Category Archives: cancer

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After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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I survived — now how do I survive my survival?

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Cary’s classic column fromWEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2008

 


Cancer changed everything. I need a new paradigm.


 

Dear Cary,

Please help me figure out how to survive surviving.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After a year of surgery, chemo and radiation, my cancer, for the time being, seems to be at bay. My doctors tell me that this type of cancer cannot be cured, but that I have a 2-in-3 chance of living beyond five years. I’ve come through all of this slightly scarred, and bearing some permanent side effects from my treatment, but otherwise feeling pretty good, at least physically.

My problem is that my entire worldview has radically shifted, and things that were once important to me no longer are. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to figure out a way to reinvent myself, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what changes I need to make in order to feel better about being alive, and to be happy.

My unhappiness seems to center mostly around my employment. I worked my way up the ladder into a well-paying but dead-end job. For the first time in my life, I haven’t had to work long hours and struggle to make ends meet to provide for my family (I was a single mom). On the other hand, the company I work for is no longer the edgy high-tech firm that it was when I started there 14 years ago. Instead of contributing new ideas and feeling part of a team, I’m stuck, along with everyone else, in a gray cubicle farm. I can work from home if I want to, and I often do, but doing so makes me feel even less a part of the team. Most of the work has lately been outsourced, and many of my favorite co-workers have lost their jobs. I miss my friends, and dread that I could be the next one to go. In the past, this wouldn’t have gotten me down. I would have brushed up my résumé, and perhaps even started proactively looking for another job. But now, I’m petrified to move. I desperately need my health insurance because of my cancer. I’m also physically much weaker now, and just the thought of looking for another job, going to interviews, pounding the pavement, tires me out. In three words: I feel trapped.

Aside from feeling trapped, though, I’m also questioning what I’m doing. After surviving cancer, and knowing just how fragile my hold is on life, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And even if I can figure out what it is that I want to do next, will someone want to hire a middle-aged cancer survivor?

In my heart of hearts, what I would love to do is to take three or four months off to explore other options, to work on getting my strength and endurance back, perhaps take a class or two. However, I need to keep working. Even with insurance, my medical expenses have eaten away all of my savings, and I have nothing to fall back on. This depression isn’t helping. I’ve lost interest in many of the things that made me happy in the past. And the physical activities that I used to love, like hiking and dancing, I can no longer do.

I’m stuck. How do I get unstuck?

Grateful to Be Alive (I Think)

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Dear Grateful,

What I want to suggest to you is that you find a group of cancer survivors and throw yourself into work with them. Help them cope with the same questions you are coping with. Make this the dominant, driving force in your life. Trust that the other elements will fall into place. If this means continuing to work, for now, in your same gray cubicle, then paint your cubicle pink — or green, or purple, or black if you like! Fill it with flowers. Fill it with sunshine.

You can’t go back to the cubicle and the way things were. You just can’t. It isn’t right. That life is gone. I imagine you in that cubicle, just surviving your days, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not just for you but for the world. The world needs you in the hospitals and living rooms of fellow survivors.

If you can get the sabbatical you so desperately need, take it. If you must continue to work, in your mind let it go. It is no longer the most important thing in your life. It is just a place you spend some time. Throw your energy into helping others like yourself. They need to know how you got through it and what it feels like and how you cope with the questions that arise. They need to know how you get through another day.

So how do you get through another day? That is a good question. Answer it. Ask others how they get through the day. Acquire knowledge about this central question: How does the cancer survivor, whose future is uncertain and whose present is compromised, get through another day?

I think you will find that the answer is circular; that is, you get through the day by helping others get through another day. And, in being circular and tautological, it is partly an impractical act of faith. But the faith involved is a pragmatic faith. It is a pragmatic faith in the workings of deep human community. You will find, if you turn to a life of service, that certain ancient forces of human community coalesce to benefit you. These forces may seem mysterious and full of paradox, but they are real and historical and if we must reduce them to the biological they probably serve some purpose in the continuation of the species. Compassion, agape, selflessness — whether these are evidence of our divinity, our material and social arrangements or our biology, they are dependably awakened in crises and will come to your aid. Open your mind to these forces beyond your conscious understanding. Consider the possibility that this encounter with grave illness has put you in touch with the mystic stream of life itself in its most basic and primal reality.

If you are religious, or mystical, or interested in the arts, or if you have always wanted to sing, or if you are secretly happiest when you are gardening or sewing clothes or doing math problems, turn to these things. Turn to the things that have always given you the greatest happiness. Turn to them because they are a source of joy and joy is a gift to the world. In that way, you will contribute to the world, and you will gain what you need.

At work, if it is possible to cut your hours in half and maintain your medical coverage, do so. If you can take a loan to pay your medical expenses so that you do not have to work full-time, do so. If there are resources at your disposal, such as a house that can be sold or mortgaged over, do so. I know you said you have nothing to fall back on but when you begin asking around unseen resources may emerge. Ask others for help. These years are precious, unique and unrecoverable.

Never before have you been handed such an opportunity to place your life on a new footing. Always you have been working in the system. Always you have been tied down by the struggle to make your payments. These payments are not just checks and cash. We make our payments when we knuckle under. We make our payments when we live in fear. We make our payments when we pretend the emperor is clothed in the finest raiments of the land. We make our payments when we “buy in.”

I want you to stop making payments but I do not want you to do anything crazy.

Well, yes, actually, to be truthful, I suppose I do want you to do something crazy. I do. When we face life in its starkest terms we see that, indeed, our previous life is the life that was crazy. We see that we might have gone on knuckling under for the rest of our lives, still playing the role prescribed for us by people to whom we are just a number.

By suggesting that you stop making your payments, what I mean is, step out of the system as you know it. The system of work as you know it is geared to competition and based in fear. It is based on the premise that there is not enough and that no one is going to help you. There is another way to live, based on the premise that there is indeed enough, and that everyone is going to help you. By helping others, and asking for help, you live in a different system. Try that. Try asking for help, and doing what is right and true instead of what is practical and necessary. Try doing what is important — helping another cancer survivor buy groceries, helping someone who has just been diagnosed figure out what to do next, helping someone after surgery, helping the families of the sick and diagnosed and recovering. Try helping. Try helping, with the assumption — you do not have to call it faith, you can just call it a working assumption — that whether for sociological or psychological or spiritual reasons, the help you give is going to return to you; you are in return going to be helped, and loved, and carried forward.

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My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer

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Hi Cary,

I am seeing a great guy, but things have recently become very ambiguous between us and I’m not sure the best course of action for me.

We were dating for a little over two months, it was a slowly deepening fantastic and mature relationship, and I care for him, he clearly cares for me, we were falling in love. But as it happened, on our second date he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.

He didn’t seem much affected by it at first, and he consistently deflected my offers of support and my concern. But over the weeks I felt like he was holding back, being emotionally distant, reluctant to fall for me, and eventually started contacting me less and being less available to see me.

I asked him about it, and he came back and said that due to his mother’s illness something fell apart in him and he can’t manage to be in a relationship right now, that things were great with me and it isn’t me, but he can’t tolerate the contrasting pleasure and pain, he can’t be there for me, he can’t uphold his end of a relationship, and he doesn’t want to hurt me or let me down, that he has to do this alone, that it’s simpler and a relationship would complicate things. He didn’t say the words break-up or just-be-friends, but he made it clear we are no longer in a relationship. Since three weeks we are still in almost daily contact and see each other around once a week, we have joint projects and plans to do things together, he’s still affectionate. Last time I saw him we were overwhelmed by our mutual attraction and made love all night, but in the morning he was distant and bothered by my presence. His behavior is quite clear that it’s no longer a relationship, but something else and rather ambiguous.

We have both handled this situation quite delicately, thoughtfully, and I want to be there for him as much as he will accept me, as much as he needs, but I feel tortured and confused about what that means for us. We have feelings for each other, we are attracted to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, we have joint projects together… but he isn’t available for a relationship.

How can I find a way for me to continue to be there for him without torturing myself always pining for more, how can I find a peaceful sustainable existence in this ambiguity? How can I ride this out with him, deepening our connection, our intimacy, and be there in the months or years when he is ready for a serious relationship? How can I give my support and love, but not expect him to reciprocate ? Should I invest myself in my single non-romantic life? Should I move on and date other people ?

Thanks for your help :)

G

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Dear G,

Just tell him, clearly and often, that you are there for him during this time and that he does not need to right the balance sheet. There is no balance sheet. There is just you. You are there for him and that’s the end of it. That’s what he needs and it’s what you can give him.

You say you feel tortured and confused about what this means for you. It’s not surprising that you’re confused. One set of rituals has collided with another.

But there is no mystery about what is required. What is required is that you behave like a good, caring human being. If you make love you make love. If you don’t talk for a while you don’t talk for a while. The rules of romance are suspended. If you have needs for companionship or sex that he cannot meet, do not feel bad about meeting them in other ways. Being there for him doesn’t mean you put your life on hold. Just be there for him when you can be. Contact him regularly and don’t require him to call you back. Just remind him regularly that you are there.

Relationships deepen when one partner suffers a loss. In unguarded moments your friend will reveal hidden strengths and weaknesses. His core beliefs will come to the fore. You will see who he is.

It’s possible that you will be surprised by what you see. It’s possible, likewise, that he may not be able to be intimate with you in any meaningful way while he is facing the possible loss of his mother.

What I meant when I said that two sets of rituals had collided is that the ritual of dating has collided with the ritual of friendship. The confusion that results shows just how artificial the expectations of the dating relationship are. It seems to presume that no unforeseen human events will occur. When they do occur, the dating ritual participants are thrown into indecision.

This illustrates how dating rituals distort our natural instincts toward compassion and caring. It’s very interesting: If he were a friend, even a friend you’ve only just met, you would not be confused about how to respond to this event in his life. You would express your concern and make yourself available to him. But because you are following a dating ritual, each of you feels strangely compelled to apologize for the disruption.  It is as though people date in a vacuum, excluding all real-life events.

So the important thing is to act in the human sphere, to act in friendship. Put “the relationship” on hold.

Let go of your hopes and expectations for a relationship and just be there. Be a good human being and a good friend. You know how to do that.

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I can’t get home to see my mom before she dies

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 25, 2007

 


By the time you read this, she’ll probably be gone. Why couldn’t I be by her side?

 


Dear Cary,

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and need advice. So here I am. I’ll cut to the point: My 63-year-old mother will most likely be deceased by the time you receive this. After a number of years battling multiple sclerosis, the drugs she had to take for that left her susceptible to an opportunistic cancer which, though that was easily zapped away, had spread in the meantime to her liver, where they couldn’t use radiotherapy. All they could use was chemo, and after the very first round, my already weakened mother got so knocked flat by her reaction to that — having to go into the hospital and barely even able to talk — that she refused any further.

This was not an ill-informed decision. My mom is a nurse and a quite experienced one. It’s that she knew too well what it would amount to. It probably wouldn’t get rid of the cancer, so she merely would have spent her last remaining days in horrible suffering. My mom has had a very hard life and only the past 10 years, after she remarried, to a very nice man 13 years her junior, has she found peace. He’s a contractor and had just built her a house that had taken him years to finish after she retired, up in the mountains near Asheville, N.C., her favorite place in the world. She did not want to spend what would have been little time anyway as an invalid.

As our family is medical, all the talk has been oddly matter-of-fact. I couldn’t talk her out of it because I respect her wishes and knew she knew what she was doing. I wanted to. The last time I talked to her it was the always-macabre My Will conversation, which is not what I would have wanted our last conversation to be about. Today she suddenly slipped into a coma, and her liver and kidneys have gone. They say it’s any time now. She’s at peace and unconscious. I guess it could be worse. But it’s horrible. My father killed himself when I was 17 and now, 21 years later, my mother, who did nothing but good for people her whole life, gets killed by a cancer another treatment brought on. My parents will now both be gone, for good. I’m frightened, though I’m not sure why. I never thought of that as a usual reaction to this.

And the worst of it: Because of intense economic difficulties for the past five years (having to do with a move from California to Chicago and a divorce, and a number of other rather strange misfortunes I can’t detail here), I have not had the money, nor the time when I had the money, to visit her since my wedding in 2000. (Actually, she came out to California, so not even then.) I always assumed there’d be time. Being unemployed prevented me from getting the money to go down and see her before she went. I’m lucky right now in Chicago to be getting the occasional temp job just to keep me from being evicted. If I left, I would have nothing to come back to. Now the only way I’ll be able to get down there is for the funeral. If I were to leave right now, she’d already be dead when I got there. That would be too much.

And though my family has understood and though it hasn’t been my fault I couldn’t see her, I feel like the worst son on earth. I feel horrible. I can’t stand myself. She loved me, dearly, and I love her, and I feel like I should have found a way, any way, no matter how poor I am.

She hasn’t been alone. There’s my stepfather and my sister, who still lives down there. But I should have seen her. I wish I’d seen her.

Am I right or wrong about my guilt?

Rotten Son

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Dear Rotten Son,

You know, it is very hard to make life turn out the way we want it to. This is especially true with parents, about whom we care so much but about whose fortunes we can do so little. And it is especially true in the manner of our parents’ dying.

So when in the stillness of the summer night your failures mount up before you like a flock of screaming raptors with harsh cries and sharp talons and cold, yellow eyes, you may find it necessary to take out a piece of paper and a pen and under the light of a solitary lamp make a list of your little victories. Write them down and make them concrete and celebrate them, rare as they are.

The list may be alarmingly short, and it may be largely in the negative. For instance in my case I can say with certainty that never once did I lock my parents in the basement shackled to a water pipe and let them starve to death. Maybe I haven’t provided for them in their old age as well as I would if I were the good, heroic son. Maybe my calling has not brought me the fortune that would allow me to set them up in a condo in Hawaii. Maybe I am not a master of worldly matters. But I did not shackle them to a water pipe in the basement and let them starve to death. That I did not do. And neither did you.

It may seem cold comfort but we take what we can get.

You have had some victories. Count them. You have a mother who loved you dearly. You have a family that knows you and understands your situation. But chief among these victories, it seems to me, is your simple awareness of what is happening, and your ability to feel it. You may wish to stop feeling this, because it feels like guilt and insufficiency. It is emotional pain. But it is the tragic truth. It hurts but it also ennobles. This is no small thing. Look around you. Look at the many people who pass through life obsessed with their tiny troubles, barely noticing the great, life-changing events occurring around them, arriving at the loved one’s deathbed still fuming about a rude ticket agent or a misplaced paycheck, still perceiving life through some glasses that were cracked to begin with and never fixed. The fact that you know what is happening and have written it down, the simplest of true observations, is impossibly rare. You observe that your mother is dying and you wish you could be there but you cannot. At least you can say this. At least you are honoring this. You are not missing it. You are right here. That is enough for now.

And of course you feel afraid at the specter of your parents’ dying.

We all feel afraid at the specter of our parents’ dying, because pure and simple their dying is what we face. Our parents are our protectors and the givers of our lives, so when they die we realize there is no more life to be given to us. When they die we know absolutely that we also will die.

This is both a terrible thing and a comfort. After all, much of the pain of life comes from how we compare ourselves to each other and don’t measure up. You, for instance, in having overcome your various obstacles, find yourself now comparing yourself to some ideal son and not measuring up. It is this way all over the world. And all over the world we sons and brothers follow the same tragic path: We scheme to be better, faster, stronger and righter. We scheme to be the good son, the powerful son, the son who righted the failures of the father. I am thinking of George Bush here. I am thinking of a man not blessed with talent in the usual sense but cursed with a vile genius to surpass his brothers and his father. Look at the death he has brought to others. And look at all those religious fanatics he is obsessed with killing, who in seeking their own religious destiny deal death to others in wholesale quantity without remorse! What craziness!

Why not simply accept that death will come to us all, and let it come when it comes? Why not recognize death as the one merciful thing that will bring us finally together. Why not see death as the final antidote to our crippling feeling of insufficiency. Finally, if we feel we have not been good enough for anything in life, at least we are good enough to die. At least death will embrace us as it embraces your mother and my uncle and my father-in-law and every other soul who has ever lived and ever will live.

As to your mother’s feelings: She will have died knowing that you love her. She will have understood the terms of her going. She will have seen many die and will understand that death does not always come at a convenient time.

Of course that outrages us, but that is the way it is. Death, that most final, magisterial end, yet arrives with an insouciant randomness that outrages us. This one event, we think, of all events, ought to signal the presence of a just, even-handed God! But no, that is not how death comes at all. It comes with casual insouciance, like a child picking wildflowers, this one and that one and the other one, whatever catches its eye.

We just have to accept it, without reservation. Death picks a handful and carries them off.

So let your mother die and then go to the funeral, where the living make meaning out of death and fortify ourselves against the bleak terror of nonexistence … until the next time, when death comes again and takes a few more for its strange, invisible bouquet.

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My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday, JUL 21, 2003

What do I owe him?


Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses

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Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.France_Ad_fix

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She asked for a divorce, then found a lump in her breast

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, DEC 22, 2008

 

I’ve been dating her husband, but now she wants him back!

 

 

Dear Cary,

For the past seven months, I have been dating and falling in love with a man who is in the final stages of his divorce. After six years of marriage, it’s been a year and a half since they were together. Throughout their marriage she’d repeatedly cheated on him, told him she’d never wanted a family with him, lived away from him for years when she decided to go to graduate school and not invite him along. She never wore her ring, changed her name, or set up a joint bank account. It’s not that I feel there is anything wrong with choosing these things in a vacuum, but it didn’t seem as if she ever wanted to be married to him. She finally told him she wanted a divorce, something he’d never wanted. He remained true to their marriage for seven months after they decided to divorce by paying her rent and bills (as she is unemployed and broke), not dating anyone else, and being her emotional support. He began dating me when he moved out of their apartment, eight months after their estrangement.

Two months ago, this woman decided that she wanted her husband back. She started with calling him constantly, saying she wanted to be friends. Then she began to write him love letters, insisting that he’s abandoning his moral obligation to keep his vows — knowing this would hurt him and cause tremendous guilt. She made vague remarks about suicide. Through all of this, my relationship with him has remained strong, mostly because we are very much in love and I have been confident that this divorce will soon be finalized.

The other day, this woman let him know that she found a lump in her breast, which requires a biopsy. And I don’t know what to do. She has no health insurance and my boyfriend says that he cannot, as a human being with a conscience and compassion, move forward with the divorce until he knows she is healthy. I want him to leave her for good. This woman is not a child; she had over a year to get a job and/or insurance when she decided on a divorce. I think she should go home to her family in Kansas if she cannot take care of herself. I also feel he should be committing to me — we live together, we had been talking about a future together. I’m 29 years old and want to start a family soon — with him. I don’t know if I’m being unethical and callous by wanting him to put my emotional health before her physical health.

At what point does he stop helping her and start taking care of his own needs — and of my heart?

They were 40 days away from a divorce. Please help me.

A Lost Girlfriend

Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT

Dear Lost Girlfriend,

Today I am going to try to write with some passion, knowing that often it is hard to contain a reasonable argument within the stretched and tenuous boundaries of a passionate outburst. I must go slowly.

This is sad, first of all. This is so sad you want to put your fist through the wall. This is also drama. It illustrates the maxim that plot (or drama, or story) flows from character. Most interestingly, it flows from character flaws — not heroism but weakness. Your boyfriend has a weakness. She appears to be exploiting it. But did she create this lump in her breast, consciously? No, how could she? It is the hand of fate, played to one side’s advantage. She plays her hand the only way she knows how. You are on the sidelines watching. They will play this out.

It is a triangle. At the moment, you are on the outs. But things could change. They probably will. Triangles shift as allegiances shift. She will wound him and he will come back to you, and then she will woo him again.

Theoretically, he could walk away. What’s to stop him? His own need to take care of her stops him. He cannot bear to see himself except through her eyes. That is what it feels like. It is I guess what is commonly called codependence.

She asked for a divorce. A divorce severs one from responsibility for a former spouse, except for those responsibilities spelled out legally. Otherwise, the divorced partner is free. The divorced partner owes nothing to the other. Isn’t that so? Isn’t that what is sought in a divorce, to unburden oneself of responsibility for another, except as spelled out legally? That is what she asked for. But because of who she is, it was not to be depended upon. A person like that is not to be depended upon.

If she does not victimize him, she will victimize someone else. If he understood this, he might feel better about cutting her out of his life. She will take care of herself. She will find a way. If forced to go to her family, she will do that. She will take their money. She will find a way.

When we marry, we commit. We cannot know what’s ahead. That’s the point. We commit to sticking it out through the unknown. Likewise, when we divorce, we commit to going it alone, not knowing what will befall us. We make a decision not to turn back. She has turned back. But how can she do that? The hand was dealt, the cards were played, and now she wants to invalidate that, to pretend it never happened. That’s not the way the game is played. Thus the drama: Fateful decisions are made, and then we cannot accept what befalls us!

And here you are on the sidelines, helpless to influence the action. You, too, are playing a role based on who you are: You allowed yourself into the trap of dating a married man. It’s an oft-told tale. Until a man is completely free of his wife — not just legally but emotionally — a woman loves him at her peril. He is not completely free, so he cannot be completely yours. You will be competing for him.

It makes me furious with sadness. My fury is a response to sadness. Yet it’s also the way of the world, a story as old as time. And no one is really to blame. We are drawn together in these dramas. Our weaknesses recognize each other; we seek fulfillment and recognition in the faces of others; we greet each other, intuitively recognizing each other, like old cricket players meeting on an ancient field. We play another round, all knowing the rules.

I feel for you. I wish there was something you could do. I suppose there is. You could tell your boyfriend that he is acting codependently and should go see somebody who can help him sort out his responsibilities. She is, as you say, an adult. She is, or should be, responsible for her decisions. He is, or soon can be, a free man if he chooses to be.

You also can walk away. You are free to walk away, protect yourself, face the fact that there is a drama playing out between these two from which you are excluded and over which you are powerless. Can you do that? You may have to. Look at the situation clearly. How long can you wait? Will this be a lifelong pattern with him? How do you know? People can change, sometimes, but it’s hard work. More often we stick to the same old patterns, repeating the old, familiar motions.

It’s an old, old story. Sitting on my father’s desk here is his copy of “Oedipus, the King” by Sophocles. My father loved Sophocles. “Nothing can make me other than I am,” says King Oedipus.

Indeed.

WhatHappenedNextCallNewsletter_NEW_Dec13

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Hooray! I’m covered! (by Covered California)

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Wow. I just completed my online application for health insurance in California, and I am amazed how easy and trouble-free it was. And now I can’t believe so many Republican politicians worked so hard to deny me this. As a person who survived a potentially fatal cancer in 2009, who had surgery and a long recovery, who has fought to get the care I need and was concerned after losing my job at Salon that insurance would be too costly or unavailable, I was worried.

But Covered California is awesome. I feel so relieved. Also I feel angrier now, actually, toward the foes of the Affordable Care Act than I did while the debate was going on. When I had good medical care through Salon, the issue was important but didn’t affect my own survival. But after leaving Salon, it really came home to me personally. So now, having just this minute completed my California Care enrollment, and getting healthcare for me and my wife, which will cover our familiar UCSF Medical Center, for about $420 a month, I’m feeling like it’s a political victory that is pretty unreal. Pretty amazing.

So: Thanks, Obama. Thanks, California.

And screw you, Republican scrooges, who would rather see me go bankrupt or die of cancer than see the country join the rest of the civilized industrial world in providing all its citizens with health care!

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El Farolito

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Below is a short piece from Cary that we included in today’s newsletter. When we originally decided to publish a weekly newsletter, we never intended it just to promote our workshops and writing retreats, but rather, we wanted it to be a place to share Cary’s non-advice-related writing, his ideas and enthusiasms, and writing from other authors that we find exceptional. From here on out there will be a literary component to the weekly newsletter. Most pieces will not be re-published on this website, so keep and eye out.

Judith, abstract expressionist, El Farolito on 24th Street in the Mission for lunch after the meeting, talking about William James,  the God thing, William James says, Look, we are scientific men, Christian men, honest men, and we cannot deny what we see: People are having experiences; they have these experiences of another world and then they change. What are we to call this? How can we, as scientific men, pretend that this is not real? So something is going on, basically, is what Judith and William James and I agree about in the Farolito on 24th near Florida Street.

How did she get 33 years sober, hanging out with de Kooning in New York, marrying Steve Lacy because he needed a wife even though she preferred women, and living in that apartment at 24th and Potrero since 1979, watching the giant construction cranes across Potrero at SF General Hospital, and my plate of al pastor, and the uncanny feeling of holy rescue one feels sitting across from somebody who rampaged through 1950s New York art scene fucking everything that had a can of cadmium yellow and a canvas stretcher, everything that had a gallery show even a group gallery show and a collection of Chet Baker records not too many because he didn’t make too many because he died young and pretty and messed up, toothless and beat up and strung out in the Fillmore … thinking how does that familiar miracle happen to this woman who is nothing but trouble for years just fucking up everything until finally one day she gets it and stops the bullshit and just keeps painting every day for the last 33 years in her studio at Hunter’s Point until the abstracts are piled up to the ceiling and still she keeps going because it’s the only way to God for her, it’s the only way to know herself, her raspy, Winston-ravaged throat, her New York by way of Chicago combination of exasperation and exultations, half the time having no idea what she’s really saying but agreeing, as we agree about William James and what he was seeing in 1890, that the old religions are crumbling yet people are having these experiences of something beyond, something other, something anti-rational that says everything you believed up till now was wrong, relax, surrender.

Let the impossible happen. Let what you don’t know guide you.

Me and Judith in El Farolito. She talks incessantly about dying. How she’s ready. How it’s a pain in the ass. How people are taking care of her. People are taking Judith where Judith needs to go. People are buying Judith lunch. People are driving Judith to AA meetings. This is community.

This is how community works, a loving community around a single person without any blood relatives nearby, this is how we close ranks around someone who tore through New York in the 1950s and is still painting abstract expressionist and still listening to jazz LPs on her turntable in her Hunters Point studio and still wearing those khaki painters’ pants the hipsters wore in New York: that faded black-and-white photo of her on the door of her Hunters Point studio: Who is that woman she’s with, her lover? A friend of de Kooning’s? Who is that woman? How did she get there? And how did we get to this table at El Farolito?

We moved into her building in 1990 and she said, “I’m the one with the great flat. You’re the ones who got the not-so-great flat.” We became friends. We went to demonstrations together.

I am giving her rides. We are taking care of her. We are closing ranks around her as she threatens to slip away from us.

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

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