Years ago I was friends with a woman I’ll call Sue. Sue and I met through our children, who were in pre-school together. As it turned out, we were on the same baby-breeding schedule, and our third children were due right around the same time. Sue’s daughter came a couple of weeks before mine, and I was pretty intimidated watching her hit the ground running, as if another little life for which she was responsible was simply not a big deal. She and her family went camping (with a newborn!), she was already out jogging, lugging three young kids around the mall and hosting parties, as if she wasn’t even recuperating from childbirth, let alone adjusting to a newborn in the house. It was if nothing had changed in her life.
My youngest was born and I soon was drowning in household managerial catastrophes. Caring for three kids under the age of four slays you if you in any way think you are going to be able to work through your day in any logical fashion. It’s all about putting out fires and doing your best to maintain a smidgen of sanity at that point. So I was hardly on top of my game. In addition, that year we were experiencing a host of additional outside pressures from family over some other issues, and soon I was feeling extremely stressed out. So stressed out I hadn’t even noticed the apparent absence of Sue from the daily drop-off/pick-up at pre-school.
One day after having dropped off my son at school, as I sullenly returned to my car (with what seemed like a permanent black cloud hovering above my head), Sue approached me.
“Hey, I noticed you looked a bit stressed out,” she said to me.
I shrugged, gave her the short answer, and asked how she was doing.
“Well, I thought I’d tell you where I’ve been,” she said. “One Saturday morning about a month ago, I dialed 9-1-1. I asked them to come get me.”
I stared at her as if she’d gone mad. Turns out she had.
“The operator asked me if I was alone, and I said no, my husband was home. She asked me where he was, and I said ‘he’s upstairs making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Please come get me now.’ And so the ambulance came and took me away.”
Sue spent a couple of weeks in the psych ward, recuperating from a mountain of burdens of which I knew nothing at the time. Funny thing then was that I thought she was simply overwhelmed with three small children. I could relate, and for a minute started thinking a few weeks in the psych ward might be a little more sane than my current circumstances.
A year later, I was to learn a little more of Sue’s despair. Her husband had decided to find a job in another state, in a city in which he–for some obscure reason–was determined to find work. After landing the job, he left in October, leaving Sue behind to care for three small children, sell the house, pack up their home, and finish up the school year. She and the kids would follow him to their new lives in June. At a large going away party, filled with Sue’s family and friends, we bade farewell to Sue and her husband, a man who always spoke a little too fervently about his extreme opinions, one of those Rush Limbaugh-family-values kinda guys. But while he talked the talk, he evidently didn’t walk the walk.
Two weeks after Sue moved three states away–far from her extended family, far from a former job to which she could have readily returned had she needed to, and far from her friends, those who could have provided an enormouse support network for her in a time of crisis–her beloved husband told her he wanted out. He said he never loved her. There was another woman, one he’d met, ironically enough, the previous summer while on vacation with Sue’s extended family at a beach in that very state.
The laws were such in that state that Sue could not leave because of the children. Her husband knew that. He set her up so that she was stuck in a no-man’s land, with a mortgage on a big new house and no source of income, while he took up with his little sweetie and re-assigned his happily ever after to someone else. And he had ready access to his children for those infrequent occasions in which he wanted to see them (he was, after all, busy with his new woman and her family).
And all those months earlier, when Sue had the meltdown? Apparently it was then that she’d starting finding evidence of his shenanigans. Long-distance calls to mysterious numbers on the phone bill. Strange charges on the credit card bill. The usual indicators that a man is cheating on his wife. All of which happened around the time she was giving birth to her baby. Talk about stressful.
I always felt so badly that I wasn’t able to be there for Sue, but for a few cursory words of support here and there. Alas, she didn’t exactly make herself accessible–the Sue I saw was a cute, strong, athletic woman. A mother who adored her children, who had a loving family-minded husband. It wasn’t till she was gone that I realized that Sue’s pain ran as deep as a mine-shaft. And while she was still a cute, strong, athletic woman, she was also a woman who desperately needed support and whose very existence was being undermined by the man whose support she thought she could count on forever.
I took a lot of lessons away from Sue’s awful experience, the most important of which is this: nothing is ever as it seems. Nobody’s marriage, nobody’s life, nobody’s happiness or lack thereof. A person’s exterior is simply their patina, and often times has very little to do with their reality. It’s all about marketing and packaging, how one presents oneself to the outside world. Now I am rarely surprised when I hear something otherwise unexpected about someone else. Disappointed? Sometimes. Saddened? Perhaps. But rarely surprised.