My husband Steve left me and the children in 2005 after 17 years of marriage. He left because he didn’t want to deal with his self-destructive habits. In 2002, he'd started earning a high income for the first time in our marriage. He climbed to the mountaintop, where the view should've been breathtaking and should've made him never want to depart. However, the mysteries of the dark valley below were too enticing.
He began drowning himself in drugs and debauchery, in addition to the already established vices of abusing alcohol and me. The divorce was final in 2007. He disappeared and ceased all child support, visitation, and phone calls. He traveled to a place that was unreachable. In my view, he was evil and had migrated to a self-constructed hell on earth. He was one of the unforgivables.
This year, we heard that Steve was in the hospital with advanced stomach cancer from his lifestyle. By then, I had forgiven him. I flew with my children from California to Washington to see him.
Steve’s brother, whom he had been living with for the past year, picked us up at the airport. Steve had been taken from his hospital room for a 3-hour procedure. It was nearly 4 PM and Steve would be sedated afterwards. So, we decided to wait till the next day to visit. In the meantime, I retrieved my phone messages. One was from Steve himself, frantically dissuading us from coming, saying he'd be “unavailable” to see us. He desperately didn’t want to see us.
Not to be persuaded, we went to the hospital in the morning. Steve cried and hugged Dana briefly. He then reached for the boys. Erik was fine, but Paul was apprehensive. Steve barely acknowledged me, so I left the room. After thirty minutes of catching up on his children’s lives, he announced that he was tired.
We returned to the hospital after lunch. This time I didn’t go into the room, but Dana spent much time with him. Paul's not a big talker and didn’t know his dad well. I think Erik was frustrated. His dad reprimanded him several times for sitting too close or touching too much. Erik has Down syndrome.
Paul’s 15th birthday was the following day. So, we gathered at Steve's brother's place for pizza and chocolate cake. Dana and I had brought gifts for Paul, plus his uncle handed him fifty dollars. Despite my feeling inadequate, Paul was grateful and content.
On our final day in Spokane, we stayed at the hospital till time to go to the airport. The boys and I sat in the waiting room while Dana visited with her father. Once, when I peeked through the door to Steve’s room, she turned and I could see she was crying.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye. I was in an awkward position. Steve didn’t want me there. He was still bitter and hateful towards me. Yet, he was my husband for nineteen years and the father of the children who were now watching me. I took the boys into the room ahead of me and watched them say goodbye, knowing they would likely never see him again. Not a happy birthday. I approached Steve and put a hand on his forearm saying, “You have three amazing children.”
I don’t know what I expected him to say, but I was totally unprepared for the icy, smug and terse reply. “Thank you.” He then said “Take care.” I responded similarly. A few words like strangers parting summed up our life together.
This was certainly not the experience I wanted for my children. Over the next months, Steve softened and felt the guilt that often comes with sobriety and looming mortality. I couldn’t afford another trip and my boys weren’t much interested, but we were able to send my daughter one last time.
As Steve’s health deteriorated, I thought of him lying there alone and waiting to die. He had burned nearly all of his bridges. Two friends visited him and two others called him. I had a sudden unexpected realization, “That’s more than punishment enough.” I felt compassion and found myself ready to write a letter to him. I remembered long-forgotten tender moments.
In that letter, I recalled to him the early years of our relationship. I conjured up a place and time when our love was fresh and strong enough to tame his tormented soul. I reminded him of the good memories: the laughter, the fun, and the passion. I reminded him of kind and loving things he had done, of the wonderful guy and father he had been in the early days when family took precedence.
Although I had forgiven him in my heart, I hadn't yet gathered up the grace to tell him. I was waiting for him to ask. Didn't I deserve to be asked? Not necessarily and not so important. So, I ended the letter “with love, forgiveness, and understanding.” These words came not from a wife, but from a human being.
Steve died at age 52 on August 15th. He passed just minutes after we called to speak one last time. I like to think he died with his mind in that better place of long ago. I am now at peace, the kind that passes understanding. Gone is all semblance of bitterness.
Be kind to yourself. Give yourself a great gift. Forgive the “unforgivable.”
Linnea Larsen is a freelance writer. Her current projects include a fictional biography and a book of poetry. She also edits work for other authors. Her sons Erik and Paul live with her in California, while her daughter Dana now attends college. Linnea publishes a blog at www.linneann.wordpress.com.