Preamble to a love note to my deceased ex-husband. – Anne O
I’m the former wife of Mike, Army Captain. We met as college underclassmen in 2005, began dating in 2009, married in 2013, divorced in 2018, and he died 4 months later.
My headspace has improved markedly this year after very slowly beginning a relationship with someone new, and finally setting a boundary with the most toxic person in my life, who has hindered my acceptance of this experience in ways I hadn’t realized until now.
Today I am swelling with pride. When I’ve thought of Mike these last few days, I’ve had none of the usual everyday regrets of his violent last moments on earth, none of the guilt over setting boundaries at an imperfect time or in an imperfect way, none of the confusion about how love cannot conquer all and what that means for my world view, none of the limbo about how to continue care of his memory. When he passed, I learned he left me the house and the majority of his SGLI, and designated me his PADD and executor. I’ve been slow to establish anything in his name because I haven’t been emotionally able to even move things in the house until last week, when I had to, to distribute belongings to his mom. I’d prefer to bet on my ability to do something grand for him, and I think that will take time.
I have never announced what happened in a public manner, as I had confusion and hurt around what happened, and as the caretaker of his memory, I didn’t know what was OK to talk about. Today I recognize there is no shame in what happened. It could really happen to anyone, and is more likely to happen to a certain population who may benefit from knowing. So if you still have judgment around this, you can go away forever.
Mike drank to salve unresolved stressors. Everyone’s got coping mechanisms, some healthy and others not so much. However he came home from his deployment in 2014, a few months into my MBA, a changed person. I do not know why. But this was when things changed. Night terrors (which terrified the awake), no steady sleep, severe anxiety, heavy drinking, threatening other forms of self harm, and anger which manifested a handful of times physically. This continued for years, during and after I finished my MBA. Despite these abnormalities in our life, they weren’t present 24/7. We were able to maintain friends and good care of a pet and manage work responsibilities. We still experienced joy and growth and togetherness and travel and adventure in the mix.
After graduation in fall 2016, we made the joint decision to move back to our favorite Army town to be in an environment more conducive to healing. However, that alone didn’t fix things, and nothing worked to change our dynamic or this path over several months. We were living apart by April due to my job and his choice, and I filed for divorce in November of 2017, hoping for the best.
Mike was diagnosed with liver failure at the beginning of May 2018 with a 6–12 month prognosis. I am convinced he only let me know because I reached out to him two weeks prior when a friend told me he looked ill. I spent the few weeks afterward figuring out how to resolve some hesitation around the facts and how to evaluate what this means for him and for me and for us, as well as figure out the logistics of whatever plan made sense. I had plans in place for an extended stay near him by late May.
At this point, I hadn’t seen him in person in 8 months, yet hadn’t begun to date others. I hoped for a reconciliation after the nightmare I couldn’t personally overcome ended. I ended up with 24 hours notice and 16 hours in the room with him to speak and touch our peace before our story ended for good.
I pieced together in the weeks and months afterward what exactly happened, because I didn’t understand when it was happening what had changed from the info I had gotten just weeks before (and hadn’t done any preparation at that point for being present during the process of death). He got a kidney infection and then developed sepsis because the liver failure complicated medicating the infection. He had succeeded in sobriety in November and December, but relapsed sometime after the new year. Coincidentally or not, an alcoholic roommate also moved in with him during this time. He was on medications that didn’t mix with alcohol. The VA’s addiction treatment policies as I understand them also didn’t help- he needed to fail out of outpatient before he’d be added to a waitlist for inpatient. He had Tricare and support from his reserves command to seek help, but he was unreceptive to private inpatient programs, presumably because he felt he wouldn’t be understood. By all evidence I’ve sought or stumbled on, I am not sure he realized how bad things were changing inside his body during this time. Despite a guarantee of death during those last 16 hours, he asked for intubation to try to evade it, which would involve breaking his ribs without pain medication.
Mike, the biggest dicked man on earth if there was any doubt, was my soulmate, from that first smooch under a tree at a college party to his last breath. How defeating, that the last known lever available in the toolbox to induce change was to break both of our hearts. Yet, I am confident today that how I choose to carry him forward in life is always the right way, no matter what our official status was the day of his crossing.
We were both adventure fiends. He sought it in his daily interactions, I sought sweeping life pivots. We kept each other on our toes, always choosing the other, never having met an obstacle we couldn’t summit over the years of vetting before marriage. Marriage unfortunately and in an unforeseen way coincided with the personal worst years of our lives. Although we were adaptable and strong, we weren’t emotionally resilient for problems we didn’t understand and felt powerless to overcome. Neither of us had great coping skills and neither of us were used to seeking help. We were already private people and for mental health treatment for much of that time, the career risks seemed high. There were several shocking twists and turns introduced. It was the saddest downfall you’d never expect from people whose hearts were pretty much put on earth for one another.
Today, for the first time in these couple years, I’m thinking about our greatness without the sadness of misfortune and missteps, but the pride and joy and confidence of being great. My badass husband loved to show off and I loved to compete. We saw the world together, both big and small. He watched in admiration while another man we didn’t know placed burnt ends directly into my mouth because my hands were full of peaches and money at a farmers market. He pulled a knife to ward off a ne’er do well who wandered into the wrong set of bushes while we were being amorous in a park after dark in another country. I encouraged his eccentricity and he stretched my brain. He was courageous and I was too. I am so very lucky to have had a best friend impart so much good on me.
I never say never, but the silveriest lining of this whole situation is that I don’t feel the need to love like that again, because I am not down to lose like that again. I am satisfied and downright impressed with the life we had, and I want not for a replacement part. It took a lot of reflection to shake out the good and bad and arrive at this feeling of net good. But this sentiment is one I have had for many months. That is not sad, but freeing.
I’m living the slow life, enjoying building for the first time a stable foundation. One that’s fortified in so many ways, enabled by Mike’s parting gifts, that it will never fall beneath me again. One that takes time and intention to build and one that only someone who has experienced a failure knows what to do by what not to do. This path forward is one I’ve never experienced before, and that in itself is an adventure.
I thought of this moment at Mike’s memorial but didn’t want to cry so I didn’t share it. When Mike was dying, he closed his eyes and held his breath so that we’d all lean in thinking he died, and then he went “bah!” to scare us and lighten the mood. In this I cry not from the fact of his death but from being overwhelmed by his beauty. What an objectively insanely strong loving generous and funny human being. I am so endlessly proud of my dude, warts and all, and I finally have the courage to acknowledge our warts.
This honesty is transformative. It’s so hard to grieve and live life believing you or your chosen life partner were bad or wrong or unworthy, because the complex set of circumstances you lived ended in strife and divorce and sickness and death. It’s amazing to remember that under another set of circumstances which seemed more likely, many of your same biases and behaviors could have set you up for great success and lifelong fulfillment. You can’t predict what life will throw at you. You can improve or adapt how you respond and learn to be satisfied even in your failure. Communication and healing sometimes must be aided by third parties. But that’s OK.
In conclusion, a public note to Mike:
I still love your soul to the moon and back, and I see you blessing my life daily. I hope you approve of the new man. He can’t hunt or fish and has no military experience. In your insincere joking view, a total pussy. Great in bed though, as well as patient and kind and smart and supportive, as you were. Maybe you coordinated that for me. See you again someday as pledged, and until then I will make you so proud, as you have made me. ♥️