeral a week later and sat through the whole thing with silent tears streaming steadily for the whole hour. I cried myself to sleep that night. I kept in touch closely with her over the next weeks, trying, in that awkward, after-a-funeral way that we humans have, to show her we care, that we are here, that she is loved. Even when I couldn't think of what to say, when a hug seemed to be all I could offer...it didn't seem like enough. I was bereft for her.
We have lived next to this family for 14 years. One of our earliest memories in our house was of him, standing at our door on our first night moving in, smiling his personable smile and holding out a huge pizza as a welcoming gift. We have watched each other's properties and gardens evolve and mature. We have swapped tractors and produce, kitchen tools and canning recipes. We have plowed each other's driveways. They have rounded up multiple loose pigs for us and herded them out of our garden and back to the pen, whenever we've gone out of town (because that's the only time pigs will get out). She taught my daughter preschool at her house the year we moved here, then miraculously went to work at the school and taught her kindergarten as well. We have watched their kids grow up, two to three years older than our own two. We have watched them learn to ride bikes and drive cars.
Her oldest daughter sat through her father's funeral, 9 months pregnant--his grandson would be born 3 weeks after his funeral; she was married a month later, with the reception in their back yard. I made the cake (my last wedding cake), but it was a very subdued event. I decorated the cake with sugar sunflowers to match the sunflower patch that still bloomed, absurdly cheerful, outside their kitchen window. Those flowers were the last thing they had planted together as a family last spring, when everything still seemed normal from the outside.
Over the years, we have always known that theirs was not the happiest of marriages. We are about 5 acres apart, and while we had a great over-the-fence neighborly relationship...we weren't close to them, but even at this distance, it was hard to miss that their tone of voice was usually discordant. They never seemed to laugh together. More often than not, the sound that carried across the field was of them yelling at each other over the lawn mower, but we shrugged and said to ourselves, "Well, you know. Not everyone has what we have".
As the months after the funeral unfolded, we didn't pry into what happened. We didn't ask how he happened to be out at 1 a.m., speeding, drunk, on a motorcycle on the morning of the 4th. It didn't seem to matter. We tried to be there for a grieving family, and it grieved us to watch them going through the motions of a summer without their father and husband, no matter what the relationships had been.
My husband had spent enough time visiting with him over the years, in their twice-a-year visits over the garden fence, to get the impression that he was definitely not a faithful husband. He worked out of town in sales and always made suggestive comments about how great it was to work in Vegas (*wink wink*). We hoped it was nothing.
About 3 months after the funeral, she called and said she wanted to come over and tell me what had happened. I told her it wasn't necessary, but she felt we should know. Very long story short(er)...he had been having an affair that she had discovered in the usual way, the prior October--by picking up his phone one day to find texts and explicit photos on it from another woman. That had effectively ended any marriage that was left. They spent last winter and spring pretending at a marriage, because their daughter's pregnancy was at risk, but they had filed in fact for divorce, which was to be final in July.
She explained that since the funeral, her daughter and son had also stumbled onto more explicit messages and photos, ruining whatever legacy he may have left for his children's memory of him. She was fairly incandescent with rage as she told me of having to pay off an $8000.00 bill on their jewelry-store account, to pay for an engagement ring for the other woman, to save what little credit she might have had, since everything had been in his name. She related having learned about enormous debts he had accrued by secretly borrowing against their house, to fund his world travels with this woman. She found more photos of them together...in her house, in the sports car he bought her for their 20th anniversary gift, and more. I do remember seeing her standing at their burn barrel outside last summer, black smoke trailing up into the September sky. I didn't realize she might be burning hurtful photos and drinking herself to oblivion every night.
Until then, we had no idea anything was seriously wrong, aside from the signs of what appeared to be an unhappy marriage and possibly a 45-year-old man going through his own midlife crisis. In retrospect, I saw him winking at Shane when talking about Vegas. I saw him cruising up and down our street on his new hot-rodded-out Harley Davidson motorcycle. I saw myself sarcastically wondering at the new full upper arm/shoulder tattoo he was proud to go shirtless to show off, and the spiffy new "sparkle butt" jeans that we teased him for wearing. Of course, we didn't think there was a miserable story behind any of it. It also called into question that age-old human conundrum--If you are sure of someone's infidelity, at what point, if any, should you warn a friend that they are being betrayed? I didn't know her well enough, and we didn't have proof other than a lot of gut feeling and some strong red-flag hints, so we watched the train-wreck from the sidelines...
Over the months since the New Year, she has been forced to put the house and farm where they raised their family on the market and downsize her beloved Dodge truck to a used Mazda. She got rid of the chickens. The RV went away. The extra project cars and her son's wrecked Audi were towed off. Her kids found jobs and homes of their own, and she has moved out as well. The house is dark most nights, often without even a porch light. There is a shroud of blackness and a silent, sad emptiness that is almost visible over there, when I glance out our bedroom window across the dark quiet field between our houses. No kitchen light. No glowing late-night TV. No cars in front of the garage. No friends sharing a drink on the deck. No little herd of pugs and daschunds playing outside with visiting toddlers. The swingset hangs still in the back yard. The only movement is the slightly akimbo realtor's sign in the empty driveway.
We still look over there in wonder at the abruptness of it. A year ago, we had no idea that anything was wrong. It was a home full of people, pets, relatives, and activity. Today, he's dead, and his family is scattered and wounded. What a sad end.
It hit me hardest yesterday, I guess, like I said at the beginning, because yesterday while we were out doing some yard cleanup and enjoying the first glimpse of sun and warmth, freshly turned earth, and the magical feeling of rebirth in spring, they should have been outside next door, too. He would have been fertilizing their perfect lawn that I always jokingly envy. She would have been tilling the garden and trimming around the house flower beds. They might have been arguing, but they'd have been there. The little dogs would have been running around outside. They'd have been getting their pool ready and their firepit set up for summer evening marshmallow roasts. We'd have waved and made joking hand gestures that mean, "come over here and help us when you get done with all that."
Instead, as we took a break on the bench by the chickens, we studied the quiet, empty property and wondered at the derailment of an entire family from 5 acres away, and we felt grief, again, that a decision he made, however many years ago, and justified to himself somehow, that it'd be OK to take that slippery slope down to adultery and betrayal, had ended up like this. What a sad, sad end to a family...all because one man selfishly couldn't say no, couldn't remember to honor his vows, couldn't think that his children might face growing up with the legacy of a father who betrayed their mother and them, and then, worst of all, would end up dead in a street somewhere at 1 a.m., possibly coming home from another woman's house. It seems like there is no closure. There's no way to confront him. No healing past the hurt. No future rebuilding the relationship. He missed his daughter's wedding and their first grandson's birth, and everything else that was to come. There will always be an empty chair and the memory of betrayal.
I can empathize. I grew up in a family that I thought was fine. I found out at age 17 that my parents' marriage and my dad's "sobriety" had been a sham--that all those years, he had still been drinking and womanizing as hard as he could, and hiding it from us all. I know what it is to face that particular reality, and divorce, as a young adult, but I have had decades to deal with it all...his betrayals and selfishness and alcoholism. He and I have had years where we were, if not actually estranged, definitely distant. Long gaps have passed where I didn't care to call him or want to hear from him. But he's still there, and I guess I'm grateful for that. I've been able to forgive him, and there is no real tension to our relationship today, such as it is. I don't feel close to him on any level, but we do talk now and then, and we still get along. (Odd..he just called me as I was writing that. But it's his birthday in two days...so that's no surprise).
Anyway. I don't really know where I was going with all this. Just that it's so sad to think that a gravestone and a real estate sign outside an empty house are all that's left of a family, inside of just a short year. And the grievous thought that, really, it all could have been SO DIFFERENT, and possibly a life saved, if one man hadn't decided he could get away with cheating.
Other than that dark note...everything's fine here, and I'm going outside now to work in the garden, and I will try not to feel the waves of sad empty-house-ness radiating from the house next door.
On a brighter note...it's super nice out there today. Don't forget to hug everyone you love. :)
Thanks for listening-