Al was my first husband, my children’s’ father, my former husband and my lifelong friend. He died last year, suddenly and too soon. In moments when my feelings are inexplicable, I’m drawn to the dictionary to examine the meaning of the word “husband” because, 34 years after our divorce, I feel as though my husband died.
But Jack is my husband today. He’s the love of my life, a love that began in 1984, was abandoned and then rekindled in 2006. We moved in together in 2009 and married in 2013. Jack is very much alive. I’m not a widow. I’m a wife.
So I find myself pondering a word whose meaning I thought I knew as I grieve the loss of my husband while spending happy days and nights with my husband.
Al and I divorced in 1980, the year the percentage of marriages ending in divorce in the U.S. peaked at 52 percent. Nearly half the women of my generation, and more than 40 percent of the men, have been divorced. By now, there must be hundreds of thousands of people in my shoes, losing an ex-spouse, having an assortment of feelings about the loss, and finding no easy way to talk about it.
When Al died, I took time alone with his body: to say once more that I was sorry for hurting him; to say once more that I forgave him for hurting me; to tell him I was glad he was my husband, and that he always will be central to our family–two daughters and six grandchildren.
I’ve wondered at my grief, as unexpected as the death itself. We had 14 years together, and 34 years apart, yet the loss hit me harder than the three most grievous deaths I’ve known: my sister, my mother and my best friend.
I don’t believe divorce is ever easy, and ours wasn’t. But we soon came back to a love, a friendship and a mutual respect that never left us. And always, we kept our eyes on our children. We did our best by them even as we moved on in our separate spheres.
And the spheres were very separate. I took our children from Chicago to Oregon, where I always wanted to live. Al agreed to it. “I’ve known for a long time that you’ve wanted to live a different kind of life,” he told me. “You have to go. You have to try it.” And so we began a shared custody that had them with me during the school year, with him during school vacations. I introduced them, even as I was introducing myself, to clean, pure nature. We walked through forests next to waterfalls, as they whined: When can we go home? My legs are tired. And, my favorite: If you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen ’em all. We drank water from pristine rivers that had not yet run through any town. We cross country skied in the Cascades, hung out with old hippies on a communal farm, and marveled at the Pacific Ocean from cliffs and beaches made more for contemplating the existence of God than for sunbathing. At first reluctant in our new surroundings, they came to appreciate the natural world. I learned about nutrition and changed our diet to include whole wheat bread and the abundance of fruits and vegetables available in Oregon. We picked wild blackberries and made ice cream.
During Christmas, summer and spring vacations, Al taught the girls the rules of football and baseball as they sat cheering and watching his big screen TV. They saw all the “Star Wars” movies, more than once. They went bowling. They learned to play poker. They ate white bread sandwiches and McDonalds hamburgers and Dunkin Donuts. They ordered pizza. They learned their grandmother’s recipes for Christmas cookies and chicken paprika and pork with dumplings and sauerkraut. They took trips and visited every amusement park from Cedar Point in Ohio to Disney World in Orlando. He signed them up for baton lessons and they marched, with their cousins, in Fourth of July parades. They rode their bikes on familiar suburban streets with each other, their old friends and their cousins.
Al and I didn’t care that the lifestyle was different in each of our homes. I knew that when they were with him, they were well loved and safe. He knew the same when they were with me.
Our daughters learned that the people they loved most could live very different kinds of lives. As an adult, my youngest daughter once said, “I have the best mother in the world, and the best father. And I don’t understand how you were ever married to each other.” They learned not to judge people for how they chose to live, but to look deeper. When my oldest daughter was 12, her 11-year old cousin was in a quandary about what to wear to a friend’s party. My daughter said, “What difference does it make? If they’re really your friends, they won’t care what you wear.” Many years later, that cousin said to me, “How did she know that at such young age?”
Our spheres often overlapped. We stopped being a couple, but we remained a family. After we divorced we were together for graduations, weddings, births and birthdays. We were a tag-team in providing help to our daughters and babysitting for our grandchildren. We laughed about the exuberance of the little ones and called them “wild things.” It was our job to love them unconditionally, and we did. In telephone calls and emails to each other, we bragged up the beauty and the brilliance of our kids and grandkids like we could do with no other human being without being told to put a sock in it. When our children hit bumps in the road, we helped them out. We pooled our money to buy elaborate gifts for birthdays ending in zero.
Our marriage didn’t work, but our family did.
My mourning for him is my own. His partnership in loving and caring for our family is irreplaceable. But I also feel the loss through the heartbreak of our daughters. They have cried to the point of exhaustion. They can be broken all over again when they see a photograph, hear a turn of phrase, or imagine an empty place at a holiday table.
They want him back. So do I.
Ten months after his death, they each can mention a day, finally, that passed without a fresh wave of tears, though bad days still follow good days. I tell them that I don’t know how, but it will get better. They will never forget, and they will never truly get over it, but the pain will ease. Their young children remind us daily that life goes on.
He’s gone, the man who stood next to me at the core of our family, through our years together and through all the years apart. Now, I stand there alone–the head of the clan. When he died, I embraced the title of matriarch and felt its weight.
In my new sphere, I’m not alone. I have a husband. But since Al died, I have accidentally called Jack by Al’s name. It never happened before, and I think I’m conflating “husband.” Nothing has prepared me for this role without a name. Ex-widow? I think neither of us regretted the divorce. But I’m re-evaluating what divorce means, just as I re-evaluated, many years ago, what marriage meant. Now, I wonder about ties that can be broken, and those that cannot. Maybe, for some, a husband is “till death do us part.” Maybe it’s so especially when there are children. Or when the marriage began propelled by hormones and the sweeping promises of youth. It is probably not so for everyone, but it is so for me.
I count myself lucky. I have loved two husbands. The one from my youth has died. The one walking beside me into old age listens and understands my grief over the loss of my husband.
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