I have been here before. You have been here before. It is a whisper as I rush up the stairway, trying to appear calm as if the world has not flipped. When I get to the top, my daughter is waiting. “Daddy packed a few things this morning,” the nine-year-old says. By the time I was her age, my father had left twice, and my mother was dead. I was well-versed in abandonment and loss.
“Packed a few things?” I ask. His gym bag is gone, the one we took on annual anniversary getaways or trips to visit my family. Most of them are dead now. Maybe he packed a change of clothes for work, I convince myself so I can convince them. This is fine. We are fine. He would never leave. I know this. A partnership of 20 years, even a broken one, isn’t one you leave on a Thursday night without a discussion.
I pull the vanity door open in the bathroom just off our bedroom, the one that belongs to both of us but that we refer to as his. Even the kids call it “Dad’s bathroom.” His shaving bag is missing.
My husband, my children’s father, has left the bathroom. Abandoned it with his toothbrush, comb, and the other essential items he needed to get ready every morning. His routine was precise and step-heavy, and he never deviated from it.
My routine requires two brushes, one for my head and one for my teeth, and a five-minute makeup session broken up by stoplights on my way to work. I do not primp in the bathroom. Makeup is barely rubbed in. Clothes are clean at best. I am a mess. Maybe this is why he left.
The abandoned always blame themselves.
Just that morning he had sent me a text saying that he paid the car bill. I asked. He confirmed. We communicated. Couples who communicate don’t do this.
I text. This is unfair. How can he do this to the kids?
He texts – eventually. He can’t stand the fighting.
Two weeks before, he bought me kitchen appliances. Stainless steel. They gleam from the kitchen, mocking. The refrigerator has an icemaker, a luxury I dreamed of as a kid. Only the wealthy had ice makers and kitchen islands. I have both now.
People who buy appliances don’t leave. They have friends over for dinner and drinks with perfectly cubed, or crushed, ice.
And I don’t remember the fighting, at least not lately. Maybe I was too busy, an occupational hazard of working motherhood, I suppose. What I do remember is making a vision board and lining it with dreams for the new year – 2021. It would be our year. We needed a year. He left seven days after its start and two days after our eldest son’s birthday. I can’t look at the vision board sitting just above the old wooden desk I write at.
There are four trauma responses – I have read about it in numerous articles since my husband left – fight, flight, freeze, and one I’ve just come to discover, fawn. Fawn is the act of people-pleasing. I fawn.
The four F’s of trauma. I wonder what my children’s response will be as I avoid the mouse, belly up, at the bottom of my basement stairs. Every fall before the harsh winter sets in, the mice scurry into our home settling in the attic, the garage, and the basement. They come from the woods, searching for shelter.
I am mad at the dead mouse for dying and leaving me with another responsibility, one that used to belong to my husband. I will leave the mouse there until he is nothing more than bone. This will be my husband’s punishment.
Fawning is a trauma response that involves pleasing people so people don’t leave or stop loving you. People, like me, walk on carefully constructed glass facades hoping nothing cracks, or slips.
Trauma is a six-letter word.
In the coming weeks, while my husband settles into life without us, I will attempt to navigate my children’s lives. He left me, I will tell them so the loss and abandonment belong to me, just me. I will not share it. It is a feeling I have grown used to. My father left. My mother left. My husband left – me, not my kids. But the loss is shared. I can’t claim it for my own, even if maternal instinct demands it.
Trauma can resurface, especially trauma that has never been addressed.
My father’s mother left him when he was young. I always assumed it was why he left me and my brother. He did to his children what had been done to him. I could never leave.
I will never leave. I am not my father. I am not my mother. I am not my husband.
My mother left with her boyfriend and headed to California because of her drug habit. Maybe. I can never be sure. She left. She died. I do not remember the sound of her voice, but I saw her once in a video she made when my cousin went to California to visit. My mother stared into the camera as a plane crashed, and she struggled to get out in an emergency landing. Maybe they made it at one of the studios. My cousin is dead, so I can’t ask her. I have pictures though, and a pair of toeless sneakers my mother sent for my birthday or Christmas. It is hard to recall specifics. My memories are letters in a box collecting dust in the basement.
Weeks after his unexpected departure, I agree to go to dinner with my husband. He is living in a hotel, an extended stay just up the road from our house. It costs money that we don’t have. I stay home every night to watch our children and navigate the life we made together. I am here.
At dinner, he keeps mentioning the way things were years ago before life got hard.
“It was always hard,” I say, sure that he has forgotten. He pays for dinner at the Italian restaurant that is half empty. The dim lighting is for lovers. The kids are at home with his sister. He wants to come home, to rewind to 2008. We can’t. Time travel, I tell him, is impossible.
Less than a week later he is home. I miss the time when he was gone. He still gambles and drinks and stays out at night. Yes, these things happened. I remind myself by jotting them down in the notes section of my phone in case we get divorced.
Our reconciliation winds up being short-lived. This time we fight, often and in front of our children. I hope I will grow indifferent and learn to care less. I never did with my parents. I still care.
Addiction. It lies dormant until you can no longer recognise it for what it is. My husband likes to drink.
He sits on the screened-in porch, separating himself from us as he nurses a beer and listens to a game on the radio, hockey, football, it doesn’t matter. We’ve been living this way for a long time. My husband left us long before he physically walked out the door, shaving bag in tow. And he left because of addiction, just like my parents. This makes it easier to accept. Of course, I won’t know this for months, though I suspect it as my grandmother did with my grandfather. Maybe we don’t want to know.
I remember telling my grandmother, the one who raised me in my parent’s absence, that I wanted to go to Ala-non, so I could connect with people like me. I wanted to address my grandfather’s addiction and, by extension, the addiction that killed my mother and stole my father. Gram thought it was a foolish idea. Why would I go? I wasn’t the one with the problem. I wasn’t an addict. What could I possibly have to talk about?
I wish I had gone. Maybe it would have changed things.
The second time my husband leaves, I am sitting in the living room and do not realise he has hugged our youngest kids after packing some things and snuck out one of the two front doors. It is May 1, 2021. I text him again, though I do not remember the words I use. This time I am not shocked. And still, I hope for reconciliation as I cry in our closet a week or two later, while I look at a scrapbook I made for him for his 30th birthday just before our oldest was born.
A few weeks later, our daughter is hospitalised. I call him to let him know I need him to come home. The police and ambulance sirens light up our neighbourhood like it’s Christmas, but it is May, not December.
My friend and neighbour sends a text, “Something is going on in the neighborhood.”
I let her know it was our house, but we are okay. I may be lying.
My daughter and my husband hug before we head off in the ambulance. My daughter will stay overnight to be monitored, and then she goes to a hospital where I will speak to her once a day. When she comes home, we will lock up our knives and medications for her safety. I navigate most of the process alone.
We decide to sell the house. It is my dream home. The one I never had growing up with my grandparents. They lived on the second floor of a two-family in the city. One I didn’t have with my foster mother. The one who lived in subsidised, affordable housing. My house, our house, is a single-family on a tree-lined street facing woods that my children explore in a bucolic suburb in our safe town. Every single time I walk through the door, I cry. Sometimes my kids see, and I assure them that it will be okay. We will be okay. I may be lying. I’m not sure of any of these things.
My husband and I come to this decision as we take our first walk around the neighbourhood we have lived in for eight years. “We should sell the house if there is no chance for reconciliation,” he says.
There is no chance. Not after all we’ve been through.
There is a reconciliation. My husband comes home. I don’t know how to abandon anyone – not even the people who have abandoned me. I forgive my husband after he tells me he’ll never have another drink. After he tells me drinking has ruined his life, our lives. After he does what no other person who has left me does, he promises to get sober. He admits he has a problem. He promises to come home and stay. My grandfather died an alcoholic. My father left me three different times, once after he got sober. My mother died just before she was set to go to rehab. I can save him.
The abandoned always want to save, to please, even if it is at their own expense. We fix, we fawn, we stay.
Maybe it wasn’t one moment but rather a series of moments that changed the trajectory of the year, of our lives. We are together trying to fix things. My husband is sober. My kids have their father. I am hoping this is enough to mitigate the trauma. I am hoping he stays for all of us. I am trying to stop pleasing everyone. The habit is a hard one to let go of. It is ingrained in me almost as deeply as my eye colour and the dimple in my chin that I inherited from my mother. It is a trauma response, one I am hoping my children will never need.