For no good reason that I know of, fourteen has always been my favorite number. It’s not that I aspired to be that age long before I was, nor that I looked back on that age with nostalgia after it was long gone. I have simply always loved the number fourteen. In my mind I visualize it as a verdant, deep green. It is a number that has just felt right to me for as long as I can remember. But a few years ago it took on another meaning altogether. On a day in which most people celebrate their love for those they hold dear, dark and horrible changes both big and small were taking place…
It was a gray winter day, in the middle of the afternoon, when a young man burst into a lecture hall in Northern Illinois University’s Dekalb campus and opened fire, killing five students and injuring many more before finally killing himself. (He had recently stopped taking medication for mental illness and had reportedly been acting strangely.) I heard the news almost immediately, as Fareed called me from NIU to let me know. I remember sitting in the kitchen, looking numbly out at the river that flowed behind our house… I was stunned, yes, but almost more stunned to hear him go on… He said that he was now worried about his girlfriend, that she was freaked out and he felt he needed to be with her… he wasn’t sure if he’d be home tonight. Crazy as it sounds, while she was now five months pregnant with their child, my husband still stayed at home with us – and still retired to bed each night with me. He would, however, slip away during the night to be with her, making sure to be back home in the mornings, for the sake of our son, he’d say. I was still so shell-shocked at what was happening that I followed along in a daze as he drew out the torture. I’d been fooling myself somehow during it all, thinking he’d come to his senses eventually and come home – that somehow we’d make sure this child was taken care of, and somehow, when this had all blown over, we’d find a way to go on with our lives again. Certainly this was crazy thinking, but it was a surreal time, and crazy was all over. And now this.
How could I argue – how could I indulge in my own petty concerns when people had just been killed? When true and real heartbreak was occurring, when parents were receiving the worst possible news they’d ever hear – when all this was going on, how was it that I could beg my husband as I did to please come home to his wife? I told him that family was of prime importance, and that this event must surely remind him of that. I was livid that this silly girl nearly half our age could manipulate him so easily. I found it hard to believe that she was afraid to be alone – for heaven’s sake she lived in a tony, suburban house with her parents miles from campus! What had she to be afraid of? What did she know of being left? Of truly being alone? I was furious, I was heartbroken, I was sick. I was also extremely confused.
Although he’d said nothing of it, earlier that day, merely through coincidence and not at all by design, Fareed had been served with divorce papers. He’d gone for months saying that he wasn’t sure, that he didn’t know yet what he would do… he wasn’t sure if he planned on leaving us or staying. His presence in our home gave my heart hope, but his girlfriend’s growing belly wasn’t unsure at all. I asked about divorce, but he wouldn’t commit to it. Finally, summoning the best fighting attitude I could, I agreed with my attorney that he should go ahead and serve the papers. They arrived that day, but Fareed didn’t mention it. I’ll still never know just how he reacted that morning at work when the agent knocked on his office door. I’ll never know if it caught him by surprise, or if he felt relief. Even after five years we’ve never talked about that day. I do still wonder sometimes.
In that he said nothing about the divorce papers, in the back of my mind I hoped they hadn’t arrived. That my husband would choose me over his mistress, that he would come home and everything would somehow heal itself. I was still fooling myself. Acting one way, feeling another, and thinking somewhere in between. Man that was one difficult Valentine’s Day. Not a lot of love to be found, and more heartbreak than anyone deserved. I could never have imagined in that moment that some five years forward I’d be ok. That I’d have more joy in my life than sorrow, that my gut wouldn’t be consumed with an unceasing ache. How can you tell someone in the midst of such pain – and make them understand – that it will not always be thus? Although I myself wasn’t able to envision a brighter future back then, I had to make that leap of faith and simply behave as if it was there waiting. I took the ‘fake it til you make it’ approach. It definitely took a few years for my heart to catch up and relax into this new life.
Honestly, I am still not completely reconciled with what happened to me or with the way in which my life’s course shifted, but I do realize that the trajectory of my life – and certainly my son’s life – was greatly improved by this fateful turn of events. By this fourteenth day of February on which things changed forever.