Last April I was eating my salad in front of the TV when the beautifully coifed anchor on “Entertainment Tonight” announced, “After the commercial break we go to a story you won’t believe: a man killed by a swan in Des Plaines, Illinois.”
I put down my salad and ran to call my ex-husband.
“Turn on Channel 3,” I told him. “They’re going to do a story about a swan that killed someone.”
Fred is the only person I know who would understand the urgency or relevance of my phone alert; he and I were once attacked by a murderous swan. We hung up and went to our respective televisions. We were finding our way into a stage in our relationship that didn’t have an easy label. Were we “broken”? I have always hated that label. As a therapist, I didn’t refer to divorced families as broken.
When we divorced after seven years of marriage (preceded by two decades of friendship), our friends prepared to take sides, hear complaints and grievances, and close ranks. After the official decree, we looked at each other outside the courtroom and asked, “Now what?”
I longed for the ceremony that would define what we were now: ex-spouses who had become deeper friends. Our friends did not have to take sides, but it took them months to truly believe this. My family still liked Fred, and his family didn’t send any hit men to my house.
There is a paucity of role options that comes to mind when divorce is the issue. We knew we wanted to stay connected in some meaningful way, but we didn’t have a name to put on our relationship. When we changed from friends to husband and wife, we brought along some weird perceptions about marriage, and one result was an escalation of negativity that included criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
We tried our best to fix the conflagration, including therapy, but we both knew that we had blundered into a well-intended disaster. Once we divorced and he lived in his house and I lived in mine, we didn’t want to lose the friendship.
We still helped each other through the hard times. When my sister died one month after we divorced, he was one of the pallbearers. When his mother developed lung and brain cancer a few months after that, my daughter (his stepdaughter) helped him take care of her. After she died, I offered to go through her clothing, something neither Fred nor his father could bear to do.
Partly we were better friends in the divorced state, but it didn’t come with the same contracted guarantees that are implied with marriage. In fact, it was not like a marriage at all, at least not ours. It was different. I didn’t know what to call it.
One day, several years after the divorce, we went kayaking on the Nashawannuck Pond in Easthampton, Mass., before they dredged it and made it nice. There were still grocery carts upended in it, snags of trees, but for some reason we liked to kayak there. It’s a big enough pond, more like a small lake.
It has always suited us to kayak together, Fred in his handmade wood kayak, me in my aquamarine Necky, which is essentially a big fat tubby. We each go our own speed, no negotiating necessary, but we can be in the same general vicinity of each other. In terms of developmental psychology, we are at the 2-year-old stage of parallel play.
The Nashawannuck had enough twists and turns to make it interesting, and we wanted to explore all of it. We paddled down by a bridge and saw two white spots, which we knew to be a pair of swans. Until this moment, swans were romantic creatures to me, symbols of love, grace and transformation.
We made no attempt to go near them, but some creatures, especially when there might be a clutch of eggs at stake, are highly territorial. How were we to know that this was swan-hatching season? How does one keep track of all the breeding and birthing that goes on in the forests and waterways of western Massachusetts? And how is one to know the overly large territory of protective swans?
Jacqueline Sheehan lives in Florence, Mass. Her most recent novel is “Picture This.”