Ten years after they separated for good, my parents took me out for lunch at a diner in Toronto. My brother and I were living full time with my father; my mother was visiting from Montreal. My parents had been officially divorced for about two years. We were having eggs at the diner counter when a friend of my father's popped up out of nowhere to say hello. My father introduced my brother and I, and then my mother as his ex-wife. Mum's head snapped up; her eyes blazed.
As soon as the acquaintance drifted away, she told my father how inappropriate she thought that introduction, as "the ex-wife," was. My father was bewildered. He said he hadn't known what else to say. My mother was not exactly a friend... He said he felt he couldn't introduce her as "the kids' mom," because that might infer that they were still together. She said he should have introduced her by her first name and left it at that, that the exact nature of their relationship was no one's business. He said the conversation would have led to the fact that they were divorced anyways. Then, I think, my mother stormed out of the restaurant.
Falling in love is like playing a dangerous game blind, in the jungle, where there are a host of hidden traps that you'll only discover as you delve in deeper. It can be painful as hell but we're hard wired to play, fail, fall and play again. When I was 20 years old I met a lovely woman named Toby, who had just had her first baby. She and her daughter's father were together for seven years until the day she told him she was pregnant. That was the day he packed his things.
She went through with the rest of the pregnancy alone, had a beautiful blue-eyed baby under the disapproving eyes of her parents and former friends. I was the baby's eventual sitter while she finished school. Her baby's father moved as far away across the country as he could without actually landing in the ocean. Toby was older than me by about 10 years; one day she sat me down on the front stoop of her two bedroom apartment on Rue Laval in Montreal and advised me to give up on men for about a decade. "Men in their twenties are self-indulgent idiots," she said. "Forget about them for your 20s. Get yourself to a cave, join a convent. Go to sleep and don't wake up for 10 years."
Of course I didn't; I couldn't. I had too much to learn that seduction, intimacy and connection are the easy part of belonging to someone. I stumbled into my relationships with the high hopes of all fools, practiced having and losing over and over again. The men I hitched my wagon to had similar skills to mine: hyper-vigilance, mistrust, paranoia... Then I finally got lucky. I met someone who had partnership skills, had that special elasticity within him that allows some people to be patient and forgiving no matter what. He taught me what true love is: not words, gifts, caresses or even shared experience. Love is a capacity for maintaining a warm, empty space for the other person to enter at will in all their shapes and forms.
When we had arguments and I ran away, he always left the door open for when I came back. He always answered the phone, if he could, no matter how busy he was. He met my tears and frustration with hugs and cuddles. If I put up a wall, he waited on the other side of it shouting my name. If I put down a trap, he sniffed it, sidestepped it and kept tracking me through the forest. But an intimate relationship is a pendulum, a creaking rope bridge. The trick is to sway with the rocking. There came times when he was the one who ran away, when I howled his name, tracked him down, and kept a clearing for him in my arms. Now with every day, he becomes dearer to me and more precious.
This man and I were married two years ago. No one asked me to have or to hold my groom as per the traditional Anglican wedding vows at our wedding. I am half-Jewish and an atheist but growing up in Canada "to have and to hold" were the only marriage vows I heard. On the television, in movies, over and over again: will you have this woman/man...to have and to hold, as long as you both shall live? Increasingly lately I think about those two simple verbs and I sense a deeper meaning. I don't think the author was referring to a mere circling of arms or a physical connection. I think he or she was talking about protecting a safe space no matter how heavy the abyss, how much you would like to fill it with screaming, with fear, with your own pain.
For my part, I learned it can take a minute to have another human being, but takes years of hard work to lose them forever. My parents fell in love in Columbia in the mid 1960s. They had lots of lovely adventures; were married at city hall in New York City. They moved to Canada with a motley assortment of pets, lived out of their truck for a while in British Columbia, had a baby, bought land and moved to New Brunswick, built a log house there together, had another baby, tried to farm the land and then broke up when I was four for what would turn out to be forever.
Fifteen years later all of that shared experience came down to a casually dropped prefix. I think I understand my mother's pain. I remember how taut the scar tissue felt that day, how perilous it was for my parents to agree on how to describe each other to a stranger. They could just as easily have said: we did the having, but not the holding.
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