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, N.J., 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."