For years before the divorce the choice seemed impossibly cruel: I would have no life because of my kids; or they would have no life because of me. It was an un-escapable trap, a knot I couldn’t untie: I remember writing in my journal “This is the trick where Houdini drowns.”
Then the marriage ended and we were all struggling to get to the surface.
But the bitterness and regret remained. I had given up all hopes for a writing career by moving to Nantucket (occasional articles for the now-defunct Beacon, didn’t count).
Climbing a thirty foot ladder in a twenty mile North East wind, on a ten degree day in February, with a fifty pound pallet of roof shingles slung over my back, I actually believed for a moment that the plane which had taken us from Los Angeles had crashed and I was literally in Hell. Angry wife, screaming child, frozen weather and a job that left me sobbing with fatigue and unable to make a fist at he end of the day – it would take a very inventive Devil to make things any worse. Or so I felt at the time.
I blamed myself for failing as a writer; I blamed my wife for enforcing the deal we made, uprooting us back to this barren sandspit full of haughty rich people and trogloddye carpenters if I failed to meet the deadline for success. Perhaps I would have welshed on the deal, broken up with her, stayed on in the sunshine taking meetings and trying to put a screenwriting career together, but by the time we left she was pregnant. She had a hostage so I gave in to her demands and we headed east.
Soon we had two kinds and the paradox grew with them: they were the only light in the darkness, but I was in the darkness because of them. My marriage continued to crumble and I started to regret everything. Bitterness took over.
Regret and bitterness. Each one feeding off the other, accumulating like mildew on a damp wall and yet miraculously banished, bleached and rinsed away, by two moments of simple clarity.
This was the first one:
They had been visiting her parents in Los Angeles for a few weeks, as they did every summer. I met them at the airport. The NTSA had tripled the security and there were National Guard soldiers, armed and in full uniform, patrolling the terminal.
“Well, this is going to wreck the rental season,” Lisa said, giving me a brief hug as we waited for the luggage. The kids grabbed my legs.
No matter what subject Lisa was talking about, she wound up talking about real estate. I can laugh about it now. Someone was dying of cancer? Were they selling the house? 9/11? Oh, it was devastating for the real estate market. Chernobyl? You can pick up a nice three bedroom ranch style next to the reactor for a song these days.
Lisa was in her element on Nantucket. She was fascinated with the wealthy people she worked for. She told me one day after a parent teacher conference, that the man to whom she'd just sold a house made -- she had actually figured it out with a calculator -- he made my yearly salary every fourteen and a half minutes. Of course that was before my dollar an hour raise.
I looked down at the kids, Tommy in shorts and a t-shirt, Caroline in a summer shift that Lisa must have paid a small fortune for. I couldn’t begrudge her the expense, though I knew Caroline would grow out of the dress in a month or two. Buying kid’s clothes was one of life’s great pleasures, fleeting as a four-star restaurant dinner, doomed as a sandcastle. Tommy’s brown hair was wind scattered, Caroline’s red hair was tied into a pair of perfect braids. But they were a matched set of smiling round faces. You could almost forget they were at war with each other.
“Did you get us something?” Tommy asked.
“Hey – you went off-island. You’re supposed to bring me something.”
That gave him pause.
“How about a hug?”
“Sounds good.” I lifted him up, thinking, whoa, he’s getting big. He was a sturdy little nine year old, but he’d been a baby last week. Time was going by so fast it felt like a wind, blowing hard out of the north, pulling the air out of your chest.
“I got you something,” Caroline said. Tommy writhed in my arms to stare at her, outraged at this bit of sibling one-upmanship. “When we were at Trader Joe’s.” She wrestled her back pack off and rummaged inside. After a few seconds she pulled out a bag of unsulfured dried apricots.
“Your favorite!” she crowed. It was true. She was learning my vices.
“I saw the new Ian McEwan novel at Borders,” Tommy said. “”I wanted to buy it for you. But I didn’t have any money.”
“You spent your allowance,” Lisa pointed out.
“I saved mine,” Caroline said smugly.
Tommy thrashed for a second, trying to get loose. I knew he wanted to pounce.
“I didn’t even know there was a new Ian McEwan novel,” I lied. “So that’s a great present. We’ll go to Mitchell’s tomorrow and pick it up. Maybe we can find you a book, too.”
“What about me?” Caroline demanded.
“Both of you. We’ll have our own private book fair.”
“You spoil them,” Lisa said, grabbing the first of the suitcases.
“Oh yeah. Books. The scourge of today’s youth.”
I grabbed the other suitcases and we started out through the terminal toward the parking lot, the kids dancing in front of us, the squabble forgotten. They stopped to pet a pair of Bearnese Mountain Dogs. We paused and watched them charming the harried woman holding the leashes. Tommy said something and she laughed, while the dogs licked both sides of Caroline’s face.
Standing there, it occurred to me in a sudden absolute irrefutable bolt of awareness -- that having children made regret impossible - at least for all the time up until the exact moment of their conception. It was so obvious: if you had done anything different, or even done the same things in different order, your children might not exist. Certainly, given the way you rolled the genetic dice every time sperm met egg, they wouldn't be the same people. Looked at that way, not even a disastrous marriage could be considered a waste. I glanced over at Lisa, seething with impatience, worried about dog germs, distrusting strangers, eager to get back to the office and check the new listings. Across the floor, Caroline was teaching the dogs to give their paws, shaking them solemnly as if the dogs were graduating from high school and she was handing out diplomas.
I slung a duffel bag over my shoulder, took Lisa’s arm and guided her toward the kids.
I was thinking: an ordeal, and a tragedy, but not a waste
And I’ve never felt a moment of regret since – at least not for the time before Tommy’s birth. Since then – there’s been plenty. But it’s a lighter load.
The other moment? The one that scrubbed the bitterness out of my life?
I’ll save it for next time.