“We had a common-law marriage so that we could get a tax deduction,” she said in a monotone voice.
That was a new one, I thought, as I wrote it down in the margin. It didn’t exactly fit into any of my categories, and I would have to work my magic and present it less shockingly.
“I thought he would someday commit, but he wanted his freedom. Signing a paper made him feel trapped, and I held on waiting, thinking he would change his mind.”
Her voice was lifeless, like she was tired of answering this question.
She wasn’t my usual interview for a social history. As part of the intake information I had to gather, I met with those who were newly admitted to the nursing home to get their stories. Most of them were similar with staunch religious upbringing, early entry into matrimony, 19 kids and counting, traditional roles of running a household, and then the death of a spouse.
I usually could write it with my eyes shut, and I hadn’t had this type of answer given to me before.
She was a bit younger than most of our residents, with long, wild grey hair and clothes that were somewhat more modern. This was back when assisted living, and home health care was not yet prominent like it is today, which she would have been a prime candidate for now.
While physically she was in good shape, she had developed mental issues that caused unsafe living conditions.
She had done a lot of drugs that had contributed to the problem as she aged. Her life experiences were the exact opposite of what I usually had people tell me.
“We didn’t have any children, but I thought I was happy.”
“You weren’t? This wasn’t what you wanted?”
I was under the false assumption that everyone from the free love movement was blissfully content, living contrary to what everyone else was doing. That’s how it had been advertised.
“No. Toward the end, I tried to say that I wanted more, and he walked away. By then, we couldn’t have kids, but I wanted the paper signed. We ended up getting into a huge fight over it, and he left. He came back later to get all of his things, and that was it. He immediately moved in with someone else. I knew his behavior wasn’t right for a long time, but I just put up with it. I kept thinking he would change his mind.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
I recall being at a loss for words. She had bought into a non-traditional way of thinking that hadn’t worked how she thought it would.
“I most regret not having kids. I feel like that was taken away from me. I thought I would be okay without that, but now I feel I have made a mistake.”
She had chosen to isolate herself as a way to cope and was struggling now to reside where she wasn’t alone.
These were the times during my social worker days where I had to help people grieve a loss. Sometimes, like in this case, I just listened and held her hand.
“None of this will be public knowledge,” I told her. “But you can talk to me anytime you want about it. You did the best you could, right?”
Somehow God would come in and calm the situation down when I had no idea how to. This was before I even had a prayer life; that is how good God is. I was rescued from many situations when I didn’t know what to say.
“Yes. I did what I thought was right at the time. I have not ever gotten over it, though.”
“You can’t go back and change it, but you can make a new life.”
She did have extended family, nieces, and nephews that visited. Slowly, she adapted to her surroundings, where I often saw her talking to other people, and she looked more relaxed. When we had kids come into volunteer and do activities, I made sure to pair her up with one because I knew she had missed out on raising her own.
Little by little, she let go of her past and let God fill in the empty places with new experiences. She quickly found herself surrounded by a supportive group of women that had gone through loss differently, but she could relate to.
Years later, I actually met a woman who had come through a worse situation.
I started with the usual questions of birthplace, parents’ names, and sibling count.
“I got married at sixteen. My family knew his, and they had a bakery in a town next to ours.”
While she became pregnant multiple times and ran the house, her husband’s responsibility at the bakery grew. He assumed the role as sole owner, and he was gone for long hours at a time, but she accepted it because they had a family to raise.
She spent many evenings alone as he would decide to stay overnight instead of making the commute home. He had to be up at the crack of dawn to bake, so it made sense not to trek back to her.
“We had eight children, so I was never without something to do. I sewed their clothes, helped them with school, made all the meals. It wasn’t an easy life, but I did what I had to do.”
I jotted down her words, and I was going to move on to the next subject.
“I thought he was at work day and night, but that’s before I knew he had a whole other family.”
I remember looking up at her trying to conceal my true emotions. Did she say that he had another family? I thought people only did shady things like this in the 1970s. This man was way before his time, and I had a lot to learn back in my early twenties.
“I don’t understand,” that is all I could come up with.
“I found out from someone in town that he was married to another woman in the town where the bakery was, and they had children. He wasn’t working all those hours as he told me.”
I had to write this angle into her biography, but I didn’t want it to be like the National Enquirer!
This was supposed to be a way for the staff and other residents to get to know her. We used this as an ice breaker technique so a new person was introduced to the community. Her picture and what I wrote would be posted in the main lobby.
This was to tell others about her interests and strengths. I was going to have to do a lot of cutting and pasting.
“It was hidden from me for years. I’m not afraid to talk about it.”
“So what happened? You found this out, and then what?”
“I went looking for the truth. He had set up a whole life with this other woman, and they had as many kids as we did. He spent holidays with them and everything, but his lies were so good, he had me fooled. I was young and naive. I remember the worst thing was that I found out he spent Christmas with his other family. He was so good at making sure he covered his tracks that he got gifts for the children and me. That really hurt me. All of it was hurtful.”
Explaining it to the kids wasn’t the easiest either. They couldn’t figure out why their dad was gone and not coming back.
After her husband’s unfaithfulness surfaced, her parents stepped in and helped her get past the rough time. An older man came into the picture, and she got remarried.
“Was it hard for you to trust him?”
“Sometimes. But he went out of his way to prove to me that he wouldn’t do what my first husband did. He took on eight kids, and most men wouldn’t do that, so that helped. We had a great life. I had to put all of that behind me.”
Both of these women had given their best efforts and had been left holding an empty bag. They recovered from a betrayal in their own way. One chose to live a closed off existence while the other decided to take a chance and trust again.
God leaves that up to each of us.
What do you do when life presents you with a person described in Psalm 41:9?
Even my best friend, the one I always told everything
—he ate meals at my house all the time!—
has bitten my hand. (Message)
No one is immune to having this happen, and in my own experience, it takes time. A lot of people say…just forgive and move on. What if it doesn’t come that easy? For some, it might, and for others, it may take longer. The key is not to get stuck in it.
God wants us to see it for what it is and heal. But if we stubbornly refuse to get past it, we cripple ourselves, and we will miss out on this from Jeremiah 29:11:
I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. (Message)
Some relationships aren’t going to make it to the ‘until death do us part’. For one reason or another, it happens. Having been through a divorce, nothing is certain except the promise that we always have the opportunity to brush ourselves off, figure out how not to repeat a mistake, and let God lead us in a new direction of a do over.