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Would You Reconnect With a Terminally Ill Ex?

Life unfolds, regardless. Years accumulate, whether we grow or heal, or not. And the things that we can't make peace with, we just learn to live with. Or put way up high and in the back on the "forget or deny" shelf.
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What if your former spouse texted to let you know that he or she was in the hospital, suffering horribly from cancer, with a 50-50 chance of surviving?

Stop with the cynical jokes. Think about it.

Your kids are distraught. They could be losing a parent. You may have a number of feelings going on, among them perhaps an old reflex to be there. After all, don't some things supersede our petty differences? And after all, aren't most differences petty in the face of life and death struggles and abject human suffering? After all?

Just to be clear: My former spouse is not ill. At least I hope he's not. That would be terrible. And surprising; he and he wife have a very healthy lifestyle, and he seems fine.

It's just that a long-gone boyfriend has surfaced with news of his AML diagnosis and a desire to communicate.

My first reaction: No, that was my father's cancer! He can't have it. How dare he get Dad's cancer, out of all the possible cancers he could have gotten?

My next reaction: Oh my, what did I just think?

It passed quickly, but what an astonishing thing to have go through one's mind. Do you have unresolved anger or resentment toward an ex? Or do you believe that you don't, but perhaps it just hasn't been tested? And no, having the same cancer as someone whom you cherished and lost is not what I mean by a typical test, of course.

To begin to explain, an understatement alert: It had not been a happy relationship. In fact, when "our song" comes on -- 30 years after the fact -- I still instantly grimace and change the station.

Truth is, we did not have a song. But after I had broken up with him for the 'nth time and made it stick once and for all, he decided that "Every Breath You Take" by the Police was our song. So, every now and then he would call and play it on my answering machine. Blech.

I refer to it as my "Vietnam" relationship, not because it happened during that war (I was just a kid then) but because during our time together I was the same age as the average U.S. soldier who got sent to Vietnam (at least according to the '80s song by Paul Hardcastle, whose statistics are wrong but he makes an effective point regardless).

By the time we parted ways, heavy casualties had been incurred, and getting out felt like the emotional equivalent of catching the last helicopter out of Saigon. Ultimately, it's the perfect metaphor because all of the standard Vietnam War remarks apply 100 percent when it comes to memories of those days: "What was I thinking? Why did I go there, and stay so long? It was so wrong, so obviously doomed, from the start! The scars are profound, how can I ever rejoin normal society?" And so on.

But life unfolds, regardless. Years accumulate, whether we grow or heal, or not. And the things that we can't make peace with, we just learn to live with. Or put way up high and in the back on the "forget or deny" shelf.

And, as you get older, it gets harder to find reasons not to make peace (or at least detente?) with people, no matter the battle-scarred history. In 2003 I witnessed a gracious if at first awkward example of compassion when my mother-in-law sat at her husband's bedside while his ex-wife visited him at the hospital, taking a seat on the other side of the bed. Eventually the two women were chatting away, across his inert body. So sweet, oddly.

He was in a "persistent vegetative" state, from which he never awakened. I remember wondering if he had any awareness of this tableaux, with his wife and his ex on either side, him lying there half exposed in one of those invalid gowns, plastic bags dripping liquids in from above, and collecting them below. In the end, our vulnerability is undeniable, no exceptions.

As for Cancer Ex, last week he told me that relatives were stopping by to sign up for the bone marrow registry. The night before last he texted that his hair was coming out in clumps. Yesterday he confirmed cancer cells in his spinal fluid. I picked up the phone and dialed him. Enough with the texting. His voice sounded small.

Back when I knew him, he was a person capable of performing and inciting all manner of drama. I recall reaching a point of exasperated hysteria in response to one of countless suicide threats on his part, finally snarling that he should just get on with it and follow through with something for once in his life.

He didn't of course. Nor did he go on to live the radical, rebellious, wild-child-pseudohippie-societal victim/outsider life that he had preached. He went on to marry. And make money. And, as I found out years after the fact, we both had two kids. Gave one of them the same name, coincidentally. That irked me when he told me; couldn't help myself.

We both divorced. He came out of it in a healthy and abundant financial state. I came out of it in the opposite kind of financial state. The last time we texted he offered to see if he could get me a job with his company. Then he asked me to listen to some classical guitar music that he loves, and to tell him what I think of it.

There's no way that I would ever have this sort of conversation with him if he weren't sick. Prior to this, if and when we spoke it would be the usual terse exchange ending with mutual "Eff You's" or something of the sort.

So, why be different now? Is it phony? What comes next, a visit bringing soup? Meeting his family? No.

It's not phony. I don't have the energy for that. But I will keep communication to a sensible minimum. And, I guess there will be ways to find out about his survival, deductive and otherwise. This isn't a lack of concern so much as an understanding of what constitutes a concern of mine, and what doesn't.

At a summer retreat back in June, a man on the older side of midlife asked a question about forgiveness. His voice broke, very slightly, as he inquired. "What if you do everything that you are supposed to? What if you meditate and let go and cultivate compassion and focus on gratitude, but you still feel that old hurt when you see or hear from someone?"

The lecturer gave what seemed like one of his favorite answers, "Don't follow the garbage truck." In other words, once you have put it out of you, keep it out, the toxic emotional stuff.

But what if the garbage truck follows you? What if when you least expect it, some of the "garbage" just comes flying in through your window and hits you on the back of the head -- or pops up on your phone screen?

Then maybe it's time to transform the garbage instead of just sending it "away." Maybe the only way to true healing is to figuratively burn, compost, release it in a more tangible way, to change the old pain from garbage into something else altogether, something less poisonous.

It won't likely change into love, except the most detached, spiritual kind of love, I guess. And friendship just isn't possible in some cases. But maybe it can transform into, say, good will. And whether it is acted upon or deserved it can only be a good thing to have more good will toward people, right?

I told a friend about this. She suggested that maybe if I went to see him just once, I would feel "closure," or that the universe was offering "resolution."

Here is a man potentially facing the ultimate closure or resolution. And he has family and friends around him. There really is no good reason for me to show up.

Were it my kids' father, I realize how different I would feel, how drawn to be there and actively provide support in whatever way I could. But then comes the "Aha." I may feel differently, but that doesn't mean I should hypothetically go there, either. His wife probably would be gracious about it, as long as I kept it within reasonable boundaries. But really, sometimes keeping distance is the kindest thing.

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