"When My Mother Died, Our Marriage Fell Apart"

Grief and lack of communication has torn this couple apart. Can this marriage be saved?


Her Turn

“In the eyes of the world, Zach and I are a happy couple,” said Debbie, 34, an economist with a major Denver corporation and mother of Lily, 7. “But in fact there’s nothing left between us. Unless our daughter is around, or we’re talking about the logistics of getting her to soccer games and sleepovers, we rarely speak to each other. There’s virtually no real conversation in our house.

“Sometimes I think that when my mother died, our marriage began to die, too. That was about five years ago. Needless to say, it was a very tense time. Mom had been diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 6 and she was only 30. The tumor was benign, but medical science was much less advanced then, and the surgery to remove it affected her speech and memory. The doctors told my father she’d never be able to function even somewhat normally, but she confounded them all. True, her speech was slower and her memory less sharp than before, but she still managed to work and raise two daughters. Twenty years later, the tumor returned, this time malignant. Despite radiation and chemo, she died three years later at 53.

“That last year of her life was impossibly painful and traumatic. I spent much of it racing back and forth between Denver and Chicago, where my mother lived. Lily was only a year old and it was agony to leave her, though Zach was, and is, an outstanding father. He can play with Lily and her dollhouse all evening, making up voices and scenarios. The trouble is, all his energy is wrapped up with her. Meanwhile, I’m invisible to him.

“I met Zach when I was a senior in college and he was a first-year graduate student in political science, working toward a PhD. We started out as good friends, hanging out with the same group of people. But one night he asked me out on a real date, and we’ve been together ever since. Zach was the sweetest, funniest, most attentive man I’d ever met. I tend to be intense and serious and he made me laugh and lighten up. I loved just being around him.

“We got married four years later, right after I received my master’s degree in economics. I intended to go to law school, but then my mother became quite ill, and I couldn’t commit to such an intense course of study. So I fell back on economics and was hired by a firm that recruited on my campus. I enjoy what I do, but I still get an occasional pang of regret, especially when Zach’s father and two brothers, who are attorneys, talk about their work. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to practice law.

“We planned to start a family in our 30s, after we established our careers, but five months after our wedding, I accidentally became pregnant with Lily. I took a three-week maternity leave and went right back to work. I had no choice: My job paid well, whereas Zach was still just an instructor, working on his dissertation. I was under enormous stress: I had a demanding job, a baby, and a mother whose condition was worsening by the day. I took a lot of time off to go to Chicago. Luckily, Zach’s hours were flexible and Lily was in a wonderful daycare center while he taught.”



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