Walking into a Manhattan apartment building on the cusp of New Year’s Eve, I sweated despite the cold temperature.
I’d dreamt Marc would kiss me at midnight in Times Square as the ball dropped, but instead I was meeting with Sara, an astrologer, an outlandish remedy for the pain I felt over the end of my fairy tale romance. This meeting offered me a lifeline of hope.
At 29, I was a professional Irish dancer turned lawyer, working as defense counsel at a top bank. Marc, four years older than me, possessed the whole package: an Ivy League education, a lawyer, athletic, and Big Brother to an underprivileged boy.
Half-Catholic, he understood my upbringing as a strict Irish-Catholic and attended Mass with me, something my first love during grad school refused to do. One night after dating for two months, I told Marc about my brother, who served in Iraq. My brother was coming home to Missouri for his two-week leave.
Marc said, “I’ll pay for your trip on one condition, I get to go, too!”
In St. Louis, Marc cheered for my niece at her soccer game, accompanied my nephew trick-or-treating, and gave my struggling sibling a gift card for groceries. He asked me to move in with him. We discussed a date. I felt my dream within reach.
But ten days later, Marc left a voicemail, saying he’d been hospitalized and not to worry. I called his dad, who said Marc was receiving electroshock therapy (EST) for anxiety.
His words made me tremble as if I’d been zapped. How did I miss Marc’s struggle? I had no idea he was suffering. I had no idea EST was even a modern-day treatment.
When the hospital released Marc five days after his admittance, I dashed out of work to his apartment.
Sitting on his couch, looking thin and worn, Marc stared at the television that was turned off.
Like a robot, he said, “I’m sorry. But, today is goodbye. My therapist said I’m not capable of an adult relationship.”
“I’ve also been taking a lot of pain pills and snorting …. heroin.”
“What!” I shrieked as tears drenched my cheeks.
“I want you to have this,” Marc said, placing his blue Chelsea Piers T-shirt, the one I’d slept in, on top of a bag he’d prepacked with my belongings.
Shock and grief engulfed me for weeks as I sobbed into his crumpled shirt.
Inside Sara’s apartment, the scent of incense lingered in the air. On a paper between us, a circular pie chart was covered with multicolored lines connecting little symbols strewn across it, with the time, date, and location of my birth.
Sara’s cherub grin, round frame, and loose housedress made her seem like she’d break out singing “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” from Cinderella, but I felt I was doing something wicked. Because of my religious background, the occult was off-limits, and I’d been taught to offer up my suffering for those in purgatory.
Over the past weeks, I’d uttered countless pleas to God to help Marc heal.
I’d asked St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, for intervention. Every night, Mom had called. “My God, I’m sorry for my sins,” Mom would begin an Act of Contrition, and we’d finish the prayer together.
At least, I wasn’t practicing magic, I reasoned. Astrology I’d discovered was a soft science based on the configuration of planets and asteroids.
Sara tapped on a section of the chart. “You have the sun and Saturn conjunct in your natal twelfth house in the sign of Cancer. You came into this life because nobody had handled any of the family problems. So, your job is to fix the family karma.”
I was here to speak about Marc. I hadn’t mentioned family problems.
“You’re going through a Saturn Return — something people first experience when they’re 28 to 30. It’s when transiting Saturn makes a full circle around your chart and wakes up the reason you’re here. It’s usually a big issue that’s unresolved. Your work involves revisiting your roots, solving the father mystery, and uncovering the secrets that nobody talked about.”
The “father mystery.” She meant the father I’d severed from my life.
Over a year ago, a woman’s flirtatious message on his phone was all I’d needed to confirm my long-term suspicions.
Her “It’s me,” and throaty laugh still made me boil, along with how Dad had grabbed his new phone from my hand as if he could hide the evidence. He’d regretted needing my help retrieving messages as I’d sobbed and screamed, “I hate you,” as if he’d betrayed me, not Mom, his wife of over 40 years.
But I did feel betrayed, angry he’d chosen other people over time with me and our family.
Dad worked multiple jobs and attended lots of meetings for organizations, including the American Legion, Moose Lodge, and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, while Mom raised my four siblings and me as if she was a single mother.
But Mom never had it easy. At 19, she traveled from Ireland to New York with only her father and one sister to work and raise money so the rest of their family could join them.
Mom met a devout Catholic man from Ireland at a dance and fell madly in love. But then, her father got sick and died. A year later when she was 24, her fiancé died, too, after an aneurism. Devastated, Mom contemplated entering the convent.
She decided against the nunnery and lived her life in mourning.
She wore her dead fiancé’s Celtic cross around her neck. His memorial card followed her parents’ in the three-inch-thick stack of prayer cards she carried in her purse. She had his anniversary marked on the family calendar in our kitchen. His sister was my godmother.
“Despite Dad’s affairs, Mom would never get a divorce,” I told Sara. “Mom thinks her fiancé’s death was easier to deal with than going through a divorce.”
“From her perspective, death was easier,” Sara replied.
“Can we talk about Marc?” I asked, overwhelmed by sadness for my mother.
Sara walked to her computer. “Marc’s a south node relationship,” she said looking at his chart.
I perked up, hearing the stars show a connection.
“He’s a karmic relationship. He brings you information and experiences to help you figure out your journey. He pushed you on your path, like a giant kick.”
As the new year began, instead of going to Mass on Sunday, I lay in bed hugging Marc’s shirt. I felt abandoned by God. I feared I’d never love again.
One afternoon while walking in Central Park, I stopped mid-step, thinking about my astrology reading, and raced home to my computer. My fingers shook as I typed an email to Dad, asking about the other women in his life.
For your information, your mother gave up sex when she couldn’t have any more children. Nuns said sex was for making children only, he replied. In another email, he said he wanted to see his chart.
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Dad flew to New York for business and an appointment with Sara. After his reading, he handed me his cassette with his session and returned home.
I listened to his recording, shocked at how much Dad praised Mom and gushed about our family. I laughed when Sara said he’d be a grandpa twice more, and he said one of the babies better not come from me when I was single.
Dad and I began exchanging regular emails. He told me about his father’s, brother’s, and his own military service and awards, and how Mom hated everything dealing with the Army and refused to attend most of Dad’s events. I pushed myself to ask how it was living with a ghost, Mom’s dead fiancé.
I see the Mass cards and the notes on the calendar. But you can’t be jealous of a dead man, Dad wrote.
“Yes, you can,” I yelled at my computer screen as his reaction let me understand him in a way I’d never been able to before.
Like Marc, Mom was emotionally unavailable. He used drugs to escape. For decades, Mom had been stuck in prolonged grief and entrenched in religion. Dad yearned for more and found more outside of our home.
Instead of emailing, I called Dad. Before hanging up, he said, “I love you,” as if no time had passed since our last friendly call although it had been nearly two years.
“I love you too.”
A tear ran down my cheek. I knew I had a lot of inner work to do to forgive but finally, I felt the compassion I’d long lacked.
I thought about emailing Sara to book another New Year’s Eve appointment. But, instead of reaching for my computer, I grabbed Marc’s T-shirt from a dresser drawer, dashed down my stairs, and tossed it into the basement bin.
Saturn return or not, I didn’t need an astrologer to show me I was finally ready to let Marc go, and let Dad in.
Tess Clarkson’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Independent, Next Avenue, Motherwell, and AARP’s The Girlfriend.