“You are a saint,” more than one woman has said to me. “I would never take care of my ex.”
I am not a saint. A saint takes care of strangers, not ex-husbands. A saint doesn’t dredge up injuries from a quarter century ago and deploy them as weapons in a heated moment as I have done several times in the past few months. A saint does what she does without resentment. Me, not so much.
A few months ago, my ex had a stroke. I’m the person he called. We were divorced six years earlier and separated for three years before that, but he hadn’t exactly reinvented himself. He simply moved to another state for a few years.
Three years ago, he moved back to the city where I still lived, back into the house where we had raised our daughter. He wanted to get back together. He said we had a bond. No way, I told him. Not gonna happen. I was happy with my life just as it was. I’d never been able to fit that 1950s mold of wifehood, exemplified by his mother.
After much haranguing and “talking” where we settled absolutely nothing from the past and found no common ground between two entirely different narratives of our lives together, we settled on a sort of friendship. We would get together about once a week to take our dogs out for a run in the woods, and we’d grab a sandwich from Jersey Mike’s. Once in a while, we’d have a nice dinner and go to the symphony, something we never did when we were married.
I’d always enjoyed his sense of adventure and appreciation for fine food, but the same issues that infuriated me during the marriage would occasionally flare up: his politics of stinginess (why should he have to pay for poor people’s health care?); his lack of empathy for the unfortunate; and a few other “quirks,” including not taking care of his health — stratospheric blood pressure and out-of-control diabetes.
Then, not surprisingly, he had a stroke in his brain stem that rendered his entire right side useless, slurred his speech, impaired his ability to swallow, and transformed this burly fellow with a salty sense of humor into a frightened, obstreperous, frail old man. He fought with the hospital staff, yelled at the CNAs and nurses at the skilled nursing facility, and railed at me for not caring enough, not doing enough, not being there enough. Reminding him we weren’t married had no effect.
Other times, however, he was reasonable. Though disdainful of much of the staff in the various health care institutions, he respected the doctors and was friendly toward the physical therapists. And there were times when his rage at the health-care machine was perfectly justifiable. Well-meaning medical professionals rendered him unconscious at least three different times by insisting he take medications that caused his BP to plummet.
After two months of various facilities and once the insurance ran out, he insisted he would get better quicker at home. I thought he could be right. At the nursing home, his mood had gotten progressively fouler. He refused to eat, to drink “thickened water,” or to take his medications, and he didn’t cooperate with the therapists. When they begged him to sit up in his wheelchair for twenty minutes to strengthen his core, he wheeled himself down to the director’s office and demanded to be put back in his bed. He had patient’s rights, he bellowed. When he left, no one at the facility shed a tear.
So an ambulance brought him home on a stretcher. I left my own house in the care of my current Airbnb guest and moved back into the house I had once shared with my ex. He had almost no furniture, and it took days of cleaning by me and some hired guns to get the place habitable. It was as if time had stood still since the divorce and he’d just been waiting for me to bring back the dining table and deal with his taxes.
I hired someone off Craig’s list to live in the spare bedroom of his house and help out, but the woman I had thought was a perfect fit turned out to be pushy, unreliable, and a frying pan thief. It was good riddance when she left.
That left me to do this physically demanding, emotionally devastating, and intellectually stultifying job by myself. I started believing in miracles when the son of a neighbor turned out to be the perfect sitter so that I could get to a yoga class or a cafe to write a few times a week.
It’s still harder than I could have ever imagined. He can be demanding, impatient, and borderline abusive. After a sleepless night of changing soiled diapers, I turn surly, resentful, and quick with a curse word. But mostly we muddle through — trying to find foods he can tolerate, scheduling visits with therapists, interviewing helpers who never seem to meet the criteria.
We spend our evenings watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” and, of course, the series often mirrors our lives. The episode in which Arizona hurls invectives at poor Callie for trying and failing to be a good caregiver hits especially close to home.
Oftentimes I’m baffled by my agreement to take care of him. I could have said, no, you can’t go home, you’ll pay the 170 dollars a day co-pay, and you’ll stay at the facility. But that didn’t even appear to be an option at the time. Who am I to tell him what he can or can’t do? And how could I let someone I’d known for so many years, someone I once loved, the father of my child, languish by himself under the jaundiced eyes of strangers?
I had other reasons, as well. If I hadn’t stepped up to take care of him, he would expect our daughter to do it. She lives on the other side of the country and is in the early stages of a career she loves. Her life would be derailed if she had to take care of him, and I’m not sure she could have told him no. My life was not going to be derailed by taking some time off my teaching job. Secondly, I hoped that with the help of an attorney I might be able to straighten out his financial affairs and at least save his house. If I’d left him in a facility, he would most likely have lost what little he had within a few months. (So much for not taking care of the poor!)
But I don’t enjoy being a caregiver. In addition to the sheer tedium of the job and the sometimes back-wrenching work, I miss my house. I miss dinners with friends, movies, trips to visit family, and the freedom to do what I want when I want. Friends tell me to hire someone to replace me, or get him back into a facility, let him burn through his money until he’s eligible for Medicaid.
Eventually that may be the only option, but for now I find I simply can’t abandon him. He was right. After all these years, there is some kind of bond — not a marital bond, but a familial one. This is, after all, the father of my child and the person who had once been my best friend. I could no more leave him to manage this phase of his life alone than I could drop my dog off on the side of the road and drive away.
I’ve learned a few things through this ordeal. For example, I’m a pro at operating a hoyer lift and doing a board transfer from bed to wheelchair — two things I didn’t even know were things prior to this adventure. I’ve also discovered that while I am often kind and helpful, when angered or tired, I am ashamed to admit to a cruel tongue.
Finally, though, I’m learning acceptance. I may rail, gnash my teeth, and seethe at what feels like a trap I willingly stepped into, but then I realize I’m not going to walk away so I may as well suck it up. Like an alcoholic starting the twelve steps, I have to admit I am powerless over the situation. My ex might regain some semblance of a life. Or he might not. I can’t force, cajole, or even encourage him to deal with this the way I think he should.
I try to explain to people (and nearly everyone I’ve encountered, including his doctor, has looked at me as if I were a pink giraffe) why I’m still here. It’s this: when I look at him, I see a person who not too long ago had a full life. He had stimulating work and a curious nature, including a fascination with mushroom varieties and the emperor Napoleon; he relished a good meal and a Stella Artois; and he deeply enjoyed a walk in the woods with a couple of dogs. Then a coup occurred in his brain, and that life was demolished.
So many situations in the world right now fill me with a sense of helplessness and despair — immigrant children in detention, Syrian refugees, oppressed people the world over, and the poor, beleagured planet. I donate to the appropriate organizations, and support political candidates who promise to do the right thing, but these acts don’t alleviate the feeling of helplessness.
In this situation, however, I am not helpless. I can do the laundry, pour a glass of juice, move him into the recliner, request a home visit from a podiatrist, or find the remote control. I can set aside my scruples for a while to fulfill that housewife role I once rejected. It doesn’t make me a saint to help him get through this. It makes me human.