Friday, May 15, 2009

Chapter 11: Caring for Crystal

One of the main reasons I hesitated to tell my parents about James leaving me (aside from the large wedding bill they’d fronted mere months earlier) was my concern for how my mom’s nerves would handle the news. She had a dream in January of 2008 that James and I were getting a divorce, and at the time I reassured her that everything was going well with us. I think her dream was prompted by the fact that her youngest brother was separating from his wife and her older sister Crystal was beginning the process of divorcing her husband. I was to become the final piece to fulfill the prophecy that “bad things happen in threes,” and I was not sure she could bear it.

Once the truth inevitably came out, Crystal and I began commiserating on our parallel yet distinct situations. While I was about to turn thirty and had been with my husband for less than a year when he left, Crystal was about to turn sixty and had been married to her second husband Bert for thirty years. Divorce can be terribly isolating, and knowing someone else was in same situation (even if she was twice my age and had been married as long as I’d been alive) was a kinship we both understood and valued. Once our respective papers were signed (and we were both surprised at how easy that step in the transition was), we were not just a niece and an aunt, but two single women setting out on a new adventure, not really sure how we arrived at that trailhead in the first place.

Growing up, I’d always enjoyed hanging out with my aunt Crystal. She is a an extremely passionate person, whether it was about her sewing, her giraffe collection, building her backyard Koi pond, decorating for the holidays, entertaining her grandchildren or off-roading in her Jeep. Crystal has a laugh that is boisterous and loud, the kind that would be easily recognizable on a laugh track, were she sitting in a sit-com audience. After her parents moved to Florida, she was usually the one to host family gatherings and grew into a second-generation matriarch of the clan. Crystal moved up to Wisconsin with her husband to be closer to her grandchildren after they were born, so my visits home to Chicago included precious little time catching up with her.

Because I had not seen much of her in recent years, when my mom told me that Crystal and Bert were having marital troubles, it came as a shock to me. I knew Bert had been dealing with some health problems, but I didn’t realize the extent to which they affected his personality. After a heart attack many years ago, Bert’s company essentially forced him in to retirement. Bert did little to fill his newfound free time, and over the years became a slovenly couch potato who would go for days without bathing or getting dressed.

This behavior, coupled with his increasing confusion (bordering on dementia) accentuated the wide difference in their ages. Crystal, through a combination of clean living and hair dye, looks (and acts) much younger than her nearly-sixty years. Over time she began to resent the fact that he had essentially checked out whilst she wanted to remain an active participant in all life had to offer.

Crystal would work long hours to support them, and upon returning home would find that Bert had done nothing to contribute, such as chores or projects around the house or even preparing her a simple meal to come home to. No matter how many hours she picked up at her job, it never seemed to be enough to cover their cost of living, especially when compounded by Bert’s medical bills.

Not willing to throw in the towel on a life they had spent thirty years building, the two tried couples counseling for a grueling three years. Whether it was senility or just stereotypical maleness, Bert couldn’t seem to comprehend Crystal’s unhappiness and made no effort to change his ways. Crystal had finally had enough and decided that divorce was the only solution to alleviate her misery.

Eventually they sold their house and Crystal traded in her beloved home with its pond for a two-bedroom apartment. Because she was downsizing, she sold most of her possessions (as I did when I moved), forcing her to take a hard look at what was important. One thing she rediscovered was music. Much as I rediscovered writing after I started “getting my fragments back,” Crystal realized she had found so little joy at home towards the end of her marriage that she had stopped playing the stereo all together. In her new bachelorette pad, her Mac sits on the desk in the kitchen, a constant stream of music filling the air.

She set up the second bedroom as a guest room so her grandchildren could visit, but the children’s parents were those of Bert’s offspring from his first marriage and Crystal’s step-children did not take too kindly to the divorce. They perceived that she had abandoned their ailing father when she had vowed thirty years earlier to be with him “in sickness and in health.” Crystal was barred from seeing her grandchildren, a blow I think she took harder than separating from her husband.

Bert moved in with one of his children, and even after the split she continued to care for him, taking him to the doctor and such. Slowly, she cut the apron strings and began to move on in earnest.

While I was in Chicago for Christmas in 2008, my mom and I drove my younger cousin out to Crystal’s new apartment to have lunch and catch up. I can’t think of the last time I laughed that hard, even going back before James and I split up. All four of us had tears streaming down our faces, and Crystal’s laugh was as riotous as it had ever been.

Crystal spent the entire afternoon regaling us with stories of her single life. After her divorce papers were signed, she joined an online dating service and had begun meeting men from throughout her metropolitan area. To keep them all sorted in her mind she would print out their profiles and jot down details she learned about them in their online and telephone conversations. This dossier of eligible bachelors ranged from young professionals to older bikers and everything in between. None of them resembled Bert in any way.

Crystal re-entered the dating scene after thirty years with as much passion as she had for any other project in her life. This, in her own words, rendered her a “slut.” She told us of the many strange dates she’d been on and the nights she spent bouncing around the city, laughing with one man or another. I had begun meeting guys by this point too, and Crystal encouraged me to follow her “slutty” example. To be sitting around a kitchen table with my aunt, mom and my twenty-one year old cousin where the word “slut” was tossed about with abandon was what had us in stitches. (This newfound vulgarity was at times a bit awkward for the younger two at the table. We were raised in a family of WASPs, after all!)

Around the time of our lunch, Crystal had been devoting the most attention to one man (who happened also to be named James), a distinguished, older, black gentleman. Crystal enjoyed his companionship, but was also pleased to rediscover her carnal side after so many years of being turned off by her mate. She e-mailed me after I returned to New York to fill me in on her adventures following our lunch, and her message pretty much sums up how she felt about her new beau.

Crystal wrote, “Slut life is fine here! I called to cancel my hair appointment the other day because James spent the night. My hairdresser said today that is the first time she had heard ‘something big came up’ as an excuse to change an appointment. ‘Forty-two years,’ she said, ‘and never that excuse.’ At my age ya gotta get what ya can, right?”

Crystal was open about her newfound romance, sharing her happiness with everyone from the customers at her store to her own mother. My Gram was of course a bit surprised that her daughter would be dating someone who was not white, but when emailed a picture was quick to comment on how handsome James was. My aunt knew my cousin has a propensity for dating black guys, and over lunch Crystal caused her young niece to blush fiercely when asked if the adage “once you go black, you never go back” was actually true. (My cousin did not respond.)

Crystal continued to see her James for a while, but their relationship was primarily confined to the bedroom, and she didn’t see how it would fare in the real world. He would often travel for work, and while Crystal had no reason to believe otherwise, she often wondered if James was honoring their tenuous commitment. Everyone has a deal-breaker when it comes to relationships, and for Crystal it is lying. She never caught him in a lie, but the unease she felt and his lack of effort to allay her fears was enough to warrant ending their fling.

She wrote me, “I think about how I have always believed that any relationship – to survive, grow, change, enhance – requires work. And that's what I did in my marriage. I always worked at it, and when Bert stopped working is when things fell apart. I want it all. I want to work at it all.”

Crystal and I would talk on the phone or email, and I often felt as though I were coaching her through her relationship ups and downs as I would a girlfriend. I would send her quotes that seemed pertinent to our conversations or relate stories from my own dating experiences. Towards the end of her relationship with James, Crystal received an enigmatic email from him. She forwarded it to me, adding simply, “I need a manual after thirty years!” I replied with the Amazon link to the book “He’s Just Not That into You.”

During one of our conversations we discussed the effort we’d been putting in to meet men. I had begun my writing project with the hopes of improving who I am as a person, and shared with her one of my favorite odes to singletons, from the exceptional Ms. Gloria Steinem: “There are many more people trying to meet the right person than to become the right person.” We both knew that without love for one’s self, it is impossible to share love with someone else.

In that regard, Crystal was struggling to figure out who she was in her new life, just as I was. She wrote me “I have lost my identity. I was a wife (no longer), a mother (no longer needed), a gardener (no longer), a Jeeper (no longer financially possible), and a grandmother (on their terms). These things defined who I was. They were my passions. And within the space of a couple months I lost them all. So I have to reinvent myself.”

One step Crystal has taken that I hope to explore soon was with her spirituality. She grew so depressed at the prospect of her first Christmas truly alone that she began seeking answers in uncharted territory. Crystal, a vocal atheist, began going to church. I could see how she ended up there. On one particularly dark day, shortly after I found out about my husband’s mistress, I was walking the streets of New York and thought to myself, “If I pass a church, I am going to go in. It will be a sign.” I didn’t happen to pass a church that day, but Crystal must have felt the same sort of tug.

I can understand how she found religion at this point in her life. Divorce throws everything in to question, and you want to find answers. You want to believe that even though you may no longer matter to that one person you were so devoted to, you still matter. You want to believe that there is a plan and that everything really does happen for a reason. Frankly, you just want to believe because hope seems so much more appealing than the hopelessness that threatens to take over after a divorce. Religion can provide that something to believe in.

I have been putting off my own deep spiritual soul searching because I don’t know that I can buy into the dogma of organized religion or even that I believe there is a man up in the sky controlling things on I. I was watching The Tyra Banks show one day (I know, I know), and she had on as a guest the woman who inspired the main character on the television show Medium. During the interview, the psychic said that if prayer is the way to ask God a question, meditation is the way God answers. I think my road to spiritual enlightenment may come through these channels rather than inside the four walls of a church. But for Crystal, the sermons she hears speak directly to her situation and her epiphany is helping her past her post-divorce depression.

Having her first post-divorce foray into romance under her belt, and well on the way to reclaiming her happiness and reinventing herself in her new life, Crystal ventured back out into the dating world. Right around the time that I initially started dating Ramón in February, Crystal met Chuck online. Their connection was instant and intense, and she was immediately more at ease with him that she’d been with her James.

Our two relationships seemed to run a somewhat parallel course at first, and Crystal and I would discuss our happiness as well as the bumps in the road. For me it was more of a bottomless pit than a pot hole when Ramón called things off between us in March. However, Crystal was able to work out her difficulties with Chuck through honest communication, no matter how brutal the truth was.

She emailed me, saying, “It's amazing to me (and maybe to him) that two people who know how they feel about each other and really want to be with each other (and have voiced this to each other) cannot just find happiness. I guess we both have baggage, and I just never thought of it as baggage. But if the communication stays open I think we'll be okay.”

Chuck (who, incidentally, rendered the answer to my aunt’s query a definitive, “No, you don’t go back.”) declared his love for her after just a month together, and she found herself falling for him too. Chuck introduced Crystal to his teenaged son, who immediately warmed up to my charismatic aunt. The couple spent an increasing amount of time together, yet one major issue hung over Crystal’s head.

My aunt, who is still recovering from the financial strain of caring for her ailing ex-husband, realized she could no longer afford her new apartment. She was faced with the choice of moving to Kentucky to live with her brother or seeing if Chuck was amenable to her moving in with him. There are three primary variables that can change in life: where you live, what you do and who you are with. If she moved to Kentucky, all three of those variables would be altered, with the one known being where she would be living. If Crystal moved in with Chuck, her location would not change greatly and she could theoretically keep her job. Plus she would not have to cut short her burgeoning romance.

Crystal was relieved when Chuck invited her to stay with him. The thought of losing her far outweighed the risks associated with welcoming her into his home. That security meant she could remain close to the majority of her friends and family, including her dear grandchildren, who live in the area. With geography and relationship status settled, Crystal set out to find (and secured) a job much closer to Chuck’s home. Crystal just recently moved many of her possessions in with Chuck. She must be happy and busy getting settled in, as I have not received any analytical emails from her since the decision was made. Their arrangement is for now on a bit of a trial basis. Most of her things went into storage and she knows that if things turn sour with Chuck she can always fall back on her idea of moving to Kentucky.

I know that our family must look at Crystal as foolhardy, but I understand where she is coming from. My renewed relationship with Ramón is turning out to be the same sort passionate, open and committed relationship she is experiencing with Chuck. At the end of the day, the people who love us just want us to be happy. I think Crystal and I have evidenced to our friends and family that we are rushing in not as fools but as experienced, optimistic romantics who have found something worth dealing with any snags that surface along the way.

Sometimes circumstances dictate that you must make tough decisions that would have otherwise been deferred, and you can only hope that your heart and your gut help you make the right choice. Whereas the tables turned when my idolized aunt turned to me as a sounding board, they have now turned back as I watch her life change. I hope for her continuing successes to be a portent of my own to come

1 comment:

emmablue said...

Love this. I cried ! !!

It is so pertinent to me, the thing about change etc...

Love you Katie.