My Parents’ Bust-Up, and Mine

Two generations of divorce.

  1. My parents stayed together for the sake of the children. When the children were grown and settled, my parents divorced—for their own sake. My brother was 25 and single, studying for a graduate degree; I was 27 and newly married, about to publish my first book of stories. Because Mom and Dad had decided to tough it out (29 years in all), we faced their breakup not as vulnerable kids but as self-sufficient adults. You'd think it would have been easier that way: no custody battle, no child-support brouhaha, no change of schools, no teen-age identity crises.

    You'd think I'd thank my parents for their decision.

    Here is what I learned, though: when the rug is pulled out from under you emotionally, it isn't necessarily an advantage to be standing on your own two feet. Nothing is quite so shocking, somehow, as news you've been half-expecting all your life.

    I got the word on a pay phone, in a Salt Lake City Dairy Queen. My wife and I had been camping in the Rockies and were ready to fly home to New York. My parents, who'd been camping with us, had already driven back to Minnesota, the state where I grew up. The trip had been tense, my parents grumpy and distant, but I felt I had to phone them. I'd read something wild in the local paper: a dead school friend of mine whose funeral had been a month ago (his overturned raft was found floating in Puget Sound) had turned up alive in a tiny Western jail.

    "Karl faked his own death!" I told my mother. "Can you believe it?"

    "Walt, I'm leav...