"Oh, by the way, darlin', I have to go to Haiti today with the troops. Don't know when I'll be back. I'll call when I can. Don't wait up."
Like most couples, we split the remaining chores according to inclination, disinclination, or expertise. She balanced the checkbook, I fixed the plumbing. She cooked for our potlucks on weekends with friends, I filled in health insurance forms. She took care of car repairs, I did the ironing. It seemed like we held down more than two full-time jobs between us, but we both worked hard and felt morally superior to our friends who employed nannies to raise their children or relied on electronic babysitters. We didn't even own a functioning television, preferring reading time with Mom and Dad, games, made-up stories, and big-bed wrestling matches to the one-eyed time-stealer.
How, then, did I end up here, with their formerly full-time mother a thousand miles away, me dragging Kolya out of groggy sleep for middle school in the dark, making his breakfast, filling out field trip forms, double-checking to see if the orthodontist's appointment was today or tomorrow? Coaxing him out the door just in time to awaken Zoe for the winter morning ritual of cooking hot cereal, asking her exactly what she wanted in her lunch, reminding her to ask her friend what she wanted for her birthday gift for this Saturday's party? Wondering what to make for dinner, would there be just enough milk for tomorrow's breakfast, did I really have to attend the soccer club's annual meeting, how come I just washed the dishes last night and it already looked like the kitchen had been assaulted by a Class V hurricane?
At times I worked myself into a homicidal rage, blaming every indignity of my current life on Rebecca's departure, every Kolya and Zoe meltdown on the psychological trauma of being maternally abandoned. I felt confounded by the complexities of raising a girl who would begin wearing a bra in fourth grade and overwhelmed by the challenge of shepherding a punk-rocking teenage boy through high school. I didn't see how I could learn to become a respectable single dad, earn a living, and simultaneously keep the household running. It was too much.
I had always appreciated single mothers, I reminded myself.
But never enough.
As our marriage unraveled, an even more destructive personal storm brewed elsewhere. My older brother Bob, an emergency room doctor in rural northern California, found a suspicious lump in his breast a few months after Rebecca and I separated. We could barely conceive of the worst, since breast cancer in men is so rare. The bump was surely a sports injury, we thought, another bump or bruise or break or tear from Bob's jockish insistence on playing basketball with men twenty years his junior.
Then came the biopsy and the dreadful diagnosis. He had surgery, four rounds of chemotherapy, and was told he had a 90-plus percent five-year survival rate because the cancer hadn't spread very far. Then, less than a year after the surgery, he lost weight inexplicably and learned from a bone scan that he only had a few months to live.
I spent more time with him in the last year of his life than I had collectively in the previous twenty years. Despite the fact that we considered each other to be close friends and confidants, I had to face the fact that I hadn't always been there for him. While he had suffered through a destructive first marriage and nightmare divorce, I had often been unavailable, pursuing my self-absorbed travels or, later, my career. As his breast cancer progressed and I dropped everything to be with him, another question leered at me, tearing at my personal myth of fraternal closeness: Had I even been a good enough brother?
On January 14, 2001, Bob was gone, one year to the day after a Boulder County judge formally certified the end of my marriage.
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