Help! On Her Deathbed, My Wife Confessed the Real Reason We Never Had Children.

Advice on manners and morals.
July 17 2014 6:00 AM

Deathbed Betrayal

Just before she died, my wife confessed to me why we never had children.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My wife of 43 years died an excruciating death from lung cancer in April. We were childless, which I thought was a sorrow to both of us but I was wrong. We are simple people who never consulted a doctor or fertility clinic about the problem. Two days before she died, my wife said God was punishing her, not for her lifetime smoking habit, as I expected, but because she had taken birth control pills for 20 years without my knowledge. Worse, she had had two abortions without telling me! Of course this completely blew me out of the water. I told her I forgave her, but that’s not really true. I’m still stunned beyond belief, mourning the children we never had who could have been such a joy and comfort. The only person I could think of to confide in was our parish priest, who told me that she’s burning in hell and will do so for all eternity. I really don’t think that’s true, as she was otherwise a very good woman, but now I don’t feel welcome at church as well. I think this will haunt me until the end of my days and I feel helpless to counteract it. Any advice you could give me would be very much appreciated.

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—Devastated

Dear Devastated,
The cruelty of your wife’s behavior, both during your marriage and as she faced her own end, is hard to fathom. The death of a beloved spouse of more than four decades is going to upend anyone’s world. But of course you feel undone by her deathbed confession that she deceived you for the entirety of her reproductive years, and further that she aborted the children for whom you must have prayed. You say your wife was “a very good woman.” I’m sure you could unroll an endless list of her genuinely generous and loving acts. But she also engaged in a profound and continuous betrayal of you, then compounded this by not taking her secret to the grave. I’m not much of an afterlife person, but I agree that your priest’s response was gratuitous and mean. He needed to help you sort out your new understanding of your marriage, and to compassionately attend to you, the living. If you find solace in your faith, ask among your friends for a parish whose priest has a generous spirit. I also urge you to find a counseling center that specializes in bereavement. You will be able to talk to a therapist who has likely dealt with patients who have had all sorts of shocking pre- and post-mortem discoveries, and who will help you work through both your anger and loss. Your perfectly natural feelings of hurt and helplessness are fresh and raw. I hope you have friends and family who are a comfort, and paid or volunteer work that is a satisfaction. Even though it may be hard to believe now, with help and time, you will be able to heal.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My 5-year-old son recently had a play date at the house of a kindergarten friend of his. When my wife picked him up, the friend’s mother explained that the two boys had gotten dirty playing in the sprinkler, and so she had given him a bath. My jaw dropped when I found out. I quizzed my son and apparently no other adults were present, no cameras were seen, and she did not touch his privates. He had fun and did not seem bothered by the bath. Nevertheless, I am upset that a stranger would strip my child and bathe him without first checking with us. My wife thinks that this can be explained as a cultural difference as the friend’s parents are immigrants, and that the mother was trying to be respectful. I want to put the kibosh on the relationship. What would you suggest?

—Upset

Dear Upset,
You didn’t mention that you also checked your son for any telltale scars that would indicate that he’d had a kidney extracted for sale on the black market. This is the story of two dirty little boys who took a bath and emerged as two clean little boys. That’s it, so I suggest you simply be grateful this mother didn’t send your son home covered in mud and grass stains. I know, Dad, that horrible things do happen and when they do they make the news and freak people out. But what doesn’t make the news are the endless benign daily interactions that fortunately make up the lives of most of the people around you. I hope that your grilling your son about his happy play date didn’t lead your boy to feel he’d done something wrong or that something wrong was done to him. What you must do is check your anxiety and your impulse to put fear into your child. Of course he needs to know about private parts and inappropriate touching. But since nothing untoward happened, how sad and confusing for your son if a bath at a classmate’s house ends a promising friendship. You may think that you can’t be too careful, but you’re demonstrating that you can.

—Prudie

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