Looking back on it now, I should have seen the signs that my marriage was doomed from the beginning.
Gary* and I were married in the fall of 2008 in a beautiful, rustic ceremony. My dress was lace, I wore flip-flops and a jean jacket, and I ignored the nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach telling me I was making a huge mistake.
Our courtship was a whirlwind, and our love was fierce. We fell in love after a few days after meeting; got engaged four months into our relationship; and married 16 months after our first date.
But he lied to me. Pretty much constantly. Our relationship was fraught with financial stress, and he often found it easier to fib about his finances than come clean about how he lost his job, or how he didn’t make as much as he claimed, or how he spent his last paycheck on a gorgeous purebred Labrador for me instead of paying the electricity bill.
He lied about his day, about who he had met, about what he had done. If Gary had told me it was raining outside, I would look out a window to see if it was true.
But the wedding was planned, paid for by my parents, and it proceeded as normal.
Gary was sick the weeks leading up to the ceremony, but we assumed it was a persistent chest cold. Or a touch of pneumonia. Nothing that could not wait until after our wedding. We were getting married! We didn’t have time for him to be sick!
The day after we married, we went to the hospital together when Gary found it hard to breathe. Our wedding gifts remained unwrapped and our entire family waited at our home for a post-wedding brunch that never happened.
After 10 terrifying hours and one simple chest X-ray, we were told Gary’s heart had swelled to unreal proportions. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital two hours away that was better equipped for his condition.
His heart was failing.
Gary spent five weeks in the hospital. We honeymooned in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, where the nurses sympathized with our plight and allowed me to stay by his side. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours at a time in those weeks, as machines beeped and bells rang and the atmosphere was heavy with despair. The CICU is not a happy place filled with lively, vivacious young people. Gary was the youngest one on the floor. The hearts of frail, elderly people were supposed to fail -- not the heart of an otherwise healthy 24-year-old.
The cause of his heart failure was never discovered. Despite a barrage of painful, invasive procedures, the best the doctors could determine was that a virus had attacked his heart and caused it to swell, resulting in scar tissue and a weakened muscle. Acute cardiomyopathy was diagnosed, with some severe arrhythmia thrown in for fun.
Gary was eventually discharged from the hospital with a newly implanted pacemaker/defibrillator in his chest (his meager insurance against sudden cardiac arrest) and a pile of pills to take each day. We tried to look past the bulge in his pectoral muscle housing the electronic device, and ignored the fact that his severely weakened heart would probably never get better. We prayed it would not continue to get worse.
Gary is one of the strongest people I know. He didn’t let heart failure keep him down. Medications kept him strong and allowed him to live his life. He continued to work hard; smoke cigarettes; eat the salty foods that the doctors warned him to avoid.
He was living with heart failure, but pretending it did not exist. We had a baby girl, we moved across the country, and we continued to live our life together. The marriage was rocky, but all we had was each other.
In the fall of 2012, coming up on our fourth anniversary, I made the decision to leave Gary. The lying had progressed to the point where he told me he had purchased and closed on a home for us that did not even exist. My head had been planted firmly in the sand for too long, and I couldn’t deal with the anxiety that being married to a compulsive liar had produced.
I continued to love him, but I could not keep up the charade any longer. I had turned into a horrible person because of our toxic relationship -- I was an untrusting, bitter monster who was making Gary as miserable as I felt. His health had begun to deteriorate at that time, but he was too proud to admit he was getting weaker.
I asked for a divorce in September. He had a stroke four months later.
Thankfully, I was present when he suffered his stroke since we continued to live together (the housing market stank), allowing us to seek immediate medical care and reverse the damage a rogue blood clot did to his brain. The stroke was caused by his failing heart, once again on the decline. This time medications could not cover up the extensive damage to such a vital organ. He was placed on the transplant list this year.
Today Gary continues to wait for a new heart. He is, for the most part, a normal 30-year-old. He’s newly dating a woman who I have been told is a wonderful person -- and who must be to love a man with such an uncertain future. He is an amazing father to our 4-year-old. He cannot work, but fills his days with projects and activities -- anything to keep busy. Our daughter is the reason he continues to fight to stay alive.
The guilt that hangs over me is immense. Every time we speak and he’s on his way to another doctor’s appointment, I want to cry. Nobody should have to go through such a life-changing event alone. I question every day if leaving him was the right choice, if the stress of ending our marriage made his condition worse.
My heart hurts to know that, realistically, he might not be around to see our daughter graduate high school. He may never marry again, nor have any more children. Even with a successful transplant, the longevity of a new heart is not nearly long enough.
And as saddened as I am by watching the man I once loved -- who I will continue to love as a friend until the day I die -- face this burden without me, the selfish part of me (the part I never, ever let anyone see) is secretly grateful that I am not living this kind of life with him. I lived every day of our married life together with a man who I feared would be dead when I woke up in the morning. I cringed every time he lit up a cigarette, picturing the damage he was doing to his already frail heart.
I would be lying if I said that I am not relieved to be divorced instead of widowed.
I’m happier in my life now that I am free of a man who placed no importance on the truth; but I grieve every day for a man who is young, handsome, and living on borrowed time.
*Not his real name