My son, Nate, graduated from high school last week. After the ceremony, in a large gymnasium at the University of Vermont, all of us gathered at my former husband, Richard’s, house, on Lake Champlain, to celebrate.
By “us” I mean this: my partner, Brett and I; my first husband, Scott, his wife, Phoebe and their two children, Luke and Abby; Scott’s parents, Marion and Lee; my second husband, Richard and our daughter, Coco; my brother, Tom, my parents, Ann and Tom, and Nate and Sam.
Nate and Sam are my sons, with Scott.
To be sure, we were missing a whole bunch of people, including my two other siblings and their families, who live far away, Scott’s brother, Mark and his whole family, who were vacationing in Mexico, and Tommy's wife, Stacey, who is in Thailand. Also, Richard’s mom, Peggy, who can’t travel from her NYC home anymore.
If you are cringing right now, your response is unwarranted. We had a beautiful afternoon together. Scott and Richard, my former husbands, worked the grill; the kids moved between the trampoline and the pool and the rest of us got the salads and the table ready and sat together, talking about our lives.
After we ate, after we raised a glass to Nate for his successful high school run and to his future in Montana, we went outside to play. We tossed the football and the lacrosse ball and, because there’s a small competitive streak in the O’Brien/McChesney/Eyre family, we had running races: kids against kids and dads against sons and moms against kids. Even uncle against niece. It was, in a word, awesome.
That’s what we are: the O’Brien/McChesney/Eyre family, and that’s what we’ve been for the past 15 years or so, since Scott and I split up and Richard and I married and made Coco and then Richard and I split up. Twice we reassembled the molecules of our family’s chemistry, and twice we managed to come out the other side relatively unscathed.
Not that being unscathed is the goal; it's not. Being good people for the kids is the goal. Trying hard to build a life of love, a new kind of love, is the goal.
It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but it happened. Which means that it’s possible.
The marriages I was in ended, but I learned pretty quickly that it's about a bunch of paperwork when a marriage comes to a close. Marriage, after all, is a legal arrangement, and so the undoing of a marriage, too, is a legal thing. The relationship, however, especially when there are children involved, doesn’t end. Ever. And so it has to become something new. Maybe even something better.
A divorce, which often results in bitterness and endless skirmishes, is actually an opportunity for a person to become their best self. Or at least give it a really good try. Because it's worth it.
Just ask the kids.
Ask the kids how it feels when Mom and Richard, who are no longer married, are laughing together in the kitchen. Ask the kids how it feels when Mom and Scott hug each other because, even though they haven’t been married for lots of years, they’re filled with pride that their sons have grown to be good, kind-hearted young men.
We are the Modern Family. Sometimes this is cringe-worthy, of course, and I’m sure there are those among us who Just Wish We Were Normal. But most of the time it’s OK. It really is OK. I had my brief descent into the heart of darkness at one point, and then, five years ago next week, I decided to cast out my boozy demons and did my best to get my act together. It’s been a really beautiful and funny and terrifying and surprising ride since then.
I love this family so much. It's the craziest thing. When I was at Fordham a few weeks ago, I spent some time visiting with Richard's mom, Peggy, in the city. Marion, Scott's mom, and I get together almost every week and we laugh about everything. It's so great. In a world where people are firing bullets at each other, out of hatred and feelings of marginalization, it's the least we can do...take care of each other, even through hard times, even through pain. We have it in our hearts to love each other. We were born that way.
Honestly, if you had told me, when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs -- dreaming of being a teacher and having a bunch of kids -- if you had told me that I would be married twice, that I would have three kids with two dads, that I would choose to be an alcoholic jerk for a while and then I’d become a pastor and I would discover that I love death as much as life and I would fall in love with every hospice patient I ever had and that my life, which I imagined would be lived in one place forever, would meander like a river, I would have laughed.
And then, maybe, I might have asked, “Really?”