But in my own house, I lived a high-speed, highly connected life with my sons, who were 15, 13, and 10 when he and I first fell in love. They are now 23, 20, and 17, having known me as sole support and sole custodial parent since my 10-year marriage ended when they were very young.
In spite of all his careful attention — T, let’s call him T — didn’t seem to grasp that to a single mother without another adult parent to share the load, his tangible love tokens were not what I needed urgently; they were more about what he wanted to give. More than anything shiny or sexy, I needed new tires for the car, an electrician to fix the kitchen light, someone to do the grocery shopping even if just this once.
It is my fault I never said as much; I could have. But I dared not hurt him or appear callous and demanding. My mother had taught me to always be gracious with gifts. Smile, say thank you. Smile.
With the clarity earned from the distance of time and over the past year and a half since we parted, here is what I should have said: Women like me who parcel out our time and care for children, careers and homes? Women like me who are ambitious and driven, who work hard not just for the money but for the thrill? Sometimes we have little to nothing left to give.
No matter how luxurious the tribute you offer, a more romantic gesture would be to pick up the prescriptions at the pharmacy or a son after practice so we could have more time together. I could pretend well enough in a lace dress with the Spanx underneath on a Saturday night to be carefree, but it will always be Sunday soon. And then I have to go to Target to get deodorant, Gatorade, peanut butter, and poster boards.
It is not that I acted selfishly or greedily, somehow cashing in on his feelings. I loved him deeply, and reciprocated with presents for our anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays, surprises to cheer him, reminders of intimate jokes. Still, I always had the sense I could not give him enough. I gave him the time I had, after my work, after my sons. I am flattered he wanted more, but confused as to why he didn’t see such a feat was impossible; it is why in the very end he appeared disappointed most all of the time. He never understood that my being busy was not an intentional denial of his needs.
That disconnect is what disconnected us.
And though I believe that he did love me, I also believe he didn’t understand that the reassurance I craved was never contained in one of those blue boxes he wrapped carefully for me and surprised me with for no reason, any reason, big reasons. The things I wanted to hear then and now – and feel in my marrow — are not that I am irresistible in that light in this chiffon slip he bought just for me, but that I am understood.
A lifetime ago from 1986 to 1996, I was married to a man who did not treasure me or our sons. I came away from the flames of that conflagration with the belief that love cannot serve as transformational tool. You can change no one but yourself. T (a man so polar opposite from my former husband that I daily congratulated myself on who he was not) taught me that I want to share a life with someone who treasures who I am, not someone who expects to barter material prizes as an even exchange for empathy.
The pillbox I will always keep. It reminds me of the possibility of recovery— from illness, from a collapsed intention, from a shattered heart. It also pushes me to seek a partner who loves me whole, with no gifts necessary to express what we already know.
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