What is Divorce?

I was moving piles around in my basement office yesterday and found this article, written in 1997 by Chris Cox, an Asheville, NC Citizen-Times columnist, after his divorce. I read it over and over during the years of my separation and divorce. Cox’s piece is a tragically, perfect work of art.
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If marriage, as Woody Allen once claimed, is the death of hope, then what is divorce? The hope of death, any conceivable end to the inevitable and sometimes unbearable pain? Or is it death itself, manifest in a hundred different ways, both large and small?

Is it a monument to personal failure, a symbol of your lack of resolve and character, a gaudy trophy of your poor choices, a scrap heap of busted dreams? Or is it another chance, a fresh start, an opportunity for growth and an occasion for courage?

Divorce is a bomb that blows to shreds your sense of who you are and what you have become. It is a series of land mines, going off in your face when you least expect, the shrapnel of memories searing your heart. Little remnants of you, barely recognizable in the wake of each blast, float scattered about the breeze as dandelion fluff; they are no longer organized around anything and they take no form, assume no familiar shape. The center around which your life has been defined is suddenly gone and utterly ripped away. It is as if someone has given you a jigsaw puzzle of your life, removed half the pieces, and still expects you to form a coherent whole.

Divorce creates a radical new context for the past. Suddenly old Polaroids of vacations and anniversaries aren’t reference points-they take on the weight of historical significance. With no warning whatsoever, ordinary household objects become animate creatures, fluent in the language of loss, alive with symbolic value. This shirt represents that crazy day at the mall, when we got harassed by the sale clerk who looked exactly like an Afghan hound. Here are the candles, half-burned and coated in light dust, which you loved to light on rainy days. This is the drawer in which we hoarded coupons we would never use. This casserole dish, which has seen how many nights of meals, how many noble experiments, how many washings and dryings. This window, which we looked out one cold February afternoon and saw a cardinal, its brilliant red color a frail complaint against the gray, overcast sky, and we discussed the end of our marriage with pretend matter-of-factness, like a couple of bad actors caught in the world’s worst soap opera.

In the dreamlike aftermath of divorce, one gropes through an all-enveloping darkness for structure and order. Friends try to help. They write, they call, they send prayers and good wishes. You’re not alone.

But you are alone, and your loneliness is a tangible thing, something you become aware of all the time. This emptiness is a basement flooded with grief, and you spend the first several months up to your knees in it, bailing, trying to save your house, trying not to drown. People want to help you-and they do-but you must do most of the work yourself. You find that you cannot escape the reality of loss. Rather, you must, for a period, soak in it, swim in it, absorb it even.

All of this you must survive-in addition to letting go, once and for all, of the life you thought you had and the future that life implied. You must learn to wear that particular shirt, and light those same candles, and cook in that casserole dish, and look out the window again at the cardinals, whose bright colors may affirm, on the darker days, the possibilities of life, the outside chance that suffering may, one day, be suffused with sweetness and new hope.

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