In my haste to minimize my belongings, I didn’t see the brick wall coming. I opened the box: photo albums and picture frames. Easy. Save the pictures, give away the frames and albums.
And then it was there staring at me: my wedding album. White and pearly with the words “our wedding” written in calligraphy on the cover.
Apprehension filled my chest, but I can be brave when I need to be, and I opened the cover and stared at my 20-year-old face. I was an ugly bride. My hair was half-grown out and awkward, and the hair stylist curled it, sprayed it, and then ratted it to fit around the veil. No one helped me with my makeup, and I didn’t have a manicure, though all my bride’s maids did. And though the wedding dress is a beaded work of art and the bouquet is lousy with deep red roses, it’s all overshadowed by half-hearted smiles and sad eyes.
It doesn’t even occur to me to look at my stomach, though it’s all I could think about that day. I was five months pregnant with my daughter. It’s impossible to tell. The wedding dress fit perfectly without a single adjustment. Swollen breasts and stomach made the dress fit when it had been too big three months before. The only indication something is off is the shame I can see covering me from head to toe. It stained everything that day, from the glow of wedding candles to the matching white-gold rings we put on each other’s fingers.
I felt my shame acutely that day. I wonder now if anyone knew the torture inside me. Did anyone know how much pain I was in? Probably not. But I cried as I walked down the aisle with my parents, and it wasn’t the first time I’d cried that day.
I thought everyone was so kind to me. Friends and family circled and fussed and asked how I was doing. I didn’t understand it. I was overwhelmed by their goodness because I believed I was unworthy of it. I was so ashamed, so completely undeserving of anything good. And even now, it’s difficult to discern their unconditional love from the memory of feeling like a burden.
Most of the pictures I stacked and set aside out of sight for my kids to look at some day. It might be fun to look back and laugh at mom and dad and grandmas and grandpas. But a few pictures I saved for me. My dad looks so handsome, and he’s smiling at me. My mom is too. She’s so beautiful and happy. And there’s one with my grandparents, all four them.
I touched the picture of my mom’s parents. They’ve been gone a long time now, my grandfather dying just thirteen months after my wedding. My dad’s dad is gone too. And I cried and wished my ex-husband wasn’t standing next to me in the center of the picture. It was a battle between sentiment and disgust, but I chose to save the picture.
It was the first time I overlooked the sick feeling I get when I look at pictures of the man I now know took advantage of me. And it was love that conquered that feeling. No matter what, my grandparents always thought the best of me. I love them so much, and when I looked at their faces in that photo and remembered that, my ex-husband quickly faded.
This doesn’t surprise me, now that I think about it. I can’t stand to look at myself in these pictures, but I’ve rescued the ones with my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents. I saved a picture of the wedding cake with the flowers a now passed friend grew just for my wedding. I can look past all the hurt I felt that day and all the sorrow I feel for it now for the people I love, and that’s something worth knowing. But what about me?
I don’t feel the shame anymore, but I remember it vividly. I remember a scared young woman who was desperate to be told “you are worthy.” I feel pity and sympathy for her. I want to hug her and tell her the truth about herself.
I’m a little angry no one told me I didn’t have to get married to earn my worthiness back or to make things right, that I was never unworthy and things were never wrong in to begin with. I’m so sad for all the lies I believed back then, about myself, about the man I married, about right and wrong.
But I also feel a little less unworthy about that day. People were kind because they were happy for me, and they loved me. I won’t say I deserved it, but I was worthy of it, if only because I loved them and they loved me.
The bad feelings don’t miraculously go away just because I feel love and a little worthiness. There’s still a heavy weight in my chest and a darkness to my day that won’t be penetrated by either 40-watt bulbs or afternoon sunlight. My wedding day is still a difficult memory and it still makes me sad. But I’ve faced down one of the challenges that awaited me since I left my husband last August: the wedding album. I won’t have to do it again.
And there is something else that I know after today. I will not be that forlorn woman again. I will speak my heart and I will search for the truth. I will trust in my goodness and overcome my shame.