When my daughter Maddie asked me to write something about overcoming the loss of a fairy tale (I don’t think those were her exact words), I didn’t know where to start. I knew what she was looking for theoretically, but putting important experiences into words is her forte, not mine. Mine is just plain old perseverance. I make lists. I check things off the lists. It’s what I do. I even make lists for other people. Ask my husband; he loves lists. He always knows what I’m looking for based on his list. Nope, no mind reading or mixed messages in our house. Just lists. Now that I think of it, my wedding vows to him were a list: Top Ten Reasons to Marry John Brooks—presented in full color—Letterman style. A big hit.
Maddie taught me about lists. It was in the wake of getting dumped—again—by someone I really loved. I was sitting at my kitchen island crying with her sister Casey consoling me when she called. Her words would change my life and how I looked at everything. She asked me if I remembered the movie Runaway Bride. I said yes. She asked me if I remembered Julia Roberts’ character only eating the eggs her fiancés liked. I did. Her next few words set off a light bulb in my head—a bright one that still burns. “Mom, you need to decide what kind of eggs you like.”
Casey and I then started my list. We listed every attribute I was looking for in a partner—something I had never thought about in my 38 years. These are the attributes beyond attraction. These are the ones that make for a real live lifetime union, the ones that meet the in-sickness-and-in-health standards. I was so busy trying to fulfill everyone else’s criteria, I had never stopped to create my own. I had doomed myself to misery and lost fairy tales by not looking beyond nice teeth and a sense of humor. Brilliant work, Jennifer.
So, from here I will take what I have learned and share it with you in list form. It’s not the same as my other bulleted lists; it’s more of a numbered tutorial on survival. This is a list of what-ifs and what-to-do-ifs when the road to happiness gets rough…or turns into a Thelma and Louise kind of ride.
- Keep on Truckin’: These are the only words I remember from my first wedding—a toast aimed at my groom, delivered by a large, bearded, biker-looking dude I had never met, and who I would have feared had I met him in a secluded area. Looking back, that toast would become my unspoken mantra, not my ex-husbands. For me, that first fairy tale (yes the first— I’m a slow learner) ended abruptly. It wasn’t good; waking up at age twenty-two and realizing you’re not a real princess, after finding out the night before that Charming cheated on you, makes for a real dream crusher. Throw in two baby girls and one on the way in weeks and your fairy tale dreams are not just ruined; you are in the dungeon alone with your kids and a fiery dragon named What the F*ck Do I Do Now. Moments like this tend to bring clarity. If the immediate moment fails you, as it did for me, plan a family outing to the social services office to apply for welfare. Here, your babies may be offered bubble gum by a very large, braless, toothless woman wearing jeans and a laundry-bag-mesh shirt. Wait… did I mention braless? Yeah. That brings clarity. This is where I learned I didn’t like Dependent Housewife Eggs. I liked College Education Eggs. So I got me some.
- I Knew I Loved You When You Crushed that Wiffle-Ball: This should have been a warning sign. If that wasn’t enough, his mom asking if he was going to wear the same wedding ring he did in his first marriage (at our engagement dinner), should have been. These weren’t bad people. They were actually great people—in their own way. They were just different. Really different and from the other side of the tracks, where tact was a tool used by commoners. This roller coaster of backhanded compliments and uncomfortable dinners became secondary—wait, no—forgotten—when we faced the terminal diagnosis of our eight-year-old daughter, Stephie. Remember I told you about life wrecking fairy tales? This is what I’m talking about. This is one of those times when even the best relationships are pushed to their very limit, or even break. Ours broke. This situation was an evil, gritty test of love and respect. Hindsight says it wasn’t a reduced level of love or personal abandonment; it was that people grieve differently. We learned that in grief counseling with the kids—after we separated. I learned that he didn’t mean to leave me isolated with my grief. But he did. This is where I learned I didn’t like Surviving Really Bad Sh*t Alone Eggs. I liked Team Eggs. So I started scouting.
- Somebody Call 911. Yeah. It’s that cliché: So the list is made. I’m over the in-betweener guy who dumped me. I’m obviously 15 pounds lighter from love sickness and I’m tan—real tan—’cause it’s summer in Maine and my friend has a boat. This was one of those summers I hoped I ran into the ‘tweener so he could see how fiiiinnne I was looking from afar and hate himself for letting me get away. It happened. Yay me. And in that summer, I actually found not being in a relationship freed up a lot of time for running with Justin Timberlake while he sang “Sexy Back” to me over and over. I was in the zone. You know the one. Needless to say, I was also in therapy trying to figure out why I made the same mistakes over and over. I sat in a calm room with an odd man named Mark who wore round, red glasses and who would never let me joke about anything. Self-deprecating humor was apparently not his thing. Every time I tried it, he answered with, “Why is that funny? That’s not funny.” Then, I would cry. Ultimately, his message was the same as Maddie’s, just more expensive. We only met for a few months. I had learned enough from him and if I had questions in the future, I could call Mads. The last time I saw Mark, I was crying about my grief, a diagnosis of PTSD, and no one understanding me. I was tired of telling my story and was longing for someone to just know what I had been through so I could stop explaining it already. He was empathetic, but direct as usual. I don’t recall his words, but I think I heard, “Let it go. You’re on your own.” Whatever.
As fairy tales and fate would have it, he was wrong. Take that red, round glasses man. I bumped into a parent of one of my students at a hockey game. He was talking about renovating his house and picking out paint colors. I told him my summer job that year was interior design and that I could help if he’d like. I picked his paint colors and we talked. A lot. He was nice. I liked his dimples… but I was working on not being superficial, remember? I actually liked him a lot, but resisted liking him, because while I knew he met most of the criteria on my new list, it was unfamiliar territory to be treated so well without having to hit a wiffle ball over the neighbor’s roof. I fought through it though, spending a lot of time talking myself into letting it happen—force feeding myself an Egg I Think I Might Like. Then came the deal sealer—the part that makes others refer to our story as a fairy tale or fate or something else even bigger than us.
A few months after the hockey game, we were talking on the phone about him needing tile picked out for his new bathroom. The conversation went here and there as they do. He talked about raising money to honor fellow firefighters who were killed in a fire in Charleston, and I talked a little about Stephie and fundraising events we did to raise money for scholarships in her name at the Maine College of Art. As I was talking, he was very quiet, until he finally interrupted me. With a calm, cautious voice he said, “I was there.” I was confused and trying to remember him at our fundraisers. I asked, “Which one?” He said, “No. I was there. At your house.” He was talking about the one call we had to make to 911 for Stephie. She had a massive seizure that stopped her breathing. It traumatized all of us. It was the basis for my PTSD diagnosis. He told me it just hit him at the fire station that day—he had been on Engine 8 that night and came to our house. He remembered the call. He told me how the ambulance took too long to get there because of a train blocking the road. He was right. He described my house and Stephie’s room. He was there. He had no memory of me, just Stephie and Casey, who was running back and forth beside me while I did CPR on Stephie, yelling “Don’t let her die, Mama! Don’t let her die!” He remembered Casey’s big brown eyes staring up at him while she asked to say goodbye to her sister. As he talked, I remembered his voice in the ambulance telling the driver, also named Jen, that she could slow down. “We’ve got her, Jen.” I could hear his voice so clearly in my head. I thought he was talking to me that night when he said Jen. His voice eased my anxiety on the way to the hospital. He and his crew brought Stephie back to us that night, long enough for her to make it to her goal—my birthday—27 days later. The 27 days that gave us some tiny touch of serenity in our grief. She passed the day after my birthday after a bittersweet conversation about being a very good angel in heaven. She died peacefully after giving me one last smile and a roll of the eyes when I told her not to be a slacker when she was on duty up there in the clouds.
After hanging up the phone that night and crying for another few hours—I was a little overwhelmed. It was weird to me that he was there. I was happy, relieved, and freaked out all at the same time. I got what I asked for. That was weird. Then, I thought further and bigger. Maybe my fairy tale and road to the Good Egg I now call my husband was being paved all along—maybe my path was just a crooked, bumpy gravel road. Perhaps life offered me the lessons on that road that I needed to care for and cherish a real love so it would not be trivialized, under-appreciated, or wasted. I don’t know. Sometimes I think it may have just taken a little help from above—yes, I’m talking to you, Stephie—to land me in the right castle with the right Prince. But why over think it or try to figure out the hows and the whys, right?
I should go. It’s date night and there are a couple of dimples calling my name.
Jen and John’s wedding photo from their personal collection