In January, I finally get the text from John’s dad that I’ve been waiting on for more than a year.
Oh, and the waiting. It’s astounding the stories we build up in our heads when there’s no intervention from reality to prune them into a sensible shape. I ask myself on a loop, how does he think this happened? Why does he think I gave his son two pounds of my own liver, and a year and a half later handed the same man divorce papers? Doesn’t he want to know? If I have an overactive imagination, I wonder, are some others’ atrophied, seized up and dry? Or is it worse: do they just not care?
Waiting, I compose in my head a pointed, yet directionless reply to a piercingly unasked question. The meat of it wraps around a spinal litany of near-funerals for his son that he doesn’t even realize he’d missed: five by my count, the transplant (the one everyone pays attention to) not even the last one, not even the closest call.
I compose it at the oddest times, this rat-a-tat of staccato bullet points repeating itself almost literally ad nauseam. During showers, while putting on makeup, in the act of pushing myself out into the world, donning the disguise of the day and realizing there’s a mental wrinkle in my suit. There’s a former father-in-law who hasn’t acknowledged his new designation: “former.”
Of course, I’m not thinking about his dad every minute of every day. But when I do, it hurts. Why this thunderous silence now? God, he was texting us constantly after the transplant, all his little pieces of advice about wearing masks and opening doors with pinkies, pre-pandemic survival techniques reserved for the immune-compromised, which he’d had his own experience with recovering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
(John and I never even knew he was ill, three thousand miles away. He told us once he was in remission. He didn’t want to worry us.)
Not that I have many answers, to be sure, but it’s worse not to have any questions, to be lingering, waiting, in this state of suspension.
But who am I to break that spell, unbidden? (He’s not even my father.)
So the reply, unfettered by reality, grows like a choking weed.
As we prepared for the transplant, we planned for both my parents to be there, before, during, and after. But there was no corresponding plan for anyone from John’s family. He would be alone. I hated that thought, so I asked him if he wanted his dad there for the surgery. (I knew enough not to ask if he wanted his mom there.)
He looked at me and laughed. “God, no.”
(The father begets the son.)
John had texted in August: Finally told my dad about the divorce.
We’d been divorced for ten months by then.
He added: If he contacts you don’t respond unless you want to hear about god.
I couldn’t tell if maybe he wanted to end that sentence earlier.
(If he contacts you don’t respond.)
I thanked him for the heads-up, but told him I thought his dad knew long ago.
John explained that it had been a hard year for his dad (friends had died, their dog had died, there’d been trouble with his daughter, John’s distant sister, who’d tried to be close).
It’s been a hard year for John’s dad.
(John doesn’t want to worry him.)
The long reply’s chokehold slackened, I reset the clock (00:00:00) and started waiting again, waiting to hear from his dad, my former father-in-law.
Dangerous, this faith.
John and I had been living together for about a year when we made our first visit to his dad’s. Raymond had asked us to come, so that he could help John with a car repair. It seemed hopeful. It might have been one of their first times together since the fistfight that lead John to spend the last year of his minority on friends’ couches, instead of at home.
We brought our laundry.
I met Raymond, Judy, his second wife, and Jennifer, their daughter. As soon as introductions were made, the factions retreated to indisputable, impenetrable girl/boy silos; the boys in the garage, the girls in the kitchen, briefly contemplating lunch preparations. Twelve-year-old Jennifer sized me up with dark, dubious eyes. Did I know John’s last girlfriend had a nose ring, too? I let my eyebrows pop up. Ah, did she? I grinned.
Well, we certainly seem to be hitting it off…
Leaving lunch for a moment, they whisked me through the house for a quick tour. Room after room after room, it was a shrine to Jennifer: every surface, vertical and horizontal, was stuffed with mementos, photos candid and professional, solo and with the family. A family of three.
I wondered if there was such a thing as a mausoleum for the living. The entire house was heavy with expectation (and a parenthetical message from a regretful parent: I won’t fail again).
We returned to the kitchen, listening to tools clanging in the garage, and set lunch on the table. Judy chided Jennifer about what she was eating, reminding her to watch her calories. I wondered if Judy thought I was too fat. A bad influence. A nose ring and a tattoo, for heaven’s sake. I piled extra chips on my plate and smiled brightly.
In January, Raymond texts:
Hi Barbara, Judy and I hope you are well and happy.
I just wanted to ask if you think John is still staying away from liquor. I pray that he is. And we are so grateful for you donating part of your liver to save him.
To save him.
I re-read the text until I can see it swimming in front of my eyes when I close them. My reply, composed so vigorously over the last year, falls away entirely. It takes me several hours to compose another.
Hi, it’s nice to hear from you. I’m doing well. I am not really interacting with John, except for the occasional text, so I can’t speak to his current activities.
I filed for divorce because he was drinking, and telling me that his drinking was my fault. I didn’t feel like I could go through what I’d already been through, to then go through that.
Despite everything, I don’t regret the liver donation. But five years ago you could never have convinced me that this is how we would end. This wasn’t what I wanted.
I hope you and Judy are doing well, along with Jennifer and the kids. Thanks for reaching out.
The car repair wasn’t exactly going smoothly, and was taking longer than expected.
Leaving Jennifer and Judy in the kitchen, I put the last load in the washing machine. In the back hall to the laundry room, I stopped in front of a framed photograph. It was the only one of John I had seen in the entire house: a school picture, probably second or third grade.
His face was heart-rendingly recognizable, despite the squeezing, stretching years, and god didn’t he look like Raymond. The same nose, the same eyes, the same mouth, even the same gap in between the two front teeth, on bright display in a loveable, mischievous grin.
Unobserved and alone in the back hall, I leaned closer and noticed the ragged, unravelling hole in the collar of John’s school-picture-best sweater.
(Even now, I cry when I remember that hole.)
I swear, I did not mean to break their washing machine. But I was so accustomed to the large-capacity laundromat versions that I overloaded it with that final load I was trying to rush through. While John and Raymond struggled over one motor, I burnt out another.
Judy had been polite up to that point, but she didn’t seem too fond of me subsequently.
Raymond, entirely unperturbed, adored me. Strangely, until I thought about it.
I was the one girlfriend who persisted, after a lengthy series of short-term flings that seemed to leave John with a bit of a reputation. (I realized this as I accumulated gatherings with John: his friends would see me and say with surprise, “Oh, you’re the same one from last time!” I remember replying with calm and utter certainty, and nothing even close to arrogance, “I’m going to be the one from here on out.”)
For Raymond, the relief was almost palpable. Finally, someone who would be there. A partner. (A parent analogue.)
Finally, he could stop worrying, and focus on other things…
After I broke the washer, Jennifer and I sat outside on her swing set, still waiting for the interminable car repair. (I felt a bit like we’d been sent outside, having become intolerable for the adult.) She swung gently, dragging her feet in the dirt, and told me that she’d always liked John, had always looked up to him, but he was so much older that it was hard to know how to connect with him. How to reach him.
(The thing she liked most: he’d gotten out.)
Ten years later, Jennifer mysteriously asked me to be her maid of honor, and I accepted, though I’m still really not sure why on either count. I never got to know her much better than I did on that first strange day.
(I’ve been the maid of honor for three weddings. All three have ended in divorce. Hmmm.)
In January, Raymond texts back:
Hi Barbara, I am sorry too, for you and John. I think you were the best thing in his life. I wish the hospital could have made it mandatory that transplant patients attend Alcoholics Anonymous before and after the transplant surgery and require him to attend therapy.
I did not tell John that I contacted you.
Anyway, thanks for responding to me and please have a happy life, full of joy.
Gratefully, Raymond and Judy
I had so many things to tell him about the year spent trying to get a transplant, the counsellors, the intensive outpatient programs, the drug tests, the failures, the lies, the endless and terrifying monotony of it, the way I’m suddenly aware I’m (still) afraid of John, and what the fuck does that even mean?
But this is goodbye. I hadn’t known that was what this would be, the whole time I was writing replies to unasked questions in my head.
That changes things, doesn’t it?
I realize now, we’re not even living in parallel universes. They’re perpendicular. They intersect at that one point (John), but as they had once moved together, toward that point, they are now moving away again, further and further apart.
So I reply instead:
It means a lot for you to say that about me (that I was the best thing). At the end, John disagreed with that very strongly. It was the alcohol, but knowing that doesn’t really make it less painful.
The transplant process is imperfect, but addiction and alcoholism are so difficult to manage, it makes that process pretty tricky to navigate.
I appreciate you not mentioning us communicating. I don’t think that would be a welcome revelation.
I do wish you and the family all the best, too.
I didn’t think I was waiting for goodbye. I thought I was waiting to say my piece, my pieces, to air my grievances, to satisfy my newfound mania for being heard.
But goodbye means something in its own right. It means that I know you were here, even though you’re not now, and might never be again, and that mattered enough for me to say something.
You mattered enough for me to say something.
A good bye.
If you love or loved and alcoholic, and you could use some support navigating your own recovery, we encourage you to check out our Echoes of Recovery program.