Every so often, probably ill-advisedly, I Google-surf on my former husband’s name, which is much the same as his father’s. I never knew his father and barely knew his mother — we were that far apart in age. She died at the age of (nearly) 102. My ex-husband died three years later. When I start with his name, I usually find them instead; they were esteemed in their profession, he was obscure.

He was a mess, that man, as people who have visited this page for long enough will have read; increasingly copeless, eventually bathless, declining from mere charming eccentricity when we married to full-fledged citizenship in an alternate world over the ensuing half decade. He hoarded strange little artifacts plucked from the pavement and resisted every attempt to interfere in what seemed like suicide by self-neglect. Well-off, his parents had left him annuities and access to brokerage accounts which he gradually siphoned dry; with heroic efforts, a few concerned people helped me get him enrolled in Medicare and a VA pension program specific to veterans who had served overseas (Korea, in this case), and were now disabled or “elderly” and indigent with it. (I didn’t divorce him to establish his indigence. I divorced him because he could have drained my life’s savings and because you cannot be married to a man who is letting his teeth fall out one by one and objects, when you point that out, that you are not allowing him “his area of autonomy.”)

He loved our cats, and he was the funniest man in the world, and knew what it meant to “forsake all others” in a way I never expect to find again. No matter what we quarreled about — most often his assurances that everything was going to be “fine” when nothing of the sort was remotely possible — I have never before or since had a friend or lover who refused to brook the slightest disparagement of me from any outside party. He was loyal, recklessly generous, and foolishly undemanding.  I regularly longed to smack him over the head, but I loved him, and in a futile way I was wrestling for his soul, till the day he died.

It will be four years ago today that I got the call from a downtown emergency room that he had been brought there, and somehow conveyed my telephone number to the admitting physician. I had been receiving increasingly upsetting phone calls from him for weeks, in which he sounded on the edge of collapse but refused to tell me where he was so I could come and get him. He lingered in the hospital for two months — initially delirious, he relived our courtship while confined in restraints to keep him from pulling out his IV. When he asked me what Metro station I was parked at, I told him. When he asked if we could go back to my place from there, I said yes.

I find adulatory eulogies of his parents on the Net. They were famous psychologists, if you happen to be a psychologist yourself (at least of a certain generation). I stumbled on his mother’s books in the shelves of the university department where I once worked. Fulsome reminiscences by peers describe his father as a man of mighty spirit who “loved children and played on the floor with 5- and 6-year olds,” or his mother as a pioneer of childhood studies. Professional colleagues throw poetic Navajo blessings at their memory.

I remember him telling me how his mother, the big-shot child psychologist, stopped him on his way in from school and asked him to re-enact for her colleagues his first attempt, at age fourteen, to call a girl and ask for a date. “I realized at that moment,” he said, “that I didn’t really have parents.”

Oh, it’s fashionable to sneer at people who blame anything on a person’s parents, I know. Everyone has their own shot at straightening out their lives. True as far as it goes, but still: After he died I called a high school friend of his to break the news — someone who’d never spoken to me, but whom he called every year with a birthday greeting. She told me how she had found him, and his adopted sister, in the house with an illiterate housekeeper from Harlem while Mom and Dad enjoyed a fascinating trip to the Indian subcontinent. He was miserably ill and turned out to have double pneumonia; his friend’s parents took him in till the adults presumably responsible for him got back into the country.

His parents wrote bunches of stuff later on, about India and spirit and Asian psychology and shit like that.

Somewhere in his mind, I think a message was inscribed: You deserve to die alone and neglected. And by golly he worked at it.

I look at all these reverent biographies and articles about humanist psychologists and cross-cultural exploration and women in academe, about a woman “known in the field of psychology through her studies on child development, personality, projective techniques, as well as on the nature of sympathy.” Sometimes, in passing, those articles mention “the birth of her first child.” And I think: Fuck you. I cleaned up your mess.

I cleaned up your mess.

No one’s going to write a reverent biography of me.

Doesn’t matter. I loved him. I got the better end of the deal.


12 thoughts on “Anniversaries

  1. He was lucky… I don’t imagine anyone is ever going to clean up my parents’ mess. Though I always appreciate it when someone tries to tidy up a bit.


  2. I’d like to think I will inspire such a beautiful eulogy on the anniversary of my death at some (distant I hope) future point. But I doubt it. Somehow, the extraordinary of spirit always seem to contain that fierce element of self-destructiveness which is entirely absent in me. I am a self-coddler 🙂

    And it would seem that child psychologists should not be allowed to have their own children, for fear of them using them as a) an ongoing experiment or b) neglecting them in favour of ‘more interesting/dramatic/exotic’ cases.

    • Bingo — on a couple of occasions, when I found myself explaining my ex’s predicament and family situation, including the fact that his parents were both psychologists, I’ve said “They shouldn’t be allowed to breed.”

      I always was amazed at his capacity for a minimalist life. He would do without just about anything rather than let people “hassle” him. And he didn’t seem to feel pain.

      But there are extraordinary people who took rather good care of themselves — Wagner comes to mind. Silk skivvies, you know.

      I fear, a bit, turning into the older Victoria who could never stop recalling dear Albert (and perfect honesty requires me to admit that man nearly wore me out over the last few years of trying to keep him from the cliff’s edge), but four years is a pretty short time. The slant of the light on the first floor this morning brought the call from the ER right back. The doctor told me who he was calling for and where from, and I yelled “THANK GOD” in his ear and nearly deafened him.

  3. Almost every therapist I’ve ever known was one fucked-up piece of shit, with two exceptions: my last therapist, and my mother’s last therapist…who happened to be Carl Rogers’ granddaughter, of all things. But I have been in contact with many counselors, therapists, and psychologists in contexts where they were using my professional services, or they were friends of friends, and oh my God. Oh. My God. I pity any human being for whom they are responsible, or whom they claim to love.

    On a different note, it’s frustrating and confusing to me to realize, as I frequently have cause to do, that people can’t be saved. Won’t be saved. Sometimes refuse to be saved. And that while there is virtue for a while, in trying, the savior ultimately has to save themselves first, and somehow come to grips with the intolerable truth that perhaps the calling is to bear compassionate witness to another person’s self-destruction, and offer a safe haven when it’s appropriate to do so. That is the hardest job in the world, and I am in awe of the grace with which you did it.

    • I used to work in a university department that employed a lot of counseling shrinks as adjuncts, and the only one I thought had a solid core of humanity was the campy gay slut who used to beard with the swim coach (they only let their hair down, discreetly, in places like my office when no one was around). All the rest gave me the jimjams — humorless, compulsive, egocentric, remote, or some combination of the above.

      Grace is relative. I used a lot of bad words, and the night I decided I had to divorce him involved a fight — we had had very few — in which I yelled at him that he smelled like a dumpster ripening in the August sun.

      My Albino Ex, whom I met a year after the divorce filing, deserves a lot of credit. He had worked in various volunteer capacities with poor, demented, incapacitated people (as a cop, an EMT and civic activist), never had the slightest “issues” with me continuing to look after my ex-husband and reminded me, when I needed reminding, that the man just had some transistors missing. After we had quit being a couple in our turn, but remained friends, he once broke a date to help me try to get him to the hospital. I have been lucky in many ways.

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