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Emergency Contact

Our relationship was now better in sickness than it had been in health. As we staggered across the finish line of our divorce, we'd learned how to confront adversity together. No longer protecting ourselves from loss, we were finally free to release one another to the future.
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Driving to the New York airport, through a dense fog, I barreled into the car in front of me. I hit him hard. The bang of metal then an explosion as all the airbags in my Jetta deployed. Frantically, I kicked open the door, crawled out under the side airbag, and stood in the middle lane of rush hour traffic cars whizzing by around me. Someone stopped to set-up flares. Standing in the circle of flames, the first person I phoned was my ex-husband, Bogdan.

"I crashed my car on the Long Island Expressway," I wailed.

"Are you all right?" he asked, voice raspy with sleep. It was 6:00 a.m.

Except for a scrape on my hand, I was unhurt. The other driver was also fine. Still, I was terrified.

"Can you come get me?" An hour from home and still an hour away from the airport, I was stranded and desperate. If anybody would be obligated to come and fetch me, it was the father of my only child, Theo. Though we'd been divorced for eight years, it was Bogdan's fault I was still on Long Island.

When we'd met in 1997, I was 36, lonely and childless, and more than anything in the world, I wanted to be a mother. Instead, my job was producing cartoons for the child I didn't have. That weekend, I'd driven out from New York to the Hamptons with a friend. At a restaurant, I was introduced to this man whose name I couldn't pronounce. Peering at me through thick, dark-framed glasses that made him resemble a European film director, Bogdan told me he'd emigrated as a child from Poland to Brooklyn. He'd turned a passion for restoration into a business specializing in refurbishing old houses. Then he asked me what I wanted in my life.

"A family, a house with a garden and a rocking chair," I told him.

"I have the rocking chair," he replied.

The next time we met he wore a ruffled pink apron that had once belonged to his mother and served me polish sausage with three types of mustard. I recited a list of my faults: I was impatient, demanding and had a past that included drug abuse. He listened without judging, looking at me through those glasses as if I were not a wreck, but a treasure. He was 42, with his own failures behind him.

On our third date, he took me to his job site where I watched him run his hand along an elaborately carved banister. Below the layers of chipped paint, he saw majestic wood, a form worth saving. I fell for his foreign sounding name, his European charm and the way he saw the world as fixable.

A year later, I'd moved to the Hamptons, and was six months pregnant when we married in a snowstorm. We bought a 19th century house with a garden and another rocking chair. Bogdan called it Shangri-La. I worked part-time from home and had my family. It was almost perfect... for a while.

But Bogdan wanted me to be a different kind of wife, the kind who ironed his sheets. I wanted him to be a different type of husband, the type who helped with laundry. He'd come from a small village in Poland where women were the homemakers and fathers didn't participate in child-rearing.

"Can't I have peace when I come in at night?" he'd ask while I'd fume, "Can't you take the kid?"

Retreating to his comfy spot on the couch in front of the television, Bogdan told me resolutely that I'd known who he was when I'd married him.

I hadn't. Obsessed with my list of wants, I'd romanticized his traditional upbringing into solidness.

Once I dropped a dinner plate to get his attention, smashing the china and our meal all over the floor. Bogdan walked out during our fights, for quiet, for space, for a drink, leaving me with my rage, my crying child, my mess. I became a shrew, someone I didn't recognize or like.

Our arguments migrated from housework to finances. Bogdan had grown up using ration cards issued by the Communist government, not credit cards issued by banks that had to be repaid. He spent money on a shingled treehouse with its own deck for Theo and a pool in the backyard plastered in marble dust. I believed in college savings accounts and was terrified of swimming. After eight years, a marriage counselor, and a financial advisor, we headed to divorce lawyers.

I wanted to move back to California, where I still had family. But Bogdan wouldn't agree to more than a few miles separating him from his son. Instead, he refinanced and bought out my half of Shangra-La. I rented a place just minutes from his door.

For the next eight years, while Theo grew up, neither of us found another partner. I didn't want to insert someone new into my son's life. As for Bogdan, the great recession sank his lavish business. Hanging onto an expensive paradise pulled him under. I watched him struggle to stay afloat, begging him to relinquish our old home. Even though I was waiting for my chance to leave, I wanted Bogdan to be all right.

But finally, my opportunity had come. Theo was applying to colleges. In a few months, I would be free to move to San Francisco--in fact I'd been headed to the airport to fly there to look at apartments when I totaled my car on the expressway. Bogdan was being forced to sell that 19th-century house, with its beautiful garden and all those rocking chairs.

On the phone, Bogdan had agreed to meet me at Scrappy Auto Body, where the tow truck driver had deposited me along with my destroyed Jetta. I was so relieved when he arrived that at first I didn't notice how frail he looked. Then I saw how loosely his pants and jacket hung on his usually sturdy frame. In the two weeks since I'd last seen him, he'd lost 15 pounds. "You look sick. You should see the doctor," I scolded.

Climbing into his silver Mini-Cooper, he told me he'd had the flu for two weeks, but he'd let his health insurance expire. I desperately wanted to shake him for his irresponsibility. If he couldn't keep his house, or pay for a doctor, how could he afford a new car? Just as I opened my mouth to chastise him for neglecting his health and his finances, I noticed he was googling the directions to the airport so I could catch another flight.

The rest of the way, we talked about Theo, his college applications, and choice in majors. We deliberately avoided discussing what was ahead, all of us scattering to different parts of the country. I knew this was the end of our eight-year holding pattern. Did Bogdan? As we pulled up in front of Delta Airlines, he said, "On all my forms, I put your name down as the person to contact in case of emergency." Then he started to shake. I thought he was just cold, but he said no, he was anxious about moving out of his house.

We sat on the curb for 20 minutes. I counted as he inhaled and exhaled, trying to help him slow down his breathing and relax. Eventually, he was able to get back in his car and drive home. I boarded my plane.

But for the five days while I was in San Francisco, the image of the two of us huddled, breathing in unison under the departure sign haunted me. As soon I returned, the first place I went after I saw my son was Bogdan's house. We'd planted an autumn blooming cherry tree when we'd moved in years ago, and it was bursting with blossoms on that gray day, pink and ruffled like his mother's apron. His front door was unlocked, and I found my ex in his kitchen, disoriented and trembling, still unable to keep food down. "I'm taking you to the doctor and paying for it," I announced.

He wiped his foggy glasses, got his coat, and came with me. Three hours later Bogdan was admitted to the hospital with acute kidney failure brought on by this flu that wouldn't go away on its own.

Sitting beside his gurney, Bogdan and I both realized he hadn't been suffering from anxiety at the airport, but from the effects of his kidneys shutting down. Yet he'd risen from his sick bed and driven over an hour in a dangerous haze of bad weather and illness to help me. Oddly, our relationship was now better in sickness than it had been in health. As we staggered across the finish line of our divorce, we'd learned how to confront adversity together. No longer protecting ourselves from loss, we were finally free to release one another to the future.

The doctor entered his room with the blood work. "You had a close call," he said.

"You can thank her," Bogdan replied.

Turning towards me, the doctor asked, "What is your relationship to the patient?"

Grabbing Bogdan's hand, I said, "We rescue each other."

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