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A Call From a Los Vegas Hospital

I got a call yesterday from Los Vegas and didn’t answer. I don’t know anyone there. I thought it was likely a robocall of some sort. But there was a message. The message was from an ICU social worker. It said they had a very ill patient and some internet searching had suggested I may have some relation to them. It didn’t even occur to me not to call her back. I knew in my bones it was my ex-husband.

I married Steve the summer before my junior year of college. We were high school sweethearts. He was my prom date. I have never been able to quite recreate why we got married. I remember saying at one point that we were either going to break up or get married. One of those silly adolescent comments. But then we were engaged, and a big wedding planned and despite many warning signs, I plunged in. Before I knew it, I was also pregnant, and the warning signs began to flash. Steve had dropped out of college (or taken a break) before the wedding. He worked construction with his dad. And he gambled.

At first it was just card games with friends, then it was card rooms with strangers. Sometimes he would win big. A lot of times he would lose. He would often get lost in the game and be late for dinner, miss engagements, and eventually miss nights at home. The first time I left him, I was 6 months pregnant.

But then we had a baby, and I gave it my best shot. My parents even loaned us money to buy a house. I will never forget the day when I was hanging out clothes in the backyard, baby at my feet, and I realized this was just not the life that worked for me. I left for good, threw myself into school and took charge of my life.

My changes worked. I had family support and amazing mentors who looked past my status and egged me on. I loved it. I wrote my senior thesis, graduated, scored high on the LSAT, and spent just enough time in law school to convince me to pursue a PhD. I also met my lovely husband. We married at the end of my first year of grad school and I had my second child just as I finished my exams. I was an oddity. No one else brought their 6-year-old to play pick up soccer on Friday after class. But I was on a solid path to a successful life.

Always, though, there was an undercurrent. Steve did not stop gambling. He wanted to be a father figure but had a hard time making it happen. He was late to pick up my son. He failed to pay child support. He would make promises and break them. He would occasionally make threats – like when I got my first job at SUNY, Albany and moved out of state. He was going to sue me for custody. But he was never that organized. His behavior became more erratic after we moved and during our time in Albany. It was hard to square my interactions with him with anything else in my life. Wanting continuity for the kids, my husband officially adopted my son. Steve showed up less and less.

Toward the end of our time in Albany Steve disappeared. At first, we just didn’t hear from him. Then his mother called to see if I had heard from him because she hadn’t either. By the time we moved to DC he had completely evaporated. No sign of him. I stayed in touch with his family for a while, but it was more and more awkward and eventually we retreated to exchanging holiday cards. The last time I heard from them was when we were living in Laguna Beach and his niece got in touch with me to let me know that Steve’s father had died. If ever he was going to show up it would be then, but he didn’t.

In the years since he disappeared, I have often done double takes as a homeless person walked by and I thought for a moment it was Steve. I wondered if he was still alive. I speculated about how his disappearance affected my son. But I also felt further and further away from that undercurrent, situated in a happy family – three kids, two careers, a dog. When my son separated from his wife we talked more about his dad and my relationship to him than we ever had. But it was not something that often came up. As my husband’s parents became ill and mine began to age, I would half-heartedly goggle search sometimes. Just wondering where he was, feeling like I should make amends in some way. But I never found anything.

What I know now is that last week he was living with roommates in Los Vegas. He likely never stopped gambling. His roommates found him unresponsive. He had acute respiratory failure but also has congestive heart failure, diabetes, anemia, and a gastrointestinal bleed. As of the call, he was unconscious, on a respirator, in a Los Vegas hospital. The hospital is looking for someone who can make decisions for him. I can’t as we are divorced. It turns out my son can’t either because he was legally adopted by another. I gave the social worker the names of his mother and siblings and the last contact information I had for them and hung up.

I spoke with my son, and we shared a similar dull feeling. Unsettled, but not moved. Sad somehow, but not implicated by feeling or responsibility. What do we owe these people in our lives with whom we have shared moments, however ultimately unpleasant? More importantly what do we owe ourselves in these situations – to be the person we want to be when faced with situations we have chosen to move away from? I am still struggling to make sense of it all.

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