Relationships & Divorce
Relationships & Divorce
When You Wish He Would Die — and He Does
A year after our divorce, Steve died and left me with $1.5 million in debt I knew nothing about
Steve and I are getting along a lot better now that he’s dead. No longer do we engage in the old repertory of arguments. Gone are my complaints about his inability to clean up after the most simple task. Instead, I feel a vague sort of benign approval from him, now that he’s on the other side. I assume he’s his best self again, the one he so skillfully presented to me when we first met.
This sanguine postmortem relationship hasn’t come easily, however. When Steve died in 2012, we’d been separated for six years, divorced for three. He’d spent those nine years doing his best to throw me under the bus, both financially and emotionally, and he nearly succeeded. Well after his death of colon cancer at the age of 63, I was still carrying my anger around like a 300-pound duffel bag, with no intention of setting it down until certain criteria were met. But to my great surprise, forgiveness came much sooner and more effortlessly than I’d planned.
In our 1987 marriage vows, Steve and I had invoked the clichéd promise that we would never go to bed angry. We couldn’t imagine committing such outrageous deeds that forgiveness would be more than a brief atonement at the end of a single day. Over the next 25 years, there would be the bliss of courtship, the contentment of marriage, and the love of parenthood — then anger, spite, unforgivable damage. Steve had been a highly successful civil litigation attorney, so his efforts to derail me were both cunning and effective. There was a lot to forgive.
During the course of our 22-year marriage, Steve had gradually transformed from a funny, loving, sexy, and professionally successful husband to a man bitterly unhappy in his job and consistently critical at home. He went from being a magnificent provider — there were several homes, first-class travel, private schools for our kids — to being unemployed due to his own self-sabotage. He was addicted to food, gaining about 80 pounds over the years. And spending: He secretly indulged in expensive hobbies even after the income had dried up. Once we’d separated, he confessed to me that he’d been hooked for years on Vicodin, an opiate narcotic that often leads to much harder drugs. In short, he was someone completely different from the man I’d fallen in love with, and I spent a lot of time blaming myself for not seeing it coming, or being able to stop it.
Perhaps the greatest lie was one Steve had told me repeatedly since before we were even married. “I hate to gamble,” he’d say. “I’m not a risk-taker.” It took me years to tally up the behavior against the words and realize that he’d risked everything: his profession, his family, even his health. And he lost.
When I finally decided to divorce him, Steve declared war. Because of his unemployment and his insistence on sharing custody of our children, he was able to avoid paying me alimony or child support, despite my 12 years as a full-time mother. He secretly siphoned funds from our joint accounts. He started dating women I knew socially and had an affair with a close friend of mine — while she was acting as the real estate agent to sell our family home. These were just a few of the times I wanted Steve dead. I couldn’t envision a day that I’d ever be happy again while the man still walked this earth.
In our settlement, I had received the proceeds from the sale of our primary home, while Steve took two vacation properties and two rentals. He was allowed one year to get my name removed from the loans on those properties — by selling or refinancing them — and I signed quit-claim deeds to sever my attachment.
But Steve refused to sell and, in his unemployed state, he couldn’t refinance. One year became two. Then Steve was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer (he hadn’t been to a doctor in four years because he hadn’t bothered to get health insurance). Now, he had more important things on his mind than selling real estate.
I knew it was bad, but it wasn’t until Steve died a year later, and the mail and phone calls began being forwarded to me, that the scales fell from my eyes. Of the four properties, two were in foreclosure and two were headed there soon. Steve had also maxed out a credit card still held jointly in our names. He’d even given the hospital my name as the financially responsible party for his emergency care. All told, he’d left me with $1.5 million of his debts, plunging my credit score to an F and taking years for me to untangle.
For the first year or so, I was shrouded in fury. I marinated in it. I had daily, vigorous arguments with Steve in my head, pointing out all his shortcomings and calling him names. When I was sure no one could hear me, I threw things and slammed doors. On weekend cycling rides, I pedaled up steeper hills than I ever thought possible, cursing him loudly as I struggled against the inclines. While I knew that forgiveness was my ultimate destination, I had established a timeline and set of conditions before I would even consider it.
I knew that I wouldn’t truly be able to forgive Steve until I finally felt financially secure myself. When I could get out from under my inheritance of his bad credit — but also when I had a stable income and could refinance my own home, which was still attached to a rather draconian loan. As long as I felt fearful around money, I knew I could continue blaming Steve for my precarious circumstances. I estimated that timeline to be about eight years: the span until which the foreclosures would be removed from my credit report.
Now comes, as my friend Jack calls it, “the woo-woo part.” For most of my adult life I’ve subscribed to the belief that, when we die, our souls pass over into some other plane, but that the veil between the dead and the living is thin. I’d read books like Dying to Be Me; Proof of Heaven; and Many Lives, Many Masters. I embraced the notion that we come into this life to learn certain lessons and we choose particular people to help us learn those lessons. I had no doubt that Steve was meant to be some kind of teacher for me. But believing those ideas hypothetically was one thing. Applying them to my own unraveled life was another.
Soon after my initial separation from Steve, when the wheels were first starting to come off in a spectacular way, I’d consulted a medium who had given me encouraging advice and helped me to see the larger context of my marriage and the path going forward. I knew that she could help me communicate with the postmortem Steve when I was ready. But that, I assured him on a nearly weekly basis, was not going to happen anytime soon. I still wasn’t speaking to him.
In the meantime, Steve seemed to be speaking to me. Lightbulbs blinked on and off repeatedly. Television shows abruptly switched to programs we had once watched together. More than once I awoke to the unmistakable sensation of a body lying in the bed next to me. One day I asked myself, purely hypothetically, what sign I would choose that might prove Steve was communicating with me. I settled on carabinieri, an Italian word that was the punchline of a joke we’d often shared in happier times. It seemed so random and remote, I thought, if I saw the word within a week I would consider it a sign from Steve. Not that I was interested. But two days later, the word CARABINIERI filled my TV screen in capital letters two inches high.
Still, I wasn’t ready to forgive. Too much damage had been done, damage that I was still working hard to repair.
One morning at work, I got a call from my friend, Bonnie, who had psychic gifts of her own.
“Steve’s been following me around all morning,” she said. Steve had been dead for a year. “He’s asking me to tell you that he’s always loved you. I know he had a strange way of showing it toward the end, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel it.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I’m still recovering from all his ‘love’ of the past few years. Bankruptcy, fraud, nearly marrying my close friend, trying to set the kids against me. I think I’m better off without his love, thanks.”
“Try not to judge him for his earthly behavior. The spiritual picture is much bigger than what you can see.”
With the phone still to my ear, I suddenly heard a distinct phrase in my head. It wasn’t my voice and it wasn’t Bonnie’s. It said: Isn’t it time to stop telling yourself stories about all the bad times? I knew I hadn’t created that thought myself.
“I’ve got to go,” I told Bonnie, and the minute I hung up the phone, I put my head down on my desk and sobbed. The emotion seemed to come out of nowhere. In that moment I felt something flutter in my chest. I could feel myself forgiving Steve.
This wasn’t according to the plan. Forgiveness was supposed to be years down the road. And yet, the voice was clear. I already knew that conditional forgiveness is like conditional love: It’s not the genuine article. Anne Lamott wrote, “Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table.”
Letting go of my anger didn’t happen overnight, of course. My heart felt like a fist I’d clenched for so long, it took a while to open it again. But having embraced the idea of forgiveness paved the way for feeling it. It freed up my mind and my energy to focus on more immediate things. It allowed me to experience happiness again because Steve no longer controlled my emotions. I’ve since realized that, until he died, Steve was convinced that I was the one who needed forgiving. Through the veil of life and death, we’ve both granted and accepted that grace.
In the absence of bitterness and resentment, I’ve been free to design the life I want: I’ve moved, I’ve reinvented my career, I’ve loved again, I’ve written a book. Steve says he’s happy for me, and I believe him.
Kirsten Mickelwait is the author of the memoir The Ghost Marriage, published by She Writes Press in June 2021. You can find her at kirstenmickelwait.com or on Goodreads, Facebook, and Instagram.
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