Upon our return to Switzerland at the end of March 2008, I would face the most painful shock of my life since the death of my parents 20 years earlier. My husband was having an affair with Marie-Anne. Marie-Anne my confidante, the same friend who’d comforted me over the phone only weeks before, expressing how absurd it was of me to have any such suspicions of my husband. The idea that she was the mistress, after all the confiding I’d done in her, had not even entered my mind.
Denial can have multiple layers, and rationalizing is common when you’re trying to absorb something you just don’t want to believe. I thought: Okay, so maybe they made a mistake. My husband and my friend will come to their senses and realize that. I was ready to forgive, forget, make things right, move on, and get on with our lives. Not like nothing had happened, but like something had happened that I thought was fixable. But this was not to be. Because despite everything, I still loved my husband. And I still loved my friend. I put myself in their shoes with the understanding that accidents happen, we’re all human and we all make mistakes. It was love that allowed me to take that perspective at that moment, but considering my desperation to keep everything from falling apart, it was probably also in my naïve (and shell-shocked) state of mind that I wrote the following letter to Marie-Anne, treating her as a decent friend who’d temporarily lost her way and behaved in a manner that wasn’t really her. I just wanted everyone to get on with healing, including her:
Regardless of what has and hasn’t been said and done up to now, and that things have been changed forever for all of us, I do hope we all go into the future never having secrets from each other ever, ever again of any kind. That we take responsibility to make sure the ones we love can know they can trust us and never do things they cannot know about…
For the first week after finding out about the affair, I was ready to die—to go to bed forever and never wake up. Or to hurt someone. I was ready to do something desperate, but in reality, there was nothing to do but to suffer through it. Fortunately, when you’re a mom, the responsibility of caring for your child can keep you going. You have the routine of preparing your child for school in the morning, dragging yourself out of bed on autopilot and cheerfully keeping a brave face. And as soon as they’re off, at least in my case, I slipped back into my pajamas and spent the day in bed, crying and sleeping fitfully. I wasn’t eating at all; in fact, I went a whole week without any solid food and just drank orange juice. This can be considered healthy during a cleansing fast, for example, but I wouldn’t recommend it while trying to cope with the grief of a deep emotional crisis.
I was freezing cold all the time, and my only relief came when I’d strip off my clothes and climb a steaming hot bath. Five times a day. Yet I’d be shivering most of the time, shaking uncontrollably, my teeth chattering violently. Out of the bath, I’d wear a winter coat over my pajamas, plus wool socks and a scarf. It made no difference. I couldn’t get rid of the chills, and at the same time, I was sweating profusely. It was as if my body were trying to purge itself of the emotional agony inside by forcing the pain out of my pores so that I didn’t drown in it. I hurt physically, too, aching as though someone had sandpapered all my nerve endings. But when four o’clock arrived, and it was time to kick back into Mommy the Brave for the evening, I was there for my son with a hug and a smile. Believe me, it took all the courage I could muster to get through our morning and afternoon routines like everything was “okay.” However, the way I looked at it, this sudden, major change in our lives was going to be hard enough on him; I was not about to subject him to the pain that I was feeling on top of his own.
All things considered, I think I did a pretty good job of managing this “double life,” as my son didn’t seem unusually stressed. I resented Marie-Anne a great deal, knowing which end of the stick she was on. We were both new, single moms, going through our daily routines with our children, only I was drained of all my energy, as the façade I tried to keep up for my child’s sake took everything I had. She was going through her daily routine, however, while in a new and exciting romance with a man who decided to put her first, above his wife and his family. Love is energizing, and new love is especially blissful and makes you feel invincible. Boy, were she and I at opposite ends of the stick, all right. It must have felt so empowering to know that he risked it all for her.
Is this the way a mistress feels? That she is more valuable and important to the man than his wife and family? Perhaps it’s the unfaithful husband convincing her that she’s important enough to stake such a claim. Or is it her own sense of self-entitlement? In any case, at the time my perception was that my husband’s mistress was the winner, the one defended by my own husband. And when he wasn’t looking, she had the confidence to parade her cockiness and fearlessness with snarly looks and hisses when by chance our paths crossed in person, as they inevitably did, since we lived in the same small village.
This was extremely painful for me and left me feeling weak and defeated. She had nothing left to fear, and I’d lost. Every time she kicked me when I was down, she made sure Mutt wasn’t looking, and when I tried to explain to him what he couldn’t see, he refused to listen and didn’t want to know. I felt like I was trapped in some kind of childish game with my sadistic opponent standing just far enough away that I couldn’t reach her, all the while sticking out her tongue at me. It was degrading. I hated her because I felt she was making a fool of my husband, someone I considered to be intelligent, mature, and anything but vulnerable to the cliché of the temptress secretary, as she shamelessly “displayed” an attitude that seemed to say, “Mutt will never see my other face, and I will never show it to him, because I have his compassion, his sympathy and his credit card, and there is nothing you can do about it.” She was right, and I felt helpless for myself and for Mutt. I was disgusted that another woman’s lust for a lifestyle upgrade was worth the devastation of my family. She was pitiless, and I was a pitiful mess of “woe is me.”
Although I had known Frédéric for about nine years, I had never really known him; I mean, he was my close friend’s husband. I thought he was a wonderful, considerate person, and anyone could see that he was an attentive husband and father, but we were friends by association only. It was he and Mutt who were friends, meeting over dinners to discuss politics, sports, current events, and life in general. I always believed it’s one thing to be close to your friend, but another to be closer to your friend’s husband. The men had their bond, and Marie-Anne and I had ours. That is at least what I believed, of course. Fred was always the one to take the kids on Saturday mornings for bike rides or to the carnival passing through town. He loved being with the kids, and I admired his energy and dedication to his daughter. He would take Johanna on father-daughter vacations to give Marie-Anne time to herself, and his bond with my own son from the very beginning was also very touching. The two of them were always the best of friends, and both Mutt and I were happy that Eja had another male figure in his life, as the Thiébauds were the only friends we had in the country.
We all spent time together, but the kids gravitated toward Fred. He and I shared much of our family lives together, but in our appropriate places as the spouses of our friends. It stands to reason that we supported each other during this time of our mutual betrayal, staying in touch, mostly by phone and email every couple of days, as I’d left for Canada at this point. After all, who else could understand better what the other was going through? However, since our previous interactions had always been in the context of our two families, we almost didn’t know how to act with each other directly. We were polite, almost formal. Fred is especially gentle and traditional when it comes to social boundaries, always very friendly but appropriate. For both Mutt and me, teaching our son good manners has always been very important. Mutt reminds Eja often that “manners maketh man,” and I believe this is true. I also believe there is another layer to this philosophy that is equally important, if not more so: honesty maketh humanity. Fred is someone who possesses both manners and honesty with a natural ease. Raised in a family of doctors and lawyers on both his mother’s and his father’s side, Fred grew up in a formal, refined social environment—a privileged upbringing. Considering the comfort and stability growing up almost sheltered from social and economic struggle, Fred is still a real salt-of-the-earth kind of person. An open book, and deep in his natural being, he is a genuine and sincere human being. Together Fred and I tried to hash out what had happened to each of us.
Sometimes we argued over who was to blame for this disaster. “He” must have done this. No, “she” must have done that. We didn’t want any of it to be true and simply didn’t know who was responsible. I didn’t want it to be my husband any more than he wanted it to be his wife, and neither of us wanted to believe our friend would do such a thing. There were so many angles and tangles to the long web of lies and deception, it was enough to make you dizzy. Nearly six months later, in September 2009, I returned to Switzerland from the cottage in Canada so that Eja could go back to school. Fred and I continued bonding over our lives, our children, our woes, our dreams, our recovery. It was fall and getting cooler, and we would often have evening campfires outside the front door of the annex, as the main house was still under renovation. Roasting marshmallows, playing music, dancing, and singing—we had so much fun, and Fred and I were getting very good at swing dancing. The kids would join in and sometimes stand on the side to cheer us on. One night in December they were both up on the second-floor bedroom balcony watching us with a bird’s-eye view, while Fred and I danced below beside the campfire, unaware of their gazing down on us. Fred and I must have appeared to be pretty lost in each other because at one point the kids piped up and said, “Why don’t you guys kiss?” Fred and I stopped dead, stunned, and said in unison, “What?” “Why don’t you guys just kiss?” they repeated, rolling their eyes while smiling from ear to ear. We looked at each other, quite surprised that the kids had recognized a connection between us that we’d been feeling for some time but felt uncomfortable revealing openly. We responded to the kids with an “okay,” and we kissed on the cheek. The kids said, “No, on the lips.” Fred and I couldn’t believe our own children were cheering us on to kiss, for real, so we did. Fred and I perked our kissers, pecked on the lips, and the kids smiled and giggled. We were happy. Relief came rushing through us, as the ice had been broken. Fred and I were surprised and relieved by our children’s encouragement to be ourselves in love, and from that moment on, the four of us began to form a reassembled family, building a nest, a new foundation, reconstructing our lives as a unit after the fall of the ones we’d lost. Fred and I proceeded with caution, because we were both keenly aware that our mutual grief might be the main thing binding us together. We also considered the dangers of confusing the children with a rebound romance.
But it wasn’t. What attracted me to Fred was his selflessness. He was going through the same agony as I was—maybe even worse, because as a father, he would have to battle his soon-to-be ex for the right to see his own daughter. At least that was something I never had to face. Yet he was never too busy to nurse me through my emotional lows. I think it’s fair to say that he was more of a support to me than I was to him at first. While I was a self-pitying spigot of never-ending sadness in the initial period of my grief, he showed strength, kept a healthily clear, pragmatic perspective, and was infinitely patient and understanding. I admired him. He was also there for Eja, who had known Fred his whole life. In fact, not long ago, Fred showed me a picture taken of my son only hours after he was born. “I don’t recall ever seeing this photo before,” I said to Fred. “I don’t remember who took this photo.” “Me,” he responded. That warmed my heart. He really was always there, like a gift under the Christmas tree, pushed to the back where I couldn’t see it. A gift with my name on it, only hiding, as I wasn’t meant to open it till much later when it was time to take the tree down, then all of a sudden there it was, this present, for me! As if labeled “From heaven—to Eilleen,” Fred was for me; it was just a matter of time.
Adapted from From This Moment On, by Shania Twain. Copyright © 2011, Shania Twain. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.