In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Six years after the event, I still cannot say for sure whether I am divorced or widowed. The question comes up whenever I am filling out a form that wants to know my marital status. All the other questions I can answer in seconds, but this one — which asks that I check single, married, separated, divorced, or widowed — always stumps me. I’ll pause there at the dentist’s office, insurance company, or bank, and, while the clock ticks and other people’s children scamper at my feet, I’ll reflect on what it really means to be married.
The event I refer to is the death of the woman who used to be my wife. Wanda was not my wife when she died in December 2001 at the age of forty-two. Not legally, anyway. She and I had met in the summer of 1980, married in the summer of 1984, and divorced in the summer of 1994. Before we’d gotten married, I’d made it clear to Wanda that I did not want children, and she’d told me that she could accept this. Yet, throughout our years together, it seemed she never put her longing to rest. I watched her study the infants our friends and family brought into the world, as if silently hoping I would change my mind. I didn’t. I couldn’t see the sense in my becoming a parent and said so. Wanda’s mother, with her affable proddings, would ask me why I’d married her daughter if we weren’t going to have children. That, she would say, did not make sense to her.
The discontent Wanda and I felt about each other’s intractable positions eventually spread into the rest of our marriage and soured it. What Wanda’s mother kept saying began to make sense to me: why stay married if I wasn’t going to give Wanda the child she wanted? I was forty; Wanda was thirty-four — still plenty of time for her to have a child with someone else. I talked to Wanda about it, we put ourselves through a year of psychotherapy, and finally the two of us sadly agreed that things just weren’t working out.
After we’d split, our lives suddenly took far different turns, as if we’d been spring-loaded to take off in new directions. I began studying Buddhist meditation; went on retreats in Nepal, Thailand, and here in the States; and found myself at the feet of dozens of spiritual sages who invariably spoke of the impermanence of everything. I knew about impermanence, having ended a marriage that was supposed to last as long as we both would live. But somehow hearing it spoken by teachers I considered wise gave me solace. I also put myself through Union Theological Seminary in New York City and earned a master’s in divinity.
Meanwhile Wanda launched herself into physical pursuits, becoming a luminary in the local contradance, zydeco, and swing-dance community — a scene the two of us had never set foot in when we’d been together. She occasionally invited me to dances at a local parish hall or rec center near our homes in upstate New York. Sometimes, when I missed her, I’d show up. I’d pick her out of the crowd and wave, and she’d scoot over and guide me onto the floor, where I’d hobble along under her patient instruction as some of her suitors looked on. I can keep in step to rock-and-roll, but to this music I was like a rusty engine that’s reluctant to turn over. Wanda and I would laugh at how clumsy I was. Then I’d watch her dance with another man, the two of them seeming to glide across the floor.
The remorse I’d felt about initiating the divorce diminished when I saw Wanda enjoying life on her own. From time to time we’d talk on the phone and trade stories about our latest romantic escapades. It turned out she and I were better friends than we’d been spouses: happier, more candid with each other, and less prone to bickering.
I had not seen Wanda for several months when she phoned me in April 2001 to tell me she was having surgery to remove a large mass in her abdomen. As I penciled in the date on my calendar, she told me not to worry, said it was nothing. And off she went with her latest beau to a Cajun-music festival in New Orleans.
I have always liked Wanda’s family, and they have always liked me. Even after the divorce, I was invited to holiday dinners, birthday picnics, and Christmas services at their church. Wanda was Chinese American: her father had emigrated from Beijing and her mother from Shanghai in the 1940s, both fleeing the communist takeover. They’d met in New York City, married, and moved to suburban New Jersey, where I met Wanda while working at a newspaper. I was a young reporter, and she was an intern in the paper’s graphic-design department. A middle-class, Connecticut-raised WASP, I was charmed by Wanda’s Asian beauty. Although she and her two siblings were as American as I was, her parents were still very Chinese, and their culture seemed exotic to me. Her mother spoke with an accent I found hard to understand. Her father showed me sawtooth-edged black-and-white photos of the house where he’d grown up: a palatial estate in Beijing that had been confiscated by the communist regime and turned into a barracks for the People’s Liberation Army. Wanda and her family seemed less tormented by the guilt, worry, and conflict that droned on in my family and friends, and this held a certain allure for me.
On the day of Wanda’s operation I joined her mother, father, older sister Frieda, and brother-in-law Peter at the hospital. Wanda maintained her silly, often droll sense of humor throughout the pre-op. As the nurses rolled her on the gurney into the operating room, she held up the hand not tethered to the IV and cranked it side to side, like Queen Elizabeth waving from her Rolls Royce. Several hours later we met with her surgeon. We learned that a softball-sized pelvic mass had been removed in a total hysterectomy. He appeared disconcerted; the tissue, he said, would be sent to a lab for a biopsy, and the results would take a couple of days. Wanda would remain in the hospital to recover.
One evening a few days later I walked into her room after a stressful day at the office. Wanda was on the phone, snapping at the hospital-switchboard operator — unusual behavior for her; Wanda was usually courteous to a fault. And she was glaring at the foot of her bed. The way I figured it, she had just been sliced open and was in pain. Of course she was irritable. Seeing me, she hung up and started to cry.
“I don’t have good news,” she said.
Whatever had bothered me at work that day fell away, and I rushed to her bedside and cupped one of her hands in mine. I imagined some infection, or perhaps she would need another operation.
“What is it?” I asked, caressing her long black hair.
“It’s cancer,” she said.
Ovarian. And it was serious.
I laid my head on Wanda’s lap and sobbed.
In the years we’d been apart, Wanda and I had each had several lovers who’d come and gone, but neither of us had remarried, nor were we seeing anyone at that time. This gave us the freedom to be with each other without competing love interests at the margins. I spent hours with Wanda in the cramped living room of her apartment, which adjoined her parents’ house, an hour’s drive from mine in New York State, where they had moved a few years before. A hospital bed her maternal grandmother had used in her final years was set up there. I also accompanied Wanda and her sister on trips to Boston’s Dana-Farber / Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, where Wanda was treated with punishing, nauseating rounds of chemotherapy that kept her down for days. It was an aggressive regimen. She had a rare and virulent form of cancer — clear-cell — and it was at stage IV, which meant that the cancer had gotten into the liver. Stage IV can be treated but is terminal; few live beyond five years. In the aftermath of these treatments, Wanda would sometimes call me to gripe about the pain or for comfort, often weeping.
I tried to appear strong in the face of Wanda’s weakening condition and, to some extent, my own. I visited her, ran errands for her, and sometimes cooked for her while the earth tilted us into summer and then fall. The September 11 attacks left Wanda and her sister stranded in Oregon, where they had spent a week learning qigong from a renowned Chinese master, hoping this ancient healing practice might help Wanda get well again. A few days later, when Peter and I drove to the Newark airport to pick them up, we could see, across the New Jersey tidal marshes, clouds of smoke from the still-smoldering remains of the Twin Towers. With all the death and dying in the air, I was elated to see Wanda alive at the gate. We hugged, and for a moment I had the idea that everything was going to be fine.
For most of October, Wanda’s condition remained relatively stable; her oncologist seemed encouraged by her response to the experimental brew of chemotherapy he’d prescribed, and perhaps to the qigong. Then one November morning Frieda called me.
“Something bad is happening with Wanda,” she said, her voice distant from the poor cellphone connection. Peter had gone into the apartment to get Wanda, she said, and found her lying upstairs on a stripped bed in a spare bedroom, disoriented and barely cognizant. An ambulance was on the way.
“Jim’s here!” exclaimed Frieda when I parted the baby blue privacy curtain at the emergency room. Wanda, stretched out on a gurney, looked at me. There was no spark of recognition. Her head stayed tilted to the left, and her eyes were wide, as if she were shocked by the condition in which she found herself. The sole movement in that tight space was Wanda’s left arm, which slowly rose and fell like a machine, as if to push back from her face the thick black hair she’d once had. Doctors say hearing is the last of the senses to go, and I wondered if Wanda was listening as her family and I discussed her condition. I passed my hand lightly over her head to let her know I was there.
Wanda was admitted for observation and a battery of tests to determine what, exactly, had gone wrong with her brain. I spent my days and nights at the hospital while a handful of office colleagues took on a good portion of my work. I had barely noticed the changing of the seasons that year, and when I did finally notice, it was through the sealed, grimy window of Wanda’s fourth-floor room. The tops of the trees had gone bare, and the people on the broken sidewalks had thick clothes on, their shoulders hunched against the cold and puffs of steam coming from their mouths. I wanted so much to be out in the world; I wanted Wanda to be out there, too — on the street, making plans, living life.
Wanda had a room to herself, and the night nurses let me stay past visiting hours. With the very real possibility of death hovering near, the world outside the window became increasingly irrelevant. The lines between day and night, the known and the unknowable, were beginning to blur. Even the fact of our divorce seemed to get erased.
I tried to get some rest in two tangerine-colored chairs I’d pushed together, but I never could sleep sitting up. To distract myself, I slipped on the headphones of the portable cassette player we’d brought for Wanda. (We’d thought music might comfort her.) I pushed the PLAY button. Van Morrison’s “Carrying a Torch” came on.
Wanda had made the tape, labeled “Mellow Music,” several weeks earlier. She’d put the Van Morrison song on it, she’d told me, because it reminded her of us. Sometimes we’d joked that when we got old and feeble, we’d shack up together in a nursing home. Now, delirious from insomnia, I gazed at Wanda’s wasted form in the pale gray light and listened to Van Morrison beseech his lost lover to “reconnect and move further into the light.” It was as if everything under me — the earth itself — had been pulled away, and I was plunging through a dark space, nowhere to go but down. I felt that by not wanting children and initiating the breakup of our marriage, I’d committed a heinous crime, and now I was being punished. Selfish bastard that I was, I’d stayed involved with Wanda even after we’d split up, perhaps thwarting her chances to get remarried and have the child she wanted. I’d read that not having children can increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer — so that, too, was my fault.
Early the next morning, I was awakened by the sound of Wanda gurgling on vomit. After being admitted, she’d been given a morphine patch to ease her pain. I’d voiced a mild objection, having been told that, because she was “narcotic naive” — Wanda hardly even took aspirin — morphine could make her nauseous. Now I ran down the waxed hallway to tell the nurse that “my wife” was throwing up. It was the first time I had called Wanda “my wife” since we’d separated. I wanted the nurse to take my plea for help seriously, and somehow I thought that using the word wife would do the trick. But there was another, less calculated, reason: as I had vowed nearly twenty years before, I still cherished Wanda as if she were my wife, in sickness and in health.
The nurse came and wiped green bile from Wanda’s chin, and, despite my misgivings, I agreed Wanda should keep the morphine patch on. A few minutes later, though, just as I thought Wanda had drifted back to sleep, she started heaving again. I called the nurse back, and this time I took it upon myself to peel the morphine patch off Wanda’s pale, blue-veined chest.
“She doesn’t want morphine,” I snarled, as if it were the nurse’s fault it had been put there in the first place.
I’d been awake barely a half-hour, and already the day had taken its toll on me. Left alone in the room, I climbed into bed with Wanda. I thought that if she couldn’t see or hear me, perhaps she could feel me. The rubber-coated mattress crinkled under my weight. Her emaciated form lay still as I curled against her, fetal-like, and nuzzled her neck. Wanda fell back to sleep, and after a few moments so did I. It was the first time we’d been in the same bed together in eight years, and in a strange way it felt like home. When her family doctor showed up later that morning, I was startled awake and felt intruded upon, as if he’d barged into our bedroom.
A couple of days later, tests revealed that the cancer cells had wormed their way into Wanda’s skull, causing the brain tissue to swell. The neurologist described the condition as “impossible to treat.”
So that was that. Her words were like a door gently closing, the lock quietly clicking into place. Wanda’s family and I were drained of all the hope that had buoyed us through the previous six months — and there’d been plenty, I realized the moment it was snatched away. Wanda was brought home in an ambulance and put back in her grandmother’s hospital bed to die.
I don’t know when the idea first occurred to me, but I began to consider asking Wanda’s family if we could hold a remarriage ceremony. I could not give Wanda back her life or undo the divorce. I couldn’t even offer my help: the errands had all been done; the trips to Boston were over. Love was all I had left to give, and the ceremony would be a declaration of that. It would not be a legal marriage; Wanda was incapable of consenting. But I believed she would have wanted it. There had remained a sort of low blue flame of love between us, the kind Van Morrison sings about in the song on Wanda’s tape. Wanda and I — and also her family and I — still carried that torch for each other.
At first I was reluctant to make my request, for fear her family might be upset. But the idea of us carrying to our graves the broken promise I had made to Wanda in our first marriage ceremony — to be together “till death do us part” — troubled me. When I timidly mentioned the idea to her family, they were thrilled; they’d been thinking the same thing but couldn’t bring themselves to ask me.
The family’s minister came to the apartment to perform the ceremony. I spoke of the love that had kept Wanda and me and her family connected through the years. The minister read from the Song of Solomon (“Love is strong as death”) and Ecclesiastes (“For everything there is a season”). Then he read some vows for me to respond to with “I will” and “I do.” I wondered whether Wanda heard any of it. Could she see the small circle of friends and family members who had gathered round us? When it was over, Wanda’s mother opened her arms to me, and we held one another tight, both of us weeping. Wanda’s younger brother, whom I hardly knew, suddenly embraced me and said, “Welcome back.”
During the night, I kept vigil, sleeping fitfully and dreamlessly in a twin bed perpendicular to Wanda’s. Her breathing had grown labored and painful to listen to: somewhere between a snore and a wheeze. Each night her condition deteriorated, and she often gasped as if being strangled, which maybe she was, as death tightened its grip.
In the predawn hours of December 6, five days after we’d brought her home from the hospital, Wanda’s labored breathing awakened me, louder than ever. Spit that looked like strained peas pooled in the corners of her mouth and on the collar of the thin cotton hospital gown. Normally squeamish about bodily excretions, I’d tended to Wanda’s without a second thought. Her mother and I had already changed Wanda’s soiled undergarments several times, both of us noticing how her right foot was turning ever deeper shades of purple from lack of circulation. I had little reaction to all of this. Perhaps I had closed down, or perhaps I was opening up. Buddhists speak of how, if you can train the mind not to get attached to human suffering, you can benevolently enter any “hell realm” of existence like a swan with wings spread, swooping down on a lake. I now got up and wiped Wanda’s chin with a handful of tissue, then passed my hand over her head, trying to comfort her. Her eyes were wide and fixed on something beyond me, beyond all of us.
I climbed back into my bed and fell asleep. When I woke again, a cold gray December dawn was showing through the tops of the skeletal trees outside the windows. This time it was not Wanda’s breathing that had awakened me; it was the silence.
I rose, felt my bare feet hit the shag carpet, slipped on some clothes over my briefs and bare chest, and knelt by her bed. She was cold and hard to the touch; rigor mortis was already setting in. It seemed she was still staring at whatever she’d been staring at earlier, and I had to put a hand over her eyes to close them because her eyelids kept going up like the weighted eyes of a doll. When I lifted her left arm — the one she had repeatedly passed over her head — to put it under the covers, it felt as stiff as a downed tree limb. I slipped from the stubborn fingers of Wanda’s right hand a set of sandalwood Buddhist mala beads I’d given to her as a talisman against evil spirits. I stuffed the beads into the left front pocket of my jeans; I would carry them always as a way to remember her. Then I read aloud the Twenty-third Psalm, as I had planned to do, from the Bible that I’d used in my years as a seminarian: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .”
I slipped into Wanda’s parents’ kitchen to deliver the news, feeling like some dark angel. Her mother was making coffee and didn’t hear me coming. As I floated toward her, I uttered the heaviest, gravest words I’ve ever said to anyone: “Wanda’s dead.”
“Oh. OK,” she replied. That was it. I’d expected her to fall apart, but she didn’t. Nor had I, come to think of it. We hugged lightly, as if I might have been going off to a day at the office. I think we were in shock. No matter how close someone you love is to death, there is nothing so final as a corpse in your midst.
A couple of hours later a gray panel van arrived from the funeral home, and two men lumbered out to retrieve Wanda’s body. If I’d had any sense, I would have backed off and let the men do their job, but I was not yet ready to abdicate my responsibilities to Wanda. I helped lift her body off the hospital bed and onto a gurney, bedsheets and all. I’d prepared to lift a heavy weight, but Wanda’s frame was so insubstantial, so eaten up by cancer, I could have picked her up by myself. One of the men had put a pale blue corduroy body bag on the gurney, and I zipped it up over Wanda the way you would a child’s parka on a winter day. Wanda disappeared, and I realized that this would be the last time I’d ever see her.
As I helped wheel the gurney out to the van, I suddenly insisted that the body be moved headfirst, and the driver obliged. Years ago I’d read about an ancient Hindu tradition: you carry a body feet first at the start of its trip to the funeral pyre, so the spirit can remember its earthly life; for the second half of the journey, you turn the body headfirst, to help facilitate the spirit’s departure from its material existence. After the van had pulled away, I turned to Susan, a friend of Wanda’s and mine whom I’d called that morning, and I collapsed into her arms and fell apart.
Later that day at the funeral home, as we prepared the death certificate and obituary, I asked whether I could accompany Wanda’s body to the crematorium. Wanda’s family wanted her cremated so that, come spring, we could gather and each fling a handful of her ashes from the sharp gray shoulders of Shawangunk Mountain, which you can see in the distance from the back deck of Wanda’s apartment. I knew it was an unusual request, but I didn’t know what else to do except see my grief through to the end, if there was one.
Consent was granted, and Susan accompanied me. No special arrangements were made for us. In fact, we were treated as a minor inconvenience. In my car, Susan and I trailed the funeral-home van past strip malls, warehouses, and office buildings to a lovely cemetery with a palatial mausoleum. The crematorium, however, was a square, squat, cinder-block building at the end of a narrow paved road, where you’d expect to find a maintenance shed. Inside, a huge black furnace stood like the machinery of Oz. The van backed up to the open garage door, and I was shocked to see a long corrugated-cardboard box emerge. Two attendants indecorously dressed in jeans and T-shirts — they were maintenance workers, after all — clumsily hoisted the box onto an assembly line of rollers about chest high. Before Susan and I caught up to what was going on, the furnace door was lifted, and the box with Wanda in it was gliding toward its open maw. Susan and I reached out just in time to tap the box goodbye before it rolled away. The furnace door was lowered, a switch was thrown, and the woman I’d loved in the flesh for twenty-one years went up in smoke.
As Wanda was efficiently transported into the ether, a man in a dark suit — he must have been management, perhaps showing up as a last-minute courtesy — told us the heat inside the furnace could reduce a corpse to ash in minutes. Was this supposed to be some sort of comfort? My mind reeled. I tried to reconcile this small, shabby scene with photos I’d seen of the towering, flower-strewn funeral pyres along the Ganges River in India, and all their ancient, complex rituals for honoring the dead. While the man prattled on, Susan and I stared at each other with raised eyebrows and finally, by some silent agreement, decided that it was time to go.
On the busy road at the edge of the cemetery, cars and trucks streaked by, windshields glinting in the morning sun. Susan and I started toward my car, but something made us look back, as if the tips of our noses were tethered to the grim place we’d just left. We both saw in the windless blue sky above the crematorium chimney a blurry streak of heat and ash: Wanda’s ashes. It should have shattered me, but instead I was struck by the bizarre collision of events — these final moments of Wanda’s corporeal existence, the gruff handling of her remains by the maintenance workers, the blathering of the manager about the furnace heat — and I began to laugh. Susan joined in, and soon we were both pitched over, warm tears wetting our cold cheeks. The two of us nearly fell on the frozen pavement, so disjointed by the pain and hilarity of it all that we could hardly stand. We caught ourselves on the trunk of my car, bent over like a couple of marathon runners, come at last to the end of a long and exhausting race. I knew then I was going to be all right. I felt Wanda laughing with us, the three of us gathered in the arms of the big, fat, grinning Buddha, howling at the absurdity of this mortal coil, as if that was all there was to us. And even if it was, so what?
For weeks afterward I was awakened on dark winter mornings by the smell of bacon frying in my house, where I live alone. Some Sunday mornings, in the home Wanda and I had shared, she’d cooked bacon for breakfast. Waking up now to the smell of bacon when no one was cooking anything was eerie but comforting. I considered all the rational explanations for the phantom aroma, but my nearest neighbor was hundreds of feet away, and all my windows were sealed against winter’s cold. Maybe I was just imagining it. No matter, I thought. When it came to coping mechanisms, an imaginary one would do just fine.
One hot summer night a few months before Wanda had died, I’d shown up at a dance fundraiser her friends had put together to help pay her medical expenses. Wanda and I were outside the parish hall on the lawn. We could hear the band playing a Cajun reel through the open windows, and Wanda asked if I wanted to dance. I said, as usual, that I didn’t know how. She took my hands and placed them on her shoulder and waist and showed me the steps. It seemed like trigonometry to me, and when it became clear that I was never going to get it, we fell into each other’s arms for a long hug.
When I smelled bacon cooking in my house, it felt as if Wanda and I were still doing some sort of dance, and she were still taking the lead.
A part of me died with Wanda, a part I was glad to see go: my resistance to love. I’d often put distance between myself and others as a way to keep from feeling trapped or getting hurt. I’d delivered wearying criticisms of people I thought were less than perfect, as if I were any better than them. Living like that had been a long, hard battle with many casualties, the most wounded sometimes being me. I think that during all those silent-meditation sessions; in all the time I’d spent listening to the wisdom of renowned teachers, theologians, and sages; in all the millions of words I’d read in profound spiritual tracts, I’d been trying to learn how to love. But no amount of meditation or yoga or studies of scriptures could have given me that. Wanda’s death put me in touch with one of the highest orders of human existence: to love others as though we are all dying all the time, because the plain truth of the matter is that we are. For a long time I didn’t know how to articulate this new feeling, even to myself. Then a couple of years ago I heard k.d. lang sing a Leonard Cohen song in which love is described as “a cold and broken hallelujah.” And I thought, Yes, that’s it. In this love I found rest from a sort of homesickness that had afflicted me all my life.
© Jeffrey Hersch
It was not long before my days reassembled themselves into a more or less familiar shape, which was a sort of relief. But I began to forget how, in my hour of grief, I’d cherished my existence and the people around me. Years later, it sometimes feels as if I have to reach across a great psychic distance to get in touch with the way I felt then, as though it lay beyond the curve of the earth.
I have not remarried. From time to time I wonder if I will ever again feel for anyone else what I felt for Wanda in our final months together. And if not, then what? Sometimes someone will ask me if I regret not having children. No, I say. And yes. I don’t know whether being a father would have sustained the love I felt as Wanda died. Parents I know have told me that this is what having children does to you: it opens your heart. One mother said that what you feel bringing a person into the world is akin to what you feel seeing someone out of it. Perhaps I didn’t have children with Wanda because I was afraid of feeling too much; I don’t know. What I do know is that I miss Wanda’s features — her brown eyes, round face, delicate frame, and silly sense of humor — some of which appear in the children of her siblings, some of which would no doubt have been replicated in our children. And maybe if Wanda and I had brought a child or two into the world, it wouldn’t be such a struggle for me now to recollect the love I felt when she was dying.
So my pen hovers over the little boxes on those forms. My own internal compass tells me I’m widowed. Even if we’d never had that remarriage ceremony, I still would have felt married to Wanda when she died. Our divorce did not end our relationship, and, for me, her death made it even more lasting and unfathomable.
For a while after she’d died, I checked “widowed,” hoping the clerks would notice it and tease a story out of me. It was like a little flag I waved. I wanted sympathy, to be seen as more than just another client, customer, patient, student. I was also hoping to trigger a discussion of a similar loss on their part so we could commiserate, like strangers in a snowstorm, and I could give voice to the huge, uncertain emotions swirling inside me.
Legally, however, I am not widowed. So, reluctantly, I check the “divorced” box. But what is a marriage if not the depth of feeling you have for each other? It’s only the love between two people that’s real, that lasts. Everything else just comes and goes.
After I’d read “My Marital Status,” by James Kullander [December 2007], this line stayed with me: “Wanda’s death put me in touch with one of the highest orders of human existence: to love others as though we are dying all the time, because the plain truth of the matter is that we are.” That one pure truth has changed my marriage, my friendships, and my priorities. Thanks to Kullander, I am a much kinder and more understanding man.
James Kullander’s essay [“My Marital Status,” December 2007] let me know that I am not the only person who has difficulty answering the marital-status question on forms.
After my husband disappeared, I had to divorce him to disassociate myself financially. He called once and promised me that one day he would come home, and we would pick up where we’d left off. I never heard from him again. I later received a letter from his sister telling me of his suicide. I was not emotionally divorced from him and had still been waiting for him to come home.
Usually my answer to the question is “widowed,” no matter what the divorce decree says.