The situation might have been funny if it hadn’t resulted from tragedy. I felt as though I was in a bad situation comedy. For several months, colleagues I knew well, staff I barely knew, and people I didn’t know at all approached me at work to ask if I was all right. I wasn’t, but I didn’t know how to respond when the cafeteria cashier inquired about my well-being. Over and over, I simply lied: “I’m fine. Thanks.” There was no way to tell the flood of concerned co-workers that my ex-husband had just shot himself to death.
I always believed Harry would die first. He had a heart condition I assumed would eventually kill him. He also had a history of severe depression, which ran in his family. He’d been treated with medication and told me it had resolved. I knew he wasn’t content with his new life in Florida where he lived on disability with his sister. But I was completely unprepared when she called me at 8:45 p.m. one night in June to inform me he’d committed suicide. For a year after, friends asked me where he pointed the gun, but I didn’t know. I stayed in touch with his sister but never inquired. I couldn’t bring myself to ask this question. He was just as dead, no matter where the bullet landed. When I called her on the first anniversary of his suicide, Harry’s sister volunteered that he’d shot himself in the head.
I met Harry in the laundry room of our large apartment building when we were thirty-one and thirty-nine. Immediately smitten with each other, we dated for four years before marrying, with a nine-month break up in the middle caused by his reluctance to have children and my desire to have at least one. During our separation, we dated other people but remained friends. Our new love interests didn’t work out, and we continued to socialize. We spent so much time together, I eventually asked him to reconsider his no-child decision. He did, and within a few days, we reunited. I married Harry because I loved him, but also because the relationship was easy. We had fun. The sex was good. We almost never fought. Most of that changed immediately after the wedding.
Harry turned mean within days of our ceremony. Deeply shocked, I either wept or tried to negotiate with him, and sometimes both. He became angrier when I cried and meaner when I tried to resolve issues. Harry’s anger often erupted for no discernable reason. Once he became enraged because I’d flavored the fish I’d cooked for dinner with lemon. Another time he exploded because I asked him to hurry on our way to the car after two drunks accosted me in a parking lot. Twice, he used a particularly ugly racial epithet to offend me. If I’d known about his anger issues, I wouldn’t have married him. I’d broken up with previous boyfriends if they so much as became cranky with me for more than a few days.
After Harry died, my sister-in-law said that when we separated, his mother repeatedly asked him what I’d done wrong in the marriage. Harry insisted that the failure of our marriage was completely his fault. But I know this isn’t true. I rarely started our fights, but my reactivity exacerbated our problems. Although neither of us yelled, once hurt, I wanted resolution and nagged Harry to resolve the issue in play. I couldn’t let go in the moment. I’d have been wiser to respond to Harry’s cruelties with a brief response and later revisit his grievance when his anger subsided. Trying to justify using lemon to enhance the flavor of the fish was completely unnecessary. I engaged when I should have disengaged, which cemented our negative patterns. I eventually learned to remain quiet and walk away, but by then we were falling apart. My changed behavior couldn’t save us.
Our early marriage probably looked stable from the outside. Harry held a job, we socialized with friends, and we took fun vacations. We worked well together in some arenas and never fought about the care of our home, our animals, or our cars. During our engagement, we’d agreed to leave Boston for a warmer climate. After four years of marriage, we relocated to San Diego. In California Harry fell apart. He quit three jobs in less than two years, we ceased socializing as a couple, and in the evenings, he only wanted to sit alone in his study and talk to strangers on his computer. I think he liked the control the computer gave him. Often he made up characters for himself and pretended to be those people while on line. We still had sex, went to the movies together occasionally, and ate out on weekends, but it felt increasingly less like a marriage.
I became acutely sick a year after our wedding, so we decided not to have a child. Adding the responsibilities of parenthood was impossible given my frail health. In retrospect, if my poor health hadn’t precluded us from becoming parents, Harry’s temper would have.
He was not always mean. He frequently called me Weezy, his pet name for me. As a Valentine’s gift during our last year of our marriage, Harry took me to the local farmers’ market every Sunday and bought me flowers of my choosing. He wasn’t a complete failure as a husband, which made me just hopeful enough to keep trying.
While Harry’s anger and meanness waxed and waned, I considered divorcing him on four occasions. I stayed with Harry for six years specifically because his behaviors fluctuated. In retrospect, my hopefulness was my inability to admit failure, a weakness on my part. I deluded myself into believing we could work our way back to the easy, warm relationship we’d had when dating. I finally divorced him when I fully understood that wouldn’t happen.
Harry didn’t want to divorce, but he spent only one day trying to change my mind, taking me to a lovely seafood lunch by the bay. But at no point did he ask what he could do to salvage the marriage. Maybe he knew it couldn’t be saved.
Prior to Harry’s suicide, the biggest shock of my life had been the change in his behavior after our marriage. The second biggest shock was the change after I informed him I was divorcing him. Within two days, he turned back into the nice guy I’d dated. I realized then that he couldn’t handle the normal demands of marriage, including communication and compromise. Sharing his life with someone else meant releasing of a small measure of control, which he found intolerable.
After the separation, several family members marveled that I wasn’t angry, especially since I had to pay Harry a wad of money in our divorce settlement. I didn’t care about the money and mostly felt relieved when we signed our divorce agreement in a record nine days. We’d both suffered through the contentious divorces of our parents and were committed to not repeating their experiences. I needed to move forward with my life, and I was stunned by his renewed pleasantness.
Why do we forgive bad behavior? In my case, it wasn’t so much forgiving as letting go. I try to live in the moment, and if people are good to me after hurting my feelings, I tend to forgive and forget. This is not always wise. It allows folks who have injured me to do it again. But in Harry’s case, this trait helped us heal. After the divorce, he never upset me again. I occasionally went to his apartment to visit the cats he’d brought into the marriage and left with when it ended. About once a year, we would go out for breakfast, his favorite meal. We enjoyed the friendly, civilized divorce we’d envisioned.
The fourth year into our divorce, Harry began apologizing to me. I wasn’t expecting it and didn’t need it. Nonetheless, I found his apology moving. He said, “You were a very good wife, and I was a very bad husband, and I’m sorry.” Harry apologized twice more before killing himself. The second to last time we spoke, he disclosed that he’d taken pleasure in upsetting me, and he called himself abusive. He confessed he was ashamed. I told him all I cared about was being friends now, and that I’d let go of the bad things years before. But I was touched by his confession and need for absolution.
Six years after our divorce, Harry came by my condo to drop off some remnants from our marriage prior moving in with his sister. We met in the lobby of my building. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and his haggard appearance shocked and saddened me. As we were saying goodbye, I felt compelled to add, “Whatever happens in your life, just remember you have been loved.” I started to cry. Then he began to cry. In that public place, with no regard for onlookers, we stood embracing and weeping on each other’s shoulders. I think that’s when we began to end every phone call with I love you.
Over the years, Harry and I grew closer. I joked that if I’d known divorcing him would turn him back into the sweet guy I’d dated, I would have done it much sooner. The last time we spoke, he told me I was the only woman he’d ever loved.
Harry and I managed to keep our vow to love each other until death do us part, even though it was impossible to remain married. This consoles me. More importantly, I’m grateful he died knowing I loved him, despite everything. We failed at love during marriage but figured out how to sustain it after the divorce. In the end, we remained fundamentally bound to each other, despite my post-marital boyfriends. Harry was deeply troubled, but he was mine, and we loved each other. And now the love is all that matters.