Forgiveness in the Family

She wanted her son’s marriage to succeed. Could she reach out to her ex-husband?

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- Posted on Apr 30, 2013

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers and her son, Patrick

My son, Patrick, looked so handsome in his cream-colored suit, leading his bride, Danielle, onto the scuffed hardwood floor at the center of the old-time dance hall for their first dance as husband and wife. Hands entwined, Danielle’s satin train swishing at their feet, they twirled in unison.

Until Patrick missed a step. He made a goofy face. They both laughed, and picked up right where they’d left off.

“They’re so great together,” my husband, James, whispered. That was for sure. I squeezed his hand and nodded.

But then my gaze wandered to the other side of the hall, where my ex-husband, Terry, stood, a reminder of the one item left on my wedding checklist. God, I know what I have to do, I thought. But I don’t think I can do it.

I’d dreamed of this day—my son’s wedding—for a long time. What mother doesn’t? But for me, it was more than a celebration of Patrick marrying the love of his life. It was a validation of the relationship I’d struggled to rebuild with him after his father and I divorced, 11 years earlier.

Patrick was only 15 at the time, and he took the breakup really hard. He stayed with his father, and for two and a half years he refused to speak to me, not even by text. Now he was holding in his arms the girl I’d introduced him to, and smiling whenever his eyes met mine. All the pain of the past seemed to be forgiven.

I sensed, however, that one thing still bothered Patrick. It definitely bothered me. The rift between my ex-husband and me.

Both of us had moved on—I’d married James, and Terry was now engaged. But since the divorce papers were signed we’d hardly spoken—except when it was absolutely necessary for parenting Patrick and his sister, Lindsey.

I’d lost contact with Terry’s siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews too—relatives I’d loved as my own. Patrick’s wedding had brought us together again, and I didn’t want the estrangement to tarnish his special day.

I’d thought a lot about Terry and me sharing a dance. One dance, for Patrick’s sake. But all of our history stood in the way.

I’d thought Terry was Mr. Right when I married him, straight out of college. Some couples who marry young grow together. Terry and I grew apart. Criticism and arguments slowly smothered our relationship.

We stayed together so long—20 years—because I wanted the marriage to work. I didn’t want to hurt Patrick and Lindsey. Finally, though, I made what I thought was the most emotionally healthy choice for all of us and left the marriage.

Still, guilt plagued me. Terry—and his entire family, I assumed—blamed me for the divorce. And I felt like I deserved it. The same way I’d deserved Patrick’s anger.

Patrick and Danielle’s first dance ended, and my son wrapped his arms around his bride, leaning in for a kiss. Everyone applauded. I clapped extra hard. Reconciling with my son hadn’t been easy. We’d come a long way. Now we shared an extra-special connection—Danielle.

Her great-grandfather was my close friend. He had officiated at my wedding to James. So when I learned Danielle had transferred to the same college as Patrick, I’d pestered him (nicely) to ask her out. Several months later, Patrick called with some news. “Mom, the stars line up over Danielle!” he gushed. “She’s the one!”

I was elated, but planning their April wedding meant facing Terry.

My time with Terry leading up to the wedding was, thankfully, short (he probably was glad of that too). He immediately agreed to contribute toward the wedding costs, and left James and me in charge of the rehearsal dinner, which we hosted at a restaurant downtown.

All through the meal I wanted so badly to talk to Terry and remind him of some funny moments when Patrick was little. But I couldn’t, and he didn’t say much to me either.

The DJ blasted a pop song and the dance floor filled. Through the crowd, across the way, I saw one of Terry’s sisters-in-law. Go, Sheryl, talk to her, that voice inside my head urged. But I resisted. What if she didn’t want to have anything to do with me?

I looked at Patrick, having the time of his life. You used to think he’d never talk to you again either, I reminded myself. But I’d prayed, and I’d cried, and I’d prayed some more. I sent e-mails even though he didn’t answer. I kept reaching out.

Today I owed it to him to cross the dance floor, to close the rift, to reach out again.

Lord, here I go...

One foot in front of the other. It seemed to take forever. Then through the throng of dancers, I saw Terry’s sister-in-law’s face, saw her smile.

“Sheryl, I love your green dress!” she exclaimed when I reached her. “It’s so wonderful to see you again!” The sincerity in her voice cut through the music. She hugged me, and it felt no different from all the times she’d hugged me in the past. I hugged back, hard.

“Oh, you’ve got to introduce me to your husband!” she said, nodding toward James, jiving on the dance floor with my cousin’s little girl. “Y’all look so great together!” Other family members of Terry’s walked up to congratulate me on Patrick’s beautiful bride.

They don’t hate me, I thought. Maybe they never did.

I felt lighter as I rejoined James on the dance floor. Until I saw Terry and his fiancée at their table, talking with friends. We haven’t spent any time together all evening, I thought. Patrick was bound to notice.

“What’s wrong?” James asked.

“James...should I ask Terry to dance?”

“Go ahead,” he said. “I don’t have any problem with that.”

But would Terry? I could still picture the look on his face when I’d asked for a divorce. Shocked. Hurt. Bitter. What if he reacted the same way tonight?

The evening was almost over. I was running out of time. I took a deep breath and walked over to Terry’s table. This was it. “Would you like to dance, Terry?”

He looked surprised. “Sure,” he said, pushing back his chair.

He took my hands in his and we jitterbugged in slow circles. Terry smiled at me, his eyes crinkling. I smiled back, with tear-filled eyes. I just couldn’t stop the emotions that flooded through me. Joy for all the years we’d shared. Sadness for what we’d lost. Regret for the pain we’d caused each other and our children.

“It’s okay,” Terry said, his hand on my waist as he turned me under his arm. It’s okay. At that moment, all the tension left my body.

This dance wasn’t just an item on my wedding checklist, I realized. It was something I’d needed to do ever since I’d left Terry all those years ago. Assurance that my decision hadn’t invalidated what we’d built in 20 years together.

Patrick had forgiven me. Terry’s family no longer held any grudge. And now, Terry himself was telling me everything was okay. Anger alone hadn’t caused our estrangement. My feelings of guilt had also played a part. I couldn’t change the past. But I could let it go. It was time for me to reconcile with myself.

“We did good, didn’t we?” I said. “I mean, our kids, right?”

Terry nodded, turning me under his arm one last time. “Yes, we did, Sheryl. We sure did. Thank you for asking me to dance.”

The music stopped and we hugged. It had felt good, really good, to have a dance with Terry that celebrated what we shared, especially the best part of it—our love for our children. We’d all come full circle.

 

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