Ash Wednesday

Today is my Dead Ex’s birthday. If he were still alive, he’d be 65. This is a piece I wrote about him years ago.

IT WAS FREEZING COLD, and of course I was still driving around with my dead husband’s ashes in the trunk of my old Tercel. My sons weren’t sure what to do with them, and since the fake marble cask was so heavy, I left them in the trunk until they made up their minds.

“Well, there were times you sure sounded like you wanted to put him in the trunk,” said R., my best friend.

“I feel funny,” I said. “It’s so cold. I feel like I should take him a blanket and a Thermos of hot chocolate or something.” He was gone, and years of hard feelings left with him.

I was fifteen when I met him, eighteen when I moved in with him and nineteen when we married. Roy and I stayed married for thirteen years and had two sons, M. and J.

It was one of those cerebral, friendly marriages where we had no real emotional understanding of each other; worse, we lacked compassion. We once thought we’d manage to stay friends despite our divorce but mostly, we could only manage friend-ly. Often, there were hard feelings between us. Most of those hard feelings appeared to be related to money but ultimately, they had to do with the way each of us looked at the world. Roy was afraid of so many things and he tended to hoard things to keep himself safe. He thought money was his armor.

People were so quick to write off my complaints as the embittered exaggeration of an ex-wife. They weren’t standing there in the support hearing when, asked by the judge if he had anything to say, Roy laid out an elaborate explanation of how much it cost him to feed the boys each week. “So you see, your honor, not only should I not be paying more support, I believe I should be paying less.” (At the time, he paid $35 a week for two boys. I was making $16,000 a year. He made more than twice that.)

The judge looked genuinely shocked. “You know, sir,” he said, peering over his glasses, “I have fathers in here all the time, begging for the opportunity to spend more time with their children. I must say, I believe this is the first time I’ve ever had a father ask for a rebate for time spent with their own children. Increase granted!” He banged the gavel.

Oh yes, I could tell stories. But I won’t. I only want to illustrate how out of proportion to life was his emotional attachment to money.

Three years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, cancer of the blood plasma. It was a few months after the birth of his daughter Sara. Roy was as aggressive a patient as was his cancer. He soon became involved in support groups, going to Washington to lobby for research money. He told me his goal was to stay alive long enough for them to find a cure.

“Sometimes the only cure we get is spiritual,” I prodded him. “Sometimes the thing we get to heal is our relationship with other people. You need to talk to the boys while you have time.”

“Getting well has to be my priority right now. I have plenty of time for that later,” he said.

“You could get hit by a bus leaving the hospital,” I said, exasperated. “Don’t act as if you have all the time in world. None of us do.” But he didn’t want to hear it, and his relationship with his sons stayed tenuous. In the meantime, M. cultivated a policy of “no expectations”; he called his father every week and saw him occasionally. J., who lived in Baltimore, was too angry to pretend. “Call me after he’s dead,” he told me when I tried again to mediate.

Roy spent most of last spring in the hospital. The prolonged fevers he suffered wore down his armor and eventually left him painfully grateful for every small thing. He spoke with wonder of how vivid his senses were: The sunlight through the window, the taste of fruit. The intense joy of reading the New York Times.

It was as if he’d burst loose of his moorings and had already floated away to another plane. Other visitors came to call, including N., S.’s mother (they’d broken up) and K., his on-and-off lover of 15 years. Finally, the doctors decided to give him a stem cell transplant. If it didn’t kill him, he’d have an average of two years before he got sick again.

To me, his death was already a given. As a psychic, I never saw him in our offspring’s future. He wasn’t at his son’s weddings, he wasn’t playing with his grandchildren. As an astrologer, I saw his natal chart taking some serious hits so I figured this must be it. When they pronounced the transplant a success, I was surprised. “They must have gotten something wrong,” I muttered to myself.

Psychics always suspect their own gift; I’d been so sure. But no, apparently he was fine. And once he was feeling better, whatever progress he’d made in mending his tattered relationships slid back to the status quo. He reunited with Kathy for a while but they split up again. N. and S. moved to Syracuse, where N.’s fiancé worked.

N. stayed involved in his health care, though, and she called me shortly after Thanksgiving to tell me Roy’s fevers had returned. I knew this was a very bad sign. It meant the transplant hadn’t worked, after all.

I called J. “He’s sick again,” I told him. “It’s not good.”

“What is it you want me to do?” he said, sounding hostile.

“I don’t want you to ‘do’ anything. I’m giving you the information, you do what you want.”

“I’m asking you what you think I should do. What you would do, if you were me?” he said, insistent.

I hesitated. “I’d come back as see him as soon as I could. I think he’s going to die soon,” I said.

“You said that the last time.”

“It’s different this time. He’s much sicker than he was.”

J. drove up to see him and called me when he got back to Baltimore. “I see what you mean,” he said. “He’s just so weak. There’s no real point to being mad anymore, you know?”

“I know,” I said.

Ten days before Christmas, he was back at the University of Penn’s ER, waiting to be readmitted. His big brother H., his childhood hero, stayed with him those long hours. I picked M. up at his downtown job; we waited with H. while Roy stayed curled in the fetal position on the hospital gurney, knotted up with fever. (I noted that each glassed-in cubicle was, with no apparent sense of irony, named after a Las Vegas casino. Roy’s was the Venetian.) I left a message at J.’s job, saying he should come home right away. By the time Roy was finally settled in a hospital room, J. arrived back in Philadelphia.

The next day, J. helped me decorate Roy’s hospital room for Christmas. I’d brought up a tabletop tree and some icicle lights for his window, and as we put them up, J. was scornful. “Dad doesn’t want all this hokey stuff,” he said. “Right, Dad?”

Roy collected himself; he was short of breath, making it difficult to talk. “Well,” he said slowly after a pause, “any sign of caring is…greatly appreciated.”

“See? I told you he didn’t like it,” J. said and we all laughed.

He was very gracious, those last few days. He thanked everyone for everything, gravely and solemnly. When he accepted a small Christmas figurine (a moose wearing a Santa Claus suit) I’d brought him, he turned it to look at the bottom, as if it were a piece of fine porcelain and he was looking for the artisan mark. “Roy, it’s just a tacky Christmas statue from the dollar store,” I said. “You don’t have to pretend it’s a work of art. I just thought it was funny.”

“Oh,” he said. He looked relieved that he didn’t hurt my feelings.

That afternoon, we finally had some time to talk alone – about the kids and eventually, about his dying. He told me how angry he was. He’d had the best treatments and the best doctors and he was supposed to have more time. I thought about that a minute. He seemed to want someone to say yes, he really was dying but so far, everyone had tap-danced around the subject in that modern, tactful way we have.

I plunged right in. “Well, we have to play the cards we’re actually dealt,” I said. “Whether you have two hours – or 24 – left, you can spend them being angry that you didn’t get two years. Or you can take that time, whatever it is, and you get to have your life. However much time it is, you get to live it. You get to make that choice.”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded.

He lived the hours he had left. He had what people call a “good” death. Those last few days, he was surrounded by people who loved him despite his best efforts to keep them at a safer distance. M. and J. were there, separately and together.

When he died the next morning, I was asleep and dreaming: Walking along through a bare winter landscape. Everything was icy and desolate but suddenly, everything burst into bloom and it was spring. The trees, the grass, flowers – all these gorgeous azaleas. It was absolutely beautiful and awesome in the spiritual sense of the word.

I woke up wondering what it meant; but of course, I knew it was about Roy. About a half-hour later, Nancy called to tell me he was gone. I had the dream at the moment he died.

I like to think it was the moment he finally began to live.

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