Last night, while watching the spectacularly moving Marriage Story, I revisited the horror that was my divorce. We did all those things. Sat quietly in a room and agreed that we wanted an amicable divorce without lawyers or pettiness. And then he went out the next day and hired “us” an attorney. And “our attorney” began to dismantle my entire life. I’d stayed home with our kid for a year, and had only been back in the work force for two months. She buried me in aggressive orders and restrictions. I was in a scramble to find my own apartment, and resisted getting an attorney for months too long. I finally hired a Texas cheerleader who spit fire, and then resisted most of her advice. I didn’t want to win anything. It was all so horrible: splitting a child into small pieces of time; arguing over every holiday as though Valentine’s or Easter had ever meant shit to me.
The cruelty was squalid. We said things to each other that are still, thirteen years later, hard to forgive.
But I don’t think about that now. I got through that divorce, and custody dispute, and the next custody dispute, by remembering the last best thing.
On Easter in 2006, the kid woke from his nap and immediately vomited a black sludge. I bathed him, and then he threw up the same black sludge two more times. His fever climbed. I texted his dad that I was taking the kid to the emergency room. They admitted us immediately. The kid had a double ear infection in one ear, a regular ear infection in the other, and something was wrong with his lungs. His dad showed up as they were wheeling us for x-rays. The technician hung our kid from his armpits by this weird claw that gripped around his upper chest. She put me behind a glass window in front of my dangling 16-month-old and told me to call him.
“Don’t comfort him,” she added. “He has to scream for the x-rays to be clear.”
And so I stood in front of my child, and called for him while he screamed and struggled and reached for me and tears rushed down his face. I resisted every instinct I had. To strike this fucking technician. To run to my kid and yank him down from this terrifying machine. To say something — ANYTHING — consoling. I just kept calling him as tears ran down my face, too. It went on and on. I could see his dad behind him, reaching out to our screaming child, and then letting his hands drop to his sides, and then groaning and reaching out again.
When it was finally over, the kid wouldn’t look at either of us. He sat listlessly on the gurney as they wheeled it back to his room, where my mother was waiting, and he sprang into her arms and buried his face in her chest. He had the rotavirus. An illness so contagious that we already had it. The kid was sequestered in the contagion ward. He wouldn’t let anyone but my mother near him.
I couldn’t stay in his tiny room, but I couldn’t leave the hospital either. In my anguish, I stepped into the hallway and climbed on the window ledge, tucked my coat into a pillow and decided to sleep there. It was nearly four in the morning. The kid’s dad came out into the hallway and spoke to the nurse. He hadn’t spoken to me, or looked at me during the entire ordeal. Our divorce would get worse before it ended four months later. He stood with his back to me, and then the nurse returned with two large pillows. Once she left, he handed both pillows to me, and left the hospital.
That’s it. Pillows. He handed me pillows on the worst night of my life. It was the last best thing. And it got me through thirteen hard years of co-parenting. It got me through a second custody dispute. I recognized him. That’s what the last best thing meant to me. I recognized him.
I was 31, and still believed relationships were either tepid or manic, but short-lived in any case. I don’t understand people who get consumed with their ex. I was grateful to get out of that marriage. I love my kid more than anyone or anything. He is the best best thing. And I never wanted to be ashamed to tell him about my behavior, so I tried to be the best version of myself. I still try to be the best version of myself. Maybe for myself as much as for him these days. It’s all a love story. That marriage didn’t end with pillows on a contagious ward. It ended with an indomitable me. A woman so free that she can watch the Marriage Story and love them both.