August 31, 2020

I meant to write about our last walk.

We had nothing to do but gaze—

Seven years, now nothing but a diverting smile,

Dalliance by a river, a speeding swan…

the misleading promise

to last with joy as long as our bodies,

nostalgia pulverized by thought,

nomadic as yesterday’s whirling snow,

all whiteness splotched.

Robert Lowell

One year ago today we said goodbye in her living room, me behind the leather coach, she standing in the open space reserved for yoga. She said she was sorry our marriage didn’t work out, or a few words to that effect. I said I was, too. That was all. The end lasted perhaps less than a minute. Then she was gone– as I had requested, in order to spend the last night alone before moving out forever on September 1st.  No sad goodbyes at the garage door, at least not sadder than the one we had standing in the living room.  Sad enough.

I saw her briefly twice since that August afternoon: once, fleetingly, when she handed me mail and lied to me at a South End Rowing Club members’ meeting; a second time at the South End holiday party where she refused to acknowledge my presence.

Misleading promises…that might be the swansong of our marriage. Promises never kept. Both guilty as charged. Nothing lasting with joy as long as our bodies. No joy. No bodies.

One year is a short time in a person’s life and an eternity. From that afternoon a year ago, still standing in her house, to today in my apartment in Boston, I chart a journey measured in more than the 3,100 miles that separate us: a journey of renewal.

She always said, “Plan the work, work the plan.” That’s what I did—(though she accused me of inconsistency.) The pieces fell into place, in sequence, on the schedule she allowed me to set: complete the spring teaching semester; acquire a driver’s license; take the leadership course at UCLA; undergo hand surgery; pack up all my belongings; rent and load the Pod; move out September 1st. Clockwork.

Through the exceptional generosity of friends I was given a house in West Oakland in which to live for the remainder of the year, a gesture for which I will be always grateful. The house, combined with my friends’ support, proved to be the transitional respite from the deadening despair of divorce that I badly needed. My friends understood; they knew her longer than I did and saw what I had failed to see.

Days after moving being in West Oakland took on a new significance. It couldn’t have been foreseen. On September 5th I learned from Adam that he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Treatment was nearby at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. I was able to accompany him to the bi-weekly chemo sessions, drive him home…be there with him when it mattered most.

The autumn sped by: teaching at Hult, weekends with Adam, Adam’s Point farmer’s market, walking to West Oakland Bart, discovering open studios, swimming at the South End.  Sam visited. David visited. Thanksgiving and Christmas with Rachel’s family. Then it was time to move. I was sad to be leaving Adam during his final weeks of chemo. He was in good hands with Rachel, her family, and his Bowdoin friends.

I loaded a final lot of boxes, my bike, odds and ends, into the Pod, stored close by in West Oakland.  It would wait for shipment until I had a place to live. Work the plan.

January/February with Sam, Saga, Miki, and Ethan: a safe and comforting haven.  On March 1st I moved to my apartment in the Orient Heights section of East Boston, directly across from Constitution Beach. Purposeful for open water swimming, a walk to Sam’s, and a lucky choice once grounded by Covid-19.  I’ve suffered little if at all.

It’s the last evening in August, an evening one year ago I spent alone in a house that was never my home, least of all on that night. I had only my packed suitcases to remind me I once lived there. Tonight, while only a rented apartment, my place is truly my home. Maybe it’s the privilege of all single dwellers, that everything is ordered to one’s own taste. Sharing space can be harder than sharing a life.

I’m listening to a classic recording of Victoria de los Angeles singing Madame Butterfly. I found the CD set in a used bookstore in West Stockbridge only a week ago. I’m a sucker for the pure glorious rapture of this opera. I’ve heard it at the Met, the Berlin Opera, and the Munich Opera.  It never fails. I thank my late friend Ray, and his legacy CD collection, for rekindling my joy in music—especially now.

What have I learned during this year away from her, and my life with her, and my life in California?

That the northeast is my home. The golden hills never sparked joy or any sense of belonging. I was always an expat.

That neither Ellen nor Brenda were mistakes. But establishing these relationships as a piece of my identity was.

That my own freedom to be, freedom to act is not dependent on another.

That I love open water swimming.

That my best friends remain my best friends.

That marriage is no longer a desired state.

That being close to the geography I love is important.

That life isn’t as long or as happy as we want it to be.

That happiness begins inside.

That I miss my dog, but don’t want one on my own (as much as a solace he would have been during this novel shutdown).

Now, a year away, I’m glad not to be there. I didn’t feel that then, or even know it was possible. I think the outcome could have been otherwise had there been a will to make it so.  She didn’t have that will, and I realize now the end was inevitable.

I am back where I belong.

Leave a comment


  1. Michelle leon

     /  February 14, 2021

    Professor Niland! Hope you are finding yourself well. I graduated Hult recently and don’t have your e-mail. I read you moved to Boston! Congrats 🎊 your student for Luxury Marketing class.


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