Today the pain woke me at 5:00 AM. One week ago today I had surgery. While most of me has bounced back, parts look like I disagreed with a mule. There is tenderness where a hernia repair botched by NYU interns 20 years ago finally got fixed. There’s throbbing, tumescent, Tim-Burton-directed pain in other places, where other things were done.
The past 12 months have been … interesting. I fired a client. My lead designer in New York decided to strike out on his own. I woke one morning with a toe the size of Cleveland, and after four months of practitioner hot potato, was diagnosed with gout and osteoarthritis. My dad had heart surgery, and airline incompetence got me to his side after it was over. (Fortunately he survived.) One of my businesses yielded a tax bill I couldn’t pay. I required intensive periodontal care. My hernia, supposedly fixed two decades ago, popped open again.
Somewhere in the middle of this—around Thanksgiving—my beloved wife screwed up the courage to confess that she was unhappy.
A year of couples counseling could not save the marriage. We did, however, save the family. Our child is well, we co-parent beautifully, and, with a lot of work on both sides, the ex and I have become good friends. Better friends, maybe, than when we were husband and wife. Friends for life. Lemonade for 200, Alex.
Holding onto yesterday
The dizzying marital sea change dwarfed everything else. At first I was stunned, like an accident victim. During one of the comic episodes of my toe enlargement mystery, I found myself alone in a hospital gown, about to have an MRI. In the mirror I reminded myself of my hospital-gowned father, whose surgery I had just attended. The doctor bustled in to ask me questions before the test. “How you doing,” he said. It took all my strength not to babble, “My wife is leaving me.”
We threw a Christmas party in the studio. My wife and child were among the guests, the wife looking radiant, the child frolicking adorably. I sensed that people viewed me as lucky and successful, and most were happy for me. They didn’t know that I was about to lose the only thing that matters. In the midst of happy celebrants, I felt alone.
During the inauguration of President Obama, while much of the world experienced hope, I focused on Laura Bush standing beside George Bush, and wondered why their marriage endured, while mine was falling apart.
It was like that. Then it got better.
The love you make
One day I realized I could not change what would happen, but I could influence how it happened. I could be the angry denier, hanging onto what no longer exists. Or I could embrace change with love and no conditions. After all, it was not about me, it was about us. And the most important thing was that the most important one of us be protected and continue to feel safe and loved.
Once you figure that out, the rest is easy, if you have a good partner.
By the time I started letting people know about the divorce, I was almost okay with it. I had stopped feeling that things were happening to me, and started taking control of my life. I enjoyed family time and single time. Although my depressed mother had raised me to view self-love as narcissism, I began taking care of myself. I ate sensibly, exercised, saw friends, took time to relax.
As part of that self-care, I opted not to leave unexploded land mines in my system.
During yesterday’s initial follow-up, the surgeon told me I was doing well—recovering fast. I celebrated by walking three miles down Fifth Avenue and meeting a friend for lunch. Then the pain told me to rush home and lie down, and I did as the pain commanded.
The pain that wakes me is good pain. It is the pain of taking care of yourself. The pain of recovery.