in sickness and in health

I’m going today to have lunch with a group of friends who have connections to the department where I work; most of them used to work there with me. This is the first time that we’re getting together since one of them, let’s call her Ann, finished nursing her ex-husband through pancreatic cancer. We had all known at least one person in common who got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and was dead two months later. It’s a vicious disease with not a lot of warning signs. So when Ann told us that her ex had it, we thought that they were facing a similar painful and brief experience.

However the dinner after the one when she told us that he’d been diagnosed, she told us that she was going to have him move in with her. And then the one after that, he was still apparently going strong. The diagnosis had caught the disease when it was still early enough that he had some time.

Ann’s decision struck all of us differently. I am divorced myself, and, like Ann, not on the very best of terms with my ex, though we try to get along for the sake of co-parenting our sons. I hear from the boys that he tells people that I am a neurotic mess. And I think he’s a great one to talk. Every time he goes along to a psychiatrist’s appointment with our older son and Martin talks about some symptom he has, Gabe is right in there talking about how he thinks he has it too, maybe worse. Bipolar, Aspergers, anxiety. He’s got something alright. Pain in the ass syndrome would be my considered diagnosis. So if he got diagnosed with some awful cancer, would I want to care for him? My first reaction would probably be hell no. But then I would probably wind up doing it. For my sons. So they could see that they didn’t have to worry about dying miserable and alone, that someone would care enough to be with them too.

Ann’s ex died about a month ago. I know that he’d been hard to care for. He’d stay holed up in the room that he was using and just appear for food and to go to appointments. It was enough caring, though, to make her grieve his loss.

I have a couple of close friends who have had their spouses die over the last year or so. I suppose this is because I’m getting older and will become more and more common. Watching them grieve so intensely, I have to wonder what my later life will be like. I’m a person who hasn’t let too many people in so close. That’s not just introversion. I’ve thought about it a lot and concluded that having your parents emotionally abandon you when you’re young can cause a long-lasting imprint on your personality. My mother faded away from us into alcohol. My father turned away from the sight of her by downing nightly cocktails of tranquilizers and wine that rendered him incoherent as well. In the morning, neither of them would remember the night before, so complaining was pointless. My youngest sister and I became unable to form solid attachments, and my middle sister coped by trying to control everything.

My mother died almost twenty years ago of cancer, but she had started to develop cirrhosis. My father claimed that he couldn’t remember her struggles with drinking.  He said he must have been traveling for work when she got drunk. My sisters begged me not to confront him. They were sure that he didn’t remember anything he’d done and that my telling him the truth would devastate him. Sure. But what about us?

He said to me more than once that he didn’t understand why he and my mother were able to stay married for almost forty years, and my sisters and I, between us, had five divorces.

“I can explain it to him,” I said to my sisters. “Librium and Gallo Rhine Wine are the answers. And if he asks me one more time, I’m going to tell him.”

In the end, he died before I told him the truth. But I’m telling the truth now. Maybe it will stop some other child from being manipulated into thinking that they should make up to one parent for what they say they’re not getting from the other.

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