“You ought to write a book someday,” she said. “Shaddap,” I said. Or something like that, was how the conversation went. I was visiting my bestie and had just given her an update on getting our newest family member settled in at our place. The reason my bestie felt it was book-worthy was that this family member is not family by birth, but by marriage.
After thinking about it I decided, okay, not book-worthy but perhaps a column. As so here it is.
The reason my friend Bern moving in with me is a little unusual is that she’s my first husband’s second wife. Got that? Or as I call her, my “little sister from my first mister.” When did we meet? About six months after my first husband met and fell in love with her. So this is where a lot of folks stop and re-read that sentence. Yes, that’s how it happened.
Now, truth be told, the marriage was a mess before Bern came along, and we were a very unhappy and dysfunctional family. Just ask our sons. But it was still a huge shock and the pain was almost more than I could bear. My entire crappy life … gone! The rug was truly pulled out from under me when Carmen left me for Bern. It hurt to simply breathe … for months. I am so grateful for my sons who gave me a reason to keep on going during that time and all of the friends and family who supported me. I got through it and am here today, a happy and functioning human, because of all of the love — and a LOT of work on myself that is forever ongoing (I am a work in progress and am determined to be a masterpiece!)
Two people who were also supportive during this time were my first husband, Carmen, and his new love Bernadette. At first, things were just a mess. As expected. I was in so much pain I took it out on everyone. Bern, Carmen, my kids, his parents and mostly, myself. But I was fortunate in that my in-laws of almost 20 years took excellent care of my boys and me. And I had a lot more support than a lot of suddenly-single moms get. And HUGE props to Carmen, who was so great about child support. That was HUGE for all of us, as we are poor as hell. He wasn’t always good showing his love to the boys but he provided for them as best he could. Not just child support until EACH one turned 18, but he was also their 24/7 road service, mechanic and handy-man as needed until the day he passed.
For all of his many mistakes while he lived with them, he did great once we separated and he could just be their dad, and not have to deal with me anymore telling him what a crappy husband I thought he was. And he was a GREAT dad after that. He tried so hard to make amends in his own way. And he loved his sons more than he was ever able to fully express to them. I miss him — their dad and my friend — an excellent friend; a FINALLY friend. Because we really weren’t friendly toward one another when we were married. But once he was no longer being forced into a role he didn’t want he became one of my closest friends. Closer all of the time. When he died this past spring I was calling him my Big Brother Baby Daddy, because that’s how I felt. He was like a brother to me. And I miss him every single day.
Over the years I also grew to love his second wife, Bern. Genuinely love her. At first, it was tough for me to acknowledge and appreciate that Bern was actually really nice and polite to me, and my boys and my youngest son liked her quite a bit. I was just in so much pain that I admit I wasn’t pleasant to deal with. AT ALL. That first six months to a year was difficult and painful and crazy for all of us. It’s called LIFE. And it isn’t for the faint of heart. But through all of that, I can’t remember one complaint about Bern from my kids. She was always nice to them and to me. As life progressed we attended all of the things families do together — graduations, weddings, funerals. I respected that she was Carmen’s wife now, and she respected that I was the mother of his sons. And we grew to like each other. I looked forward to seeing her at family events and always enjoyed spending time with her, more than with Carmen, LOL! Bern and I would chat comfortably and became friends as well as family. From the spring of 1995 to this day, she has been a part of my life. The longer the life, the bigger the part. In late winter 2018 when Carmen and Bern needed a temporary place to stay until their new place was ready to occupy I didn’t even blink. I asked my AMAZING hubs Harris (that’s another column for another day, that guy) and he said of course!
I had no worries about Bern moving in other than her anxiety about it all. Having suffered from crippling anxiety my whole life, at one point being hospitalized over it, I understand Bern’s anxiety, and we’ve shared our struggles over the years in dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. It felt perfectly natural to reach out in love and let her know she was WELCOME and would be okay in our home. And she was; we all were. We had our tense moments (not Bern and me) but we got through it. And when they moved into their new home I was really happy for them both. But also a little sad, as I knew I was going to miss Bern, my friend. Our time together was only 4-6 weeks or so, but it helped us become closer friends. We approached each other as long-term loving family members and parted as close women friends. Numerous shared experiences, laughs and tears over the decades have bonded us forever. And thank God, or the Universe — or whatever — for that time together, because we would both need that strong, loving bond to help us get through what was going to happen, less than a year later.
This next part is very hard because it’s still raw and I know I will cry as I write it. February 4 of this year I got a voicemail from Bern, very unusual. We stayed in touch after she moved out, I would visit her, she would visit me, but we didn’t phone each other. So a phone message and the sound of her voice told me something bad happened. She let me know Carmen had collapsed in their home and was in the ER. My son and I drove over and met Bern and her mom at the ER and began five weeks of tears and anguish. Carmen had suffered some sort of stroke and/or heart attack. He fought like hell, as did we all, but ultimately he passed peacefully on March 13. Bern and our son Bob and the doctors did everything they could for him, including letting him go in peace and dignity and love. Looking back on that time it’s all still a blur of tears and hopes and prayers and, finally, acceptance and love and loss.
I don’t know how Bern survived, and I know how grateful I was that her mother Phyllis was there for her as well as all of her friends, family and co-workers. I did as much as I could but was also dealing with severe health issues and doctor’s visits of my own, while trying to hold down a full-time job. Plus, my own grief. It was just awful, horrible. And just like my divorce from Carmen, I don’t know how I got through it. But I did. And so did Bern. And we both said goodbye to the man who we both loved and married, and then got on with the business of survival.
Bern wading her way through the morass of bills, leases, social security, etc. and me with my ongoing medical issues and job stress. We kept in touch and supported each other as much as possible. I applauded her strength, and completely understood Bern’s desire to stay in their home, a rental, and hoped that would work out for her. But I also wanted her to know she had options. I talked to my hubs and told him that I wanted to offer Bern a room in our home. I told our son. And then I told Bern. I didn’t have any doubts. I had no idea how we would get it done but I knew I HAD to make the offer. I love her and wanted her to have a safe and loving place to come to, for however long she wanted. A place to mourn, heal, laugh, scream, cry and be loved as needed. A place with animals and flowers and frogs and love. My place. I really, really wanted her with me.
I was also afraid, to be honest.
Afraid she would crumble, break into a million pieces that I would have to clean up. Again. Not because I thought it would happen to Bern, but others I have had stay with me over the years in various states of mental wellness have crumbled. Some were less well than others and were simply exhausting while they lived here. No judgment, just a statement of fact as I, too, struggle with mental illness. What if Bern needs what little energy and strength I have left and it still isn’t enough? What if her grief becomes incapacitating? What if she slips into an awful depression that I can’t pull her out of? What if, what if, what if?
Well, two things helped me with that. FIRST I reminded myself I absolutely HATE the WHAT IF game, HATE IT!! It’s a useless, worthless time suck that I’ve spent too many sleepless nights playing alone. Live in the NOW, Irene. What is going on NOW that can help you with your anxiety over this? First, Bern was amazing through all of this. Yes, she cried, melted down, gave up and gave in. And then she stood up and put one foot in front of the other and got on with it. She dealt with shit she never had to before, dug deep and with a lot of help and love from friends and family, she persevered. She went back to work. She made plans for the future while still not quite believing the reality she was living. I saw strength I didn’t know she had; a strength that I don’t know if I would have had in the same situation. A spirit that still burned brightly even though her heart was so badly broken. And I felt no discomfort or embarrassment over her grief for the man who was once my husband. That was so long ago. All I know was my lifelong friend had died and his wife, who I love like a sister, was bereft. So I told her come home to her family. Her stepson, her “big sister from our mutual mister” and my sweet husband and our pup.
And she did. She’s now home at Far Out Farm, officially one of the Tie Dye Jedi (our team name). And the loving energy we all have going is what is getting ALL of us through while still struggling with severe health and financial problems. Bern is learning as I did years ago all about the veggies and herbs my husband Harris grows. She grills like a pro, works her ass off, pays bills and contributes to the entire household in many ways big and small. Having her here is a real boost for all of us, as our favorite saying is, “Many Hands Make Light Work,” and she is so incredibly helpful. And she laughs and is silly, which is SO important as we love to be silly and whimsical! Plus, she’s got big plans for the future, like a driver’s license for the first time in her life, YAY, and we’re all committed to helping her be successful in ALL of her efforts, just as she is with us. It’s called LOVE. It’s really that simple. And really that deep.
There were so many ways things could have worked out had Bern and I decided to take on the traditional societal roles assigned to us. Me, the scorned, wronged, bitter first wife. And she the younger, selfish and/or jealous second wife, who complained about the time/money he spent on his kids. How wonderful that we found our way to what we have now. And Carmen gets some credit for that. First, he obviously chose two amazing women (right Bern? LOL! ) We are so alike in many ways we just laugh about it. And he always encouraged the boys and Bern and me to blend. In his own way, he never stopped loving me and of course, NEVER stopped loving his sons. It just changed. He may not have wanted me as a spouse but we were still a family.
And he and I saw each other through some very dark and painful times that came years later. Whenever I called, he always came. I said to Bern recently in his own way he did honor all of his promises to me. Life is a funny old thing and all you can do is your best. And I know he tried, he genuinely tried. As did we all. And I think we did great!
So now, we continue forward without him, as his family and a new family all at the same time. I don’t know what the future holds for my friend. I hope someday she will find romantic love again, if that’s what she chooses. What I do know is she has found strength beyond what she ever thought possible. I call her the Tiny Warrior Woman. I see her becoming more confident and proud that she’s not only still here, but doing better than even SHE thought she would less than six months after losing her husband. I know there’s a long road ahead, but she is not alone on it. I am just one of many walking alongside her, just in case she needs me, but trusting that she is finding her way and knowing all she really needs from me is my love.
Life will go on. And if statistics are real, then there is a strong likelihood I will also outlive my spouse, as Bern has. I now have an example of love, strength, and resilience to draw from, and a beloved friend to help me find my way through. I know we will weather it together, Bern and me — my little sister from my first mister.
About Urban Hippie Irene Martin: I’m a middle-aged tie-dye wearin’, tree-hugging, hippie who is trying to leave the world a little better for having been here.