Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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My ex-husband is dying. A year and a half ago he was on the telephone with someone, and suddenly words vanished from his brain. English became a language he’d once known but had forgotten. The memory of those things called “words” was still there, but they were lumpy, pale, and almost unrecognizable, like dust-sheeted furniture in a mansion’s unused rooms. He stood for a moment, suspended in this awful limbo, the phone clutched in his right hand while a voice on the other end chattered at him. Then — and this was almost a relief — he fell to the kitchen floor and had a grand-mal seizure. He woke up in the emergency room of the hospital where he’d worked as a nurse for twenty years. A few hours later, after a CAT scan, he learned he had an apple-sized tumor in his brain.
My ex, Ted, wasn’t the one who told me this story. Our daughter Susan did. She was twenty years old and working in Italy for the summer when it happened. She didn’t get the news until after the emergency brain surgery had been performed and the correct, Latinate term had been applied to the deadly mass of word-gobbling cells: glioblastoma multiforme.
Even before he lost his speech, Ted did not talk to me. This was, I feel sure, not entirely his choice, but due to an edict laid down by the woman he’d married a few years after we’d divorced. Until he met her, we used to talk often on the phone and in person when we exchanged Susan, who stayed with him every other week. Ted and I both lived in the same town, and still do. He got the house we’d built together, and I moved to a barely habitable shack on the river that belonged to and was subsequently remodeled by Luke, the man for whom I’d left my husband.
Our divorce was fairly amicable, as divorces go. We used a mediator provided by the court, split our assets down the middle, and agreed to joint custody. Which isn’t to say Ted wasn’t angry. He was furious, and justifiably so. I had run around behind his back with Luke. With no thought in my mind other than the intense pleasure being with Luke gave me, I’d lobbed a bomb into my thirteen-year marriage. I have no excuse, except that I was emotionally fragile and chemically dependent. Besides being a depressive and an alcoholic, I was beginning a long love affair with opiates, so my decisions at the time were not always sound.
At any rate, my husband recovered from the divorce, as people usually do, and got remarried. I think when his new wife saw how angry Ted was at me, she began to hate me, so that they could hate me together. Though she was in her midforties, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Then she began the process of kicking Susan out of the nest, so that all traces of Ted’s former life would be erased. At the age of sixteen, Susan landed on my doorstep with all her belongings. Ted’s new wife dismantled Susan’s room, emptied her closets, removed her posters from the walls, and even returned presents Susan had given Ted in elementary school: a pottery bowl, school pictures.
These dramas are as old as the hills, as old as fairy tales. I don’t blame my ex-husband’s wife any more than I do myself, for my selfishness. Who am I to say what wounds moved her?
When Susan found out about her father’s surgery, she was hurt she hadn’t been called sooner. What if he’d died on the operating table? What if she’d never been able to say goodbye?
After she returned from Italy at the end of the summer, I dropped her off at Ted’s house. He was standing in the garage when we drove up and got out. His tools were carefully hung on pegboard, his lawn mower parked next to the snow blower. I suspect his wife was at work, or else Ted might not have spoken to me. I could hardly look at him. He was thinner and wore a baseball cap to cover the scar on his head. He looked sweet and vulnerable, as he always had. I told him I was sorry to hear he was ill, and he said he was feeling pretty good, considering. (He’d recovered his ability to speak since the surgery.) Then I launched into the speech I’d prepared: “I know we’ve had trouble and pain between us, but all of that means nothing to me now. All that matters is your well-being —”
“I don’t hold any grudges,” he interrupted.
I could feel Susan’s eyes on us. I wondered what this was like for her, watching her estranged parents hastily improvising a truce. But I couldn’t wait for just the right time. I blundered on. “All I want to say is I’m sorry about what happened. And Susan . . .” I stopped. The words I’d composed didn’t seem enough.
“She’s a good one,” Ted said.
“Yes, she is,” I said.
My eyes filmed over, but I didn’t cry as we paused to consider the wreckage between us. Then we discussed medical details, because we’re both nurses and could talk easily about the medications he was on, their side effects and benefits. Then I said goodbye, hugged Susan, and drove home.
I thought about how lucky I was not to be the one to lose my words, even temporarily. I depend on them so, to explain my past mistakes and rationalize my selfish acts. It would be a fit punishment for me to be deprived of them. Why had it happened to Ted, who’d always had trouble expressing his feelings and asking for what he wanted? Standing there in the garage, I had felt for a moment how it was not to have words, because there were no words big enough for the enormity of what we had shared and the sorrow I felt. There is no way words can capture the innumerable details of a marriage: the space of four houses, the scenery of five states, the shudders of so many acts of love, the spirits of so many pets, the exultation of a birth, the shared love of a child, the night after night of a body beside you.
Susan has chosen to overlook past slights and quarrels and to spend as much time as she can with her father. When she was home for Christmas, she stayed at his house instead of mine. I threw a fit about this, glowering and acting as if she were abandoning me. She has been patient with my lapses of reason.
Ted still doesn’t talk to her much about his prognosis, but his sister tells her that the tumor has come back. He is on chemotherapy again, and a plethora of other pills. He sleeps a lot, and when he’s not sleeping, he’s often vomiting. He can’t drive. He can’t read. The tumor has taken his words again, almost as if it feeds on them. Over Christmas vacation Susan read him a book called Freakonomics, about how societal trends are affected by seemingly disconnected events such as crime rate and climate. I think she should have read him Stephen Levine’s Who Dies? but I had no say in it.
Susan will be ok. Until we divorced, Ted was a good father and loved her unabashedly. And they are making peace now, healing the rift between them. Her skills at doing this are greater than mine. She hasn’t needed to dodge her emotions and deaden herself her whole life.
Sometimes I think of my past with Ted. When was the last time he and I made love? I remember the burgundy blanket we used. I remember his subtle smell, so much milder than Luke’s. How quiet we were. How I always closed my eyes, even in the dark. I think of the day I told him about Luke: Ted and Susan had gone on vacation at a camp on a lake in New Hampshire. I’d stayed home, ostensibly to work. And I had worked, but I’d also slept with Luke in the shack on the river. I drove to the camp. During the hour-and-a-half ride, I steeled myself to break the news; to hurt another human being; to grab what I wanted. Luke and I had just started to make love, and it must have been the haze of hormones that gave me the strength to tell Ted I was leaving. I wouldn’t be able to do something like that now. I’ve left behind the euphoric certainty granted by lust and alcohol.
I got to the piney campground, setting of Ted’s boyhood summers, the place he loved most in the world, and told him about Luke. I remember his face, pale and hard. He didn’t argue or protest. Afterward we went to a square dance, and when we whirled, I felt that Ted wanted to throw me through the wall. The muscles in his face were frozen, as if he’d had a stroke.
After Ted and Susan came home from the camp, I told Susan the news in the car on the way to my new house. She was eight years old. She started to cry, and I pulled off the road to cry too.
“What’s wrong, honey?” I asked, knowing what was wrong but wanting specifics.
“It’s just that I’m used to you and Dad being together,” she said.
I remember how Ted and I used to let our dog get on the bed between us. We adored her: her seal-colored fur; her liquid eyes; her gasping, squirming love. One time, as we sat on either side of the dog, I told Ted that she was a stand-in for the love we couldn’t give each other. We gave the dog, in each other’s presence, the affection we ourselves wanted. He laughed uncertainly, as he always did when I said something that might be too true to say.
The saddest memory I have is of something that happened when Susan was almost two years old. She had learned to lift herself over the side of her crib, hang by her hands, and drop to the floor. Then she’d run and get into our bed. One morning, in the dim light of dawn, I was just waking, and Ted reached over with a hand and stroked the side of my head, pushing my hair back. “Hi, honey,” he said. “Hi, sweetie bumpkins. How are you?”
I froze. I’d never felt such tenderness from him before. What on earth was he doing? We didn’t talk this way to each other. Then it hit me: he thought I was Susan.
“Ted,” I said, “it’s me. Susie’s still in bed.”
“Oh,” he said and laughed, embarrassed.
“I thought you’d gone crazy,” I said and laughed too.
That’s the moment I saw what love might be, what I was missing. It’s what Luke tries to give me sometimes, that direct beam of almost embarrassing love.
I wonder now: Did Ted know I wasn’t Susan? Was he maybe trying to do something we hadn’t done before: love each other directly, with our eyes open?
Lois Judson’s essay “With Eyes Open” [September 2007] grabbed me from the first sentence. As a twice-divorced woman, I can say she captures perfectly the conflicting thoughts and feelings one has, sometimes for years, after a marriage ends. The scenes with her husband draw a vivid portrait of divorce and the pain that often accompanies it, especially when there are children involved. Her writing has helped me take a few more steps along the path toward acceptance.