Not the Widow, Simply the Ex-Spouse

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His father came out to me when Nick was 10 years old but didn’t leave until he was 14. It would be another five years before our son knew why. It was in the late 1980s when AIDS exploded, adding a taboo to Eckart’s revelation that hadn’t existed before. Not only was it still secret, it was dangerous to be a gay man if you could kill yourself.

We spent nearly an hour in the small room with Nick signing papers, a social worker who kindly showed sympathy, and the young doctor who cut off the breathing tube after finding the DNR document to assure us that Eckart would have been brain dead. As a risk taker from his childhood in Germany, he got off as quickly as he drove, first the Autobahn and then the American Autobahn. Once a strikingly handsome man, he now lay open-mouthed, leaving his dentures one last time in his assisted living studio apartment.

I introduced myself as “Nick’s mother” and sat aside. The social worker wanted me to know that there were bereavement groups in the small town I lived in. But were they for ex-spouses? After 30 years of separated life, did I qualify for support? Can grief for loss be rekindled through ultimate loss? Or does it mourn the end of the opportunity to reconsider the decision and ask, “Have you ever regretted leaving?”

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I realized that I had always waited for him to say, “It wasn’t nothing” over our 20 years together.

Despite my story with this man, the injury, the anger and the deep doubts he sowed when he canceled 20 years of our life together, I didn’t want to leave him there alone to be rolled into a cold vault in anticipation further papers and cremation. I wanted us to sit with him and be together as a family. I imagined if we held a vigil I might be able to touch his skin, then be warm and, for the first time, be less afraid of death. Because as his spouse, albeit a former spouse, I was next in line – or so it seemed there in the all-too-bright light that shimmered around me.

In the weeks that followed, before the scattering of his ashes, the “burial at sea” as Eckart’s brother called it, and the memorial dinner, which only six of us attended, I was surprised to be back in the album I thought of I would do it. Left behind decades ago: meet Eckart when I was 25, a young journalist from New York on assignment in West Berlin, marry in New York, have his child and them together for 20 years before he is left behind in the middle of life. It had framed my youth and my motherhood and created some protection from my bipolar, often psychotic mother.

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