First confront the shame. Shame is the behemoth, the Goliath. Fell it, and anything else insurmountable will shrink to scale. The great transmogrifier, Shame takes any form you let it. It may shapeshift into a messy divorce, into unmarried coupledom gone awry, into the solemn head-shake of a disappointed God and the gloat of His more judgmental congregants, into pitying married couples arranging blind dates as though the sight of you alone is as heartbreaking as a one-eyed limping animal in an ASPCA commercial.
Shame, for me, is a vapor: insidious, poisoned, barbed. It is a twin air, near-indistinguishable from oxygen. In order to lessen its paralysis, I have fashioned an elaborate mask, a filter. It traps negative observations and complaints; it purifies the dark confession. It clears the air. But there is always seepage, in places where air is its thickest, in rooms with invisible elephants, in restaurants and grocery stores that become mini-high school reunions.
When the air is too thick to be cleared, when smugness is acute enough to smother, when the task of answering pointed questions threatens to close your throat, it is best to remove the mask. If Shame intends to suffocate, let it come. Let it stifle if it must, but hold deep with yourself, in flattened diaphragm, in taut, expanded lung, in blood that pounds what’s truest through the heart, the knowledge that you can withstand it.
Once you learn to circumvent the shame, develop convenient amnesia. Curtain the crueler scenes, the ones which hinder progress and impede impartiality. Do not rehearse the ugly dialogue, nor swell with the indignation necessary to deliver a self-righteous soliloquy. Forget the well-dressed set, with its four poster bed center stage, where you spent months weeping and rehashing in the fetal position. Retire the ticks you cling to, the shorthand you use to decide on an appropriate emotion. These things will not serve you well in the upcoming acts. Take a red pen to the past. Slash all things that do not matter. They will be many. Focus on the empty pages before you, on the ending that as yet unconceived.
This is how you’ll fill them: start with the loveseat you sat in together last weekend, with your toddler between you, turning bony somersaults across your laps. She stops and glances first at you, then at her father; she has only seen you together at length a handful of times, but never quite so cozily curled as the three of you are right now. She does a double-take, eyebrows raising, and the wisdom of all of her 21 months converge in the knowing curl of her lips. The smile she gives you both–appraising, befuddled, approving–speaks volumes of her expectations.
She wants you civil. Relaxed. At genuine peace with one another. She wants you statuesque and grinning within the white-edged confines of photos. She is not here for your bittersweet memory or mourning, cannot conceive of a life spent reminding each other of wrongs. What she wants is the loveseat. And she will not split hairs about the kind of love it offers, will not scrutinize whether her parents’ affections are romantic or filial, as long as their love for her is unconditional.
This is what you owe her, a relationship as uncomplicated as sitting. This is not something you would’ve been able to give her at birth. It has taken failed previews, missed openings, and more rewrites than you’re capable of counting. It has taken a meticulous removal of the cataracts of offense, which warp and color everything according to their own pain. It has taken admission of your own fault, of the strange revelation that there is more than one way for the two to become one flesh, of the recognition, stranger still, that your incarnation of one flesh streaks through sprawling fields of grass. She casts glances over her shoulder and expects both of you to follow.
As you do, first tentatively, then with reckless, laughing abandon, you forget all the rules you’ve assigned yourself. You are, more than a former couple, more than realigning allies, more than two people who’ve hurt each other profoundly. Your daughter has reminded you that, above all, you are a family.
In this manner, she will ever be your guide.