Knowing his death was just months away, John began to get rid of things. He tossed tattered manila folders from his file cabinet. He gave away books. He added clothes to the Goodwill box.
I could struggle with letting go of a calendar from 1987, but if John held on to anything it was because it truly had value. John knew how to let go of that which no longer served him.
So when he left his journals, I knew it wasn’t an accident.
John died in September of 2011. By October I had made my way through most of what he had written. John had journaled for decades; including the two we spent together. While many of his later reflections were about the journey of living with a terminal cancer diagnosis, I became obsessed about what he wrote about me, about us, about our marriage.
Was he faithful to me? Did he think I was a good wife? Did I make him happy? Did I make his life better? I was hungry for affirmation.
While answers to those questions were on pages of spiral notebooks and little leather bound books, I didn’t seem to notice them as much as the evidence I gathered about how hard it was for him to be married.
I could not stop reading and rereading the passages that hurt the most. I made an absurd attempt to create a chronology of our love on a pink legal pad the way I would create a chronology for a divorce trial when I was trying to figure out exactly what the facts were. I put tiny tabs on the pages that either affirmed my version of the verdict I wanted or damned me to inconsolable sorry.
For weeks I stayed up too long past midnight with the journals spread out on our bed in which he died beside me. Searching. Searching. Trying to find proof that what we had was good. Searching and sobbing.
By winter I calmed. I was weary of wallowing in what I could not change and of the constant replay of the painful passages I focused on. The truth was that we were a tenderly loving couple. We had countless joyous times. Our life together had meaning and purpose. I knew that more than one thing could be true, and that I could decide what to hold on to.
I gave myself a solo weekend retreat to grieve. I turned off my phone, opened my heart, and looked at all the love we had. Pouring over photographs of him with our children and that magical trip to Cinque Terra, I shifted my focus to comforting words written over the years: “We can work quietly yet have fun together.” “Probably the best wife in the world.” “I love Suzy.”
I was willing to learn the lesson John had taught me: Hold on to that which has value, and toss the rest.
Marriage, like divorce, is complex. Your marriage ending may be full of sorrowful notes, but surely plenty more. As your life goes on, toss that which no longer serves you, decide what to hold on to, and hold on tight.