Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

March 22, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

This article for Linda Gravenson in The New York Times is interesting.

Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

My middle-aged son, Nick, calls from his car to tell me he’s racing up the 405 from his office in Los Angeles to a hospital in Ventura, to be with his father, who is on life support. The staff at his assisted living facility couldn’t find the “do not resuscitate” document allowing him to die from the heart attack that had deprived his brain of oxygen for 30 minutes. Nick’s been on the phone with the E.R. doctor, urging him to remove the breathing tube his father never wanted. They remove it.

Although I haven’t lived with Eckart for 30 years, I’ve been his second health advocate for more than a year, ostensibly to help Nick, who lives 90 miles away, and also for reasons I haven’t wanted to look at. I hesitated before asking, “Do you want me to meet you there?”

When we enter the E.R., Nick goes quickly to his father, touches his hair and his warm cheek and puts his hands on Eckart’s chest under the blanket. I won’t know Nick held his hands until later when he tells me that he wanted to feel their strength one more time. Eckart had spent his last year in a wheelchair, becoming weaker each month but managing, until recently, to hide the dementia that had begun years ago.

Although I have put my hands on my euthanized animals, my fear of dead humans keeps me from touching my former husband’s face. I can only touch the blanket and say, “What a complicated fellow you were.” Our son knows the history, and I am saying it for him as well as for myself.

His father came out to me when Nick was 10 but didn’t leave until Nick was 14. Another five years would pass before our son would know why. It was the late 1980s, AIDS had exploded, adding a taboo to Eckart’s revelation that hadn’t been there before. Not only was it still secretive, it was dangerous to be a gay man when who you were could take your life.

We spent nearly an hour in the small room with Nick signing papers, a social worker kindly offering sympathy, and the young doctor who had disconnected the breathing tube, after locating the D.N.R. document, reassuring us that Eckart would have been brain-dead. A risk-taker from his childhood in Germany, he’d exited as speedily as he’d driven, first the autobahn, and then American highways. Once a strikingly handsome man, he now lay with his mouth wide open, his dentures left in his assisted-living studio apartment this one last time.

I’d introduced myself as “Nick’s mother” and sat off to the side. The social worker wanted me to know that there were bereavement support groups in the small town I lived in. But were they for former spouses? Did I qualify for support after 30 years of living apart? Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

I realized I’d always been waiting for him to say about our 20 years together, “It wasn’t nothing.”

Despite my history with this man, the hurt, the fury, and the deep doubts he’d sown when he canceled 20 years of our life together, I didn’t want to leave him there alone, to be wheeled away to a cold vault, pending more paperwork and cremation. I wanted us to sit with him, to be together as a family. I imagined that if we kept a vigil I might be able to touch his skin, then still warm, and for the first time be less afraid of death. For as his spouse, albeit former spouse, I was next in line — or so it seemed there in the all too bright light, shimmering around me.

In the following weeks, before the scattering of his ashes, the “sea burial,” as Eckart’s brother called it, and the memorial luncheon which included just six of us, I was surprised to find myself back in the album I thought I’d left behind decades ago: meeting Eckart when I was 25, a young journalist from New York on assignment in West Berlin, marrying in New York, having his child and those 20 years together before being left in midlife. He’d framed my youth and my motherhood and created some protection from my bipolar, often psychotic mother.

No longer in the foreground of each other’s lives, we remained in each other’s background for decades, never as out of touch as others who divorce. It wasn’t nothing, even in separation.

As Eckart had embraced the gay life in New York, while living with us as a family, any self-confidence I still had was chipped away — for living with a closeted gay person isn’t a recipe for feeling desirable. Keeping the secret from our son did its own kind of damage. As the years followed, when I was asked why I had never remarried or re-coupled, I would say crisply, “I’m cured,” when really I was in retreat, where no one could reach me. I was ultimately on my own, accompanied only by pets I could trust — our cat and my long line of dogs.

For too many years the animals I would rescue were stand-ins for me. It was I who needed to be rescued, except on those days when I was a grown-up some of the time. I’d recovered from years of agoraphobia following a postpartum depression, but didn’t realize that humiliating midlife dating was perfect terrain for a phobic who didn’t know how to drop the story line, didn’t know how to live in the present tense.

It’s taken too many more years to finally admit that Eckart wasn’t the cause of my solitary life after the marriage but that, just as I’d allowed my ill mother to seduce and reject me, seeing myself as a reflection in Eckart’s eyes was a learned habit — as familiar as loving the unavailable, troubled mother. I’d married the absentee parent as so many of us do. Even if I’d had no control over the end of the marriage, I had some choice in how to respond, how to prevail and even to flourish instead of retreating.

For when choice seems impossible, it is still there, squirreled away where we can’t see it but there, just the same. Or as we discover, not choosing is the choice.

Source: Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife (The New York Times, December 4, 2020).

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Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife was last modified: March 18th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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