The verb “sterilize” has three different meanings. One is to prohibit reproduction, one is to make something free of germs, and the third is to render something incapable of supporting life.
The night all three of those definitions collided, I was sitting on the floor of my closet in my pajamas packing for a Christmas shopping trip with my sister to the Mall of America. My older daughter, Mackenzie, walked in, wearing an Abercrombie t-shirt with the words “Dependently Wealthy” on it. She crossed her arms over her chest, leaned against the doorframe, and with her eyebrows arched almost to her hairline, said, “Mom, I need to know one thing. Are you and dad planning on having any more kids?”
I laughed. “Why are you asking me that?”
“Just answer the question, Mom.” She cocked her head to the side and waited for my answer.
“Sweetie, you know the answer to that. Of course we’re not having any more children. Now tell me why you’re asking.”
My children were fifteen, twelve, and ten. All three were in school, straight-A students, and could take themselves to the potty. A baby was definitely not in the picture.
Mackenzie had been using her father’s computer. She said, “I hit Dad’s favorites page, and you know what popped up? A vasectomy reversal site.”
Sterilization number one.
Fear raced up my spine like an electrical current, and then it seemed to explode in my brain. Then my brain began searching for plausible explanations. Maybe he’d pulled up the site to send to a friend as a practical joke? It wouldn’t be his favorites page, dummy.
But I didn’t say a word. I just sat there looking up at my daughter and letting the tears well up in my eyes.
With her arms still crossed, she said, “Mom, how much more are you going to take?”
What my daughter didn’t know was that this wasn’t the first time I’d been confronted with my husband’s infidelity. He’d been cheating on me for years, and I’d kept silent in the name of protecting my kids. I was determined to ride it out until my youngest went away to college so that my children would never feel the pain of a broken home. I thought I’d sheltered them from our marital woes, somehow protecting them from nasty divorce bugs.
Sterilization number two.
But my plan obviously wasn’t working. When your daughter opines that your marriage is abusive, it’s time to do something. I realized in that moment that my kids needed to see me stand up for myself.
I threw on a pair of yoga pants, flip flops, and my Gwen Stefani concert sweatshirt that read, “This Shit is Bananas,” which would, incidentally, become my official divorce “uniform.” I drove to my husband’s office and spent the next two hours copying files. I got tax returns, American express statements, travel records, bank statements, profit and loss statements, and anything else that looked important.
The next morning, I called a lawyer, and that afternoon I was seated in his office. I needed a divorce; of that I was certain. But when he asked what I was seeking in the divorce, and all I knew to answer was, “Everything I deserve.” The problem was that I had no idea how much money we had. The attorney promised to have the petition for divorce filed and ready to serve him within a few days. Fortunately, it coincided with my trip to the Mall of America. I would be out of town when he was served, and my children would be at their grandparents’ home, where they would be sheltered from seeing a sheriff at the door.
On the flight to Minneapolis, I remembered that my husband had always used his birth date as his email password. When we landed, I went straight to the tiny business center in the Minneapolis Airport Hilton and logged onto his email, something I could have easily done all along. Why hadn’t I? The best answer is that I hadn’t wanted to know because knowing would have meant I had to do something. But now it was time to know. I spent the next two hours and $75 printing out emails. It may have been the best money I’ve ever spent.
There was an email from the adult hookup site AdultFriendFinder. “You have three new winks.” I clicked onto his profile to discover that my husband of eighteen years and the father of my children claimed to be single with no kids. Not only that, he was also a young professional in his early thirties who had never had time to commit to a relationship because he was extremely busy in his professional life. 195 pounds. He liked all things Latin – music, food, and women – because he “wanted things spicy.” In fact, he was looking for a Latin girl, and this is what made me, finally, laugh: he had checked a box indicating that intelligence was only “moderately important” to him.
Another email contained pictures of his new girlfriend. She was Latina, and, as proof that she was, indeed, “moderately intelligent,” she was gainfully employed as a shot girl in a strip club. In the picture, she was baring her boobies, and the pictures were courtesy of a professional photographer who was courting my husband’s investment dollars. Basically, my husband paid for her Glamour Shots!
I stared at her picture in horror. My husband, the brilliant man who had built a company and sold it four years later for millions of dollars was considering a vasectomy reversal so he could have a child with a moderately intelligent woman. Did he know that vasectomy reversals are rarely successful ten years after the procedure? Did he know they would have to stick a needle into his scrotum to suck the semen out? And then mix it in a little Petri dish with the eggs from a woman with the intelligence of a blue-footed booby bird? What if I took his picture and this picture of her and put them into one of those computer programs showing what their children would look like?
I decided the kid would look like his scrotum.
There were copies of wiring instructions to a title company in Costa Rica, followed by a copy of a letter from an attorney helping him incorporate a business in that country. I found documents proving that he had purchased over $1 million in Costa Rican real estate and then placed those properties in a shell corporation with a crazy name in hopes that no one could trace it back to him. He claimed to be divorced in all those legal documents.
There was also an email from his attorney in the States answering his question about bankrupting one of the companies he owned. Seeing this immediately reminded me of an offhand comment regarding bankruptcy he had made to me only a few days earlier, and that’s when, I believe, the light finally came on in my head. My husband had been systematically wiring money overseas in an attempt to hide it while telling me he was suffering huge financial losses because of insurance claims on his business following Hurricane Katrina. I got a queasy feeling in my stomach as I realized that he planned to file for bankruptcy and then file for divorce. If all went according to plan, he would have his moderately intelligent Latina and all the money.
As crazy as it sounds, I felt a wave of relief in that moment. Knowing that the divorce was inevitable and that saving the marriage for my kids’ sake was no longer possible gave me permission to do what I needed to. I felt a measure of comfort in knowing I wasn’t the bad guy.
In the weeks to come, I also felt like the moderately intelligent one for trusting a proven cheater to oversee our finances. And for failing to see that my determination to stay was merely a decoy for my fear. The painful truth was that I’d stayed in a bad marriage because I was too afraid to leave, and I’d used my kids to justify it. I hadn’t sheltered my kids. All I had really done was make myself a victim. In addition, I was unconsciously teaching my daughters that it was okay to sacrifice one’s self for a relationship.
Essentially, my poor judgment had rendered my home incapable of supporting meaningful life. Sterilization number three. Thankfully, this last one could successfully be reversed.
Yes, I should have left sooner. But the beauty of our mistakes is in finally seeing clearly enough that we never look back.