I found out today by email that my ex-wife died six months ago. She was 63.
There was a message in my inbox from her husband, whom I had never met. She and I had divorced 25 years ago and even though I hadn’t spoken to her in over ten years, I was nevertheless saddened upon learning of her death.
She was a troubled soul who grew up in a housing project on the Lower East Side, never knowing who her father was. Her mother handed her off to her grandmother in the hospital shortly after she was born and only visted her sporadically, often dragging her around and entrusting her to strangers and exposing her to situations and places where children should never be. Great harm was done to her as a child.
She was raised by her grandmother and was a latchkey kid before they had a term for it. She would come home after school to an empty apartment on the 13th floor to find dinner waiting for her on the kitchen table. Dinner consisted of a can of tuna fish and a can opener. Her grandmother was still at work in a sweatshop nearby sewing the eyes on stuffed toys.
One day, when she was about 12, she came home from school to find the police at her apartment. They were looking for her mother. They wanted to question her in connection with the death of a much older man who was found dead in his apartment in another part of town. The police had been informed that her mother had been seen with the man and was seen leaving the apartment in the company of another man later that day. The grandmother told the police that her daughter did not live there and that she had no idea where she was. They searched the apartment anyway, to no avail.
After the police left, the grandmother’s daughter stepped back into a bedroom through the open window of the thirteenth floor. She had been standing on the ledge outside the window while the police were inside looking for her.
My ex was 26 when we met and I was 31. She seemed exotic and exciting and struck me as someone who knew how to enjoy herself– and maybe, someone from whom I could learn how to enjoy myself, too. Life is supposed to be enjoyable. At least, that’s what someone once told me.
I was a committed artist, and derived a great deal of satisfaction from that, but still, somehow, I could not overcome the nagging feeling that I was missing something. There was an emptiness inside. I wasn’t sure what it was.
I didn’t have many friends growing up and most of those relationships were problematical.
In the ten years we were married, I learned an important lesson about myself. I am not a fun person. Fun is not something that floats my boat. Fun is something that other people have. I’m okay with that and happy for them. I have my priorities.
When we were first together, I made a list of what I thought were “potential problems” in the relationship. When we split up and I was gathering some of my belongings, I ran across that piece of paper. Every single item on that list had come true.
I learned a few things in that relationship. No one can do for you what you should do for yourself. Never try to “save someone” or make up for all the bad that has ever happened to them. Never surrender who you are at your core in an attempt to please someone else. Never marry someone who is not interested in your creative work. And there is a lot more to happiness than money and possessions.
When you are unhappily married to someone for many years, a part of you gets very, very sick. And when that person dies, a little part of you dies with them.
A little part of me died with her. But it wasn’t a very big part, I don’t think.
May it– and may she– rest in peace.