Our relationship was full of surprises. In fact, it started with one that could have come straight out of a movie-which is appropriate since a movie star brought us together.
Working as a TV reporter in Miami, one day I was sent out on a story to interview Mel Brooks. Afterwards, Mel’s manager Howard asked me out for a drink. They were leaving town the next day, and there was no chance our lives ever would have intersected if Howard hadn’t seized that moment to make his move.
I showed up to meet him that night, and found a surprise waiting-Mel came along on our date. We had a lot of laughs, but Mel got serious on the way home-telling me I should marry Howard and move to California. Biggest surprise of my life? Three months later, I did!
Mel didn’t remain a big part of our lives, but the laughs did. No one could make me laugh more than Howard.
Spoiler alert: Life wasn’t all laughs and the surprises weren’t all happy. As the years went by, the spaces between the laughs grew wider, replaced by differences and disagreements. Eventually, our marriage ended after two kids and 13 years.
By that point, our feelings had faded so much we functioned more like roommates than romantic partners. I had no clue how our relationship might look post-divorce. I sure didn’t think we’d be as close as we once were.
In time, I met and married someone else, and moved 300 miles away. Now the distance between Howard and me would be both emotional and physical. For our kids’ sake and for my sanity, I wanted Howard to do the majority of the traveling, not the kids. This meant that I had to make him part of our lives in our new community. I discussed this in advance of my wedding with V, who became new husband. He suggested that while we went on a three-day honeymoon, Howard could stay in our house with the kids. I was dumbfounded by my new husband allowing my ex-husband to stay at our home, but that’s exactly what we did. And V’s attitude set the tone for the future.
Howard didn’t continue staying in our house, but he drove up every few weeks. The meaning of "family" started to evolve into something different. We were living in a small town and no one had yet invented the concept of conscious uncoupling. People were pretty confused by the lifestyle of this new blended family unit. I would show up at the kids’ Saturday morning soccer games with one husband one week and another husband the next. Sometimes I showed up with both. Reactions ranged from surreptitious stares to suggestive comments. In retrospect, I think we opened minds to what was possible.
V was very secure and never expressed any jealousy. Still, I was really careful. Though I’m pretty touchy-feely, I treated Howard as if he had cooties. No hugs, no contact. I monitored every gesture, (even my body language) to avoid the slightest perception of physical connection.
But the men get all the credit. Both were willing to put aside pride and pettiness. Both ignored how it might look to outsiders to support not just the kids, but me and one another.
That support got tested early on.
One of those not-so-great surprises shook my whole world when I was diagnosed with breast cancer on our first anniversary. Howard came every three weeks to stay in our house with the kids, while V came with me to Los Angeles for chemo. In between, Howard would send me CDs of comedy stand up routines -still trying to make me laugh.
While I was being treated, a friendship emerged-not just between me and Howard, but between my ex and my new husband. They had bonded, too. Enough to play golf together. Enough to laugh with me. They probably shared their common frustrations with me to one another. (A hopeless collector of clutter, I had managed to marry a neat freak not once, but twice.)
Throughout our friendship, I learned things: I sought and trusted Howard’s opinion more when he didn’t force it down my throat. When I didn’t have to confront Howard constantly, I could see his good points more clearly; and when I couldn’t see them myself, V often pointed them out. We sometimes celebrated holidays together.
Howard didn’t remarry but had several serious relationships, and the four of us would double date sometimes when he brought his partner with him.
And the laughs came back too; there was no one who could make me laugh harder or more often. I don’t want to imply it was all smooth sailing; there were plenty of storms.
But when you peel away what makes you a couple, what remains can make you friends. And the biggest winners in our friendship weren’t us, but our kids.
This was normal. The new normal. And surprises were always part of that.
The last surprise twist happened a few years ago, when the tables turned and this time Howard got cancer. By this point, it was a natural part of our new normal family dynamic for me to be closely involved in supporting him, and for V to support me doing that. Most of our family and friends, who had shared or witnessed our lives together, understood our bond. He needed me. I was there. It was that simple.
As he had so often driven those 300 miles between Los Angeles and Carmel to visit our children, I spent months doing that same drive to visit and help care for him. Two decades past our divorce, even in the last stages of his illness, he would always call me when I was on the road, checking to see where I was, and then he would call right at the time he knew I’d be pulling up to my house in Carmel, making sure I arrived home safely.
Unlike my cancer journey, his didn’t have a happy ending. His death hit me much harder than I expected. I guess that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I didn’t just lose my ex-husband or the father of my children. I lost my best friend.