by Emily Yoffe
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.
Read the rest of this compelling story at The Slate, where it was originally published.