Amanda: Dead people don’t have any secrets. In fact, really sick people don’t have any secrets.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Amanda: The first few texts that came to my husband’s phone were just kind of confusing. And then it became more insistent. “Where are you? Why are you not responding to me?”
This is Amanda... that’s not her real name. She first told us this in an email, that asked us to change all the names in this story to protect her family.
Amanda: I did a internet search for the number, realized I knew who it was, I wrote back and said, “This is Sam’s wife. He can’t respond to you now. He’s in the hospital. Please don’t text anymore.”
Anna Sale: And at what point was that in Sam’s coma, when you sent that text?
Amanda: He’d been in the hospital at that point for maybe three days.
I talked with Amanda where she works on the East Coast. She’s in her 40s now... she was 27 when she got married to her husband, who was several years older.
Amanda: He was the most interesting person that I had ever met and it was almost like he had tried to do - live his life a different way. And that was incredibly attractive for someone like me who grew up as part of a nuclear family with Sunday School and vacation to the shore and everything was very routine and I was just enchanted by that.
AS: How do you remember those early years of your marriage?
Amanda: A learning curve. Growing up. I think Sam had already done a lot of his growing up. And I had to catch up to him.
Three years into their marriage, Amanda and Sam became parents... without really deciding to do it. Amanda was on the pill when she got pregnant...
Amanda: Then about halfway into the pregnancy we found out it was two instead of one -
AS: Two babies.
AS: Did it feel like you were a team when the two babies came along?
Amanda: No. Oh no. My husband was severely displaced by the arrival of two infants. And I remember at one point the children could not have been much more than a month old, they’re both screaming their heads off. And I am trying to nurse one and give the other a bottle and my husband was upset about something and I raised my voice in like the harshest tone I had ever used with him and said, “These are the children. They cannot take care of themselves. You are an adult. You’re gonna have to handle this yourself."
AS: You still get a kind of indignant look on your face when you think back to that moment.
Amanda: Not surprised. I was pretty indignant.
AS: Were you angry at him?
Amanda: Yeah. I was angry with him for not knowing what to do. For not knowing how to help me. And it was about this time that I realized - he doesn’t know how to help me. And then it became - I don’t think he can help me. I’m always gonna be the stronger one here.
AS: So that’s quite a shift from how you saw him when you fell in love.
About two years after the twins were born, Sam found a lump in his groin. That’s when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
AS: Did you think it was serious?
Amanda: No. No. We had no reason to think it was serious. This was, um, referred to as a nuisance cancer that very commonly develops in elderly people who have lots of other conditions that are much more serious than the type of cancer that he had.
AS: Did it change your marriage at all to have him diagnosed with cancer?
Amanda: No. It did not change. It certainly didn’t change the things it should’ve changed. There were so many things that we should have done and we did none of them.
AS: Like what?
Amanda: Starting with a will would have been nice.
Sam didn’t have any symptoms after his diagnosis. And his doctors said they'd rather keep monitoring him than do any immediate treatment. But they did tell him his cancer was not going to go away.
Amanda: That was a big deal. When he finally absorbed the word ‘incurable.’
AS: In retrospect, do you think he changed any of the ways that he lived?
Amanda: I believe that was the tipping point. When he heard that this is incurable and it is going to shorten your life expectancy, he went to this place of living his life in secret. And not sharing anything about how it was feeling or what he was doing with me. And I was none the wiser.
A year and a half went by. The twins were just about to start preschool. Sam continued to seem healthy. So neither he nor Amanda thought much of it when he came down with what he thought was the flu. Then Sam got worse, quickly.
Amanda: The first thing that he did was, he called me by our daughter’s name. He, uh - couldn’t tell you what day it was, he couldn’t tell you what year it was, he couldn’t tell you who the president was. And so it had progressed pretty rapidly.
AS: What happened?
Amanda: The cancer had spread. It had entered his spinal column and moved up into his brain.
Amanda took him to the hospital... where Sam eventually lost consciousness. She spent most of her time by his bedside, pitching in to help the doctors and nurses whenever she could.
Amanda: Somewhere in my brain, I put together this - if I understand everything that’s happening to him, then I’ll be able to fix this. So I was very hands-on in the hospital room caring for him. I didn’t stand on the sideline in any way.
AS: And you had his phone with you?
Amanda: I did. I had his mobile phone because mine was intermittently working and, boy, there were a lot of calls coming and going those first few days. So that’s why I had his cell phone rather than using mine.
AS: And you said he had secrets?
Amanda: There are a lot of secrets. The primary one that I discovered when I had his mobile phone is that he was having an affair.
AS: Do you think your focus on being so involved in his care was related to that idea that you could show him... that there was sort of a martyr thing happening?
Amanda: I wouldn’t have said martyr. I have no desire to be a martyr. I so desperately wanted to be acknowledged for what I was doing, for what I’d given up.
AS: Did you tell anyone about the affair?
Amanda: I told my mother. And she told my father.
AS: When did you tell your mother?
Amanda: When I started getting the texts. She knew while Sam was in the hospital what he had done.
AS: Your husband was in a coma - but did you say anything to him?
Amanda: About that? No. We’ll talk about that when you wake up. The only thing that I did in that time that I wish I had not done was with whatever lousy camera was on that early flip phone, I took a picture of him in his hospital bed. Y’know, tubes coming out everywhere. Utterly dependent state. And I planned to show it to him after he was out of the hospital. And say, “Do you see this? This is how sick you were. And I was there. I took care of you. But this is where you were."
But Amanda never got to show Sam that picture. He died less than two weeks later. Coming up, how Amanda mourned her husband...while confronting the fallout from his secrets.
Amanda: Two or three weeks after he died, I was taking a shower fairly late at night. And I just started wailing, in a way I hadn’t at the hospital or at any of the services. Just the enormity of what had happened finally settled in.
Last week on the show, we shared your stories about infertility. And we asked you to send in your suggestions for things that have helped you, if you’ve gone through infertility in the past, or are dealing with it now.
Here are just a few tips that have come in so far. This one is from Rachel, who’s starting IVF in November.
RACHEL: One thing that has really helped me through this process is a Subreddit called Trolling for a Baby. People post funny gifs that tend to be on the darker, more crass side. But they perfectly highlight some of the darker, more bitter thoughts you have going through this.
Another listener, Meaghan, already gave birth to one child, but she's struggling to get pregnant again.
MEAGHAN: I lean on this quote that says, "There is no need to rush. What is meant for you always arrives on time." I literally have it on a Post-It note next to my desk and I look at it anytime I'm just feeling overwhelmed or doubtful about this process and I know this second baby will be here someday. I’m just really tired of waiting.
And we heard from Roxane, who went through breast cancer treatment and was told she couldn’t have kids… and decided to adopt instead.
ROXANE: I nearly had a breakdown waiting and wondering and being - just not knowing if we were ever going to get picked to adopt. And everyone told me, just get a hobby. So I did. I asked my husband for a Christmas gift of pottery lessons. Well, fast forward, now my kid is four years old, she is adopted. And I’m now a professional potter.
We are still collecting your suggestions for our audio infertility survival guide that we're building. We’ve mostly heard from women so far, so everyone else, please feel free to send in your tips if you’ve been impacted by infertility too. Record a voice memo about what’s helped you through it. Maybe it’s something you read, something you listened to, a mantra that you repeated. And email that voice memo to us at email@example.com.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
After Amanda’s husband died, rapidly and unexpectedly, she was left with her two children… and the knowledge that her husband had been sleeping with someone else.
AS: What was that like in the days and first weeks after his death when people are offering their condolences and saying nice things about your husband who had just died?
Amanda: Oh, lord, it is so hard. It is so awful. It’s awful, it’s awful, it’s awful. Because you have to maintain the illusion and just because somebody’s dead doesn’t mean they’re a saint. Except, in this case, my husband really was, like, very well liked. And, you know, was like the go-to guy to get things done and was this lively person and everybody really liked him. So you had loads of people who were genuinely torn up and so sad that he was gone and wanted to share this with me because now you’ve got to be this plate for everybody else’s feelings about your dead husband. You don’t get around to your feelings until maybe a year or two after the funeral.
AS: Did a wave of - of anger about the affair hit you after his death?
Amanda: Yeah. Things got really messy after that. Things were really bad. The anger I had was primarily directed towards the woman he'd had the affair with.
AS: Why, do you think?
Amanda: Well, you can’t blame the dead guy. So, I wanted her to hurt. Because, of my gosh, this hurt that I was now enduring having to bury him? And having to raise our children without him. Oh, I wanted her to know what that was like.
AS: Did you have any interaction with her?
Amanda: No, no. I had maybe a few crackpot schemes to extract revenge. But nothing that ever would have made any sense. So I never acted on anything.
I had a piece of paper. And, in pencil, I drew a line on it. I guess maybe like a six-inch line. And I said, I’m gonna give myself this line. And there’s no - but this is where I am right now, there’s no - but, this is where I am right now, I’m at a full six inches worth of anger. And, as I start to let go of that, I’m going to erase a little bit of the line. And when that whole line is gone, I don’t get to be angry about this anymore. Just - take a little bit of that line off. And gradually the line, it just got shorter and shorter and shorter and one day it was gone. And I’m like, okay, I don’t get to be angry about this anymore. The line’s erased.
SALE: How long did that take?
Amanda: Probably about six months.
SALE: Where did you keep the paper?
Amanda: I kept it in my wallet. Folded up. I’d unfold it - it was so worn by the time, I’d taken it out and sometimes I’d just look at it. You know, how angry am I? Oh, okay. And I never redrew the line -
SALE: I was gonna say -
Amanda: I have to say, I never redrew the line. It was - when you’ve let go of it, it’s gone for good. So, don’t erase it if you aren’t really letting it go.
As time went on, Amanda says she became less angry when she remembered her husband... and more sad.
Amanda: I think I probably understood why he did it better than he did.
SALE: Why do you say that?
Amanda: With the arrival of the children, that certainly diverted a lot of my attention that used to belong to my husband. My career had moved into the executive level. Basically out-earning my husband by a factor of two. So there was a lot going on. And it’s really easy for somebody who is easily distracted - as my late husband was, very easily distracted - by the shiny and the new, to move onto something that’s a lot shinier and a lot newer than I was at that point.
But there were still other secrets to deal with. Amanda says after her husband’s death...she discovered that he’d been spending money in ways that she didn’t know about. A LOT of money.
Amanda: We were utterly broke. I had to borrow money from my folks to take care of his death expenses. Um, through some Hail Mary bit of paperwork that his employer did, I was also able to get a small annuity. And it turns out that even my employer had a small life insurance policy for family members. So all of these little dibs and dabs come together and you just start rebuilding. You just start rebuilding from scratch.
SALE: Did you keep working full time?
Amanda: I did. I had a really good assistant. She said that for the first six months that I was widowed that I would come in and she’d check on me about thirty minutes after I arrived and I would just be staring at the monitor. And she’d say, “Okay. Here are the two things you have to do today. You are the only person who can do these two things." I'm like okay. I'm gonna do those now. Okay. And that’s how I got through the first - probably about the first six months. Roles were totally reversed.
SALE: That is a good assistant.
Amanda: I was really lucky. She's pretty amazing.
So Amanda slowly rebuilt her finances, and got used to being a single mom.
Amanda: I took a solid two years off of any kind of relationship, um, after I was widowed. Because I realized there was a lot of work I needed to do on myself. That I was not fit for public consumption. So I took a long time to just uh, you know, settle, sit with myself for awhile. And after that it was, yes, I would like to meet somebody.
Amanda started online dating. That’s how she met Frank, a single father. That’s not his real name either.
Amanda: Frank is very different. And I learned a lot in my first marriage. And my second marriage was done with very careful consideration and a much better understanding of who I am and what’s important to me and how we will pull together as a couple. There’s a great deal of benefit to getting married at 40 as opposed to getting married at 27.
SALE: What kind of conversations did you have about cheating and monogamy when you were getting together with Frank?
Amanda: It’s the only deal breaker that I am aware of Frank having. It is the deal breaker. Um, and having gone through what I went through, I was surprised that, this is not as comforting as one may think it should be. You’d think that after having gone through what I went through with my first husband, that I’d want the security of knowing that this man will always be faithful to me.
SALE: But there’s something that’s difficult about that?
Amanda: There is something that’s difficult about having any kind of limit placed on your personal behavior. There’s something very - you don’t want somebody else telling you what to do, even if it’s something that you agree is totally the right and best choice to make. Just the idea that it’s someone else that’s imposed that on you is hard to take. So, it was - I look at it this way. It was my choice to accept those terms. But I don’t - I’ll never know if my first marriage would have survived. I’ll never know. Sam died. Our contract was null and void the minute that happened. I’ll never know if we would’ve survived or not.
It’s been five years since Amanda shared this story with us. And she reached out recently to tell us that she’d lost someone else close to her: her dad. She was there by his side when he died in September, from dementia.
Amanda: So when people tell me they’re sorry my father is dead, this time I can thank them honestly. I’m not brooding about the larger ramifications that his death is going to have on my life. He was my dad and he launched me into the world many decades ago. The greatest loss is that even though he’d already launched me, he circled back when Sam died. And he picked me up again and he dusted me off and he propped me up and said, "You can do this." And when I mumbled that I didn’t think I could, he simply said, well, you don’t have much choice. You’re going to get through this, I didn’t raise a daughter who walked away from something just because it got hard. So my dad basically saved my life. And there is no one left who will ever do that for me again.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios. The team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow Duke, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to Chester Jesus Soria, Hannah McCarthy and Rick Kwan for their work on this episode.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Instagram @annasalepics, and the show is on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @deathsexmoney. And if you’re not signed up for our weekly newsletter, make sure you subscribe. We’ll send you a weekly email with a note from me, listener letters from our inbox, and updates on what we’re working on behind the scenes. Sign up at deathsexmoney.org.
SALE: Do you think you will ever tell your children about your husband’s affair?
Amanda: I don’t know. Children grow up to become adults. They’re not always children. And they become much more capable of understanding that their parents are people, too. For now, we still maintain Daddy was a wonderful person who loved you very much. Because that part isn’t a lie.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.