Though our husbands got along well and never minded spending an evening together, it was Kylie and I who bonded almost instantly. How did we become such close friends? Over my dermatitis issues. That’s right, America! You heard it here: I’m nothing if not a dermatological good time. After David and I arrived late for Bible study one night, Kylie overheard me say I had been late because of a dermatology appointment. She was quick to point out five things I could do for my scalp, and I told her—knowing full well I would never do it—I would call her and get that list. Days later, I actually did. We hung up three hours later. She was one of the funniest, goofiest, sweetest people I had ever met. I was in awe of her, and I fell for her wit and her charm and her friendship very quickly. (My editor said I should add in a cautionary joke here, but I’ll leave that up to you the reader: Insert your best cautionary rib tickler here; no doubt there are a million of ’em. Thank you for playing.)
We met each other’s friends and families. We grocery shopped together. She tried to teach me to bake but then gave up and just baked for me. #geniusmoveonmypart
Jeff and Kylie eventually began to lead Bible study with us, and together, the four of us led almost thirty couples every week. We stood beside each other in the church choir and got so tickled that on many occasions one (or both) of us had to leave the stage, which probably grieved God and infuriated the choir leader but only deepened our friendship. We hosted baby showers and girls’ nights out for our friends. We planned games for Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts, chili cook-offs, and Valentine’s Day dinners. Not to mention the murder mystery party she spent months preparing for but that was a bust when no one could understand the game. We went camping together, stayed in expensive hotels together, and toured Napa Valley together. She made the world’s best homemade flour tortillas, which I tried to copy using her recipe, but who wants to eat a twelve-pound tortilla? So, I think she must have given me the wrong recipe. #geniusmoveonherpart
Kylie wanted a baby for me almost as badly as I wanted one for myself. She and Jeff let our Bible study group know about our roller coaster of a journey to have a family, as well as every lost pregnancy, and she always made sure we were cared for with cards and flowers and a couple of dinners a week. Every pill, every doctor’s appointment, every miscarriage, every tear—Kylie was with me the whole way. She was the closest thing to a sister I had. I trusted her with my pain and loss, and she carried those things for me, very very well.
Until she didn’t.
Jeff and Kylie fought. Often.
She was right—he could be lazy, indecisive, and unmotivated. He was also right—she was high maintenance, abrasive, and opinionated. The truth was, we loved them both and wanted them both to be happy. Yet, after ten years of friendship with them, we could no longer see how that was going to happen. As their marriage weakened and became frayed, the idea of losing what the four of us had—in a town where friendships weren’t easily made—grieved us all. They swore things would not change and that we would all continue being friends, but we could quickly see that such a utopian vision wasn’t even going to be a possibility.
Any time we all spent together was time David and I spent refereeing. Card nights ended in their screaming matches. What was breaking apart, we could not mend. It would have been heartbreaking enough had that been the only thing going on in our lives, but it wasn’t.
David and I experienced our fourth miscarriage during this time. Without sounding like a total cliché: Loss was becoming my only companion. While Kylie was trying desperately to find joy in a joyless marriage, I spent most of my nights crying myself to sleep, and David was in his first year of law school and barely getting by. There were no more farmers market weekends or breaking the law in order to see the latest Bourne movie. No couple’s vacations or late-night sleepovers.
We were all adulting . . . and adulting sucks.
I loved David so much. But I’m not sure how “in love” with David I was at that time. Ask anyone who has watched their best friends go through a divorce and they will tell you: Whatever that couple is going through, you also begin to experience, even if it isn’t there. I call this the “I-am-going-to-go-buy-a-red-car-and-now every-car-I-see-is-a-red-car” theory. If they fall out of love, you wonder if you aren’t doing so as well. If they argue over money, you do as well. If they say their spouse is a jerk, well, wouldn’t you know it? Yours is as well. You begin to view your marriage through a different lens. This is not a good thing.
I began to see David as uncaring and unfeeling.
He didn’t care about having a baby near as much as I did.
He didn’t hurt when I miscarried near as much as I did.
He didn’t feel the ache and shame of infertility near as much as I did.
David could not win for losing.
Never mind that he hung his head in grief at every report we were given.
Never mind that he listened to every fear I had without giving voice to his own.
Never mind that he’d laid his head on the cold metal examination table and cried at our last appointment. All I could see was what was not happening to David and what was happening to me. I was alone in this. And with every heartache and every D&C and every cramp and every spot of blood, I was in love with him less and less. I spoke to him less and less. I let him touch me less and less.
“You want to crawl in this bed with me and what? You have to be joking. I hate you! You’re out every night in class or a study group, and I’m here washing your clothes or cleaning your house. I am stuck here! I am stuck in this house and I am stuck in this marriage and I am stuck without the only thing I truly want. I want a baby! Not you! A baby!”
These were the things that I said to him. No, that I screamed at him.
In the middle of my broken heart were words so jagged, so destructive, that I ache, today, when I think about them. How I wish that I could take them back. My mouth was going to be the death of us, if he didn’t kill me first. I was hard and hateful and every day with me was a battle. But sometimes you find yourself in the middle of a hurricane so severe you cannot take refuge and you cannot give comfort. Enduring one loss was hard; enduring four was grave. It would be a lie to say that David and I were drifting. David and I were broken. It was evident in the separate lives we were living and separate beds we were sleeping in. I grieved in anger and rage; David grieved in silence and withdrawal. Neither of us brought the other comfort; neither of us had hope to give. He was tired of trying and failing. Hearing good news and then bad. Wanting and not getting.
He was giving up.
No doubt I was, too.
Two couples. Two marriages. Two tragedies.
It was around five forty-five p.m., and if he didn’t hurry he would be late getting to class and I would be late meeting Kylie at choir practice. She swore she’d give me her actual tortilla recipe if I didn’t stand her up, which we had laughed about on the phone some thirty minutes before. As I ran up the steps to one of the guest rooms, I overheard him on the phone: “I miss you so much. Every woman I see reminds me of you. My break between classes is at nine. Can we talk again then? Okay. I’ll call you. I hope I get to see you soon. Oh, crap, I hear her calling me. I gotta go. I’ll talk to you a little later tonight. I promise.”
My feet slipped and I slid, dead weight, down a few stairs. I sat up where I had landed and sat breathless, motionless. I was perfectly still but the room was spinning. The house was spinning. Everything was moving and I was going nowhere. I could hear the wind. I could hear cars outside. How could I be dead and hear those things?
Everything was moving but I was going nowhere.
That old saying was right: “A woman is like a tea bag. You cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” And here I was, in over my head. I’ve given this a lot of thought and I believe there are two distinct types of women in these situations.
Woman number 1 requires no response time; she is 100 percent reaction. She thinks nothing through but instinctively knows what is rightfully hers, and she reacts in accordance. She is strong and fierce and she pities the man who played her for a fool. She can be dangerous. She can be cunning. She can be vengeful. She is alert and sharp and keeps her wits about her at all times. She rarely, if ever, takes any prisoners.
Then there’s woman number 2.
I was woman number 2.
There’s no description for her because no one ever talks about her.
My very first thought was not “How could he?” My very first thought, which I admit to you sadly and with great vulnerability, was “How will I . . . ?”
How will I get up from here?
How will I approach him?
How will I make my legs work?
How will I get money?
How will I make it home to my momma?
How will I survive this?
My instinct was not to be brave, and it wasn’t to stand up and control what would happen in the next ten minutes. My instinct was to tuck tail and hide.
My second thought was that I—I, I, I, I, I—must have heard him wrong. That I was wrong—not him! That my ears were bad or that my judgment was off. That I was the problem; I was his problem and her problem, and I was this thing in the way. This nuisance. This tree everyone had to drive around that had fallen over during the storm.
I wanted to be woman number 1. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t even close.
I caught my breath and stood; I was shaky, but I will take my credit where I can get it in this story. I finished the climb up the stairs and opened up his office door. Without an opening line, I walked up to him and took his phone. I hit Redial. She answered just as I was praying to God she wouldn’t. My very best friend answered the call from my husband’s phone with “Hey, that was quick.”
I left him. And went to Texas. (Someone write a country song called “I Left Him and Went to Texas,” stat!)
Oh, the noise I heard from the peanut gallery . . .
Leave him. Stay with him. Forgive him. Set him on fire. Tell his parents. Have your dad confront him. Cut him. Talk to him. Forget him. You should move home. You should go back. Sell his car. Key his car. Set his car on fire. And my all-time favorite: You should clean out his bank account, take all his money, and not return his calls. This person clearly had great faith in us, because I knew the fifty-seven dollars in our account was not going to get me very far.
Three weeks later, I flew back home to David and Tennessee. That was how long it took to decide whether I wanted to stay married to this person. That was how long it took to decide if I could see my future being better with him than what it might be apart from him. I did not—could not—focus on her. I had to place hard things in boxes and file them away in my head and in my heart until a later date, and Kylie was one of those things. This was my marriage, and I had a decision to make. I loved this man with all of my heart, all of my soul. I could not foresee a lifetime without him in it.
But could I forgive him?
Would I forgive him?
Those are two very different things, you see: our ability and our willingness.
I can mow the yard . . . doesn’t mean I will.
David and I began the process of rebuilding a marriage that had, at one time, been very strong, very fun, and very trusting, but that had become very broken, very sad, and very lonely. There was yelling and screaming, storming out, and crawling back. We had been through nothing as a couple up until those last few years and now there we were, bloody and wounded, and looking for reprieve. At times we were a shelter for one another; at times we were less familiar than strangers. We slept together. We slept alone. We were up and down, back and forth, giving up and going forward. We sought professional help, and never once were we shy about needing it. It was hard to accept that every time my body had let me down, so had my heart. In a situation that looked to be one-sided, it most certainly was not. I was a broken and angry woman and had been one for quite some time. We were both responsible for causing what had happened, and if we did not both accept that truth, then we had no hope of salvaging our union.
One year after I walked up those stairs and overheard that call—the call that would change my life and my marriage forever—we were pregnant . . . again. Elisha Cooper Radke would be born on Christmas Day 2005, and he would stay with us for an hour and thirty-six minutes. He looked just like me, but was tender and mild like his daddy. I would look at David holding him and thank God that I fought for what was mine, fought to heal what was broken. We would kiss our boy goodbye only moments after we kissed him hello. We had never known a grief quite like the one we experienced that Christmas Day, nor had we ever known such a joy.
The day we left the hospital, David strapped me into the car, placed an empty blanket into my lap, and began to back the car out of the hospital parking lot. He put the car in park, placed my face in his hands, and looked at me. We would ache together that night and the next day and maybe even forever. But at least it would be together. Without saying one word he put the car in drive and we went home.