Guest Columnist

The sobering impact of divorces

Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.
Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.

We sat in a semicircle, nine women and four men. We were new to each other and had only one thing in common — a shattered marriage.

Our divorce support group could have met anywhere in the United States where hundreds of thousands of marriages are dissolved annually. Even in Iowa, the state that rightfully boasts of the lowest divorce rate in the country, over 6,000 marriages disintegrated last year.

In our case, we met in the basement of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo, California, under the direction of Reverend James King. “Tonight,” he began, “we will get acquainted by sharing our divorce experiences and how we are coping with the aftermath.”

Questions ran through my mind. Did I want to share my agonies? Was I truly coping or only struggling? Would my new colleagues understand the trauma of sixteen years of marriage that ended when my wife decided to embark on a new career some 2,000 miles away and disappeared into the night with our two young daughters?

Could they understand the empty feelings of coming home from work without our toy poodle, Myron, scampering to the door to meet me, followed by two beautiful little girls screaming, “Daddy, daddy,” their arms outstretched for a welcoming hug? Or no longer hearing Mr. Rogers singing in the background, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood?” It wasn’t. Life had lost its meaning.

I went to work each day to my dean’s position at Cal Poly wondering why I bothered. I fanaticized about running away to some far-off, unknown location, like Alabama, and perhaps working in a filling station. I sagged into my recliner at night listening to the radio, my primary companion. Two songs popular at the time cut deeply: Wayne Newton singing, “Daddy Don’t You Run So Fast,” and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

My attention returned to the support group. “Let’s begin with the ladies,” Reverend King announced while nodding toward a thin woman staring blankly at the floor. “Mary, would you like to begin?”

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In a slow, hesitant, sometimes stammering voice Mary described her plight. “I ... I came home from work at the Holiday Inn one afternoon and ... uh ... f-found our house empty. No husband, no children.”

I empathized. I knew the feeling.

Mary continued, “I found a note on the, uh, k-kitchen table. ‘D-Doris and I have moved away with the kids. Will be in touch later.’ “

Mary began to sob, unable to continue. Reverend King put an arm around her shoulder. “Would you like to stop here? he asked.

“Just gimme a second,” Mary responded. “You see D-D-Doris is my sister.”

Mary, with the help of Rev. King, went on to explain how she suffered a breakdown and spent the next two years in a mental institution. In the meantime, a judge declared her incompetent and awarded child custody to her husband, who then divorced her and married her sister.

My problems paled as I listened to Mary. And even more so when the next lady, Lucille, told her story.

“My husband was physically abusive to me and the kids,” she began. “In a drunken rage he would go out of control and pound on the closest person, whether it be me or one of our kids. Finally, I reported him to the police. He was convicted and is now serving time in the California Men’s Colony. His last words to me were, ‘When I get out of prison I’m gonna kill you!’ He is due to be released later this year. I’m scared to death. I have no money. Nowhere to go.”

Peggy was the next to speak. “My ex-husband is showing less and less interest in the children,” she complained. “He doesn’t come by as much and always seems to be in a bad mood.”

Bill, seated beside me, interrupted. “Do you know what it’s like, ma’am, to go to the front door of the house you lived in for 20 years, knock on the door you painted, and hear your kids say, ‘Do we have to go with him?’ “

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And so the evening went. I was the last to speak, and reluctant to do so. My experience was miserable, but not as bad as several of the others.

Rev. King told us of the need for self-help and recommended a book by Joyce Brothers, “How to Get Whatever You Want out of Life.” I bought and read the book immediately. The message was clear: “Stay the course. Do not do anything foolish. You have a future.”

I remember in particular a self-help method the author recommended: “Make a list of five things you can do to please yourself without the involvement of anyone else.”

I worked for years providing for my family. Thinking only of myself was a new experience. But with pencil in hand, I started a self-help list beginning with reading the memoirs of George Kennan, the famous diplomat. That afternoon I went to a local bookstore and bought the paperback version. I enjoyed the book. I was pleased. Mission accomplished.

Second on my list was a hike on the Appalachian Trail. I called a college friend living in Virginia and made arrangements for such a trip, hopefully within a year. Number three involved buying a component stereo system. A cross-country bicycle trip came next on my list, a wish I accomplished with Iowa’s famed RAGBRAI. And number five, the most simple, was buying an apple-cinnamon coffee cake at the local Delight Bakery.

All five wishes had a price tag, and after monthly child support, house payments, etc., I didn’t have much left. But with a little frugality and renting out part of my house, I managed to attain my five goals within a year or so, including number five too many times.

Rev. King told us, “Keep your chins up. There is light at the end of the tunnel.” Indeed there was. My two daughters rejoined my household two years later, and then I met Lynn. Thirty-five years of blissful marriage have followed.

Thank you, Reverend King. Thank you, Joyce Brothers. I’m glad I ruled out a fantasy move to Alabama.

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• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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