Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, 3,300 years ago, led by Moses, a.k.a. Charlton Heston in the movie The Ten Commandments. It is the story of a heroic and daring Exodus from slavery to freedom and it is also the story of 40 years of misery and complaining and suffering. This Passover marks the fifth anniversary of my separation and eventual divorce… and somehow misery, complaining and suffering come to mind.
But neither story ends there. I know it’s a little nuts to equate the end of a marriage to the end of slavery and it’s certainly an exaggeration, but like many marriages, it started to feel like we were wandering in the desert with no hope of a promised land. We were staying together more out of stubbornness and obligation, rather than deep connection and love. We both felt trapped and needed to escape the bondage of our marriage vows.
My life had been weighed down by a number of responsibilities — mother, wife, daughter, caregiver, worker — and though I was grateful for having a full life, I felt like I couldn’t part that big red sea to get to the other side. No matter how much marriage counseling we had, it was clear that my husband no longer wanted to be in the marriage and truthfully, neither did I. It took a great deal of courage for us both to admit it, but thankfully we did. And it did feel like an Exodus — from Brooklyn to Manhattan for me — from isolation and loneliness to a return to my life of community and friends.
My ex-husband moved back to California, his promised land, and we began lives that feel more authentic. But after years of wandering in the wilderness of our own making, it took time to appreciate our new lives. We still had the taste of devastation and loss from the desert years. Before we realized that we needed to move on, there was sorting through the painful and hurt-filled feelings of loss and disappointment.
When we were together, our best friends, Loren and Libbe, had a Passover seder every year. It was fantastic, the same friends came and a few newcomers were always welcomed. The food was delicious and in those 23 years of marriage, we only missed one seder. Some of my best memories were of those evenings, with friends who were more like family.
Our daughter, Zoe, began a love affair with gefilte fish when she was one. We have photos of her stuffing handfuls of the fish and horseradish into her mouth. I believe she may be the only one-year-old who ever loved gefilte fish.
We also spent almost every Saturday night with Libbe and Loren and their daughters, Annie and Nora, and we often vacationed together.
In 2007, Loren and Libbe decided to leave New York and move to California. I found myself mourning their absence more than I could have imagined. It left a huge hole in our marriage.
There were certainly other issues, but that friendship mitigated some of the loneliness of the marriage. After a few years of marriage counseling, I finally blurted out, “Maybe we should just separate. This isn’t working. We’re both miserable.”
I couldn’t believe I said those words out loud, but they were the truth. I felt a sense of peace, like a weight had been lifted. We didn’t do anything at first, but then a few months later, the day before Passover in 2009, my husband said the same thing and this time, we were ready.
And then we had the monumental task of telling our daughter. It was difficult — but the truth was that she wasn’t surprised. In fact, she was more surprised that it took us so long to make the decision.
I grieved and sat with fear and then I took one small step, and then another. And slowly, my new life emerged.
Some days I wasn’t sure I could handle the pain. I remember one day, sitting in a Verizon store, waiting for them to fix my Blackberry (this was before iPhones). I started to feel a wave of anxiety, so I took out my small notebook and wrote the words: “one day at a time,” “surrender,” and “this too shall pass” — over and over again. That seemed to help. Some days all I could do was cry and then gradually, the tears — which I thought would never end – ended. It didn’t happen overnight, but I started to notice that I simply wasn’t crying anymore. The sadness began to be replaced by a feeling of acceptance. The loneliness dissipated and I could see that I was building a new and happier life.
This Passover, I again will be with beloved neighbors who make a joyful and memorable meal for family and friends. I’m grateful for the tradition of the seder plate which is filled with reminders of how life is — poignant bitter herbs and the merciful mixture of apples, walnuts and wine. We are warned that the very preparation of the seder plate may make us tearful as we cut onions and horseradish. The challenges of life are replayed and the joy of a new life celebrated. The bitter and the sweet.
It is a five-year anniversary that for me is worth the remembrance.