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‘My Dad Died, and Now I’m Worried I’m Headed for Divorce’

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Dear Polly,

Despite being extremely careful, following restrictions, and living in a rural area, my father caught the coronavirus before Christmas, but we expected him to come out of it okay. He was fit, healthy, early 60s, without any underlying health conditions. We persuaded him to go to the hospital, and he initially responded well to treatment. The doctors said they expected him to be out within a few days, maybe a week or two.

He was getting tired and kept needing oxygen, but we all tried to remain positive. Then, just after Christmas, we had a message from him saying he was absolutely terrified because he had overheard them saying they would likely need to induce a coma and put him on invasive ventilation after all. I was in the car with my husband when I saw the message, and I ended up crying and yelling at him to pull over. I should mention that he is medically trained and was helping us call the hospital and get information that staff are more willing to give out to a fellow professional than the patient’s family. That was much appreciated by us all.

We had to accept that my dad might actually die from this vile disease. He texted me to say he didn’t like his odds, given that the ventilator is in no way a panacea. I told him that we loved him and that we would take care of my mother if the worst were to happen. That was it. I never heard from him again, and he was ventilated the next day. On day three, the hospital called my mom to say we should come to the relatives’ room. They said my dad’s lungs had become fibrotic and his kidneys had stopped working and that he would never recover. We were there when they turned off the machines. We saw him die and of course my heart broke.

The aftermath has been truly horrendous. For the first few weeks, it was like we were all waiting for him to come home. I am so crushed by the fact I never will get to speak to my dad again. We all still had a lot to learn from him. But I should feel lucky, as I am married to a nice man. The problem is, I can’t stand my husband at the moment, and am being mean to him. I’m writing to ask how I avoid driving him away. Or maybe that’s what I want to do — I don’t know.

He is doing his best but he cannot emotionally support me. He agrees that this loss is unfair, hugs me, etc., but he doesn’t know what to say. I am in my late 20s, and I got married a few months ago. I’m never the most straightforward person, as I am prone to moods, but this is something else. I feel a physical pain like I am being ripped in half. Very dramatic and self-centered, but there it is. I am trying to support my mom, as are my brothers. So I am basically taking all of my rage and frustration out on my husband. He is kind and patient but I am beginning to think that we are completely incompatible and that I should have seen this earlier. However, I know that I am too mercurial and impatient and selfish — I do make resolutions to behave better but then snap pretty much straightaway. He is patient and emotionally very constant.

We also like different things. I love reading and talking to people and exercising. He would happily stay inside playing video games all day if possible (he used to be active when we met, but he’s never been a big reader). I asked him to talk to me about stuff, like my dad, but he just wants to focus on practical tasks, like home improvements. I do not care about home improvements right now — I care about making things okay for my mom and not going entirely crazy/setting fire to everything else in my life right now. And yet we have one-sided conversations, in which I get mad and he becomes more taciturn and withdrawn. I say things like “We should get divorced, I am horrible and I just want to be by myself, and you don’t even like reading,” and he says things like “I don’t want to divorce you, you don’t mean it.” Polly, I am so confused and unhappy. I can hardly get my head around the fact my dad is gone, and now I am also beginning to fear what self-sabotage I will get into for the rest of this miserable year.

Furious and Sad 

Dear Furious and Sad,

I’m so sorry about your dad. My lifelong friend just went through this with her mother, and it was exactly the same: Things looked fine, she was in good health, she was going to pull out of it. Her oxygen saturation dropped so she went to the hospital, but she was still fine. Two weeks later, the doctors said her lungs wouldn’t recover. They didn’t intubate at all (this was in London), which made it even more difficult to accept in some ways: Here is your mother, on oxygen, making jokes with her family in three different countries before saying good-bye.

My friend seems okay, which probably means she’s stepping around her feelings for now, planning the virtual memorial, trying not to sink. The gymnastics of staying afloat are not for the faint of heart: You’re pedaling furiously, you’re breathing in deeply, you’re angry, you’re fine, you’re absolutely crushed. Sometimes you feel strong! Sometimes you feel like you can’t walk. You’re okay, then you’re horrible. You don’t know where you are.

Your husband sounds very dependable, but he doesn’t like to go on walks or talk about feelings that much. Those are real frustrations of yours, and they matter. I think you should insist that your husband take walks with you and not talk about home improvements. You need him right now, and it’s important to ask for exactly what you want in a calm, consistent way. It’s good for you and him and your marriage. You should tell him that. Say to him: This is what it means to be married. You do things for someone else when they’re in crisis, things you might not normally do.

Right now, you miss your dad and you’re struggling just to get through the day. You’re also pretty sure that you made a big mistake by marrying your husband. In other words, you’re overwhelmed. That’s not the same thing as being selfish and moody. You’re going through one of the hardest things that anyone ever has to experience in the course of a lifetime. Give that the weight it deserves. Stand up for your right to feel what you’re feeling.

You say that you’re mercurial and dramatic, and it also sounds like you can’t see straight when you feel emotionally overwhelmed. I would argue that you wisely married someone who can handle this, who doesn’t turn against you when other men might. I don’t mean you’re impossible, not at all. I mean you’re a specific sort of prickly pear, and your husband is a specific sort of arid, gravelly soil that looks like not much of anything at all — at least, until you throw down a few prickly pear seeds and they flourish there.

Right now, I know that you don’t feel like you’re flourishing. You’re full of rage and you’re turning it on your husband because he’s the only one around. Focusing on his flaws is keeping you occupied, in a way, so you don’t have to grapple with this enormous loss. You’re tough, so this is how you deal with things: You move away from sadness and vulnerability, and you move toward anger instead. Maybe you feel like you have to be strong right now so you can support your mother. It takes a certain kind of large, trunk-forming, segmented cactus to do that, to land on a loose, rocky slope in the middle of the desert and put down some shallow roots there and suck up some tiny droplets of water, just to survive.

But instead of just feeling where you are, you’re in escape mode. You’re certain that the biggest cause of your pain is your husband and not your grief. You think that maybe if you moved to the rain forest, your flowers would grow bigger and your fruit would grow sweeter. You believe that if you had a husband who loved to walk and talk all day long, you’d finally feel understood and loved and relaxed. You imagine that if you and your husband could read the same books, you’d be more in love, more of a team, and this horrifying moment in your life might feel like something you could share with the person who’s closest to you.

I know that feeling well, because I’m married. My husband is just a person, a mortal, a man, and for these reasons alone he’s a grave disappointment to me. It is insufficient to marry just one person instead of a parade of human beings with different skills, talents, and proclivities. It is enormously frustrating to start giving birth to children and discover that, in addition to his many strengths, your spouse has a plethora of disturbing limitations, heretofore unseen. I have been married for 15 years now, and I have written down an entire book’s worth of disappointments. That’s not a metaphor: I am currently editing a book about my marriage that delineates exactly how irritating and terrible my husband can be. You will say to yourself, “But it’s cute, because you two are happy together.” But that’s not really the moral to my story, not at all. The moral is that we’re all pretty fucked once we get married, because being married is — for many of us — at once exceptionally comforting and exceedingly taxing and tedious and impossible.

You have only one person to blame — besides yourself, of course — and he is right there with you, all the time. He will take the blame without getting too bent out of shape about it, and he’ll still love you for being the hothead you are. Your husband is very accepting that way.

Obviously you can get divorced and avoid marriage forever or go out looking for someone new immediately. But before you do anything else, you need to fully mourn this loss. You’re upset so right now everything looks wrong. You look around and who do you see? Your dumb husband. He looks wrong, too.

I would argue that your husband is stubborn and annoying at times, but he’s also possibly just right for you. Please note that I can’t be certain of this from a distance. No one can. You’re the only person who truly knows. I can only give you the view from where I am.

Admittedly, I am right here on an arid, rocky hillside, so my view is very specific. But I want to gently suggest that, like me, when you land on a loose, gravelly hillside where other, juicier flowering plants might wither away, you feel comfortable. You don’t even know why. You feel at home.

My husband, like yours, has many flaws. He is in many ways a very simple human — annoyingly simple, even. And when I’m feeling ashamed and insecure about my own flaws, or I’m trying not to feel my feelings, or I’m going through something big and scary, or I’m just sick of seeing his face (pandemic fatigue is real), I sometimes encounter my husband as the driest, pebbliest, most tedious dust on the planet. I should live in the rain forest! I tell myself. I would thrive under a canopy of leaves, next to a rushing river, filthy with fish!

But listen to me. I am just a prickly pear with delusions of grandeur. I don’t just survive on dusty, slippery slopes, I thrive on them. And if you planted me under a canopy of leaves, something in my cells would screech FULL SHADE, WTF, ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME? And if you set me next to a rushing river, filthy with fish, I would immediately develop leaf mildew and root rot, and I would start blurting out things like FUCK FISH! FUCK FISH FOREVER!

What I mean is that I am an ornery cactus. And even though I love men who talk about their (moist) feelings all the time, who create (mulchy) poems or (damp) songs, who tell me their (watery) worries around the clock, I don’t fall in love with those guys in a lasting way. I fall in love with a hillside covered in tiny little bristles and rocks. I love to get a sharp little burr stuck in the sole of my bare foot. I drive by a giant hill of gravel by the side of the freeway, and my heart says, “Mmm, sexy. I could live there, no problem.” I like the blunt simplicity of a relatively clueless, unadorned man who likes to talk sometimes, but also likes to sit stupidly still and play his dumb little golf game on his iPad.

Men are tiring and stubborn but that’s part of what makes them sturdy sometimes. But at the very start of a marriage, it’s good to be firm and ask for what you need. Just make sure to stay calm and try not to stigmatize your husband for who he is. When you’re clear about who you are and you accept it, and you truly know your taste and your desires and you accept them, it’s much, much easier to love and be loved.

You need to accept yourself more. You also need to realize that no man is 11 different climate zones wrapped into one. You chose a man who does not read books or write poems. There’s probably a very good reason for that. There’s a reason you chose a pebbly motherfucker who plays video games and calmly assists patients with their medical problems. This slippery slope of a man is your rock. You love him like crazy, and that makes you really mad, because it means he could die like your dad did. You need him and that makes you feel vulnerable. It hurts to need him so much.

Feel all of that. Mourn your father, and feel his love, because it’s still here. Stay still and quiet and let it in.

Then try to feel your love for your husband, too. Focus on how much he cares about you — how solid he is when you tell him to pull over, how solid he is when he calls the hospital for you, how solid he is when you cry and tell him that you feel like nothing will ever be good again. Stand where you are and let your husband love you. It won’t always feel like enough. That’s how love is sometimes.

Maybe it is enough, though. Wait and see, and stay vulnerable. This is an important moment in your life. Don’t try to escape it or turn it into a puzzle. Soak up everything that’s here.

By the way, did you know that you can’t actually drink the water in a cactus, because it’ll make you sick, but you can eat its fruit? Some people only see the prickles. They only imagine the pain. They don’t realize how sweet a prickly pear is, once you get past the tough outer layers. They don’t know what a survivor looks like when they see one.


Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here

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‘My Dad Died, and Now I’m Worried I’m Headed for Divorce’