When I finally told my mom, her reaction surprised me.
One of the hardest things I had to do was tell people that my husband had moved out. Even when I thought I was strong enough to talk about it, with each new person I told, the horror and sadness came rushing back. Even the thought of telling someone brought tears to my eyes and that awful tight feeling in my throat.
I put off telling my mother for a long time, because I believed my husband would come back after a few weeks and then I wouldn’t have to tell her at all. I also thought I had to protect my elderly mother from such awful news: What if she had a heart attack or something? Here’s the story of how I finally told her. Her reaction surprised me.
From the book Untying the Knot by Karen Paul Holmes:
Telling My Mother
She’s 85. Upsets make her heart palpitate
so we couch what we say. Or maybe we always have.
Now that Ken’s been gone six weeks
my siblings and I confer on how to tell her
that he left me.
She loves him.
I wait until my sister travels to Florida
as back-up support for Mother, then call. Hear myself
somehow keep my voice from quaking.
He wants to separate for a while… depressed
since thyroid surgery. I think
he’ll be back.
She’s sad for me but surprisingly supportive.
Motherly. Modern. Sometimes couples do well
with a break: Their marriage becomes stronger.
I didn’t know any of her friends did that
but I believe her.
She visits me in Appalachia a few months later.
As we walk by the lake, he calls my cell. Some business
item to discuss. As usual, we try to keep a light note.
He chirps, Say hi to Baba.
(The name our daughter calls her.)
I cannot say to him
You’ve broken Baba’s heart too.
I put the phone in my back pocket
take her thin hand, let her rest on a fieldstone bench.
To her questioning face, I tell a small lie
His calls don’t bother me anymore.
I do not give her his regards.
Next day, she and I are driving
the two hours back to my mountain cabin after I’d read
at an Asheville bookstore. Before we get
to the hairpin curves, it suddenly feels right to say
He had an affair.
He lives with her now.
She’s not surprised. Maybe by 85 she’s heard it all.
My contact lenses fogging, the road is a blur, but no
slowing down She was my good friend.
Mother, angry now, controlled
He never loved you enough.
He expected you to be perfect.
Though I know the route, I get lost—
we pass thick dark pines, cliffs, the fast Nantahala,
feel lucky for this scenic detour.
At home, I sense a burden was tumbled
clean in the rapids.
This poem was inspired by Sharon Olds’s poem, also called “Telling My Mother,” in her book, Stag’s Leap, which won the Pulitzer Prize. My book, Untying the Knot, tells the story of my separation, divorce, and the healing process. Writing in my journal and writing poems helped me cope with the emotional upheaval and helped me sort out my mixed-up thoughts. Reading stories of other people going through divorce also helped me survive.