Relationships & Divorce
Relationships & Divorce
When Your Ex Lays Dying (After 50 Years of Divorce)
I divorced my husband 50 years ago. His dying has brought us back to a loving symmetry
My daughters and I drafted this obituary for the dying man who was once my husband. He and I weren’t married very long or very successfully, but we had two children together, daughters who are now in late middle age. Since his move from New York to Phoenix, he calls to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day, thanking me for being such a good mother to them. I wasn’t all that good, but he is generous, much as he was as a father and husband.
He hates organized religion and show-offs, and loves baseball, martinis, Ava Gardner, and melancholy violin music. He still drinks too much and repeated himself even before he grew old. He is not a man I could have spent my feminist life with.
Looking Back at Another Life
I retrieve my 1956 wedding album from the cobwebby recesses of the storage unit. Everyone on its yellowing pages is dead; there is no one left who knew us then. We both imagined then that everything would be ahead of us and that we would be able to escape the undertow of our family legacies, he under the dominating control of a successful and demanding immigrant father and I chafing under the manicured thumb of an equally controlling and ambitious mother.
I study my face arranged for all the prescribed poses of the wedding album form: my father walking me down the aisle; feeding my previously married, 33-year-old husband a piece of wedding cake; our first dance, a carefully practiced rhumba. But I cannot remember myself. At 18, I was playing my role in a highly scripted event where everyone but me seemed to know their part.
There was one child, then another; an apartment, then a large brick home; one car then two; more and more belongings to dust and wash, arrange and display. Our marriage operated within the division of roles common in white middle-class marriages of the mid-1950s. He went to work outside, and I went to work inside, mothering, cooking, cleaning, organizing our social life, and seeing that everything ran as smoothly as possible. There was always a drink and dinner waiting at the end of his day, after which he played with the girls. Then I took them upstairs for bath and bedtime so he could relax after his workday, which was assumed to have been more demanding than my own. We drank together, his multiple martinis and my over-eager whisky sours; shared the ongoing dramas of our siblings, in-laws and friends; navigated domestic details and those of our bed; until the cultural realities that defined 1956 became the radically altered landscape of 1963.
When I Moved Forward–Without Him
That summer, as a proud new member of the Urban League, I joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was awakening to the realities of American injustice and had begun to study the words of writers and musicians I admired, apprenticing myself to their ideas. Nina Simone at the Village Gate singing “Mississippi Goddamn.” James Baldwin fiercely trying to explain to white people the danger we were all in. Before the march, the assassination of Medgar Evers. After it, that of President Kennedy.
By the end of that year, I left my marriage, having no idea what that might require of me. My carefully curated suburban life felt like a premature compromise, and I wanted to be in the middle of things. Wherever that was.
I left him hurt and wounded as I gathered our daughters, fleeing into what I imagined would be our exhilarating new future. It wasn’t, of course. It was simply a life like all lives, requiring a different set of choices, necessary compromises, inevitable losses, and unexpected opportunities.
I began as a divorced leftie, but by the end of that decade had become an exuberant feminist, leaving both the old and the new behind. After meeting the woman who became my great love, I lived for a decade as a lesbian-feminist activist, then after her death a lesbian-feminist widow and writer. Now I am an old woman who carries all those identities — and more.
Over all that time, I rarely thought about him or our years together. He represented a part of my life that held too many guilty memories which I papered over with a well-crafted critique about the damages of patriarchal institutions, the constricting nature of conventional marriage and all the ways it’s propped up by women’s unpaid labor. While all of that was true, my analysis was a self-protective one, serving to shield me from the sense of shame I felt about how our life together had ended.
My Ex Moves On
He was, at least according to our daughters, happy. They didn’t like his new wife. Or her daughter. Or that he had chosen them. But they appeared at all the necessary celebrations and birthdays, keeping me up to date on the labyrinthine workings of his new family life. And eventually, they forgave him his failings as a parent. The inevitable bruising that accompanied their own aging had softened them, leaving them less harsh about his shortcomings and more able to appreciate his inattentive amiability.
Ten years ago, on Yom Kippur, in my yearly attempt to atone for pain I might have caused people in my life, I sent him a letter apologizing for the ways I had injured him, taking our children away and behaving selfishly towards someone who had always done his best to love me. I slid over the complexities; it was now more than four decades after our separation and no longer necessary to say that he drank too much or that I had taken a lover. Or that I felt trapped in the suburbs, while he was proud to show his father how successful he was in his big house. Or that neither of us knew how to speak truthfully and clearly to one another. I left all that out. I just wanted him to know what was, finally, important. I was sorry and ashamed and owed him my apology.
We Reconnect After 50 Years
His response was awkward, but, like him, trustworthy. “Well, it all turned out. I got to spend my life with R., and you got to do whatever the hell it was that you wanted. So, don’t worry about it. But thank you for writing the letter. It was good to get it.”
When his wife died and he was no longer able to live alone, our daughters moved him to a residential facility near them where he could be assisted in his living. Receiving help has been difficult for him, a child of the Depression, a soldier in World War II, a believer in getting up, dusting off, and moving forward in life. This once sophisticated New Yorker, now frail, was now playing bingo and poker and going to a twice-a-week happy hour.
He and I reentered one another’s lives then. Except for the weddings or illnesses of our daughters, we hadn’t been in direct contact for nearly 50 years. But now, when I go to visit, the four of us have dinner together.
He moves into the restaurant slowly, leaning heavily on his walker. Settling into his seat, he first orders his essential vodka martini — very dry with a twist — then leans back, looks appraisingly at me and says with a familiar heartiness, “Still looking good, old woman. I’m glad to see you.” Nothing fancy. He was never one for fancy words, but I knew his clumsy efforts were genuine. And it was good to see him. I was glad, too.
I’m always careful to sit beside him because his hearing is poor and mine only a little better. We talk about our own personal ‘“back in the day.”’ When we saw Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer. When we sang show tunes at a piano bar till closing. When I had my emergency appendectomy. Both of us careful not to say anything that referred to our terrible final days, just the early times when we still were happy together.
I watch as the conversation with our daughters volleys back and forth, often too fast for him to follow, and when a question is lobbed in his direction, he can’t always get to a response quickly enough. But in his efforts to be a part of the conversation, he begins a story that he thinks is relevant to what is being said.
Our daughters have concluded that he’s repeating himself. “Tell us what you see, Mom,” they say, correctly assuming that I, as an old person, will have insight that they need.
What I saw was they were too fast, and he was too slow. I identify with him, patient with his repetitions since I, too, have been gently reminded by friends that I’ve told that one before. And perhaps preparing for the time when I, too, may be limited to the same six or seven stories because I know how they go, and the others are just a bit out of reach.
One of his memories was witnessing my mother being critical of me — perhaps it was my housekeeping or my mothering or my cooking, I no longer remember. He firmly let her know that since he was 16 years older than I, he was closer to her age than to mine and therefore free to insist that she be respectful of me and our marriage. He is the hero and a good husband in the telling. He recounts it proudly, his understanding of how he defended me to a woman I was then still struggling to please and separate from. I love listening to his stories now. Both to what he is saying and what he is really saying.
Another oft-told story took place during the years he was in the good marriage, in a moment when his wife had called his mother to wish her a happy 85th birthday and he impulsively went to get his violin to play My Yiddishe Momme to her over the telephone. He tells it the same way each time, unable to access the words that might have expressed his appreciation for the violin lessons she encouraged him to take all those years before, and used the bow and strings instead of words to tell her that he loved her.
And there are my stories as well. When our youngest became ill, I called to tell him and without hesitation or questions, he simply said, “What do you need? What can I do?”
He was never a man given to asking why things happened as they did but moved directly to what needed to happen next.
When she was convalescing, he asked me what he might do to let her know he was, in his words, “in her corner.”
“Go to a card shop, buy a few dozen funny cards and send one to her every day. She’ll enjoy getting the mail and hearing from you,” I advised.
He did. The cards were his words, the ones he was never comfortable saying. He is a soft man, a garrulous man, a courteous, friendly man. He managed to find his way past a powerful father, and I, past a dominant mother. We both found our way into lives that fit us and allowed us our weaknesses.
Now, when my younger daughter visits him, she brings CDs of Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf so that they can sing his favorite songs together. Her sister takes him for long drives in the mountains because he can manage the walker and oxygen in her car. They both bring their best selves as they accompany this old man as he moves towards his death.
I have just returned from joining the three of them at what will probably be his last Thanksgiving dinner. We spent some time alone before our daughters joined us, and I took the opportunity to tell him again how deeply sorry I was to have broken his heart all those decades ago. He nodded with appreciation for my words and the gallantry that so defines him. His absence of emotional language was such a source of frustration for me once, but I have lived long enough to hear his words in the silences.
Nearly a half century ago I broke our original nuclear family apart in an urgent reach for my own freedom. His dying has brought the four of us back into loving symmetry. The original gangsters.
Sandra Butler is an old woman who writes, teaches, counsels, organizes and mothers. Her fourth book, The Kitchen is Closed: And Other Benefits of Being Old is a collection of personal essays about not only the limitations aging imposes but the splendid freedoms it allows.