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I found out my father-in-law died via a text message. “My dad just died,” my ex-husband texted. “I need you to keep the kids tomorrow.” Now that we’re divorced, our communication is all about schedules and logistics.

I called my ex right away. His voice broke when he answered, as mine did when I told him I was sorry. We knew this day was coming, but the finality still made it difficult to hear. His father had been battling cancer for several years. His first diagnosis wasn’t even staged – a stage zero, the doctors said – something that could be easily removed with surgery.

That was a little over seven years ago. We had been married less than two years, and we saw it as the first big family health crisis we faced together. Optimism still coursed through us in those days. It was unfortunate news, but it could be handled; and after it was handled, we could move forward.

A few years later, the cancer recurred. In many ways, the decline of our marriage paralleled the decline of his father’s health. There were signs that the cancer might be creeping back (elevated levels of carcinoembryonic antigens and PET scans that lit up in all the wrong places), just as there were signs that our marriage was in trouble.

At first we thought both things could be fought. The cancer, with a little bit more resolve, and a backing of chemo and radiation. Our marriage, with an unhealthy mix of blinders and distractions. The conclusions were inevitable, though.

As the hard times descended, our boys were just beginning to bloom. At ages 1 and 3, they were still — thankfully — far too young to understand what was going on around them. We struggled to find common ground in our new roles: he as a suburban commuter, me as a stay-at-home mom. It became increasingly apparent that there were big differences in our expectations for life together.

It took us all a while to speak about what we already knew: that the chemo treatments would continue until they would no longer work; that Daddy wasn’t going to be living with us anymore; that, for the kids, every vacation, holiday and weekend for the next 15 years would be split between us.

I bought “Was It The Chocolate Pudding?” — a children’s book about divorce. I read it whenever the boys pulled it off the shelf. (For a time, it was their favorite.) When I felt tears pressing at my eyes while the three of us read, snuggled together before bedtime, I let them fall. My therapist told me it was healthy for kids to see their parents sad, so that they could understand that it was okay to feel those emotions, too. Eventually, I was able to say the word “divorce” out loud and what it would mean for our family.

The cancer continued to progress. Chemo pills gave way to chemo drips, which gave way to hospital stays. Visits to marriage counselors gave way to visits to lawyers, which gave way to a judgment of divorce.

What sprung up in the rubble, however, was our children. These sharp and sunny boys — babies then, 4- and 6-year-olds now — have moved in a direction the rest of us couldn’t. My ex, his family and I maintain separate lives now, but our boys remind us to look ahead.

 

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