I pushed my foot on the gas and watched the speedometer needle rise. Ordinarily, one or both of my children, my husband, or all three of them would have been with me. But this time I was alone in the car. I wanted to drive fast and just keep on driving. Life was stressful. Life was hard. Life did not feel good. I wanted to escape, so I fled.
My commitment to my husband caged me. I had been married seven years, and I was stuck. To keep my vows before God, I had to stay loyal to this relationship. My promise confined me in a permanent trap.
My thumbs tapped the steering wheel as my thoughts paced like a wild animal, back and forth, back and forth. Where could I go? What could I do? Panic gripped me. I didn't want to go back.
As the old Hank Williams song laments, I was so lonesome I could cry. My husband was neither an abuser nor an addict. He just had his head down trying to make us a living, so he put all his time and energy into his work. For two years he'd left home in the dark before the children and I were awake. For those same two years, he had returned home after the children were in bed, eaten a warmed-up dinner, and fallen asleep in front of the TV. Night after night, I'd watched him nod off and listened to him snore for a while, before I tapped him and encouraged him to go to bed. Night after night, I'd sat up longing for love. Because he was too tired to hold up his head, Loyd had left a void in my heart. That emptiness had filled with darkness, and now my tightfisted heart screamed, "What about me?"
The idea came to me like a pure beam of light: Susie.* She's single. She lives alone. I can stay with her until I figure things out.
At that moment, my focus narrowed. I made up my mind. I chose to follow my clenched heart and leave my husband. I started to cry.
I cried all the way to Susie's house. The tears poured out of a well of lost hope, and they just kept coming. We'd been talking, so Susie wasn't surprised when she found me outside her door unable to speak, eyes red and puffy, face swollen.
"Oh, Sherry." She hugged me. Her embrace was long and warm, but I didn't hug her back. I just stood inside her arms, my arms at my sides. "Come in. Come in." She moved me through her door. "Do you want to sit?" She waved a hand toward her couch.
I shook my head—no.
"Do you want some tea?"
Again I moved my head from side to side.
"Do you want to rest?"
This time I nodded.
"Well, come on, then." She steered me toward her guest room.
I crossed the threshold and turned to say, "Thank you," but the words caught in my throat. My lips mouthed the message.
Susie smiled. "You rest, and I'll check on you in a few minutes."
She left and closed the door. I flopped on the bed and started to cry again. Suddenly, I was made of tears. I was just salt water and mucus and grief. There was nothing else to me.
I snatched several tissues from the box and blew my nose. I blew and blew and blew … more tissues … more tears … more grief … more tissues.
My mind went as dark as a moonless night. I had no thoughts—only feelings, ripped and raw. My stomach gnawed into a knot. I dry-retched. I held my belly and drew my knees to my chest. Heaving, I jerked in quick puffs of air until I finally slept.
I dreamed of getting my head caught in elevator doors … in car doors … under the lid of a trunk. I dreamed of being forced into a guillotine.
My eyes flew open. It was still dark. I stared into the blackness and thought about those dreams. It seemed as if my subconscious struggled to separate my head from my body … my mind from my heart … my reason from my emotions.
I heard a bird, one lonely bird calling the sun. I blinked and listened to the solo, then to a duet—a quartet—a whole choir of birds greeting the dawn.
Clarity settled on me like the sound of that singing. I knew what God said about marriage and divorce. What I was doing was wrong. I knew what I ought to do. The word ought refers to a duty or an obligation. It's something we will ourselves to do. It doesn't come naturally.
I got up and scribbled a note on one of the tissues—seven words:
Thank you, my friend.
I'm going home.
I crept out of Susie's house and into the breaking day. I slid behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition. I drove. With calm deliberation, I made my way like a homing pigeon.
When I walked into our house, I saw I wasn't alone. My husband, Loyd, sat at the table in the kitchen with his head in his hands. He looked up at me. His face was pale and drawn.
I walked over and stood before him. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
He didn't say a word. He just looked at me.
"I love you, Loyd, and I want to work for a happy life with you." I hung my head. Time passed. Neither of us moved.
Just when I thought I would melt into a puddle on the floor, Loyd stood and gathered me into his arms. His chin rested on top of my head. I was still stuck. Marriage was a kind of cage, confining and permanent. Promising loyalty to this relationship limited my independence and freedom. It narrowed my choices. I was locked up by my vow, but I gripped Loyd back and held on tight, because now I knew this cage was golden and it had an open door.
I had been free to fall in love, to feel that amazing chemistry and rush, but now, when life was hard and those feelings gone, I chose to remember I had responsibilities bigger than my desires. When I went home that morning, I chose the enclosure. I accepted life within the boundaries. But I committed to becoming a real investor in my marriage rather than a consumer. I decided to give rather than worry about what I was getting. I chose to love my husband, though I didn't feel in love with him, because love is an action, not a feeling. I opted to reason with God's help rather than fly with my emotions.
When I left Loyd that day, he realized our love was dying and we needed to get some help, so he became an investor too. We went to our pastor for counseling and started buying book after book on marriage.
I commenced getting up in the dark to make Loyd coffee. I'd sit with him and have a cup before he left for work. He began eating dinner with me at the table. In those quiet times, with our children in bed, we talked. Pretty soon Loyd started coming home a little earlier and staying up a little later. Our talking became easier. Then one day when Loyd opened the door my stomach jumped. Feelings are fickle, changeable. I was in love with my husband again.
*Not her real name.
Sherry Van Zante married Loyd when she was 18. Decades later, marriage is the hardest, but also the best, thing she's ever done. She and Loyd live on the central coast of California.