Who'll raise my kids if I die?

I may have only 18 months to live, and my husband is being a real SOB

Published August 30, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

Here's the situation: I've been married to my husband for 13 years. All but the first year have been miserable. He never adjusted to being a father -- never understood that his needs came second. He's terrible with money (mine, his and ours) and has plunged us into debt while I was in a coma by using my credit cards and borrowing money from my elderly father, which he spent on no one knows what. He refuses to take responsibility for any of his actions (it's always "that asshole"). He won't do anything fun with our kids (two girls -- ages 9 and 12) -- he'd rather sleep on the weekends. He has serious stress/anger management issues for which he refuses to seek help; he throws things, calls us names, punches walls and we never know what will set him off. He parents sporadically if at all -- since he "doesn't understand girls." He loses his temper and verbally abuses them. "Stupid cow" and "lazy bitch" are some of the things that spring to mind.

He took a pay cut when I returned to work so he didn't have to commute -- a cut of about one-third. Despite the fact that we can barely cover our debts. In short, he acts like a 3-year-old, and adds little if anything to our lives.

I was all set to finally leave him, with money saved for a home for me and the girls, and then disaster struck: The breast cancer I'd been battling for the past four years returned in a much more aggressive form and I ended up using my "escape" savings to fund radiation therapy.

He reminded me often during my initial chemo treatments and mastectomy that "any other man would have left me." We don't have sex, we haven't since my mastectomy and we sleep in separate rooms.

My oncologist thinks the stress has something to with my cancer recurrence, and that if I could manage my stress, we might be able to get on top of the cancer.

The only reason I'm still with him is for the girls. I didn't want to uproot them and put them through the trauma of a divorce while they were dealing with my cancer as well. But the situation is really becoming unbearable -- so much so that my oldest daughter begs me to leave him and thinks I am a wimp for staying. I've given up on what I want. I'm probably dying anyway, and it's too late for me to get a happy home life with him -- but I could be happy with the girls and me together (without him), knowing we didn't have to tread on eggshells every time he comes home.

Oh, and my prognosis is 18 months at this point, barring a miracle and my sheer determination not to leave my girls in the care of their father.

So my question is -- Should I leave him and bank on the (admittedly) small chance that I can get another 10 years of peace and the girls are spared his abuse? Or should I just saddle up and hang in there, knowing that he is what he is, and he won't change, and see if I can improve in some small way the girls' home life?

Facing Hard Choices

Dear Facing Hard Choices,

Sometimes this job is easy. Sometimes this job is hard. Sometimes I read a letter and have to place it in God's hands.

I feel certain only about this: You have to find some peace.

I don't mean peace necessarily in the sense of stress-free. I mean it more in the sense of certainty: Knowing that you are doing what you can to heal from this disease, and that you are doing what you can to care for your girls, and that if the disease takes its course you have done what you can.

If there is somewhere you can go with your girls where they will be safe and your husband will not threaten you and you can continue your medical treatments, then go there.

This may bring new troubles. But for now, it will be good to be somewhere where your girls feel safe.

You also need help from your community. Talk with someone expert in matters of illness and family law and the spirit. If there is a women's shelter or counseling center, or a family support center, go there. If you are a member of a church or spiritual group that has given you strength in the past, contact them. Consult a skilled and experienced psychotherapist. Talk to your doctor. Talk to a hospice person. Do all these things.

What is the right thing? I have struggled with that question. I cannot know with certainty. Actions have unexpected consequences. But if you can be happy with your girls, and if the oldest girl thinks you should go, then take your girls and go. Do that for now. Do the next right thing. Keep doing the next right thing until there is nothing more to do.

What is the solution? The solution will be whatever solution brings you peace. The solution will be whatever you can live with, and whatever you can die with.

Sometimes this job is easy. Sometimes this job is hard. Sometimes I read a letter and have to place it in God's hands.

By Cary Tennis

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