There are empty spaces in my photo album, gaps in time that float like apparitions in their possibility. Just out of reach, hazy and transparent, like smoke from a Cuban cigar that was there and then, suddenly, gone. I turn the pages, searching for the missing years, but find no trace.
Near the front of the album, you see what appears to be a happy family. My ex and I, young and smiling, teeth gleaming like actors in a Crest commercial. Our daughters, babies at first and then young children, six and ten, blonde and heartbreakingly innocent. Birthday parties, outings with friends, and weekend soccer games are captured. This family seems solid, unsinkable, like that famous ship, the Titanic, was once thought to be. Soundly built, steady, steadfast. Everyone on board exuberant, excited to take the voyage. Leakproof.
Zoom in a little more closely now. Turn the pages. You may notice the kids, the smiling young blonde girls, growing quickly, so quickly, in fact, that they appear to sprout at warp-like speed from young children into awkward teenagers before your eyes. The years in-between mid-childhood and adolescence are nowhere to be found; ghost-like, undocumented fragments of time existing only in memory, fragile and precious. I alone, their mother, stand next to them in the later shots, beaming proudly as they receive scholarly awards, graduate from middle school, and carve pumpkins at Halloween (with braces made of tinfoil to match their own.) Observing this, you may ask the obvious questions. Where is the father? Was there a death? If only the answer was that simple. The truth is there was a death, of sorts, and a subsequent mourning that took place over those undocumented years. Only it didn’t involve the ceasing of a heartbeat.
I found out my life was not my life on an ordinary day mid-week, in March 2006. On that fateful day I received an unexpected phone call from a credit card company. The caller was inquiring about my bill. Apparently, I hadn’t paid in several months. Normally responsible, I was taken off guard. I searched my memory…which card was this? I asked again, agitated, sweat beading lightly at my temples, pressing the credit card rep, was she sure this was mine? None of it made sense. I knew I had never opened or used this particular card. Up to this point, I hadn’t even been aware of its existence, I insisted. Confused, I asked for a copy of the application and its accompanying signature, expecting to catch a stranger assuming my identity. I received the requested information, by fax, later that day. Heart sinking and stomach churning, I saw I had been right…there had, in fact, been fraud. My hands trembled, holding that paper with the horrible evidence staring up at me clear as day. My identity had indeed been compromised, stolen. The problem, one I couldn’t ignore or deny, was that the “thief” was my own husband. Without my knowledge, he had forged my signature in his handwriting, a signature that after twenty years together, I knew as well as my own.
Stunned and in utter disbelief, I realized this discovery was quite possibly just the tip of the iceberg, a much larger problem lurking darkly beneath. He was capable of this deception, was there more? Deep down, I suspected there was. Gripped with fear, my gut clenched in a knot of dread, I took a breath, steadying myself. I had to know.
Determined to discover the truth, I quickly became a detective of sorts, stealing the keys to my husband’s office, a room of its own with a private entry outside the house. He had always kept it locked, something I didn’t question. “Stupid,” I thought, mortified at my naivety. Heart pounding, I frantically sifted through his mail, files, email. What I found was a numbing avalanche of evidence that poured down upon me so swiftly and surely its weight threatened to bury me whole. We were deeply, profoundly, in debt. Multiple phones, unknown to me, were registered under his name. Phone records provided mysterious numbers, which I dialed with shaking fingers, hot tears running down my cheeks, quickly hanging up when various women, always women, answered. Then, a final, unforgivable affront: the college savings account we held for the girls was empty. I thought back to the night we had promised, eyes locked and voices weighted with significance, that we would never withdraw a cent for our own purposes. I had trusted him. My cheeks burned with shame. I was gripped by a cold, undeniable truth. I had been living with a stranger.
The fallout of this discovery, the lurid details and the rapidity at which we unraveled, are not important. Know this…there was a confrontation, a denial, countless excuses, and most profoundly, a lack of remorse. He did not fight for us. He did not confess. He did not see his sickness. He did not want help. Know that it was irrefutably, undeniably, over. Know that this event, this realization, was a turning point in my life, in our family’s life, a juncture that would forever more mark the “before” and the “after.” My life was not what I had thought. Our “house of cards” had fallen. The ship’s bulkhead had a leak, Titanic-style, a fundamental design flaw of character destined to trickle into every compartment, quickly and effectively bringing the entire ship down in the blink of an eye. The orchestra would not play on.
Over those first weeks I took scalding hot baths, trying in vain to soothe my nerves while I made a plan, desperately grasping for a way to make everything “ok” for my girls. What was appropriate to reveal? What was not? How would I move forward and explain it all in a way that protected them as much as possible? I didn’t have the answers. As the tub filled up with water as hot as I could bear, steam rising, I would shiver violently, never warming quite enough. I realized I was in shock. Not “shock” in the way it’s sometimes used flippantly to express surprise or disbelief, but the kind that seeps into your very core.
I asked myself how I had been so blind. Looking back, there were red flags. There always are in hindsight, aren’t there? An uncertain twinge, a story that doesn’t quite add up, a “gut” feeling, a dream that wakes you in the middle of the night. Something isn’t right, you think, grasping desperately at those last cobweb-like fragments of the dream, the hazy details, the mysterious message, just out of reach. You drift back to sleep, darkness surrounding you. How odd, you think the next morning, what was that about? But there are kids to feed, errands to run, work to do. The dream is forgotten.
The thing about lies, knowing that someone who is supposed to love and protect you above all others, knowing that your person, (or who you thought was your person,) has told them, is that it makes you question yourself. How could you not have seen? Someone on the outside, looking in, may not believe you hadn’t known. It’s understandable, of course. When you’re on the outside, and truths have become known, it’s easy to question these things. “She must not have wanted to know,” you may say to yourself. Not to mention that it’s really scary to think the same thing might happen to you, right? You’re too smart, too familiar with the ways of the world, it couldn’t possibly happen to you. And you might be right. But consider this…maybe you would be wrong.
Lies, the very best ones, are wrapped up quite nicely in truth. Also, sometimes they are told by someone you know, someone you trust, someone you may even love. These lies, beautifully packaged, are presented like a Trojan horse. A gift, you think, what’s not to like? The Trojans certainly thought so, when presented with their gift, that beautiful equine offer of peace. Little did they know. Should they have?
We sold our house. A nice couple bought it, a couple we knew from the girls’ soccer team. They loved the house, they said, and everything we had chosen…the warm wood plank flooring, the bright, white kitchen, the spacious backyard with its turquoise pebble-tec swimming pool, lush, fragrant grass and even a small kids playground with swings and a treehouse. The kids loved that yard, as did our dogs, two tail-wagging, friendly cocker spaniels. The new couple had a daughter, the same age as our youngest. It would be hers now, theirs. As I packed up our things I wondered if they would be happy here, as carefree and content as I had been, until my world came crashing down. Before the roof collapsed and I was left underneath the rubble, its dusty and oppressive weight suffocating, gasping for breath as I tried to get my bearings in this new and foreign reality.
Financially drained and with collection agencies pursuing me, I was unable to make my car payments. Deeply ashamed, I drove to the dealership. Avoiding eye contact, I surrendered my car, my keys. How had I wound up here? It felt surreal. A complex mixture of emotions ran through me like an electric current; humiliation, embarrassment, and most intensely, anger, at having been thrown, headfirst, into a situation not of my own creation. As a teacher I was barely able to pay for basics, how was I going to support myself, the girls? In desperation, I called my parents, who had always been supportive and kind, a solid anchor in my life. They generously offered to help secure a house for us near the school where I taught. In addition, they loaned me a car they weren’t currently using, an old gold station wagon that had been my grandfathers. “He would want you to have it…take care of it, grandfather’s ghost is in there,” said my mom, handing me the keys with a smile and a gentle hug. I hesitated, feeling awkward in my need. I had always taken pride in being financially independent. I was mortified it had come to this. Even so, I wept with gratitude and relief.
We got through the days. It wasn’t always easy. My youngest daughter, in her favorite Little Mermaid nightgown, soft and worn, cried every night when I put her to bed. “I don’t hear Dad’s car driving into the garage anymore,” she sobbed. “It makes me sad.” It was a symbol of what had changed for her. To soothe ourselves, we sang “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music, voices wavering, tears dripping down our cheeks. It became our routine. It was a light song, a song of hope. We would sing, lying there next to each other in the dark, heads together and hands clasped, until our tears dried and our eyes closed. Afterward I would sneak back to my room and fall into a dreamless sleep, weary to the bone.
The IRS seized my bank account. I found out one humid spring day while trying to pump gas, my mood as dark as the iron grey sky, which threatened rain. I was drained from a long day of teaching, desperately wanting to get home and rest. Sweat trickled down my neck, the acrid smell of gasoline making me slightly nauseous as I swiped my debit card at the pump. It was refused. Impatient, I tried again. I just got paid, I thought, I know there’s money in my account. Swiping again, I was denied once more. My mind raced in desperation. How would I get home? I had no other way to pay. This debit card and the small amount of cash I had in my account was all I had. Confused and choking back tears, I called the bank, only to be slammed with yet another unknown truth…we were in debt to the IRS, and my account had been drained. Stunned and filled with a rage the likes of which I had never experienced, I called one of my oldest friends, who filled my tank and hugged me while I furiously wept.
I pictured myself poisoning his milk. It came to me while I was running one day in my new neighborhood, trying to distance myself from a truth I couldn’t avoid. The thought stunned me. Had I really just thought that? What kind of person was I? Did other people have these thoughts? I didn’t truly want to do it, I reasoned with myself. So, I wouldn’t poison his milk, but maybe if his car just happened to (accidentally), go off a cliff on a rainy night it would be okay. The girls would be sad for a while, but they would recover, eventually. I laughed at the morbidity of the thought. I didn’t really mean it, I assured myself. I was a good person, right? I pondered this.
Focusing, truly concentrating, seemed impossible. Distracted, I quit reading books. This was deeply unsettling. Reading had always been my “happy place.” Now, the best I could do was flip through a magazine blankly for a few minutes, mind wandering. This lack of focus was foreign, disconcerting. It seeped into every hour of the day, leaving empty spaces in its wake. I stopped taking pictures, stopped documenting our lives, stopped capturing those moments of light within time. My camera gathered dust in the corner, sad and neglected. I was on “pause.”
Months later, still floating in this vacant place, this no-man’s land of time, I was parked in front of a Wendy’s in an almost deserted parking lot, talking on the phone with a life-long family friend. Through my window the red plastic signage flared like a wound, matching my mood as the sun beat down relentlessly in the desert heat. Rolling down the window for relief, the greasy smell of hamburgers wafting in, I was sobbing, explaining all that had happened. Wendy stared down at me from her perch, judging me, red pigtails and too-bright smile an assault. The friend, a father figure, had known me since birth, watched my kids sprout like beanstalks over the years. I had always deeply respected him. His words, his advice, held weight. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” I whispered, voice cracking. “How will I clean up this mess, be the parent I need to be?” Gently, he stopped me, and gave advice I will never forget. “You’re strong, honey. How you behave, your reaction to this, matters. You don’t want to say or do anything you will regret,” he said. “Take the high road whenever possible, hold yourself up in integrity. You will find the will, the strength. I know you. You can do this.”
At that moment, something shifted. I took in his words, considered them. It was true, I had always been strong, forgiving, joyful. I truly loved life. Now, I was lost. I didn’t recognize myself. Could I find my way back? As I sat in that desolate parking lot, phone pressed to my ear, salty tears drying on my cheeks, I realized I needed to make my way home, back to myself. In the space occupied just moments before by confusion, anger, and despair, a beacon of light that shone brighter than the darkness took hold. An irrefutable truth surfaced: it was up to me. I alone controlled my attitude, my reactions, and how I moved forward. It was a choice. My ex had taken many things, but he could not take this. He could not change the very core of who I was unless I allowed it. And I would not allow it. Vividly, I began to picture a future in which I chose strength, truth. I saw myself embracing this, moving forward in hope, in spite of everything. It was a turning point.
Two years later, I visited a psychic, someone highly recommended, a man who had written a popular book. We sat at a small wooden table, the musky smell of incense lingering mysteriously as he read the tarot cards I had carefully selected. He asked if I had lost a grandmother recently. I had. My grandmother had been an amazing woman. Smart as a whip and quick to dole out sound advice, she had been a second mother to me. I could still envision her, smelling of Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion perfume, signature red purse in hand and bright, encouraging smile. I missed her terribly. Although I desperately wanted to believe this man, believe she was truly here, I was skeptical. I was forty, lots of people my age lost grandmothers, I reasoned. What he said next, however, stunned me. “Your grandmother has a message for you,” he said. “She’s showing me cameras, videos. She says you need to document what’s going on, the girls' lives. You have stopped doing this. You will regret it later if you don’t.” I went home, his words haunting me. I dusted off my camera.
As for my album, there will always be pictures missing. Those years, those gaps in time, exist in the whispered fragments of memory alone. Sometimes, I wonder why I stopped capturing those moments, through the lens. Maybe, subconsciously, I didn’t want to. Didn’t want to document the painful days when we were hurting, healing, continuing to live, despite the heartache of what we were then. In the end, the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Because you can’t stop time. Those years existed, and they brought us to the present. Without them, we wouldn’t be who we are today. Wiser, stronger, aware. Loving and loved. Forgiving. Becoming.