I have been with my parents during their final hours. I have witnessed my daughter take her last tortured breaths. I am watching old friends die almost monthly. Still, I’ve never felt such a mix of emotions as I did when I stumbled across my ex-wife’s obituary in the newspaper.
Happily remarried for thirty years, I’d had no contact with her since our daughter’s death four years after the divorce. Since that time, I seldom thought of my first marriage except as a twenty-year mistake, most of the mistakes being hers.
But now I felt weak. I found myself thinking, if only we’d stayed in our first house instead of moving back to her hometown, we might have made the marriage work. If only we’d seen a marriage counselor. If only I’d gone for a PhD and become a college professor instead of remaining a high school English teacher…
Then I thought, if my ex and I had stayed married, I wouldn’t be with Mary Lee, who showed me what marriage can be, who was the reason I didn’t drink myself to death when Laurie died, who makes me believe God really does exist. There’s no way I could be happier than I am now.
For weeks, I felt like a racquetball, caroming off walls of shock, relief, regret, and gratitude.
But there was no one to talk with about how I felt. No action I could take. When my mother and father died, my brother, sister, and I shared memories. We purchased another stone for the family cemetery to decorate on Memorial Day. After Laurie died, I found groups like Compassionate Friends with whom I could talk. I made contributions for cancer research. I counseled other grieving parents.
But I couldn’t put a memorial stone for my ex-wife in our family lot. And while Mary Lee was sympathetic—she’d spent an afternoon listening to a friend describe her conflicted feelings after her ex died—I couldn’t talk to her about the “if onlys” and the “what ifs” of my first marriage, the experiences only my ex and I shared, especially with our daughter. I was now the only one alive to remember Laurie’s first steps as she stumbled between her mother and me, or my sitting with her mother during our daughter’s first piano recital, or the three of us decorating the Christmas tree.
Add loneliness to the emotional cesspool in which I swam.
Then, during a meeting of the 12-step program to which I belong, when my emotions about my ex-wife’s death swarmed like black flies, I shared that when I’d gone away to college, I anticipated getting away from my dysfunctional family, but that my mother’s shame and my father’s angry resentments had come with me. My grades were lousy. I sat alone in the back of the college den, bitterly envious of the laughing fraternity brothers and sorority sisters I saw at the front tables yet afraid to make conversation with anyone around me for fear they would reject me for being the loser I thought I was.
Driving home after the meeting, I realized how being a child of alcoholism had drawn me into marrying the only child from a closely knit family with strong Yankee values who seemed confident and strong, who, I thought, would offer me the stability I craved.
I started to realize how being that child had also contributed to the breakup of my marriage. How, to keep feeling safe and secure, I never expressed any of my own needs. How I used sarcasm or said, “I’m sorry” without meaning it to avoid arguments. How I worked long hours at school to gain respect from my students and to avoid problems at home. How I built up resentments like building blocks until they finally came crashing down around us.
I found myself feeling not only more compassion for my ex, but also for the marriage itself. We did remain married for twenty years. At least ten of them were pretty good. Most important, we created an intelligent, beautiful, compassionate daughter, who, although she died at eighteen, continues to inspire me every day. There’s no way in the world I could wish Laurie had never happened.
With the help of my 12-step sponsor, I began to see the best way—maybe the only way—for me to grieve my ex’s death was to honor the good times in our marriage and learn from the mistakes I made and not repeat them.
I wrote a letter to my sarcasm, thanking him for helping me get through some ugly times, but saying his services were no longer needed and it was time for him to retire to a condo in Florida.
I worked to become more honest, more open in my relationships with others. Probably because of our struggles to understand each other after Laurie’s death, Mary Lee and I had usually been able to speak openly with each other, but I made even more of an effort. With other people, I tried to listen more, wait (a 12-step acronym, by the way, for “Why Am I Talking?) before reacting, and focus on “I” statements—“I feel…” “I see it this way…”—rather than “you” statements—“You’re wrong…” “You don’t understand…” “You need to …”—when I did respond. (Which has also helped me talk with Mary Lee, come to think of it.)
Since the advent of COVID—and now with the events in Ukraine—I’m learning another lesson from my first marriage. I was drawn to my ex because she made me feel strong and secure. As she and I discovered, however, the world is not a safe place: I brought my dysfunctional family behavior into our marriage; both she and I underwent major surgeries; our daughter died of a rare cancer. Mary Lee and I are in our seventies and although we’re vaccinated and still mask, we’re at risk. I’ve had more surgery; she’s prone to pneumonia. I’m watching more and more friends die from other causes—cancer of the jaw, Parkinson’s, heart disease—and I find myself wanting to hunker down, stay home, or perhaps sell our house and move into a continuing care facility as some other friends are doing because they feel they’ll have more security.
But looking at the failure of my first marriage helps me see real strength comes not from trying to avoid risk, but from living with curiosity, honesty, and love, both for my family and for myself.
Which is why at the beginning of last summer, Mary Lee and I found a window between the waves of pandemic to take a European cruise. I’ve called a contractor to do some remodeling of our house. We both volunteered to facilitate adult programs.
And in the years to come? I can’t know, of course. I expect that my family’s history of heart disease and cancer will hunt me down. Grieving my ex-wife’s death, however, has helped me see that I can’t let the desire for stability dictate the way I live my life.
Been there. Done that. Didn’t work.