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Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

His father came out to me when Nick was 10 but didn’t leave until Nick was 14. Another five years would pass before our son would know why. It was the late 1980s, AIDS had exploded, adding a taboo to Eckart’s revelation that hadn’t been there before. Not only was it still secretive, it was dangerous to be a gay man when who you were could take your life.

We spent nearly an hour in the small room with Nick signing papers, a social worker kindly offering sympathy, and the young doctor who had disconnected the breathing tube, after locating the D.N.R. document, reassuring us that Eckart would have been brain-dead. A risk-taker from his childhood in Germany, he’d exited as speedily as he’d driven, first the autobahn, and then American highways. Once a strikingly handsome man, he now lay with his mouth wide open, his dentures left in his assisted-living studio apartment this one last time.

I’d introduced myself as “Nick’s mother” and sat off to the side. The social worker wanted me to know that there were bereavement support groups in the small town I lived in. But were they for former spouses? Did I qualify for support after 30 years of living apart? Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

I realized I’d always been waiting for him to say about our 20 years together, “It wasn’t nothing.”

Despite my history with this man, the hurt, the fury, and the deep doubts he’d sown when he canceled 20 years of our life together, I didn’t want to leave him there alone, to be wheeled away to a cold vault, pending more paperwork and cremation. I wanted us to sit with him, to be together as a family. I imagined that if we kept a vigil I might be able to touch his skin, then still warm, and for the first time be less afraid of death. For as his spouse, albeit former spouse, I was next in line — or so it seemed there in the all too bright light, shimmering around me.

In the following weeks, before the scattering of his ashes, the “sea burial,” as Eckart’s brother called it, and the memorial luncheon which included just six of us, I was surprised to find myself back in the album I thought I’d left behind decades ago: meeting Eckart when I was 25, a young journalist from New York on assignment in West Berlin, marrying in New York, having his child and those 20 years together before being left in midlife. He’d framed my youth and my motherhood and created some protection from my bipolar, often psychotic mother.

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