I Couldn’t Save My Stepson’s Mother, But I Should Have Done More…

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My stepson’s mother, my husband’s ex-wife, died in June. She was 60.

She was diagnosed with uterine wall cancer last fall, and a mere seven months later she was in a hospice unit in an Albany hospital, less than an hour’s drive from the home my husband and I have made with my stepson and our two other children for the last 25 years. My husband and son drove there every day the week before she died to join her second husband, her sister, her brothers, her mother, her coworkers, and her friends in the hospice room too small for all it had to contain. I offered gestures, inadequate and sincere, kissing them goodbye in the mornings, making sure dinner was ready when they got back, dim with grief. Between, I tried to keep life as usual going for our two other children, and I thought about the strange intimacy of birth mothers and stepmothers, first and second wives. What did I owe? What could I offer?

Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I fell in love. He was married to the woman he had been with for 18 years, since they were freshmen in college. My stepson was less than a year old. It is not the way we would’ve chosen to fall in love, but it’s the way that we did, and the love we felt, and still feel, was unprecedented enough that we chose to make a life together despite causing damage and pain where we least wanted to cause damage and pain.

We chose to make a life together despite causing damage and pain where we least wanted to cause damage and pain.

Their marriage counselor had advised that my husband continue to see me while he and his wife were in counseling. He thought no good came of forbidding anyone from anything. So my husband, before he was my husband, traveled halfway across the country as often as he could. We racked up a small fortune in phone bills. We played with my dog. We ate good food. We ate bad food. We didn’t eat at all. I taught him to drive stick, and kept myself from hoping too much. Maybe he’d need to know how to drive stick when we took off for the new life we were going to make together. Maybe he’d take his new skill and drive away into the sunset. What I felt for him had rendered me dumb, unsure of what I knew anymore. How do you negotiate the unprecedented? You shorten your horizon. You tell yourself and each other: I don’t know what will happen, I just know I have to see you again. After two months of that, my husband’s ex-wife wrote him a letter. It was long, covering a lot of ground, but what I remember was the ending, her request that he decide, one way or the other. She couldn’t take it anymore.

There was more counseling, and more terrible and difficult conversations. There was mediation, and an appearance before a judge where one spouse was required to stand and state the desire and reasons for the divorce, and the other had to listen and then stand to agree. That’s when she broke down, he told me later, his face filled with grief and guilt, when she had to stand to agree. And then their 20-year life was over, and ahead of her, ahead of us all, was the long road of co-parenting, in her case with her ex-husband and his new wife.

I have a friend who explains her relationship to the world as classically Presbyterian. She goes through life saying Thank you and I’m sorry. She is, in other words, expressing gratitude at what the world has offered and apologies for not being grateful enough, even if what the world is sometimes offering is suffering and loss. Those are not phrases I use often enough. It’s not that I don’t feel grateful, and it’s not that I don’t offer apologies for whatever my missteps have been; it’s just that I mostly feel, as I imagine many only children do, that my behavior — both its sources and its consequences — begins and ends with me. If I’m being kind to myself, I think of this as independence. If I’m being honest, I’d have to call it something else.

I didn’t go visit my stepson’s mother when she was dying, although we had certainly shared an odd and unusual intimacy over the last quarter of a century. There was the time she called me, alarmed at the discovery of her son’s first crush. “How can he think he’s in love? I still have to cut his waffles for him,” she told me. I said I thought that was pretty much the definition of being 12, and we laughed, and then she said, well, she wouldn’t be cutting his breakfast foods for him anymore. The time we hired her to design us a garden of grasses, the plans sketched carefully with her landscape architect pencils, labeled in her precise all-caps. The time, shortly after the birth of my first child, when she called me up to say that my stepson had talked to her about life with a new baby brother. He was 5 years old then, and feeling a little left out. He wanted us to, in his words, pay some more attention to him, be a little less hard on him (he was the kind of 5-year-old who was good at channeling his inner psychotherapist). The time, last year, when we both stood in an East Village club, drinks in our hands, grinning like fools as we listened to my stepson’s launch concert for his band’s CD.

She did this with a grace and generosity I know I would not have mustered, had I been in her position.

Despite all that and more, I didn’t think my presence in the hospital would have comforted her. When my stepson left the house on what would turn out to be the last morning he would see her, I told him to make sure he communicated everything he wanted to communicate with her. She was listening, I told him, even if it seemed like she wasn’t. I told him I knew that being there in that room, watching her disappear into some version of herself that was unrecognizable, was brutal. I reminded him that she knew that he was there, and his presence was making this terrible death just a little easier.

When my husband and I told him that his mother had died, I reminded him of how he had helped, the company he had offered. And I said I hoped that she had been able to communicate to him just how important he’d been to her. I wanted to be sure he knew that there wasn’t anyone more important to her than he was.

He’d been so important that 25 years earlier, she put away whatever rage she felt towards me and allowed me to raise her child with her. She did this with a grace and generosity I know I would not have mustered, had I been in her position.

I once asked my husband if he would’ve left his wife if he hadn’t fallen in love with me. He didn’t know. It would have been very, very hard, he said, for him to have taken such an action without help. So maybe what I mean when I say we caused damage and pain is that I caused damage and pain. And here’s the thing: It’s damage and pain I would cause again.

But the night after my stepson’s mother died, I dreamed that I was leaving a house with a lot of people in it. Not a party, but a house full of people. When I got to my car, there was a dead woman sitting in the front seat. I didn’t know her. In the dream, I knew she would be there. She had been alive before I’d gone into the house, healthy, but I’d known that wasn’t going to last, and I’d done nothing. I’d left her there. Standing by the car, I knew I would have to go back into the house, tell everyone, get help. It was understood, in my dream logic, that this would mean that everyone would know what I’d done. I was culpable, about to be exposed.

My husband often says I have the kind of dreams you don’t need a degree to figure out. So, okay. I wake and remember what, as a fiction writer, I should’ve never forgotten: Conflict is all about equally formidable forces trying to occupy the same space. I feel enormous guilt. And to make the life my husband and I have made, I would do it all again. This is not something that everyone understands, but it is something my stepson understands, and a large part of the reason for that understanding is his mother, the way she raised him, the capacities she generated in him, the beliefs she modeled for him.

I should have said more than I did to my stepson’s mother, my husband’s ex-wife, about gratitude and apologies, commiseration and restoration. I should have told her what a privilege it was to raise a child with her. I should have reminded her of all the ways he is unmistakably her son. I couldn’t have saved her, but I should have gone back to the car and done what I could. I should have said Thank you. I should have said I’m sorry. And then I should have said it all again. ●

Tin House

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of four novels, The Celestials, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, and Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in the The Atlantic, Tin House, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she lives.

Learn more here about her new collection of stories, Kiss Me Someone.

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