The Truth About His Divorce

Christen O'Brien
15 min readDec 12, 2020

The beginning of the actual divorce long predated the beginning of the legal one. You could say it started when his business sank into oblivion, and like a determined sea captain refusing to abandon ship, he submerged with it.

But really, the divorce began long before that.

Starting his own company meant starting again, from an earlier point than anyone — even he — understood. The company was a chance to rewrite history — to right the wrongs of his story.

When he sat at his drafting table in the evenings, while his wife thought he was sketching a new design, he was really sketching the life he desperately wanted but never felt qualified to live. The business plan was his own personal salvation: a one-stop design and construction firm where each blueprint was a remodel of his psyche, and each ascending 2x4 at the construction site its support. Every foundation poured and solidified gave his ego solid ground, at last. When the framing went up, for the first time his confidence had collateral. When his eardrums were pierced with the clamor of drills and hammers, he could finally hear his calling. The insulation proved his self-reliance, the drywall his fortitude, and the paint his allure.

A finished home was a new address for the buyer, but for him, it was more than he had the strength to realize. Each completed sale was a credit in the general ledger of his self-worth.

Each completed sale was a credit in the general ledger of his self-worth.

They say life should come first, work second. But when life overworks you with loss, abandonment, and loneliness in the first place, work can be the only lifeline out.

At nine years old, he became an orphan after his Mother died of Cancer and his Father descended into depression, a bottle by Dad’s side and a swift hand at the ready when challenged. In the throes of his Father’s outbursts, all the boy could see was her smile, the way she’d turn to look at him, her curly brown hair and blushed, Irish complexion.

She was the only one who loved him unconditionally.

Once, he came home from the County Fair with a cheap, green plastic necklace he’d won for her at the floating duck booth. A week later, as she walked down the aisle of her oldest daughter’s wedding dressed in a beautiful silk taffeta gown, he caught sight of the shiny plastic beads around her neck. She got closer and their eyes locked, hers saying “you are special” and his finally believing it.

She was his only lifeline to love, ripped from his small hands and leaving him reaching for something — anything — to give him that validation, for decades after.

She was his only lifeline to love, ripped from his small hands and leaving him reaching for something — anything — to give him that validation, for decades after.

At seventeen years old, he was orphaned again — this time in perpetuity. Cancer returned for his Father, taking every shred of stability the boy had remaining. With no inheritance of wealth or confidence, he set out into the world alone, like a dinghy into a stormy ocean.

The water was his soul. He was raised sailing the river, and spent more time gliding across its surface than he did walking on dry land. He thought he understood the ways of the water more than he did the ways of man. He could trust the water — each evening it receded, but unlike everyone he ever loved, each morning it returned. The water was his teacher, his confidante, his comrade.

The water was his teacher, his confidante, his comrade.

Gerhard Richter, Seestück (Seascape)

But he’d never sailed the Ocean before; he did not understand those currents.

When you’re navigating life’s ocean in a dinghy, you don’t overtake the currents — the currents overtake you. They pull you away from your destination and toss you out of equilibrium. As hard as he tried in his early 20s to steer in the right direction — a full scholarship to university, a chance to pursue his writing career, romantic travels across the Europe he’d only read about in novels — the blue-black swells crashing over him became too powerful to fight. He saw each wave coming, and gripping his wooden oars with white knuckles and bloodied fingertips, he paddled frantically as his dinghy was pulled into each pipe and then pummeled with a force so powerful, and destructive. The currents pulled his vessel under, again and again, each time taking a piece with it.

First, one oar.
Then, the other.
And finally, the keel.

With one last confirming wave, the ocean slammed him back to dry land.

“You don’t belong in these waters”, it sneered at him as it turned away, leaving him alone with nothing but a constant reminder that he didn’t have a home, anywhere.

Phoebe Sonder, Peak

The first time he saw her brown hair and bronzed skin, he saw home. She made him dinner, and made him whole again. She washed his clothes, and washed away his isolation. She thought of him first, and she thought that could make her whole again, too. Together, they shored up each others’ damages and reinforced each others’ ramparts, in pursuit of an anchor to normalcy; “love”, they called it.

Together, they shored up each others’ damages and reinforced each others’ ramparts, in pursuit of an anchor to normalcy; “love”, they called it.

But late at night as they lay in bed and she slept, he gazed through their window pane at his boat docked along the River. The moonlight shone across the water’s surface, each ripple beckoning him toward it, glimmering like the green plastic beads around his mother’s neck. “You are special”, it sang out. His eyes moved to the horizon, and in a flash of luminescence, he caught sight of his worth. It shimmered in the distance, the dream to create something more meaningful than he was ever given the space to himself become.

“Come,” the water called him, “the Ocean awaits you.”

“I tried already”, he replied, forlorn. “I’m not an Ocean sailor.”

“Come,” it insisted. “The world needs you, the Ocean awaits you.”

He sighed, closed his eyes and heart, and went to sleep.

The ocean, he told himself each morning during the drive to his fluorescent-lit desk job, was no place for a family. It was dangerous, uncontrollable, unwelcoming. He had a wife and children now, and had vowed to give them the stability and devotion he’d never known.

All good virtues to stand behind,
and projections to stay behind,
and conflations to hide behind.

For years.

Until one night, when the water called out as she lay sleeping beside him — “Come, the Ocean awaits you” — and this time, he didn’t close his eyes or his heart. Instead, he walked out of their bedroom, past the kids’ rooms, and through the rickety, porch door. His gaze steadfast on the water, his mother, his soul.

“You are special”, she whispered as he stepped into his dinghy and pulled up the oars. In the moonlight’s reflection on the water, he watched himself hanging a frame on the wall of his new office. In the frame was the business license he’d just received, the first step in his journey to reclaim…himself.

“I’m coming, Mom”, he replied.

At first, the tides were in his favor. They carried him to the Bay while he rested the oars on his lap and inhaled the possibility he’d left behind in his twenties. Possibility was still there, waiting for him, and now it conspired with the tides on his redemption — his new company was one more chance to become the man that the lonely, heartbroken nine-year old boy never could.

The man his Father never was.

His boat careened forward, gliding across the water and picking up speed. In the reflection of the water he saw the company logo he first drew in his sketchbook, imprinted on stationary and “for sale” signs. He kept staring at the water and saw his crew working at a construction site, while he sat at a drafting table in his office, sketching another home design. Sitting on a nearby desk was an ample check, paid to the order of his company.

Paid to the order of his lifeline.

He rowed the dinghy like a voyager now. His chest expanded in victory. His head lifted in strength. His eyes ablaze in destiny.

Control, at last.

But soon, the wide horizon became wider, and the green plastic shimmer of the Bay darkened ahead. Its gentle waves abruptly ceased where the Ocean’s swells began. The water there was the same blue-black he remembered. As his boat got closer, he could taste the salty sprays of its fury.

His heart pounded. He reached for his oars and took a deep breath.

He started paddling, his tan arms stretching out, torso lurching forward. The ocean swells were eight feet high here, lifting his vessel upright toward the crest and then ramming it down, straight into the trough. He looked into the waves now and could see his days getting quieter and his crew losing patience, another late paycheck. He saw his wife standing in the kitchen — her back to the sink, thin arms folded, those piercing eyes boring into his confidence.

“Are you sure we won’t lose everything on this company?”.

“Of course I’m sure”, he quipped, annoyed she even asked the question.

“But I was watching the news tonight…we’re in a recession now…we have a mortgage and kids and car payments. I can’t live like this.”

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Wrath of the Seas

The crests rose another two feet, and — determined to overpower his past — his belief rose with them. He paddled directly into the wave, the veins in his forearms protruding with each forceful stroke of the oars. The wave pulled his dinghy nearly vertical, but gravity lurched it backward. He paddled frantically, his eyes fixated on the blue-blackness of the water, reflecting like a movie screen of his past. There was his Father —his jaw tight, hair disheveled, raging. He grabbed the boy’s neck and spit gin-laced vulgarities into his eyes, the boy gasping for air.

“You’re nothing”, his Father growled. “Nothing!”.

He threw the boy on the ground, stepped over him, and left the house. In the water, he watched himself laying on the living room floor by Dad’s easy chair, sobbing between breaths.

I’m nothing.
I’m nothing.
I’m nothing.

Unable to pull over the crest, his vessel careened backwards into the trough. He lifted his eyes, and shuttered as he came face to face with the same wave he’d known his entire life. This was the wave that took his mother, and left him hollow. It was the wave that sucker punched him in the darkness when he met his drunken Father’s fist. It was the wave that confirmed his worthlessness when he tried to escape its grip. And it was the wave on which his ego surfed, defining him, disguising him, denying him.

…it was the wave on which his ego surfed, defining him, disguising him, denying him.

The wave arched over him, his hands moving tentatively toward the oars on his lap. He looked up at the wall of water towering overhead and caught sight of his reflection — not a strong, sturdy man, but a bruised, pitiful 9-year old boy.

“You’re nothing”, his father whispered in his ear.

All this time, his Mother’s love had sustained him, picking him up off the ground and buoying his belief that he could make it to new waters. But now, paralyzed by fear of the verdict, he at last succumbed to his Father.

His fingers released his worth, and as he grabbed the sides of the dinghy in retreat, he made his final choice.

He let go of the oars.

His head cowered down into the hull, each subsequent swell pounding the dinghy, tossing it port and starboard until it landed on its keel with a snap! One of its planks now cracked, water rushed upwards into the hull where he was peering down.

It covered his shoes.
Bounced checks.
It rose to his ankles.
Her disappointment.
It moved up his shins.
Quiet office.
It reached his knees.
Can’t think.
It enveloped his chest, pulling him into the ocean.
Can’t breathe.
It suctioned him down, spiraling down, down, down, down…

I’m nothing.

He sunk deeper and deeper, to where the blue water faded into black. Looking upwards one last time, the sun rays beamed down and he caught sight of her green plastic beads, the light radiating through them. He reached for them, stretching his arms upwards in desperation. But the tide ripped them away and as the beads faded into the distance, so did his Mother’s love.

His heart valves instantly closed shut, its arteries blockaded by fear.

He could not become the man he wanted.
He could not prove his Father wrong.

And yet, he could not let go of his need to do so.

In his deepest despair, he opened his mouth, took one last breath inward, and drowned the nine-year old boy forever.

The tumultuous waves flooded his sensibilities, its mercurial ebbs and flows overtook his emotions, and its salty fury seeped deep into his subconscious. As the water rushed through him, he felt the energy of a new life force. One that he could finally control.

The waves became him, and he became the waves.

As the water rushed through him, he felt the energy of a new life force. One that he could finally control. The waves became him, and he became the waves.

Lia Melia, A Patch of Blue Painting

Isn’t it curious that waves enchant us with their solace and yet, when the weather turns, inflict on us their destruction? That they center us at their shore, but disorient us at their break? In the waves, we often find ourselves, and in the same waves we get carried out to sea, some lost forever. Those who know the waves best understand just how little they understand; waves entice the novice swimmer yet elude the professional surfer. Waves soften and they slam. Waves incite calm and inflict calamity. Waves are unpredictable, uncertain, unchained, and unsafe…and yet, undeniably wondrous.

In the waves, we often find ourselves, and in the same waves we get carried out to sea, some lost forever.

So long as he kept others enchanted, suspended in uncertainty and self-doubt, he could keep them in his waters. When the waves delighted and ignited and stirred them alive, they wondered if he was divine, and they stayed to prove it right. When the waves tossed and pummeled them and left them for dead, they wondered if they were inadequate, and they stayed to prove it wrong.

In his waves, they could swim in ecstasy from shore to break. But dare they attempt to journey beyond as he once did — dare they attempt to prove his Father right — he would crash over them without warning and disappear into the tides, leaving them abandoned and bruised, with nothing.

“You’re Nothing”, he echoed through them.
Just like me.

Once upon a time, I looked into his waters, and saw him as only his Mother had. Despite his wild ebbs and flows, I could see the true him — the artist, the explorer, the builder, the lover. When his tides pulled me towards him, I saw his need for affirmation and offered as much. When they pushed me away, I saw his fear of failure and patiently waited for him to catch up. When he raged with anger, I calmly floated on his surface until he softened around my shape. When he got trapped in the swirl of his undertow, I reminded him that he was destined for more beyond the break.

And when I questioned my own destiny, he did what no one else would — he carried me out to the same break and lifted me on the crest of his wave so I could see my horizon, for the very first time.

He was the only one who ever believed I could make it past the break. I was the only one who knew he could do the same.

He was the only one who believed I could make it past the break. I was the only one who knew he could do the same.

Together, we glided toward our horizon. At first my eyes fixated on him, his hands moving across the water as if he was painting the waves on a canvas before us. In the waves I saw his reflection — not a pitiful boy, but a strong, beautiful man afraid to face the waters again, and yet, unable to stop swimming by my side.

He was my teacher, my confidante, my comrade.

And I, his.

But soon, the tides moved in my favor. I turned to face the sun and suddenly saw my reflection in the water. It pulled me out ahead of him, and I watched in awe while my destiny unfolded, bringing me further into the ocean than most will ever know.

The sky here was bands of pinks, purples, and oranges; the water a crystalline cerulean blue. As he looked over at me, he saw both woman and water sparkle in the tides of potential. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever felt, and when I turned back to him, my smile as wide as the horizon, my soul eager to feel his pride…

…he was gone.

I turned to my right, and then my left. I looked behind and I dove down, searching.

An eerie fear washed over me, and just then, in the glow of my greatest achievement, a wall of blue-black water crashed over my head. It tossed and turned me through his tumultuous waves. Gasping for air, I felt the fury of his salty sprays and the pain of his abandonment. In each new wave, I tumbled in the inertia of his fear colliding with the anger of his past. And when it pummeled me into the ocean’s depths, I felt his confused pain, the constant calculus to understand how something so meaningful could be ripped away with no warning, no difficulty, no honor.

As if I was nothing.

For everything I’d given him, all my belief and love and commitment, I was left.

With nothing.

In my silent heartbreak, I slowly treaded away from his Ocean, turning a corner to take shelter in a distant inlet. These were the shelters — these safe havens — I’d hidden in my whole life. Without His waves and His currents and His tides, I’d never felt qualified to swim those waters.

But as I paddled through the inlet, something was different this time. My eyes steadfast on the horizon now, my gaze fixated on the break, I realized that I no longer needed to be safe.

Or saved.

I no longer needed Him.

There, in the vast Ocean, in finally escaping His boundaries I finally escaped mine. Ever so slowly and carefully, I made my way back toward the horizon. Still afraid but not fearful. Still alone but not lonely. With each stroke forward, I felt the tides pulling me in unison. Only now, they were my tides, at long last arrived.

Often, I stopped to look over at his wave in the distance — still mercurial and raging and repeating — and I wept. This man whom I once needed, I still loved. This man who once needed me, I could not save. How I ached to swim over to his waters and help him see what he could not.

That he was not the wave.
He was not the water.
He was not nothing.

He was perfect.

The divorce would be cast in his narrative, the starting point on his ex-wife’s shoulders. For decades after, their children would recount his version with certainty, taking care to stay within his waters and abide by his reflection. But deep down, buried in a place too dark to risk returning, he knew the truth.

The divorce started within, forever rendering him without. A quivering, young boy desperate for love. An unsure young man desperate for validation. A distracted husband and father desperate for something more, something else, beyond the break.

And yet letting go of the oars.

Each day, as I paddle along the horizon and look up at the clouds, I wish he could be there with me. Though I can not swim in his waters any longer, as hard as I fight against it, I will never stop wishing he would journey towards mine.

I will never stop believing he can.

And I will never, ever stop loving him.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus after Salvador Dali, by Lukas Hauser



Christen O'Brien

Writer & Collector of life stories. Work featured on The Today Show, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, Medium. Documentary coming out 2022. (