Another re-post today, a favourite of mine... for those of you who are not sure what I am talking about when I refer to "my husband's wife" and am clearly not talking about myself, this should help...
It began with a quiet, frightened voice on the end of the telephone, when I was eighteen years old. Living with a foster sister, her boyfriend, and their three month old baby in a one bedroom apartment. Trying to figure out how I was going to turn into a grown up.
“It’s been a… hard few months.” said the voice on the other end of the line. It was a woman named Valerie*, from my Church (I was Mennonite at the time). “We could use some help.”
I still remember riding out to the rich new area of town, with the houses growing larger and larger as the bus progressed, until they festered in a kind of empty opulence around me as I walked the two blocks from the bus stop to the address I’d been given. I had absolutely no experience with families that were this wealthy. I actually sang the “I have confidence” song from The Sound of Music. I really did.
It was not very long before I found myself in this family. Valerie, the mother, was struggling with bad mental illness, but every piece of family life was familiar. Because of my own mom's struggles as I was growing up, I knew what it was like to be on the other side of those little faces. I loved them immediately.
I loved Valerie immediately, too. The immense compassion she brought to everything she did. Her sly, quiet sense of humour. Her absolute devotion. The way she watched her children—Daniel* already showing signs of the genetics he’d gotten from her, David chewing holes in his clothes out of anxiety—with absolute bravery and no trace of denial. The way she threw herself into every day with everything she had. The way she trusted me to be everything her family needed—when I was so young and so broken that this was my first experience in being the saviour of anyone or anything. The desperation and faith that she brought to our friendship.
Gary was the hardest to warm up to. He always felt a bit—frozen. Shoulders hunched as though against a strong wind. He drifted in and out of the house… cooking, cleaning, helping with homework—but always with a sense like he was only half there. It took me so long to realize that he was depressed. Of course. Who wouldn’t be? We all were, I guess—you can’t orbit an illness as strong as Valerie's was for so many years without it seeping into you. We learned to adjust. To live around it. We patched the holes chewed in clothing and kept going. I moved from babysitter to nanny, to something else. Guardian of the family, I guess.
“I know what the kids need, and I know what Valerie needs,” I said to my dad one day, “But I don’t know what Gary needs.”
“He needs you to tell him that you believe he’s doing a good job.” said my dad, who has experience with an ill wife. “Because to him every day is a failure, he needs you to tell him that he’s a good man and you respect him.”
And then, after a brief pause, my dad continued in his matter of fact bluntness.
“Of course,” he said, “If you do that, you’ll end up falling in love with each other.”
“EWWWWWW!” was my immediate, emphatic response. “He is so old, dad. And Valerie is my friend. I am not that kind of person.”
“It’s not about kind of person.” my dad said, “it’s about if you are acting like you are married, raising the same kids and then you become close, it just happens. It’s like human physics.”
“He has a moustache.” I answered, as thought that settled the matter forever.
Those of you who know Gary know that he no longer has a moustache.
“The Sound of Music is my favourite movie of all time,” a friend of mine said, as I was telling her this story.
It was nothing like the Sound of Music. There was a lot of sitting on the hideous flowered couches in the living room, the three of us pouring out feelings, and crying, and feeling like we were in a pit with no way out. I could not leave this family that needed me and loved me just as badly as I needed and loved them. I could not un-love Gary. I could not un-love Valerie—who asked me fervently to stay. I could not un-love the kids.
“I will get sicker and sicker,” Valerie said, “and I will need to be permanently institutionalized. I want you to stay and marry him and raise those boys.”
“He’s… really… old…” I said, sobbing. “And I would not be a good surgeon’s wife.”
As Valerie became more and more ill—now living an hour and a half away in an inpatient facility—I began to drift into the empty space she left in the family. Gary’s and my romance grew at the same time as Valerie began to carve a new, tragic space on the fringe. This was, I realized, why divorce was invented. And yet, I couldn’t do it. In part because I wanted Gary to retain guardianship of Valerie, because I trusted him to do well by her more than any other option. In part because she was convinced that a divorce would mean damnation for her and Gary. And in part because they were… still married. We phoned regularly, we visited regularly. Of course it was a different kind of marriage… but it was “until death do us part” in its own limited way.
Not everyone saw the world the way we did. Our Mennonite Church community was top of the list of people who couldn’t wrap their minds around the heresy of it. A divorce, I think they could have managed to support us through. But as we settled into the realization that Gary had (and would keep) two life partners, they couldn’t wrap their minds around what we were trying to do. We were excommunicated from our Church community, in the unofficial, subtle, eye averting way that Mennonites can do so perfectly. For Gary, this betrayal may have been the hardest part of it all.
This is, of course, how I ended up with the Unitarian Universalists, in whose eyes I was not standing on the wrong side of love. In whose eyes I and my family was standing exactly where we belonged. All of us. One of them officiated our ceremony, which was the strangest, most creative outside-the-box gong show you have ever seen. It was all ours, and it was perfect. We had lockets made that said “Family means nobody gets left behind”.
Engraving something, unfortunately, is a lot easier than living it. It has been seventeen years and I am still often exhausted by it all. By Valerie's challenges, by Daniel's, by the sheer scheduling complexities. By living in a marriage that was already formed when I arrived, and how it was all of our subconscious expectation that I would just slide into the surgeon’s wife spot (which is, it turns out, not as Liz-shaped as you might think). By the sheer marathon of it, and the way that what you are able to do is never remotely close to as much as is needed. By the gratitude and the meaning, and the beauty of it. By the way, over time, the guardedness of it dissipates as we settle into comfort with our story.
“Valerie's been admitted to the hospital.” Gary told me, shortly after I arrived home from Chicago.
I had just been thinking of her. At one point in my travels, we sang a song from the Sound of Music… the one about feeling sad and remembering your favourite things. And the girl who asked us to sing it said “I know it’s not spiritual or anything” and I almost laughed, remembering the years we sang that song together as a family. The things that we sang that song through.
Silver white winters that melt into springs… these are a few of my favourite things…
Maybe it’s all the travelling and the exhaustion, but suddenly I am crying.
“It’s just a fever.” Gary says. “She’ll be fine.”
Except it’s not just a fever, because she will not understand where she is or what is happening, and she will think it is her fault. Added to this, they had to stop her meds, which is the equivalent of torturing her—her psychosis is so bad. I cannot think what to do to help.
“Will you pray for me?” I think of Valerie asking me this, as she asks every visit.
“Of course” I always answer.
I am an Atheist. The only time I ever pray now is for Valerie, because she asks me to and I want to tell her truthfully that I have.
It occurs to me that I can ask for more prayers, from more people, and I will be able to tell her about those, too. I go to post to Facebook.
“My husband’s wife…” I begin the post. Then I backspace, because that sounds stupid, and I don’t want to get into it because it’s not really the point. “Gary’s friend…”
I can’t even bring myself to type that at all.
I settle for “My best friend’s wife” because Gary is my best friend, and if I have to use a one-marriage version of the story, this is the most honest option. Most people who know us will know who I mean, anyway.
And one by one they pile up. Prayers. Many of them from Atheists. This makes me smile, because those count double. Not to God, but to me. There is something in that moment when we forget what we believe about God, or about Marriage, or about The Way We Are Supposed to Live and Sort Ourselves, and we just remember who we love. And how much we love them.
When we phone her, she doesn’t understand about the people on Facebook. She can’t remember how to use a phone, she is so terrified. I wish that she were here, because I would know what to do in ways that the new nurses in the strange hospital she finds herself in won’t be able to figure out. She likes to sing when she’s afraid.
Shuffling through my phone, I find the voice memo I am looking for. From a month ago, during her last visit, when she was beginning to spiral into anxiety, and I suggested we record ourselves singing a song together. It was purely a distraction. She asked to sing Eidelweiss with me, and we sat in the car in the snow and even with everything that she has been through she still remembers all the harmonies. It calmed her for just a minute—nothing ever calms her for longer than that—but it was enough. Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to meet me…
I arrive at Church on Sunday morning, and a couple of people ask me how she is doing. And how I am doing. I am always surprised by the ease with which people accommodate my husband’s wife as someone who is important to me. I know I can put a pebble in the bowl of water for her if I want—this is how we mark important joys and sorrows—and nobody will question it. I am suddenly overcome with gratitude for them in this tiny piece of a story that is usually such a quiet backdrop in my life.
This is a story I’ve never told you. Not because I couldn’t, but because I forgot that it was even a story. It’s been a lot of years, and I forgot that I ever even wondered if our family was even possible.
I forgot. I forgot how we sat at the dining room table, crying and asking each other if it could work. If we could be that strange, and that beloved to one another.
Turns out, we can.