This piece was originally published in Slate on June 16, 2009.
Shortly after my husband John and I were married, on a day he was at work and I was home moving my things into his house, I opened a cardboard box in the attic. It was filled with photos of his other married life, the one he’d had with his first wife, Robin Goldstein. She was 28 when they got married, and six months later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband was nursing her at home when she died just after her 34th birthday. The box contained wedding photos, honeymoon photos, and random snapshots of parties and birthdays. As I excavated, I could chart her illness by her hair—a cycle of dark waves, then wigs and scarves. After I’d looked at them all I closed the box and cried for her, and for my guilty awareness that her death allowed me, five years later, to marry the man I loved.
When our daughter was born, one of the sweetest gifts we got was a tiny chair with her name painted on the back. It was from the Goldstein family. How final it must have felt to them to send this acknowledgement of John’s new life. Robin had wanted children, but her long illness and the brutal treatments made that impossible.
All of us exist because of a series of tragedies and flukes. I’m here because 80 years ago my grandfather’s wife, Ruth, died suddenly of the flu, leaving him a young widower with a toddler and an infant. (They say he had to be restrained from jumping into her grave.) Eventually he remarried to my grandmother, and my mother was born. My grandmother banished all traces of Ruth. Her sons had no contact with Ruth’s relatives, displayed no photos of her. It was as if she never existed. At the end of my grandfather’s long life—he lived to be 95—his distant past became more present to him, and he began to tell stories about Ruth. My grandmother was more incredulous than angry. “Can you imagine?” she told me. “Do you know how long she’s been dead?”
Maybe when my husband and I get old, memories of his life with Robin will become even more vivid than our years together. If so, I hope I’ll welcome those memories. I’m grateful to Robin, not jealous (even if she left it to me to convince our joint husband that the laundry hamper was invented for a reason). I knew my husband for only four months before we got married. But I heard from others how protective, tender, and devoted he was to her. Because of their relationship, I knew that this was a man who could be trusted, who stayed, for better or worse. I also knew that it’s possible to have more than one love of your life. I am the love of his, and so was she.
Robin was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1955. She was a striking, slender young woman with huge dark eyes. She started her career as a city reporter in a small New Jersey town, and both the cops and the mobsters she covered had crushes on her. When she reported on a trial of the Genovese family the judge threatened Robin with jail for protecting one of her sources, a mobster turned government witness, and her case became a test for a newly passed press shield law.
She was just as brave about her illness. After the first surgery, radiation, and chemo, it looked as if she’d be OK, as if the diagnosis might be just some ghastly glitch. But a year later the cancer came back, and for the next five years she endured everything the doctors threw at her, while convincing other people not to pity her.
Robin decided that for however long she had, she would make it a normal life. She kept working and traveling—there were many vacation photos in that box—and when the cancer spread to her bones, she went to the office on crutches. She had to stop when it got to her brain. In her final week, at the hospital, she still got excited about fixing up a radiation technologist she liked with a bachelor journalist friend.
Although they spent their entire marriage moving toward her death, my husband says they didn’t spend much time talking about this destination. A therapist once told him those discussions were like “looking at the sun” —something one could do only glancingly because of the pain. At the end, Robin told him she wanted him to have a child. She made him promise he would do that, because she knew how much he wanted children. In their conversation Robin acknowledged that if he did it would mean he had found a new wife; she said that was harder for her to think about, but she wanted him to find love again. I asked him what he said when she told him this. He told her, “I can’t imagine life without you.”
A few months after we were married, when the sixth anniversary of her death was approaching, my husband fell into a depression. He became silent and burdened. After several weeks of it I wondered if this was what my marriage would be like. I decided that maybe I could be in a happy marriage even if I was the only one who was happy. Then, when the day of her death came and went, his darkness lifted for good. It was a last spasm of guilt about having left her behind.
I am sarcastic and occasionally (sometimes? often?) harsh. Robin wasn’t—I know because I asked, not because John holds her over me or compares us—and he would have had a gentler life had she lived. I try to remind myself that I owe it to her to do as good a job of taking care of him as she would have. I will catch myself about to say sentences that begin “How many times have I …” or “Weren’t you listening when …” and stop thinking that if he were still married to Robin, he wouldn’t have to hear this.
When our daughter was about 6, she and her father were exploring in the attic when she came across an unfamiliar box, filled with Robin’s things. She came running down the stairs in tears. “I found a box of jewels and Dad won’t let me touch them!” she cried. My husband and I talked it over. I understood his desire to keep all that was left of Robin safe. But I suggested she would have liked that a little girl was enchanted with her jewelry. So we told our daughter she could play with these rings and necklaces, but that they were precious. We explained that Robin had been a good friend of her dad’s who died, and Dad was the one who had kept her things.
When our daughter was 8 she found the same box of photos that I had seen that day I moved in. She brought them downstairs to our bedroom and said she wanted to look at the old pictures of Daddy. She asked about the pretty, dark-haired woman always standing next to him. My husband told her that was Robin. After a few more minutes she looked up and said, “There are so many pictures of her.”
“Dad loved her,” I said.
“If you loved her so much, why didn’t you marry her?” she asked her father.
He looked at me, and I nodded.
“I did,” he replied.
Our daughter looked at the picture she was holding in her hand, her eyes widening, then at me. It was like one of those moments in Dickens when a foundling discovers her true origins.
“It’s like I have two mothers,” she said in a kind of astonishment.
I liked her formulation. And I thought Robin would be satisfied with how well her wish for her husband, now mine, had been fulfilled.
My husband and I have been married for 15 years, more than twice as long as he was married to Robin. My daughter is 13 now and long ago outgrew the chair that Robin’s family gave her. I keep it stored safely with her bassinet, the clown rattle, and her favorite jacket printed with elephants. I hope someday a granddaughter might use these things. If so, when that little girl is old enough, I will tell her the story of her other grandmother, Robin.