did not disconnect: the permanence of an ex-spouse

by nikki meredith

Uncle Danny

I had an uncle Danny that I never met. He died before I was born but I saw photos of him in his Navy uniform. He was boyish and handsome and, to the extent that a child can mourn someone she never met, I mourned him. Or, to be precise, I mourned the idea of an uncle Danny. I decided that if I ever had a boy I would name him Danny.

Fast-forward 15 years: I’m pregnant and my then-husband and I are making lists of names for boys and girls. Actually, I didn’t have a list. I had only one name on my boy list. But my then-husband said he hated the name Daniel. Hated it.  Even if it’s after your dead uncle, you can’t lobby to saddle a boy with a name his father hates. Mildly objects to, maybe, but not hate.  I gave birth to a wonderful little boy and in the spirit of compromise that would augur a more promising marital future than we, in fact, had, we came up with a name we both liked.

Fast-forward another ten years. He, my then-husband and I, had since divorced and we had both remarried. (My second marriage produced a little girl, happiness and a union that’s still going strong. That fact is more or less irrelevant to this story but I mention it because whatever feelings I have about never getting to name a boy Danny has nothing to do with being dissatisfied with my life now.)  One day he called to tell me that his wife had given birth to their second son and, he said, with great pride, they named him Daniel.

“Not possible,” I wanted to say, “You hate that name.” I believe a jury of my peers would have awarded me the right of righteous indignation but I kept my mouth shut. For one thing, I had the feeling he didn’t even remember our argument. (I always said he never listened to me.) But we were way past the poisonous phase of the divorce and I had no desire to stir the pot. So I tucked it away in my resentment file.

Actually, it’s not resentment it’s something else. It’s whatever you feel when you believe you have a proprietary claim and it’s thwarted. Thwarted because you have no legitimate claim, proprietary or otherwise. He, my then-husband, is the only person in my life who is in that thwarted illegitimate claims file.

Why would that be? I don’t know the man. We haven’t had contact for years. And yet I feel connected in a way that feels permanent. One of the manifestations of this connection: whenever his wife popped out another baby – even the ones they didn’t name Daniel – I had a twinge. A twinge unlike other twinges I’ve had when people I don’t know have babies. Not an unpleasant twinge, but not an entirely pleasant one either.

Maybe this enduring connection has something to do with how young we were when we were together. We met when we were 18, married at 20, split-up at 28. He had been part of my master plan for so long, I was terrified when I left the marriage. Though I’m not religious, it felt risky to defy that plan and wander off into uncharted territory.

Fast-forward another ten years: I’m waiting in line at See’s Candy. The line is long – it’s Christmas – so the person in front of me and I have time to talk. I mention that I’m buying dark chocolates-with-no-nuts for my mother-in-law, the woman tells me she’s buying peanut brittle for her ex-husband. When I express surprise that she and her ex still exchange gifts she says, “It’s a little more complicated than that.”   It turns out that he has a late stage brain tumor and she’s taking care of him in her home.  I’m effusive in my praise for her kindness. She shrugs it off. “It’s what you do,” she says.

As I drive away from the store, I realize that she’s right. It is what you do. It is what I would do. If my former husband was ill and had no one to take care of him (very unlikely because he has a wife with whom he has four children, one of whom is named Daniel…did I mention that?) I wouldn’t hesitate to step up.

This realization still mystifies me because it’s the same emotional commitment I feel to people I love – my husband, my children, my best friends, my close blood relatives. I wonder if it goes back to that being young thing. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains aren’t fully developed until our mid-20’s. Maybe my immature frontal lobes imprinted on this man in some deep way that defies rationality.

Since his frontal lobes were similarly undeveloped, I can’t help but wonder if I’m imprinted in the same way. And, if he ends up taking care of me in my demented senescence, will I be grateful or will I remind him, day-after-day, hour-after-hour, minute-after-minute that I loved the name Daniel. That he hated the name Daniel. That he cheated both me and my dead uncle.