“I’m scared I’m going to die,” my daughter’s mother* told me through tears. That morning she had gone in for a CT scan after complaining to her family doctor about headaches. As she had suffered severe head trauma as a teen, her doctor was more inclined to take her seriously. The same family doctor called to inform her that the scan revealed a “large mass” on her brain. She got the call as she was leaving the hospital to go back to work and was advised to return immediately. A neuro team was standing by to meet her.
Neither of us had any idea what that really meant. Was there a risk of rupture? Was it cancerous? Would she be rushed into an operating room right away? And if so, was there a risk of lasting neurological damage or that she would die in surgery? If she lived, what would the recovery look like?
I did my best to assure her of her toughness, that she would get through it, and that I would provide anything she needed. Lastly, we agreed we wouldn’t tell our daughter anything until we better understood what the situation was.
Back at the hospital, her neurosurgeon confirmed it was a tumor about the size of a small orange. Though there was a low likelihood it was cancerous, they needed to do an MRI and a few other tests to get a better idea of what they were dealing with. While she waited, I checked in regularly and gave her updates on our daughter. It was an odd place to be. As we hadn’t been together for almost a decade, I wasn’t sure what my role was. I knew I had to support my daughter come what may, but what about my ex?
Our relationship finished in the chaos and upset that normally come at the end, with plenty of hurt feelings and things that would have been better left unsaid. It was several years before we were able to talk without getting into an argument and several more before we were able to be genuinely happy for each other’s successes.
I had often said that everything I had ever done for my ex had been for the good of our daughter, but I was starting to question if it was more significant than that. This woman I shared my life with for a time was responsible for giving me the greatest gift I had ever received in my only child. Past hurts aside, surely that warranted more than only focusing on my daughter’s well-being.
You can still feel love for a past partner that emanates from a place of gratitude. That’s not to say you have to forget what happened or reignite anything romantic. But having a genuinely loving and supportive dynamic with a co-parent you’re no longer with is one of the most unusual, challenging, and worthy things you can commit to.
This dynamic was made clear several days later when, as she was still waiting on her MRI, we had to have one of the most difficult conversations of my life. After we split 10 years ago, I had my will changed right away. She never did. As there was still a question mark around whether she could go into surgery at any moment due to a negative MRI or rupture, there wouldn’t be time for a lawyer’s visit.
Approaching the subject as tenderly as possible, I asked her what she wanted if she were to die. She talked a bit about how she would want to be remembered and, of course, her main concern was for our daughter’s well-being. I assured her that she would have all the love and support she would need from my family and me. Knowing she was struggling with talking about such a dark potential outcome, I tried my hardest to keep it together, but I couldn’t. I broke down.
Though I didn’t say it, all I could think about were thoughts of my daughter growing up without her mother. Images of her high school graduation, marriage, and the birth of her own children whizzed through my mind. And there I was beside her for all these beautiful moments, her mother’s absence a gaping void for us both.
She assured me my tears were OK; this was hard for us all. A kind offering from someone who was the one facing their own mortality.
Days later she would receive her operation, and it would go exceptionally well. The tumor was removed without incident, and she is presently speeding through her recovery.
I feel immense gratitude that she’s OK. I feel even more appreciation for how this unfortunate event revealed to me the strength of our bond. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed we would be able to show up for each other in a way that honored the wonderful thing we created together. Regardless of the past, when the chips are down, we’re now able to be there for and support each another in a way that transcends even our love for our daughter.
As my daughter’s mom reminded me during this crisis, “We’ll always be family.”