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Happiness Is Kindness

A bitter divorcée learns that the keys to success are in changing one’s attitude.

Roberta Messner

A V.A. hospital is a big place. I should know, I work in one.

But that morning it wasn’t big enough. Not with my newly ex-husband and fellow nurse, Mark, roaming the halls. I’d managed to avoid him for a few weeks since our divorce had become final, but now, there he was, dressed in his scrubs, escorting a patient to the radiology room.

He saw me and smiled. At least I thought it was a smile.

“Just thirty-six more days until retirement!” he announced blithely. My blood ran cold. I’d almost forgotten. When we’d married 25 years ago, we’d planned to retire and travel around the world right about now.

I guessed that was still Mark’s plan, but thanks to him, it couldn’t be mine anymore. No way could I afford retirement.

I tried to be civil. “So, still planning to do some traveling?” I asked.

“Moving to Alaska,” he said. “Maybe do a little consulting, but for the most part, I’ll just fly and live the good life.”

“Fly?”

“Didn’t I tell you? I bought that vintage airplane I always wanted.”

No. He didn’t tell me. Now my blood was boiling. Even the knowledge he’d be thousands of miles away didn’t soothe me. He was going to live it up while I spent the next five years or more digging out from the financial mess he’d left me in. I stormed off before I made a scene.

The words from the Bible that Mark and I had pledged to each other on our wedding day came to mind: “Whither thou goest I will go; where thou lodgest, I will lodge.” How meaningless those words had been to Mark! Maybe he could go on like nothing happened, but I couldn’t!

Since I was a teenager, I’d suffered health problems that could cause debilitating pain and other complications. Stress made it worse, and living with Mark didn’t help. At first, he’d made me laugh with his crazy brand of humor. He’d stood by me through all the doctor’s appointments and treatments.

I put almost every cent I earned into paying off our house and making it beautiful. It was even featured in a few home magazines. I pictured us growing old there, together. But instead, we grew apart.

Things changed. Mark’s good qualities gave way to the bad ones. He had a miserable temper, and could fly into rages over the littlest things. Bad feelings built up between us.

For eight years I’d worked an extra job to get us by while he’d gone back to school for an advanced degree. Then when I mentioned that my boss urged me to consider going on disability during one of my more severe health flare-ups, Mark flew off the handle.

“Wait one minute!” he yelled. “I didn’t sign up for this. You’re not going to up and quit your job and expect me to pick up the slack.”

That was the last straw. After all I’d put up with, when I needed him the most, he turned his back. I’d never forgive him for that.

Mark stayed in our house while we worked out the details of the divorce. I moved to a ramshackle log cabin. I thought I could fix it up to start anew.

I tried to put a good spin on things to my friends, laughing about how I called my new home The Leaning Log because everywhere I stood in it, the uneven floor made me lean. “I’m so sorry, Roberta,” they’d say. “He just treated you awful.”

“No,” I’d say, “we just needed to go our separate ways.”

What I couldn’t bear to bring up was how little I got in the divorce settlement, how the lawyers’ fees and the low sale price we’d taken on our house didn’t leave nearly enough to fix up the cabin. I didn’t know how I’d manage. I wondered how Mark could afford his retirement. It wasn’t fair!

At a checkup, my doctor said, “Your blood pressure’s up, Roberta. Anything bothering you?” I started to say I was fine when all at once it came out, all the anger I’d been storing up.

I told him how Mark had left me with almost nothing in the divorce, how I still had to see him at work, how it seemed he was rubbing it in my face with his quips about retirement, doing all the stuff we’d dreamed about.

Dr. Brownfield shook his head. “Stress can aggravate your condition. You know that. Take care of yourself. Eat right. Get rest. You’ve got to find a way to let this go.”

Let it go? How? I knew the doctor was right. But I wasn’t done being angry.

For a solid week afterward, I couldn’t sleep. I felt myself getting more and more sick. By the weekend, I didn’t know if I’d have the energy to go in to work the following Monday. I collapsed on my bed. I did the only thing I knew to do. I prayed.

Not for the first time, of course, not by a long shot. But with a desperation I’d never experienced. “Lord, I know I need to let go of this,” I cried out. “But how? Even when he’s gone, every day at work will just remind me I have no one and he’s out having the time of his life.”

I knew what God’s answer was. Forgive Mark. Focus on the future, not the past. But I simply didn’t know how to forgive Mark. I tried. I couldn’t.

The next day at work, I could barely function. “You okay?” asked Sandy, one of the other nurses. She’d recently lost her husband. If she was asking me if I was okay, I must have looked in really bad shape.

“I’m fine,” I insisted.

Sandy sat down with one of our long-term patients, Mr. Lansing. He’d once told me how seeing her was the best part of his day. I’d meant to tell Sandy that but had let it slip my mind. At my desk I spied a box of pansy-patterned cards a student I’d once mentored had given me. An inspiration struck. 

I pulled one out and wrote, “Dear Sandy, you make the biggest difference in your patients’ lives. I see it every day. Especially this afternoon with Mr. Lansing. He told me that he watches the clock for 8:00 a.m. when your shift begins. Thank you for caring so much about our veteran patients.”

I gave Sandy the card. “You don’t know how much this means,” she said, grasping my hands tight. Seeing her smile meant a lot to me. Being thankful for a person and letting her know felt so much better than being resentful.

I decided to write “Caught in the Act of Caring” notes whenever I saw someone doing a good job or when someone brightened my day. Every time I wrote a note, it seemed my eyes were opened to new people I could give a kind word to. People I’d overlooked because I was so focused on my misery.

Giving kindness was like the antidote to the poison of my resentment toward Mark. I felt energized when I came home. Enough to work on my garden at the Leaning Log, which was looking nicer every day.

I potted some red geraniums and gave them out to coworkers. The day Mark left the hospital for good, I barely took note. He’s moving on with his life. I’m moving on with mine.

“Has your diet changed?” Dr. Brownfield asked at my next appointment. My blood pressure had dropped 20 points.

“No, just my attitude,” I said.

One night, home at the Leaning Log, sorting through some boxes, I came across an old anniversary card from Mark. Slowly, I opened it up. It was sweet, funny—the Mark I’d fallen in love with. At least those moments I’d always be thankful for.

Thankful for Mark? A few weeks ago, I probably would have ripped up the card. But I wasn’t in the same place anymore. All my caring notes had moved me to a different place. A place of forgiveness and letting go. I didn’t want resentment to rule my life anymore.

“Lord,” I said, “wherever Mark is right now, I forgive him. Forgiveness is how I show my love for you in return for the unending love you give me.”

It was strange, but the last bit of weight that seemed to sit on my shoulders lifted away.

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I’ve heard from friends that Mark’s doing well in Alaska. He’s enjoying life. And it doesn’t make me unhappy. Anger and resentment did. Mark can’t hurt me anymore. As soon as I stopped counting my grievances, I could see my blessings. I could let go of the pain and embrace the future.

My log cabin is paid in full and renovations are progressing well. My health is stable. I love my job more than ever, and my life too, free of the past.

 

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