My Ex Has Cancer. What Should I Feel?

03/11/2015 04:25 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015
Joey Boylan via Getty Images

On my way home earlier this week I learned that my first husband was battling lung cancer. I sat stunned for a moment and let the information wash over me. I hadn't spoken to him in over 20 years, and only had heard snippets of unsolicited information about him in those same two decades. Frankly, I never really thought about him. So upon hearing this news, the last thing I was expecting to feel was a deep sadness. Sadness that this vibrant man who always rocked an enviable mane of hair was in the throes of chemo and radiation. Sadness that his raspy trademark twang was likely forever altered. Sadness for the worry and concern that he and his family must be feeling. Sadness that I had lost contact with him.

By the time I was 23 I had been a bridesmaid so many times that I was turning into the cliché of always the bridesmaid, never the bride. When this brash and bold man who was a great date asked me to marry him a few months into our anything-but-calm relationship, it seemed like a good thing to do. Forget our age difference (14 years), or the fact that all we truly shared was a love of skiing and Mexican food, or that our friends and families were looking at us crosseyed, we went ahead with our plans, got married, made each other miserable and divorced less than two years later. With two careers, no kids and no money involved, it was an expeditious ending to what really was a whirlwind romance.

When I arrived home, I told my mate what I had just learned and how I was feeling. His response was "You should send him a note." I tracked down his work email and sent a brief but heartfelt message expressing my concern and condolences, with best wishes for a speedy and successful recovery. Not long after I hit the send button I received a reply that was witty and charming and radiated the kind of energy that I remembered from our days together. He updated me on his health and life path, referenced an inside joke we had once shared and closed with "It's great to hear from you... Let's keep in touch."

I was almost as speechless as I had been earlier in the day and heard that he was sick.

Having spent too many months last year actively disengaging myself from the detritus of an unhealthy relationship, to the years spent in contention and litigation as my second marriage went on the chopping blocks, it is my natural default state to avoid contact with former flames. A pleasant exchange with the possibility of a beer over a plate of old time's sake seemed so foreign and awkward. But in retrospect, it's a lovely gesture. It made me remember the happy and funny times that we shared, and inspired me to believe that some day, perhaps 20 years from now, the black clouds of anger or apathy or indifference may part to reveal a happier, sunnier space.

I'm not sure if with age and wisdom we would have any more in common than we did 20+ years ago, but the notion that water does indeed flow over the dam made me feel that the year was off to an emotionally healthy and positive start.