He walked through the coffee shop door and scanned the crowd. A familiar smile bloomed as he recognized me, despite how my appearance had changed over the years. I’m bald and bearded now, and heavier. I wear an extra decade on my face, and I’m more careful about how I dress. I was almost late as I settled on the right shirt.
The change in his appearance was far more drastic and deliberate than mine. But he was unmistakable. I recognized his wave and his walk. I thought back to a morning years ago, when we were still together. After a long night, I was so hung over I could barely stand. I kept up appearances while bowling and eating breakfast with his parents. But I dreamed of escaping to the back seat of our car, to put blankets over my head and shut out the world.
And that’s what I wanted to do now, in the coffee shop, as he closed the distance between us. Escape, alone, to sink into my grief like a hot bath.
His hug felt surprisingly familiar. This was the first good thing that happened at our reunion.
He was dressed as I remembered him — flannel shirt and jeans. Except the familiar wardrobe was draped over a man’s body now. The message of the clothes had changed from “tomboy” to “I.T. guy.”
Seeing the man who used to be my wife reminded me of the feelings of loss I felt in the months following his quiet and dignified disclosure to me of his transition. (He read a draft of this essay and consented to its publication, asking only that I not use his name.)
We had been together from our late teens to early 30s. My understanding of our divorce was that we started too young, and the differences that seemed small at the time widened, as our childhoods ended and our adulthoods began. Only one of us wanted children, but that seemed abstract at age 20, hardly worth mentioning. By 29, though, its importance was real and plain. We were terrible with money, led by my stubborn refusal to balance a checkbook. I struggled with depression and anxiety. Some days I stayed in bed. I fell to pieces at the slightest criticism. I try to be kind to myself these days. But the truth is, I was not easy to live with.
It would be too easy to say now that I always knew something was going on with my spouse, something deep and important and hidden, but I didn’t. We started fighting, and the fights — loud quarrels, really — became bolder and more frequent. Our relationship frayed.
I remember the day I worked up the nerve to talk about splitting up. Moments before I began my prepared speech, my spouse asked whether we should try separating. Stunned, I admitted I was about to say the same thing. I laughed and cried with relief. We hugged. The dogs came out of hiding. It was our best moment in months.
It may be called an “amicable divorce,” but the death of my marriage felt like any other death, hollow and dark and eternal. I felt the pain physically in my chest and face for weeks.
Ten years later, I was married again and raising a son. I lived 300 miles away and had a new career. I finally received proper care for the anxiety and depression that pulled on me like an extra helping of gravity for most of my adulthood.
My ex and I exchanged birthday emails, brief and cheerful. In those telegram-size messages, we never talked about our present lives or our past together. I thought the emails were our way of saying we weren’t angry with each other and acknowledging we were both happier now.
The longest email I received from my ex in years came about two years ago, when he broke the news of his transition. To me, it came out of nowhere. At the end, he told me his new name.
By the next morning, the same grief I had felt when we divorced pulsed painfully through me again. The woman with whom I had shared some of the most formative, joyful and painful times of my life was gone. And there was nothing to say or do about it.
Some transgender people refer to their former names as “deadnames,” and are offended when people use them. The term seemed apt; it felt disrespectful even to say my ex’s old name, but impossible to use the new one. As much as I reminded myself that my ex was plainly still alive — I could send an email or call him on the phone if I really wanted to — I couldn’t shake the feeling of bereavement.
Layered on top of this was guilt. I felt disloyal to my wife, worrying so much about someone I hadn’t spoken to in 10 years (aside from the birthday “telegrams”). I felt as if I had no right to grieve. My ex-spouse had acted courageously, I imagine, to relieve a tremendous burden. And it had absolutely nothing to do with me, or our former marriage. I was ashamed for feeling anything short of happiness for him.
Then, my cousin David died. He was only in his 50s, but he had suffered so much. He was diabetic, which made all his other health problems more complicated and severe: many stubborn infections, a stroke, and finally, brain cancer.
He was ill for so many years that, even though we mourned him, his death carried an undercurrent of relief.
As a pallbearer, I was one of the last people to see him before the coffin closed. I touched his cool hand and said, “Goodbye, David.”
My big Irish-Catholic family’s funeral tradition involves a two- or three-day wake followed by a half-day of services, starting at the funeral home and ending at the cemetery. It’s physically and spiritually exhausting. Finally, we gather for brunch where people begin to relax into the chance to be together for a while. The ritual, though hard to endure, is ultimately good for us.
Not long after the funeral, I made plans to go to the small town where my ex still lived, to visit a friend. It had been a year since I learned about his transformation, and I wanted to meet him. We made plans over Facebook. He was enthusiastic and open. Although I had seen pictures online, I wanted to see him in person.
And there we sat over coffee. We were two kids once, a boy and a girl, making plans for the rest of our lives. Our paths diverged and now we came back together, two men in middle age, having a look at each other and talking about some good memories we still shared.
I felt lighter walking back to my car. I thought I had just attended a private wake for my ex-wife, to look at the body, to say goodbye. But I hadn’t. Meeting him in person was a confirmation of life. Sharing a cup of coffee is what finally shook me from my grief.
Dan Higgins is a writer and journalism professor.