Divorce, Illness and Compassion

In the pain of these situations, you try to shut off the feelings because the marriage is over, the behaviors were hurtful, you need to move on. And then suddenly with a diagnosis of a life threatening illness you find yourself wondering, "What is my place?"
06/27/2013 06:08 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I found out that my husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

He is actually my ex -husband. We have been divorced for almost two years. Anyone who has read any of my writings about our divorce, knows that it was not an amicable, easy divorce, although honestly, I don't know of many that are amicable or easy.

Our divorce was a long, drawn out, painful mess. We separated in 2009, and the divorce wasn't final until 2011. It seemed like a nightmare, a kind of a "how did we get here?" scenario. In retrospect, it was a necessary rupture -- a way of showing us that we needed to move on with our lives. We have barely spoken in these past few years, except recently, when our beloved 17-year-old beagle, Lucy, died on May 5.

Exactly one month later, he received his diagnosis. Stage 4 lung cancer is a serious diagnosis. I can honestly say that a few years ago, in the midst of our divorce, I sometimes wished that he would disappear -- the pain and anger was that deep, and I wanted it to go away. But now, I feel only deep sadness and all the bad feelings about the divorce, the disappointments, the anger, the hurt -- most of it has fallen away.

We raised our daughter together. We created a family. We shared life, vacations, successes, failures, moving, world events, 9/11, illnesses, the deaths of parents, friends, everything. I can be angry about the behaviors we both exhibited during the divorce. I can regret my mistakes and feel that I was "wronged" -- and I can still feel deep compassion and the hope that He becomes one of the statistics that beats the odds. Certainly for my daughter's sake, I hope that is true.

I do not want him to suffer. I do not want him to have to go through a difficult illness and I do not want my daughter to lose her dad. For years, I watched as they struggled to have a relationship -- throughout most of her childhood, they didn't really connect. But once Zoe grew up and after our separation, they began to spend time together and realize how much they had in common. They were both living in San Francisco while I remained in New York City. Now, four years later, though my daughter moved back to New York, they remain close.

It breaks my heart to think that he may not be around for my daughter in the future. I know this is not unusual, many young people lose their parents. But after the difficulty of going through a contentious divorce, with two parents who couldn't communicate, it seems particularly cruel to face the loss of one of those parents.

There are no guarantees that we will all live to be 90 and not get sick. My ex's diagnosis hit everyone like a punch in the stomach, but in truth, millions of people get these diagnoses every year. No one is immune. And people do survive terrible diseases. One friend of mine has had throat cancer for almost 14 years, and she's been beating the odds every day.

When Lucy, our dog, got really sick, I called my ex and told him. He said, "Lucy was lucky to have you. You gave her so much love her whole life." She died the following day. We were all sad, she had been in our lives since we rescued her when she was four years old. That was the first time in years that he and I had a genuinely warm conversation and his kind words meant a great deal to me.

It gave me hope that in the future we might be friends. And then, suddenly, this bombshell, this diagnosis. My daughter told me. I am no longer in the inner circle. I felt shock, sadness and fear. Having been a caregiver for my mother for many years before she died, I know about suffering. When someone you loved is sick, it feels overwhelming and painful. And when you don't quite know your place in it, it is challenging.

I know I am not alone in this situation. Another friend of mine, divorced for many years, found out that her ex-husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was a brain cancer researcher. He called her on the phone and said, "I have cancer," and then burst into tears and hung up. She was stunned. He was re-married and had a three-year-old son. My friend visited him in the hospital a few times and when he died, she felt tremendous grief. There was still so much feeling, so many memories, 17 years of shared experiences. And he was so young, in his 40's -- and leaving a young child. It was heartbreaking.

Another friend told me this about caregiving her ex-partner through his three year battle with cancer:

"It brought a renewal of connection and love -- so many of the issues that drove us apart didn't seem to matter any longer. I wound up as his caretaker until almost the very end. I will always be grateful for having had the opportunity. At least for me, it was a profound experience in ways I can't even begin to describe..."

My ex and I have had a few conversations in the past few weeks, mostly about our daughter's health insurance. He asked me to take over the search for insurance for her and I did. He was always good at that kind of thing, much more so than I am, but he didn't feel well and I was more than willing to relieve him of that stress.

And then last week, when I was in Los Angeles on a job, I called him the day before he was scheduled for his first chemo session. He had just come from the hospital where they had put in the port, the device used to administer the chemo drugs into the body. He sounded like he was heavily sedated when we spoke and I started to cry. He said, "You don't have to cry...it's okay." And then he added, "but I've been crying a little myself."

I told him that I was thinking of him and that if there was anything I could do, if he needed anything, to please let me know. He said he was surprised that so many friends had contacted him and sent him good wishes. "That's because people love you -- you should know that." I don't think he really did know that, that he is loved.

And then I said, "If I had to be a parent with anyone in the world, I'm glad it's you. You're a great dad to Zoe and she loves you so much."

I said I was sorry about the divorce and for my part in it and he said he was too. At least I think he said that, that's what I remember.

He started chemo, the first day he had five hours of three drugs--and within two days he felt awful. Zoe was with him, she'd flown out to San Francisco to be with him for a few days.

I'm sad that I live 3,000 miles away and can't be there for him in the way that I would if he lived nearby. Fortunately he has family and close friends to help him. I'm sad that I am not a part of his decision-making process and tangible support, but I suspect that he doesn't want me to be part of his circle.

In the pain of these situations, you try to shut off the feelings because the marriage is over, the behaviors were hurtful, you need to move on. And then suddenly with a diagnosis of a life threatening illness you find yourself wondering, "What can I do? What is my place? Can I call? Can I show up? Should I keep a distance? What are my feelings? I'm sad, but also relieved that I am not responsible. And yet, I wonder -- who will be there for him? Will he have the kind of support he will need? Will he be able to ask for help?"

Follow your heart, is the best advice I've received so far. My heart aches, but my mind is trying to stay clear and focused on my daughter and to send loving support and care to my ex. I wish him well. If he calls and asks for my help, I will be there. If he doesn't want to include me, I will respect his wishes. This new terrain is as strange as the divorce was -- you can't wipe away 24 years. We were a couple, a family, we loved each other and now our lives are on different coasts, with different experiences.

Out of terrible experiences, often something good shows up. Yesterday, I sent an email to his sister to let her know I was concerned and if they needed me for anything, I would be there. She called me and we had the first conversation we've had since my ex and I separated. I had missed her these past four years -- it felt merciful to hear her voice and a relief to know that she will be there for him.

I wish for him to survive this and have some good years left. We are no longer a team, a couple, but we are Zoe's parents -- forever tied and also no longer a family, forever sharing a daughter we both love. There is suffering in life and as much as it hurts to think of him suffering, I can't do anything to stop it.

In the end it's all about our hearts and love that never really ends. My prayers are with him.