Every time I see a magazine or newspaper or Internet article devoted to the “new, blended” family, I think perhaps I should tell my story—my blended-family story. Here it is. It may not seem like a happy story at first, but it is a story about change, about transition. As so many life-changing events do, it all started with a telephone call of bad news. But first, some history…
More than twenty years ago, my marriage collapsed when I discovered my husband was seeing another woman. Unsurprisingly, it was an unhappy and disruptive time. It took me a year to finally leave him. There were children, and I was trying to save a home. But leave him I did, after which we all endured a few years of unpleasantness, both overt and covert. Not my shining hour. He married her, and they began a family. I also married again, and we two raised my daughter. Relations and conversations settled in frosty cordiality for several years.
And then, that worst nightmare for any parent. The spring before she was to enter kindergarten, their daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. In the few minutes it took my ex to tell me on the telephone, everything changed. Obviously, their lives were going to change in ways I could not even imagine. My daughter’s life was also going to change—this was her sister, her only sister. And my life changed…how could you possibly stay angry with those who may be losing their hearts? I cleared the decks of all animosity and determined to do whatever I could to help.
There followed days and weeks and months of illness and some slight recovery and then more illness. Court-ordered visitation schedules dissolved—my daughter was there anytime they wanted her. I arranged a trip to an ice show, and the meet-and-greet with characters beforehand. I got my hair trimmed at a pediatric leukemia cut-a-thon. I participated in a walk-a-thon for all cancer victims. I took my daughter to see her sister in the hospital, and hung around in the lobby while she visited. We—me, my daughter, and her stepfather—were all prepared to find out if we could be bone marrow donors. The second Thanksgiving after the diagnosis, I put my just-barely-teenage daughter on a flight from Philadelphia to Minnesota. In only her second time on an airplane, and her first time without me, she flew to a clinic and celebrated the holiday with her father and his family while her sister underwent treatment. The next month was an abundant Christmas. It was a hopeful time. Plans moved forward for the bone marrow testing and transplant.
You have possibly guessed where this is going…remission was not to be. This cancer proved to be a particularly aggressive form of pediatric leukemia. Shortly after the New Year, her numbers were off again. After two rounds of treatments over almost twenty months, the question was put to the patient: “What do you want to do?” The way I understand it, what she wanted to do was stop feeling sick. She wanted to finally go to school, she wanted to have her First Holy Communion, and she wanted to go to Disney World. She wanted to go home and rest. So, with no more of the chemo coursing through her—and feeling better than she had in a long, long time—she got to do most of those things. She slept in her own bed again. She went to school for a few days. She enjoyed Disney with a few dozen members of her extended family. She received her First Holy Communion and was Confirmed. Then, she rested. The day before Valentine’s Day, 2001, she rested for good, and wore her Communion dress for the second and last time. It was and is all so very sad. It happens far more than it should. We all grieved, and we still grieve. However, this is not the end of the story. This is a story of what came from all that pain. And what came from all that pain is love.
The day I discovered my husband, my daughter’s father, was in love with another woman, I would never have believed I would one day love that woman too. Yet when faced with the reality of my daughter being her only daughter—how could I say no to whatever was asked of me? What was asked of me was to listen. During her daughter’s illness, and passing, it became harshly apparent that there was almost no one to whom this woman could speak about her grief. After all, everyone in her family had also lost a child, a sibling, a grandchild, or a niece. Fortunately, I was slightly removed. Sure, there were others slightly removed. Sure, I was hurting, too, but certainly not in the same way. And so I found myself on the phone, just letting her talk, and cry. What was asked of me was to share my daughter. All those stressful discussions and decisions about where my daughter spent which holiday? Never again. I found myself taking her over there more often. I found myself planning outings for us as one big, blended family: me and my husband and my daughter, my ex and his wife and their boys. A baseball game, a holiday church service, a birthday party. My daughter is as attentive to her stepmother on Mother’s Day as she is to me—and I applaud it. What was asked of me was to love. I opened my heart over ten years ago and continue to keep it open still today. The three of us sat together and proudly watched our daughter graduate from high school and college. We are social media friends. We say we are one another’s “step-wives.” We have made good memories and have a bright future. The celebratory meal after that college graduation was the first time our extended families had ever been together. It certainly looked like a dry run for a wedding to me. Someday, some little baby can expect to be completely spoiled by two maternal grandmothers.
I believe that a broken heart is an open heart: to receive and give more love. I believe within every tragedy is an opportunity for transcendence. In this particular family tragedy, we indeed transcended. Our broken hearts opened for more love, and we transitioned from a splintered to a blended family. A splendid, blended family.
Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions, Compiled by A Band of Women. Published by Nothing But The Truth, LLC, May, 2014.