By Julie Higgins Russell
The final divorce papers sat in a manila envelope on my cluttered desk. There were photos of kayaking, grocery receipts, wilderness trip maps, and colored pencils all scattered about. The envelope sat pristinely by itself on a corner. I’d gone through the papers inside and organized/paper-clipped my copies, his copies, and the other form. The other form was for a server. This final step of choosing someone to serve him the papers was hanging me up. And so the envelope sat.
In the midst of my divorce, I prepared for my annual trip to North Cascades National Park in Washington for a week in the wilderness with my best friend from middle school, Ana Maria, and her wife, Laurie. I filled my duffle bag with my backpacking tent and sleeping bag and hiking boots. I packed dried apricots, almonds, and moleskin. This year’s plan was a steep, 12-mile trail, new to me, up to glacier-melt lakes and dense forests, bear, deer, and marmots.
My girlfriends knew these trails well since they built and maintained them over the years through their work with the Park Service. They have lived in the Northern Cascades for almost twenty years, built their own juniper-log home there. Also, they were the first gay couple to apply for a marriage certificate in their county, the first day they were legally able, their smiling faces splashed on the cover of the newspaper.
I have hiked and backpacked with them every summer for twelve years now. We walk together and talk and laugh and drink and “bag” the most amazing views. Usually we don’t see another human while in the wilderness. We strip down and swim in lakes. We pack our cups with snow, sprinkle some Emergen-C powder (for vitamins), and douse them with gin – our high country happy hour. I was giddy with anticipation, expecting that this year would be no different: spectacular as usual. The significant difference was that this year they were married and I was divorcing.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled to support same-sex marriage laws. The same month also marked my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, which was not celebrated. After my husband and I filed for divorce, he sent a text asking if I wanted to go out for a friendly drink. I replied that I was feeling angry and scared so it wouldn’t be very friendly. He texted, OK. I had been scared for a while. Scared to leave, scared to hurt him, scared to tell our adult kids, scared I wouldn’t have any money. Each morning I woke with a heavy heart, heaved it into a wheelbarrow and pushed it down the hall to make coffee. I couldn’t see a way out.
But six months ago I rented my own place (my very first ever very-own place) and I am fine; finer than I was staying in a marriage that had, for all intents and purposes, run its course. So far, this was a fairly amicable divorce; irreconcilable differences after years of marriage counseling, and my choice.
Getting to North Cascades National Park requires planning. I flew from Southern California suburbia to Seattle and then to Wenatchee, up by boat to a town with no phones or grocery stores. There I met my friends and rode in the back of a pick-up truck to the trailhead, and started walking up. Immersed in natural beauty as I was, my mind kept returning to the divorce and the manila envelope on my desk and the surprise my ex had sprung on me just before I left: asking for half my pension.
I said to Ana Maria, “Remind me of the specific reasons why it’s good to be legally married.” I asked her this earnestly, although I was slightly embarrassed that I didn’t remember the specific reasons. She was about ten paces ahead of me on the trail which had flattened out somewhat, allowing me enough breath to talk.
“The main reasons are taxes and insurance,” she said plainly. “For years we had to pay separately for expensive medical insurance. And then there was the hospital ordeal.” Eighteen years ago, when Laurie had to have a large tumor removed from her uterus and was hospitalized for weeks, Ana Maria wasn’t able to be with her through that because they were not (and could not have been) legally married. That is a tragedy. They have been a couple as long my husband and I have been; in fact, they met and fell in love the same year we did. They have been a model couple – kind and loving and communicative.
Twelve miles uphill was a long walk. Eight hours with plenty of breaks for water and almonds. We talked and they taught me about the construction of swinging suspension bridges on the trail, which were built of cables and treated wood planks, assembled down in the valley then carried up and carefully reassembled each spring – a two-person job done over a raging snow-thawing river. But often when we hiked we were quiet, each in our own heads (mine never quiet but counting steps or looping a song over and over), breathing deeply and walking carefully up switchbacks of tallus (another thing they taught me: tallus = a sloping mass of rock debris at the base of a cliff).
I had plenty of time to sing in my head the 80’s music stuck there, or count repeatedly to 8 – a leftover habit from dancing years ago – and to contemplate my current life situation. I had no doubt that I’d made the right decision to end my marriage of twenty-five years, and move forward. The hardest part was behind me: deciding, working up the courage to move out, to tell my kids. No one enters a marriage thinking about how it will end. And, like childbirth or jumping out of a plane, no one can completely know what lies ahead – joy, pain, work. One just blissfully jumps.
And good things happened – lots of them – in a marriage: kids, dogs, homes, road trips, love, loss, jobs, etc. Life. Twenty-five years later, as the kids leave and the house crumbles and the lies and secrets shadow the light times. It is awful to realize that it is all reduced to spousal support and pension-sharing. The husband I’d supported so he could pursue his creative dreams was now doing what he’d said he wouldn’t: he was asking for half my pension.
In our marriage, I’d carried the insurance and found the tax breaks. I saved money and planned for my/our future. With small kids, I went back to school to become a teacher. For nineteen years I worked a steady government job with medical insurance and a retirement fund. I was the breadwinner and the parent doing the taxi-service for our kids’ karate, wrestling, choir, theater gigs. My teaching job came with a security that allowed us to pay the bills when my spouse was unemployed or had scaled back on his work hours so he could pursue creative interests. I did these things willingly. Now I wondered how it had come to this.
My pension represents money I earned. Just me. Yet the law says I surrender half. Probably, this law was designed for couples who had arranged for one partner to stay home and raise kids while the other pursued a career and brought home the bacon. Probably, after twenty-five years as a homemaker, a person couldn’t easily get out into the work force and recoup the career footing or the savings that they could have, had they been working all that time.
But this assumes that there was an agreement about these roles, a relationship in which both partners contributed to the family/home/future equally. I couldn’t see the benefit of the law, for me. It called the entire benefit of marriage into question. These thoughts were heavier than my pack. I pulled my mind back to the forest, the trail, the counting.
That first night we set up our tents near a beautiful lake surrounded by pines and firs, hung our food in a bag from a high tree branch. For the next four days we day-hiked with lighter packs up to summits overlooking green valleys and across to ancient glaciers on dramatic peaks. We scrambled up granite-faced mountains, swam in cold water with jumping fish, and ate more salami than anyone should have in a four-day period. Each night, before dark, in my tent, I heard deer come right by me, stamping and sniffing for something salty or sweet. My heart thrilled.
After our day-hike excursions we sat on a ridge overlooking the meadow to watch sunset and have happy hour. I learned about glaciers sliding and polishing the enduring granite. Ana Maria asked how I was holding up with the divorce. “Enduring,” I said. While in high school, she and I had shared secrets about our young romantic adventures. I bought Bride Magazine and hid it under the couch cushions when my boyfriend came over so I wouldn’t scare him off. Of course I wanted a ring and a dress and a day to have that big party. I also wanted a person with whom to share my days and nights, with whom to buy groceries, and maybe have some kids.
It is a popular dream among 20-somethings. And we did it. My husband and I wrote our own vows and kissed and danced and took back four of the five woks we’d received as wedding gifts. We put up a Christmas tree and installed a ceiling fan and ran out of condoms and got pregnant. We shared our days and nights and bought groceries. And it was mostly very good.
As the years went by, we were bound to change, to grow. In a few ways we grew together. We had inside jokes, I made vegan dishes for him and he watched baseball with me. And in some ways we grew apart. Issues that had been easily set aside over the years were now in the forefront of our home, staring at us with no lively chaos distracting us. When the kids grew up and went away to school, just like we’d planned, we went to marriage counseling. We worked. We did. We tried.
There was no abuse. No affair. No deal-breaker, black-and-white event that justifies the split. In fact, there were years of counseling and “working at it.” At one point, during couples’ counseling, my husband said, “You are sure clinging to those old resentments. You should let them go.”
I thought about that and he was right. So I chewed on that for a while and came to a place where I could, in fact, let go of that anger and feeling of having been betrayed. I let it go. And then I wasn’t hanging on to anything. I felt empty – not elatedness or renewed love or a desire to start something fresh. I was just done. How did this happen?
On our final night, I was lying in my tent, reading a magazine in the fading light, resting my aching calf muscles, when I heard the familiar deer hooves. He stamped past my tent and then ran. I heard frantic stomping against wood. I crawled out of my tent (stupid zippers sticking) and saw him… jumping? Thrashing? Was something attacking him? My friends scrambled out of their tent and yelled at the deer, trying to scare it away. He continued to jump and thrash. He was a big, beautiful buck with antlers indicating (we counted later) about four seasons. He was caught in the cord used to hang our food. The red parachute-cord tangled in his antlers and – ah! – around his neck! Laurie ran barefoot with her saw in her hand and cut the cord to free him, a risky move with his thrashing. But then he was still. Dead. We watched to be sure he wasn’t breathing and wasn’t going to jump up and kick her. He was dead.
How could this have happened? We stood staring at the lifeless animal. I expected to feel sad. But that’s not what I felt. It was horrible that we humans had contributed in any way to the early demise of this creature who was behaving normally in his own habitat. We had followed the rules, though. We had hung our food and moved the line out of the way, wound up and hung on a lower branch. I couldn’t imagine how he could have gotten that cord around his antlers (I learned that antlers are fuzzy and have blood in them), let alone around his neck.
This was a freak accident, a bizarre occurrence; profound, and astonishing. But I didn’t feel sad. I felt a wee bit concerned that another animal would come for this meat. “What if a bear comes for it during the night?” I asked, feeling every bit the suburban school teacher I was. “A bear wouldn’t be concerned with us or our food if he’s after this deer,” I was assured. That made sense. So there was nothing more to do but go back to bed.
My plan was to have the most congenial separation in history. I told him one morning, still in our queen-sized bed in our bedroom which I’d painted red hoping to create a love nest, that I fantasized that we would agree to go our separate ways, peaceably; that we would even help each other move on and ultimately become better versions of ourselves. Lying in bed like that, the windows open and the birds outside delighting me but annoying him, my brain would work and work on what to say and how to say it. I’d screw up the courage to say things that were exploding in my head but would be hurtful to him. I needed to be a better version of myself. Leaving would allow us the chance to move forward.
We almost have. Not quite. I’ve gotten some bitter and haranguing emails and texts from him. And he hugged me and asked me to come back. But I have my own place and my own (crunchy) peanut butter. I have clean sheets and a clean conscience and I can arrange the books on the shelves by color if I want to. I bought my own tent and I eat when I’m hungry. Now I don’t lie in bed angry. I get up and make my bed and press my coffee. I buy the cheese and peanut butter I like.
The task ahead – the final paper serving – was an emotional one. Who should serve my husband the divorce papers? Legally, someone over age eighteen who was not directly involved in the divorce. Someone had to hand him the papers and sign the form. It will be a story. Forever. So… a mutual friend? My friend? His? How about my boyfriend? My sister? I could hire a day laborer from the Home Depot parking lot; it might be an easier job than building a deck or laying sod. Nothing seemed appropriately significant. Or appropriately undramatic.
The next morning was cold and I rubbed my wool-socked feet together in my sleeping bag. I heard Ana Maria unzip their tent and set up the water for coffee. Twisting out of my bag and pulling on my boots, I crept out to see if the deer was still in the same place or if a bear had drug it away. There it was. Still. The red cord around its antlers and neck, a red contusion on its nose. “Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer” began looping in my brain. We just stood and stared at it, still disbelieving.
“We have to drag it out of camp,” said a still-sleepy Laurie. Ana Maria and I nodded. There were brief orders or suggestions about where to grab and how to drag since we were pulling it uphill. I grabbed a front leg that was not yet stiff. The deer’s eyes were open and vacant. It occurred to me that I am a 47-year-old teacher from Southern California and I am doing something I would not ever guess in a million years that I would do. And it occurred to me that I was not scared or weirded-out or in the least bit sad. We stopped twice to catch our breath or reposition ourselves before getting it to a resting spot on a ridge by a small copse of trees.
When my children were of an age to consider college, we went to visit various campuses before they applied. It’s a daunting process, a huge decision – a commitment to a place, to a major, to a potential career, and for my kids, a promise to a loan company. The weight of the commitment almost paralyzed them. At one point, we had a conversation about the liberty of changing our minds. It is perfectly all right to start in a major at a university then switch majors, switch schools, come home, change paths. The knowledge that they weren’t deciding FOREVER, that they weren’t locked in, freed them to make their very best choices. I believe they made better decisions because of that freedom.
I admit, I would offer that same advice on the topic of marriage. It is overwhelming to make a decision at twenty-three years old that you will stick to for your entire life. There are so many unknown factors. And the fear and paralysis is outweighed by that dream of the ring and the dress and the groceries and the kids. But can we possibly make our best choices at twenty-three years old? Does it have to be permanent?
Life is full of surprises. A deer walking his regular route in his own habitat can be entangled in a cord and die. Like that. There’s no one to blame, no going back to see how it could have been prevented, no rescuing the deer (even though someone runs barefoot with a saw to save him). It just happened. And the only thing left to do is to drag his body up a hill and hope animals come and eat him. We were careful in hanging our food and respectful of the wild. We tried, we did.
Likewise, there was no untangling my marriage. Things just got that way and we tried to make sense of it, to rescue it, but in the end we could not. I left and pursued a different happiness. My friends pursued happiness in the form of marriage and I found happiness in leaving one. And together we dragged the deer up the hill.
Copyright Higgins Russell 2016