Summmer and Fall of 2012
There are many kinds of unfaithfulness.
As I examine my failed relationship with Hanna, I can trace the beginnings of my own infidelity to a time long before things between us reached a crisis point. I hadn’t wanted to see this. I felt too ashamed.
I can explain it simply: I pushed and shoved until I got my way. I didn’t appreciate what my agenda might cost my husband and children. In some ways, I think it cost Hanna and Niko as well.
She was my oldest friend, my first soul mate. She had the prior claim. When it came to Hanna, I just couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to say no. We saw each other so seldom that I wanted to spend every moment with her. I would have done just about anything to please her. Fortunately, Hanna was modest and demanded little. It was I who offered. My husband Henry knew this when he married me. He knew it would be easier to dig his way to China than tell me no when it came to Hanna. When she visited, he played host from a safe distance while Hanna and I ruled the roost.
Whenever Hanna stayed, Henry trudged off to work while Hanna and I shopped together. We cooked together. We cleaned together. In time, we tended the children together. Our daughters adored Aunt Hanna, and the feeling was mutual. Life was a vacation when Hanna was around! Occasionally we went visiting or sightseeing. Mostly, though, we talked, and talked, and talked. We started when we got up in the morning and finished in the wee hours over a glass of wine. This worked fabulously for many years.
My husband was a real trooper. Henry is good natured and generous, and he loves Hanna. He managed these finite periods of neglect with good humor–not that we gave him much choice since all of our conversations took place in German.
Hanna and Niko married in 2004 after several years of togetherness. When they asked to come from Germany in June of 2006, it was with the intention of permanently relocating to the U.S. I know now that both parties suffered from a case of Wishful Thinking.
Our friends hadn’t properly researched what was necessary for success and were ill prepared when they pulled up stakes (and burned some bridges) to come live in our basement with their cat Schnurzel. They didn’t have the proper visas, and Hanna was unable to work. I hadn’t considered the negative potentials should their bid fail. More to the point: I hadn’t been willing to consider anything beyond the delicious promise of a visit–indefinite in length–from my best friend and her husband. Who cared how long it might take them to get established? I was all in.
Henry had examined the situation levelly and made his concerns known. This is not to say that he had attempted to bar the way. He saw how much Hanna struggled to provide, and it was clear to him that they both felt isolated and stigmatized because of Niko’s mental illness. They complained about their lack of opportunity and the poor treatment they received in Germany. They were certain life would be better here.
Henry was all for lending them a hand or two or four. They were his friends too. All he asked was that I come down from Cloud 9 long enough to participate in an adult conversation. He wanted to discuss how best to help them, to consider the pros and cons of open-ended cohabitation, and to partner in some advance planning. I refused. I bullied and stomped: Why all the catastrophizing? You’re always so negative!
As it turned out, Henry had predicted the outcomes nearly perfectly. I imagine he felt quite alone as they unfolded, one by one, before his eyes: Within a few weeks, Niko relapsed into psychosis and ended up in the state hospital hours away; and Hanna began dividing her nights between our house and the parking lot of the state park nearest the hospital. We got her a phone, loaned her a car, and helped with the cat. She mastered station wagon camping, perfected the art of bathing at McDonald’s, and tried to make the best of her unscheduled “vacation.”
I feel weepy when I remember Hanna’s loyalty, patience, advocacy, and tenderness for Niko. She was a rock. She remained cheerful and determined even when her visa ran out and she was forced to leave Niko here while she returned to Europe for a period to straighten things out.
All of these happenings were predictable and manageable.
What was predictable but not manageable was my absence during this period. It tore at the security of my family. I gave my smiling best to Hanna and Niko. I denied them nothing. I gave Henry and the girls whatever I had left over. And not always gladly.
This went on for months.
I can see this now, and I am sad. I paid lip service to my marriage, and I shooed and shushed my children when they sought me. I set myself up as the perfect friend, and I set up Hanna and Niko to expect a level of availability and care which no healthy friend could sustain. I think I did harm.
My neglect of my family was easy to justify. I was being a good hostess. I deserved to spend time with my best friend. Our friends needed help, i.e., they needed my help. Mine, mine, mine. Me, me, me. Henry and the girls could wait until after Hanna and Niko were gone.
This is how I kept the family rule—”Friends Before Family”*—and betrayed my husband and children.
Both Hanna and Niko said many times throughout the years leading up to our painful parting in 2011, that their 2006 visit had been an incredibly positive experience. They said they had felt so safe and loved and welcomed. Inclusion in the hum and rhythms of family life had warmed them. At first, I wholeheartedly agreed: The visit had been a smashing success despite the complications. It was true. I wasn’t lying. There were many beautiful things about that summer and fall. But it is also true that my mind did what had to be done in the moment. If it had allowed me to feel my stress and fear, I would have fallen apart.
Once Hanna and Niko were able to return to Germany that November, the dust began to settle. The protective anesthesia wore off. In no time, Henry and I were at each other’s throats. It became clear, too, that the girls needed help to process Niko’s frightening descent into psychosis and the fruition of our family dysfunction. We required therapy and several months to recover.
Well being was restored but something was shifting. My skyrocketing panic when our friends asked to visit exactly five years later told me we could not afford a repeat. The cost to all of us was just too high. Henry and I wanted them to come but we decided we had to approach this visit differently. Do you hear the we in this?
I’m not sure I communicated this shift to them as well as I should have, and as the politicians in D.C. are wont to say, “Mistakes were made.”
This is the eighth installment of The Story of Hanna. Please see the tab of the same name to read the others. Installment seven is here. Installment nine is here.
You can find Infidelity I, a very silly post, here.
*You can find this Family Rule here. Please see the Family Rules tab for more rules.