Darkest Before the Dawn

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Several weeks ago, in mid April, I went for a run. It was the first genuinely spring day of the season. The bleakness of the winter landscape had been replaced by a scene awash in color: delicate cherry blossoms stood out against a cerulean sky, grass was lushly green, and yellow daffodils and brightly colored tulips bloomed. Easter would arrive in two weeks. The day held the essence of rebirth.

The weather was perfect for a run. I shed my winter layers, and a light sheen of sweat formed early in my jog. I felt the calories and toxins being expelled.

It had been three months since I had signed my divorce settlement.

For years, leaving my marriage had been an insurmountable obstacle. Making the decision to end it was so harrowing that I wrongfully assumed the divorce process would be easier. I was poorly prepared for the laborious paperwork, the mudslinging, and the convoluted legal process. A bad marriage seemed simple and sane by comparison.

Throughout the darkest days of my divorce, people gave me advice. Mainly, they spoke in cliches. As a writer, I had always been warned to avoid cliches at any cost. As a drowning person, I embraced cliches as a lifeline.

You can do it.

You got this.

You will survive.

You have been through the worst of it.

Pace yourself. Divorce is a marathon not a sprint. You are closer rather than further.

(However, the finish line for my divorce kept moving farther away.)

Just breathe.

It is always darkest before the dawn, my hairdresser, of 18 years, told me. This should become your mantra, she advised.

And it did. There were moments so dark, I was rendered blind and paralyzed. I couldn’t see an inch in front of me. Or, separate reality from my worst fears, namely, that my estranged husband would get custody of my two small children. There were moments where I tripped and the earth opened up and promised to swallow me whole in a bottomless abyss. I continued to stumble along.

There were moments laughable now, but not when I was in the midst of a personal hell I didn’t think would end. One day, my estranged husband almost drove me off the sidewalk, screaming at me to get home because he had called the police. My infraction: I had put a post-it over the Ring doorbell and interrupted his surveillance of me.

I stood there, frightened. As he continued to berate me, I finally asked when the police would be arriving. I didn’t call the police was the response; I wanted to scare you. And that became a running theme over the next year as he made threats, filed motions, and blindsided me with his rage and vengeance. The children became pawns in his twisted game.

Then there were the moments that shocked me. Friends and acquaintances reached out to me to share my estranged husband’s profile on dating apps. Often, he didn’t admit he had children, but he did wish to have them in the future. He would tell his children, the ones who actually did exist, he was going to work as he packed overnight bags for his dates. They inquired why he needed underwear and a toothbrush.

There were moments that broke my heart. I spent Christmas Eve in court as he fought me for overnight visitation despite his continued abuse of alcohol and his inability to put the needs of our children above his own or his parents’.

I had lived in such a heightened state of chaos and strife for so many years, it was hard to foresee worse moments, but divorce exacerbated an already tense and stressful situation.

My friend who had survived a starter marriage told me an allegory about being in a boat in the middle of a squall. Ultimately, she said, you will row to the other side. Throughout my divorce, I felt as if my boat had capsized, and I was going down for the last time. Even though I always managed to pull my head above water to gasp for a breath and find the strength to keep treading water, I feared I would drowned.

My children love to gather pebbles and place them in a glass vase. They take the pebbles out frequently, stack and examine them and discuss their favorites. In the midst of my storm, I collected people’s divorce stories and treated them like my children do their pebbles. The stories became my worry stones. I examined them closely for a sign of guidance or hope. If this person had emerged intact, I could, too.

And then one day, I did, with no fanfare at all. The lawyers called a meeting, suddenly. It was their last ditch attempt to resolve our issues before we began the trial process. Five tense hours later, I emerged divorced. It had all happened so quickly that when I texted my friends, they couldn’t piece the puzzle together. Either could I. After a contentious 11 months, my ex and I were able to agree enough on a final settlement.

The biggest obstacle still to be overcome was the new visitation schedule. My children would now have overnights with my ex, a man who was irresponsible, disorganized, and self-aggrandizing on his best day.

There are still dark moments, but on this perfect early spring day, I chose to embrace the light. My hairdresser was right. Darkest before the dawn was the perfect mantra. I had walked straight through the most excruciating moments of my life. I faltered many times, but I never gave into the dark. And here I was on the other side. Dawn beckons welcomingly.

A couple of weeks later, on the eve of my daughter’s sixth birthday, I went for another run on an atypically pleasant spring day in a rainy and cool season; signs are everywhere if we look. Again, I reflected on how far I had come. My daughter wasn’t even five years old when I began divorce proceedings. So much had improved since then. I prayed that both my daughter and my son were too young to remember my darkness.

And if they do remember the darkness or ever face their own terrible moments, I want them to realize darkness is ultimately extinguished by light. Winter cycles into spring. And storms give way to calm. The strength of the human spirit cannot wholly be captured by cliches, but it is in the dark that our essence truly starts to shine. And it is in the winter when the seeds of rebirth are sown. And after the darkness always comes the dawn.