As I took a nighttime walk with my 13-year-old son, 10 days into the pandemic, I asked him why he wanted his dad to move into our basement. He launched into a pitch citing statistics and facts about how “particulate could penetrate hospital masks,” until I interrupted him.
“Can you tell me from your emotions? Don’t talk from your brain.”
We walked for about 20 seconds before his voice went soft and sincere. “I’m worried he’ll get sick and I’m worried about him on his own. I know him, solitude doesn’t suit him.”
When my partner left me after 28 years, I was devastated. He made me feel small, betrayed and helpless. The last thing I wanted at that uncertain time was to share a home again with my own private Thanos. But hearing this, bam, just like that, I unlocked the door to the AirBnB in the house my ex and I were fighting over.
The night before he moved in, I closed my eyes and said out loud to the empty room we had once shared: “I’m going to take this opportunity to create a better, more respectful relationship with my ex.”
We may never have another opportunity to renew our friendship, I reasoned, or to be the parents our son needs. Most of all, I wanted to keep our son safe. As infections and death tolls around the world mounted, I didn’t want my son travelling back and forth across the city just because we have shared custody.
I was scared and needed my child close by. The problem was that my kid was also frightened, and he wanted his dad there, too.
A chance to start again
My ex moved in on a Thursday. We were at each other’s throats by Monday.
My coddling and his short fuse all felt like deja vu, but this time around I knew what was behind the compulsive cleaning and grammar-correcting that he used to vent his frustrations. This time I didn’t try to make him happy.
Soon, the quibbling became part of the lockdown routine. There was nothing to be late for, no pick ups or drop offs — just endless days of computer screens, hand wringing and pacing through rooms that, up until recently, had felt cleansed of the hurt left over from the end of our marriage.
My chest felt tight and I stopped sleeping. My eyes would snap open in the middle of the night and I’d picture him two floors below, in my house, again. Mornings became a time of anxiety knowing we’d soon come face to face.
I recognized the person I was becoming. It was me from two years ago, from a decade ago, when our relationship was a source of constant anxiety. This was the me that needed to be heard and believed. “Reframe it,” I thought. “It’s a gift, and it may never happen again.”
Nonetheless, many days into it I told him I was afraid he was going to leave us again. As it slipped out of my mouth, I realized that I wanted him to stay. Maybe to help parent, to live through this crisis — to be my ally — so I wasn’t alone in the most uncertain time of all our lives. But what I saw was someone far more afraid than I was that I might still want him. I could tell he was keeping more than his social distance from me. He had never had a friend like me, even though I considered him my best friend at one time. He still couldn’t seem to see how amazing the world was, or I was; only the faults.
Sometimes our laughter came easily, and it all almost felt normal.
In the weeks after our split, I got a dog – a sort of “divorce support animal” — so there was this crazy-ass pit bull around all the time. I could tell my ex had a soft spot for her. One day, I asked him how it felt to play with her or pet her. “I’m just trying to help with your stupid dog,” he scoffed. But, I could see it. I got this dog to rescue me and my son, and now it appeared she was also rescuing him. Very slowly.
That day, I allowed myself to feel a little bit of optimism.
Being stuck together in lockdown began to feel like a metaphor for the inescapable responsibility we shared as our son’s parents. We started to play Dungeons and Dragons as a family, and video games where each character must cooperate to complete the quest. We began to make dinners together, and play with the dog.
When it was just me and my ex, we talked of anti-racism, and J.K. Rowling’s missteps, and the Spanish Flu, and the end of fossil fuels. Once we quietly contemplated our fears, whispering of things that once seemed so far away, but were now as real and alarming as the upcoming school term.
Sometimes, our laughter came easily, and it all almost felt normal. But other times, it was self-conscious and awkward.
“We need to go back to doing things separately. We can’t ‘play house’ anymore.”
My ex’s sharp words stung like a slap across the face. I had asked him if he wanted to go to a cottage with me and our son for a few days, after what had felt like a period of relative calm.
We avoided each other that night. Finally, I allowed his rebuke to sink in: We were not a family, not even a strange one.
Ontario entered Stage 2 of lockdown in June. In July, Stage 3 began. The initial panic of the pandemic started to subside, and my ex packed up his bags for the second time in our lives.
We had lived through pain, tears, screaming matches, recycling, diapers, laughter, music and, yes, love for 28 years. Then he left. Then he came back. And after three months of infection rates, Zoom calls, online math quizzes and dog walks, he was leaving again.
This time, I was OK when he exited my life. I was whole. I can’t say how he felt, but I imagine his mood was a little bit lighter and that he enjoyed his own company a little bit more. I hope that one day my son will look back on this time and realize that his parents did a great thing for him, something my parents, many parents, would not have done.
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