Two weeks ago on Monday I found myself face-to-face with a titanosaur. Well, the fiberglass replica of its fossilized skeleton. She resides in the NYC museum of natural history and does not fit in one room. A defier of boundaries.
I was there because it was the day before my ex-husband’s wedding, and I needed to continue to provide a good experience for my son and his visiting-from-out-of-town friend. I wanted these few days to be fun, to be part of a litany of good memories. I wanted this wedding embedded in positivity.
After seeing the psittacosaurus (say that out loud and with the “P” sound, you will see why it is a favorite for the 11-year-old boy set), we settled in for a short documentary about the evolution of living beings with back bones. The narrator, a British woman with a gentle voice, covered hundreds of billions of years in minutes. At each end of an era, she stated matter-of-factly, “at this point, another branch of life developed. All (fish, birds, whatever) are descendant from this branch.” And onto the next era.
But evolution takes a long time. The British woman didn’t even start at the beginning, with the single-cell organisms – she started with a really bizarre looking fish who was the first animal with a jaw bone. This is part of the defining characteristic of this lineage: a jawbone. Have you ever thought about your jaw bone? It sets us apart, apparently, from animals on other parts of the evolutionary ladder. Us and the snakes and the raccoons and the rats and the giraffes and the sharks. And the dinosaurs. We are, or were, all possessors of jawbones.
It is only billions of years after the first organism sprouts a jawbone that the titanosaur shows up. Then something goes wrong – an asteroid? – and all of the dinosaurs – the titanosaurs, the T-Rex, the stegosaurus, the psittacosaurus. They all die. “The dinosaurs were unable to adapt,” the narrator explained, as though describing a machine that had run out of batteries. An entire species… poof.
Except for birds. “The birds are the closest living relative to the dinosaurs,” the soothing British voice continued, briefly listing the reasons why the birds were able to survive the catastrophe that killed their kin. Something about their skeletons.
The dinosaurs die; the birds survive. And then the evolutionary space is opened for mammals to develop into their new place on the genetic tree of life, a space opened for more brains and walking upright and making tools and warm blood. Billions of years, then humans. “Now,” the narrator continued, “we are the only species in the history of the planet with the capability to bring on a major extinction event on par or worse than that which has come before.”
So much depends on our good will, on our being decent human beings.
As the boys and I sat on a park bench eating ice cream in Central Park later that day, we watched five sparrows battle it out for a cracker left on the ground. “This was what it was like in the age of the dinosaurs,” my son announced solemnly. Perhaps the dinosaurs did seem as playful and bouncy as sparrows in Central Park. The truth of the dinosaurs is still being uncovered, and the stories we tell about them change as we find more impressions of their bones in stone, as we press on to learn the story of what has brought us here, given us this terrible and wonderful power to hold.
It occurred to me, sitting there and watching the sparrows, mulling over the fact that my guinea pigs, who would perish immediately if left for even an hour in the wild, emerged from the extinction event in which the dinosaurs perished, that much of what we call “survival of the fittest” is actually simply very good luck.
It is not every day that one gets to attend the wedding of one’s ex-husband. As I scrunched into a white plastic folding chair between my partner and my son the next day, watching people I had never met before hold the chuppah above him and his wife, I found myself feeling in solidarity with that titanosaur. This is a wedding in which I do not quite fit in, though I am an inextricable part of the story of this marital union. I turned down a good job offer out-of-state so that my ex-husband could stay in this city and pursue this relationship without sacrificing time with our son. I talk with the bride and groom regularly; I belong to a 4-person group text in which we communicate about Luke, my son. Our son. But I am a fossil here, a skeleton. Here I am primarily identified by who I used to be: Nuc’s wife. My presence here insists that there is a story that comes before the ritualized telling of true love found, though that is not the story of this wedding. It is not my story anymore.
I was 21 when we were married. We both walked through that wedding in a daze, like game pieces on a board. When you are 21 and you get married you have such a clean past, even though you don’t know it at the time. Our wedding was unremarkable, except for the shrimp at the reception, which to this day, people still remember. It was that. damn. good.It was strange to see Nuc at a wedding with no shrimp. With a hired pastor, a stranger. With recorded music. Oh, this is not the way we did it, or would have done it. But that is because at this wedding I can bring only fossilized memories of Nuc getting married, memories that bear no relation to the stories that have unfolded since that young wedding so many years ago. The way we did it nearly 20 years ago has vanished. That Nuc is no longer here.
This is a wedding in which my part of the story is ritually erased. I am not sure I should be here. But I want to be here. I have been invited. And my son is here. And I am going to be a decent human being.
This is how you be a decent human being: you go to your ex-husband’s wedding. You keep your dressed-up son and his out-of-town friend under control, you cheer them all on, you smile when the bride and groom describe how they’ve “finally found each other after a lifetime of looking,” and when the bride and groom have walked out together, you tell your son to run after them and give his dad and new stepmom a big hug even though it hurts to not have him by your side at that moment. Yes. It’s true. Ex-husband, Nuc. I am so happy that you have finally found a woman who will love you with spirit as well as with body, as I was unable to do.
And this is how you be a decent human being at your ex-husband’s wedding: You smile wider and decide not to think about it when the friends who lived in your tiny spare bedroom in your tiny tiny house for years while they were sorting out immigration issues, come bursting into the reception only to give you a brief, uncomfortable hug, refusing to acknowledge your partner standing next to you. Is there a difference between living gay and living straight? Yes, there is.
I’m no longer April to them, I realized. I’m queer. April was Nuc’s wife. As far as they are concerned, April is not here anymore. I have been erased.
This is how to be a decent human being at your ex-husband’s wedding. You smile and when your partner asks how you are doing, you say, “I don’t want to think about it.” You try not to be hurt by anything, because you have made your choice. You keep smiling, even as you feel your heart being hollowed out, reminding yourself that you don’t really miss those friends anyway.
Endings are always new beginnings. New beginnings are always endings. It is the law of the universe, and the older I get, the more I know this to be true. The day after Mt. St. Helen’s erupted, I once read, little green shoots began to appear in the soil, even while the mountain was still smoldering. There are photographs that prove this. I saw these photographs when we lived in Seattle, Nuc and I and his brother, Posido. We shared a tiny apartment and used our instrument cases as our dining room table. The laws of the universe include constant evolution, no pause between destruction and creation, creation and destruction. It is just one motion, one eternal process.
I cried at my ex-husband’s wedding when I saw Posido and his wife, Amanda, perform their music in the ceremony. I suppose they are now my ex-brother-in-law and ex-sister-in-law. But they are my family, and divorce cannot tear that asunder. No, I thought, This is not how to be a decent human being at your ex-husband’s wedding. You don’t get to cry over the things you miss of the life you had together during the ceremony. After the ceremony, Posido, Amanda and I stood together, crying and hugging, saying, “I miss you,” over and over.
I could have hugged them all day. Can’t we get out of here, I wanted to say, and go do something crazy? But this is my ex-husband’s wedding, and we are all older now, and I am going to be a decent human being. I’m not sure any of us do anything crazy anymore, like go put the car through the car wash in our wedding ceremony clothes, like we did in 2001. Posido was also at the first wedding. He is one of four people, including my ex-husband and I, who were at the first and the second weddings. We are the remnant.
It is important to me, to be a decent human being at my ex-husbands wedding. It is important to me, too, to understand this mystery: why I would sit at this wedding for a human being to whom I no longer desire to be married, a human being for whom I have never wanted hurt and have only wanted happiness… and feel overwhelmed by grief.
This is what professionals call disenfranchised grief, the grief we feel but cannot justify to ourselves. What right do I have to feel grief at my ex-husband’s wedding? What right do I have to miss the accoutrements of a marriage that should have never been, a lesbian married to a man? What right do I have to grieve the decision that was the hardest decision I have ever had to make but was the right decision, regardless?
Shouldn’t decisions that were so clearly the right ones clear out all the grief after a given amount of time?
No. Here is the truth about love, loss and dinosaurs: with the death of a marriage comes the extraordinary splitting of an evolutionary ladder, and two branches form where there had been one. It is a major extinction event, and species die even as room opens for others. I see my ex-husband now doing things he never did with me. He cooks, I hear, and has developed an interest in the vacuum cleaner. He used to hate the way cats smelled; now he is the co-owner of a cat – a cat which I fed while he and his wife were on honeymoon. And of course I do things I never did with him: I shaved my head. I quit my well-paying job to train as a hospital chaplain. Our ethics around how we live life, once bound together in the tension of our marriage, have now been allowed to disentangle, and we are becoming different people than we would have been had we stayed together. We like each other less, at least right now. And we are both better for it.
Well, I can’t say that. Because with the split of the evolutionary ladder comes the loss of the ability to speak in any meaningful way about my ex-husband or his personal evolution and development. A good friendship and co-parenting relationship after divorce does not change that. A split is a split, and entails loss. I am better for it. I suspect he is too, but that is no longer under my purview.
Yet one ethic apparently keeps us bound, not only Nuc and I but also our respective partners: we will be decent human beings. In a world in which there is so much terrible loss and very bad luck, you hold onto what you have, even as it changes shape, even as it changes its way of being in the world. We don’t walk away, even though it would be so much easier to do so. Walking away, you can drop the loss. You don’t have to keep holding it in your hands, watching powerlessly as more and more of your story is taken by the fickle winds of evolution, those winds that leave parts of us fossilized, forgotten, remembered only in skeletal form, to be reckoned with only in what stories are left imprinted in stone. You don’t have to keep facing, head-on, how a world continues on without you.