Love and Death

What I learned about my ex-husband at his old friend's funeral

I got a message on Facebook one morning. It was from my ex-husband. We hadn't talked in years.

"I don't know if you've heard, but David died," it said.

David had been my ex's roommate in college, and we had been very close. Though we had lost touch, we were Facebook friends, but he wasn't someone I kept up with. He was just one of hundreds of people I used to know and didn't really know anymore. He died at the age of 56.

I had thought about my ex more often. Our marriage had been brief and unhappy, after years of dating on and off through college and after. We were the couple who should have worked together, but didn't. The reasons it didn't work were many, and it was fortunate that we ended it sooner than later. We split up our few possessions and went on with our young lives, putting our difficult relationship and 13-month marriage permanently behind us.

Four months after we separated, I met the man who would be come my husband of 26 years, and my first marriage eventually became a footnote in my life that could spice up a conversation.

"You were married before? I didn't know that!"

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Something that had been so big—so important in my life at one time—had dwindled to a few sentences of anecdote.

Driving to the funeral, I was thinking about David, but I was also anticipating seeing my ex for the first time in 20 years. It was an odd mix of emotions. David, my ex and I had been a comfortable threesome. Though my ex and I fought a lot, David was never fazed by it. He was like a court jester, laughing us back to calm when we would argue. My ex was passionate and intense, filled with strong convictions and little patience for what he saw as my shortcomings. With him, I was always on high alert. With David, I was completely relaxed.

We went out for a while after the funeral, as there were a few of us there from college. My ex and I chatted about things — our kids and our parents, the things you chat about with anyone — and yet there was something else, something more to our conversation.

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We had been married, after all. We had been in each other's lives for 7 years before our relationship came to an end. Together we had grown from college kids to adults, and had been partners in the first major failure of our lives — our marriage. But seeing my ex again after 20 years was not a bad thing. I looked at his face, older and kinder, and felt no anger, resentment or dislike. I saw someone who had been a huge part of my life, who had loved me when I was painfully young and romantic. Someone who had loved me as only a boy of 20 can.

It was OK.

It's a strange trick of life that we can remember things in a way that makes us comfortable. I had, over the past 27 years, created a story about my first marriage that suited me. He was controlling and dismissive, uninterested in me and self-absorbed. We were terribly unhappy from the start. We only got married because we didn't know what else to do. These are the things I believed, and some of them were true.

What I had forgotten, at some point, is that my ex was married to me, too. And that maybe he had some feelings about what happened to us. It just never occurred to me that he gave that any thought at all. When I thought about him all these years later, I thought about him like I was a 24-year-old, unhappy girl, not a 53-year-old woman.

It was quite a moment when I realized this, sitting at a table in a bar overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

I had not been the only one in that marriage.

David would have loved this revelation. His flair for the dramatic and penchant for gossip and intrigue were as much a part of him as his cigarettes and coffee. He always told me I never should have married my ex, but now I realize that he was wrong. As difficult and unhappy as our marriage was, I came out of it a much more grown-up and self-aware person. And, the fates being what they are, had I never been married to my ex, I never would have met my husband.

When I got home that night, I hugged my husband for a long time.

"How was the funeral?" he asked me.

So I told him.