The Last Couple Standing

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The Aftermath

What do you do when you love everyone involved? Whom do you succor first at a train wreck? Usually the worst wounded, of course. And how do you negotiate the aftermath? Where there was bad behavior, we try not to judge. Where support is needed -- generally among the women and children -- we try to give it. And in our own family we hold on tight.

As thoroughly modern kids, our son and daughter, ages 18 and 16, are conversant with the newer forms of busted, blended, two-mommy or -daddy and bicoastal families. They can easily keep pace with their pals' "Thursdays through Sundays at Dad's" type arrangements. But when divorce hit closer to home, they weren't so blase. "Why? What happened?" they demanded to know. "Why won't you tell us?"

We have yet to find a graceful, reasoned way to depict friends' smashups. Pick your cliche; we've tried them all: They just came apart. Things weren't working out. They had come to different places in life. The inadequacy of our explanations has been obvious. By the third or fourth divorce, any snappish moment between Mom and Daddy-o, albeit over the likes of the whereabouts of a garden spade, raises an alarm: "Stop it, you two. Stop it right now!" Their undisguised worry makes us wince.

For clueless adults I wish there were an etiquette guide for Carrying On. Once the initial Days of Anguish have passed -- the tearful phone calls, the husband/husband, wife/wife dinners -- there is no beaten path back to equilibrium. Though we try to stay cordial with all parties, we've found that post-divorce friendships are often a function of proximity. Two couples' splits were so thorough and distancing that no one sees either party. In opting out of the marriages, most of the men effectively walked out of our lives, one to a new bicoastal marriage that keeps him breathless, another to new and distant jobs and liaisons. We miss them all and wish them well.

Like any nuclear family reconfigured by divorce, our extended clan has learned to adapt. In place of the lazy-day family picnics and brunches, there are long mom walks, ladies' nights, and dinners with odd numbers of guests. No one loses a place at our table.

We have also learned to respect the resiliency of children. The most heartening moment was when Rob and Dorrie's son and daughter, who were devastated by their parents' bruising divorce, rallied their teenaged friends to throw their mom a surprise birthday party. Dorrie walked in on the arm of her proud, handsome son to guests from both sides of the wedding aisle, her children's friends -- even her ex-mother-in-law. The message was bright as all those darn birthday candles: We love you, we're here.

It's a long, hard journey to those redemptive moments; Penny is still at the outset walking on glass. There has been no communication from Tom, but Penny and I talk and e-mail across the miles. Sometimes we talk turkey -- the marriage -- but much is just catching up on kids, jobs, friends. Yet I realize that even my burbles about day-to-day family doings can sting. After my recent dispatch about dual-career travails here, Penny wrote back, "I really loved working and pulling together. That's a great part of marriage -- having someone on your side."

Bingo. That's the ultimate blessing of the time-tested union -- and the howling loss of the broken one. Walk it all with me. Know me, love me, mourn me like no other. Make that part of life altogether unconditional and everything else -- from gas prices to orthodontia, terrible twos to HMOs -- can be tamed. Or at least held at bay.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2008.


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