PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — What Would Have Been My Silver Anniversary

I was married 25 years ago today. And I’m not sure how to think about it.

My marriage ended 11 years ago, and Steve died seven years later. I was holding his hand as he took his last breath, providing a lasting legacy of grace for our children, a reminder of the power of love and the transformative nature of forgiveness.

But all of that water under the bridge means that I am not celebrating what would have been my silver anniversary, and as someone who marks her time in terms of dates and remembrances, that creates in me an assortment of feelings that are at odds with each other.

The old joke says that marriages end, but divorce goes on forever. I think of that every time I have to check the box that says, under marital status “divorced,” in a survey or a form. As I check it, I think, “Why do I have to check this box? The person to whom I was married is no longer alive, but I’m still divorced from him?” That never adds up in my mind — how you can be divorced from someone who is dead. There has to be a different box to check. But rule follower that I am, I still check it.

I can’t look back at my marriage with regret, for many reasons. I married a wonderful man — funny, smart, good-looking, kind and the best cook I have ever known, truly the love of my life.

When we were married, I became the stepmother to two amazing children, who remain an integral part of my life to this day, and who are the parents of my five grandchildren.

Finally, the fruit of that marriage is still very much alive in my sons. I never have trouble looking at my sons and seeing their father in them. Anyone who knew Steve and knows them is aware that the best parts of their father are alive in them, and my marriage gave me these two phoenixes who arose from the ashes of our union.

But I am also a realist. Just because Steve is gone, I can’t turn my marriage into a fantasy that it was not. In spite of the gifts that my marriage gave to me, in the end it was a failure, as the ravages of addiction and the havoc it wreaked on our lives overcame what was sincere and deeply felt love, expressed on a sunny Saturday morning in my hometown of Willmar, Minn., and celebrated at a beach picnic on the shores of Green Lake, in nearby Spicer, Minn.

As a perfectionist, it is hard to accept failure in any form, least of all the very public failure of marriage. Perhaps that is why I held onto my marriage for so long, longer than I should have — because, damn it, I can make this thing work if I just put enough time, effort and energy into it. But sadly, that can’t be the case in something as fluid as a relationship between two living beings. Some things, no matter how hard you try, are just destined to fail.

Which brings me to today. What is it? A celebration of what was real and resulted in the creation of two beautiful and incredible people? Or a reminder of the greatest and most public failure of my life, one that I have to own and declare any time I fill out an application or a government form?

Perhaps I don’t have to pick, as I live in the tension between the two.

The need to pick sides, to have winners and losers, is one of the greatest challenges we face today, the incessant desire to cast our lots with villains and victors, good guys and bad guys. We live in an either/or world and I am a both/and kind of person.

When I look at my marriage, and the two people in it, it isn’t that simple, or that easy. The truth was that we were two broken people who together could not make a whole, especially when the third party of addiction ran rampant, leaving destruction in its wake.

So today, as I reflect on what would have been my silver anniversary, I recognize what silver is — a soft and malleable metal that i​s stable in oxygen and water but tarnishes when exposed to sulfur compounds. In other words, it remains shiny in some conditions, but not in others, and it is not as solid or strong as other compounds.

That was my marriage.

As I embrace that image, I don’t have to deny what was good or ignore what was bad. I can see it’s beauty even as I know that it was deeply tarnished.

Because marriage and divorce, like the silver compounds that are poured into the bowls that commemorate this anniversary, are complex, and not simply a box to be checked.

7 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — What Would Have Been My Silver Anniversary”

  • Helen Murphy June 28, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Steve knew a good woman/wife/mother when he met one. How fortunate for his children that was another one of his talents. Sorry for your loss because I can feel your pain in your words. Loving someone brings happiness and pain but you have chosen to focus on the happiness. That is one of your talents that has grown through your work. On your silver anniversary, happy that you can see the silver lining. God bless. Peace.

    1. Paula V. Mehmel June 28, 2017 at 11:53 am

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I deeply appreciate them.

  • John-Otto Liljestolpe June 28, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Paula. Yes. It is indeed a blessing to be able to smile and give thanks while one continues to feel the quiet ache.

  • Anita Warner June 28, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    Paula, you write truthfully, faithfully and beautifully about your divorce and marriage troubled by alcoholism. I have been walking that path, as well, including a very public separation. I appreciate the faith, realism, hope and love that shine through your witness. My great joys are also my young adult children, and the ministry with which I am entrusted. I remember our time together in seminary with gratitude!

    1. Paula Mehmel June 29, 2017 at 1:39 pm

      Anita, I will pray for you as you journey. If I can be of any support let me know. I remember saying the hardest part of divorce was that I loved the promise I made,but I know God loved me even more than that promise. And I too remember you fondly.

  • Sandra Dager June 30, 2017 at 10:15 pm

    What a courageous, poignant piece you have written. Thank you for doing this.

  • Ashley Few June 27, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    You are so right: when two people are broken, they cannot make a whole. It is a blessing that you were able to get so much out of your marriage (not the least of which is your son’s, of course). I still don’t know what I got out of my first marriage, except feeling broken.


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