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The Only Life You Could Save

By Jes Scoville

It is better for the heart to break, than not to break.

Mary Oliver taught me that. This isn’t an ode to Mary, exactly, now that she’s moved on to a vast prairie or the lip of the water or the crook of the moon to watch the rest of us muddle through but I need to say goodbye: publicly and raw. Because I think she would approve.

What does barbed wire feel like when you grip it, as though it were a loaf of bread, or a pair of shoes?

Five years ago, you know, my (then) husband packed a duffle bag and said he was moving out.

In that moment the world was flat and he kicked it over, without flinching, tumbling me to its edges.

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying
I went closer,
and I did not die.

In the ensuing years, I have hurt and ached and watched in the mirror as my self confidence started to wear black, my sense of self curled in the safety of a tree root, my faith in love dissipated into the air—the brief humidity after a rain.

I felt worthless in a way that perhaps you can only truly understand if such a betrayal has happened to you.

I’ve been rebuilding myself, piece by piece. But I would be lying if I tried to make you believe that insecurity isn’t in the lining of my coat, underneath my morning egg, in the ends of my hair. It clings to me like a toddler, weighing down my legs.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Sometimes I take a thousand steps forward, only to look down and see that my feet haven’t moved at all.

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

And sometimes I am so brave I move mountains, lift them up and carry them in my pockets, pluck them from their roots and hang them in the sky.

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began.

I went to my uncle’s funeral last week. The thing about funerals is the gathering of people who haven’t gathered in ages. I walked into the church and was swept up in the arms of people who love me. So many people. And they love me. They have loved me across years and mistakes and burdens and aches and brilliance. They have never walked away.

And, through my tears, I thought, perhaps what I believe about myself isn’t true.

Perhaps his leaving does not define me.

The stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could
save.

— Mary Oliver

Perhaps his leaving only defines him.

About Jes Scoville

Jes grew up in the mountains. After many years living all over the US, she is happy to finally be back west. Most days are filled with work and kids and writing and reading.
She is certain the future is bright.

11 thoughts on “The Only Life You Could Save”

  1. Jes, this piece is sublime. I found myself sliding down encased in the buffering words of Mary Oliver and how they have brought light. That is the true beauty of poetry and prose. You traded ashes here for beauty.

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  2. It is so hard, the position you are in. I was there. My ex husband left 16 years ago, we had 3 children. I am sorry for what you have gone through and what you are going through. It took a law school class on family law (divorce) for me to start to have faith in marriage again, and that was 5 ish years after him leaving. And you are right. His character flaws and his actions do not define you. They only reveal who he is and his failures.

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  3. Yes! This is perfect. I cried and felt emotions that I know come from my own parents’ divorce. It is hard. There is so much healing in the unconditional love of family. It does not define you unless you choose to let it. ?????

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  4. I don't know why I can't get the reply button to work (still) but thank you everyone for your kind words. And thanks to Mary Oliver for letting my experience lean against hers.

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