The Last Couple Standing
I might have been okay if I hadn't seen the baby crib. It was in the garage, disassembled atop the pile of "what nobody bought in the tag sale." I spied it as I stood in the driveway of Tom and Penny's home for the last time. Their house was sold, they were half packed and about to navigate the scary ice floes of separation -- with two wide-eyed daughters bobbing between them. For work reasons they were moving to a very distant city, where they planned to live apart but near each other and form yet another of today's "alternative" family constellations. I hugged Tom goodbye, then clung fiercely to Penny, the saddest of us all.
The loss was breathtaking. We had toasted one another's weddings. Our children dunked themselves, shrieking, in the chilly pond as the men tossed towels and encouragements and Penny and I gossiped through a heady blue cloud of barbecue smoke. In those Days of Heaven they were the couple closest to my husband, Mark, and me in temperament and circumstance. So when they came apart after 20 years, we watched their free fall with horror and pain.
However did we get here -- the last fading afternoon in this pretty place? Mark was away on business, so I had driven out alone to say goodbye. We soldiered through a sad, strained lunch. And just as I thought I had a grip on myself, there was that crib -- our crib. Another couple had given it to Mark and me after their children had grown out of it; we tucked our two into it, then passed it to Tom and Penny, who kissed two more fuzzy heads bobbing above the rails. Once the repository of dreams, the crib was as forlorn an object as a lost teddy bear on the roadside. I had a strong, if irrational urge to tie it on top of my car and save it from the garbage truck's splintering jaws. Of the three couples who used it, we are the only one left standing. Tom, the one who wanted out of the marriage, turned back toward the house first. Penny was a pale, thin pillar of devastation, unable even to wave as I pulled out of the driveway. From the dashboard CD deck Yo-Yo Ma's cello played a gorgeous elegy as I drove past trees just beginning to yellow into fall. Within seconds I was crying harder than I had about anything since my father died. I had to pull over; I could not see the road.
Just who was I crying for? For Tom and Penny and the girls, surely. But as traffic whizzed by I realized I was giving way to a more selfish grief that had been building as six couples we had long counted among our nearest and dearest fell apart within a few years of one another. And one by one their dissolutions undid that ad hoc adult family circle that had nourished us for so long.
These were the people you first raise hell with, then raise kids, roof beams, and retirement plans. We took the scary fences together -- that first postpartum diaper, a midnight croup attack, kindergarten jitters, failing elder parents, lost jobs -- and pulled one another out of the thorny hedges from time to time. Headed toward the far turn, had Mark and I outdistanced the field? And if so, why did it feel so lousy?