Op-Ed

After a public death, the struggle to create a new family

I wore a dead woman’s sweater once. It was black and oversized, with a huge belt and zebra stirrup pants. I didn’t think of the dead woman as being the zebra-pant type. But I never met her; I just married her husband.

The first time I ventured into the master bedroom closet, her clothes were still hanging there, like she’d be back any minute to put them on. I couldn’t help but touch the frayed collar of her bathrobe, the bottom of its sleeves stained like they had gotten splashed while doing dishes. I paused to look at the black sweater with dust on its shoulders. I had no intention of wearing it. 

But one day, when the L.A. air was particularly autumnal, I walked down Montana Avenue in the stolen sweater. It was both too big and too small on me, but only I seemed aware of this fact.

My heart seized when I ran into my husband, Paul, in the driveway. I was certain he’d catch my misdeed. He didn’t, but I ran upstairs to jettison the sweater. As I was taking it off, I noticed a hair on the shoulder. It was shorter than mine, gray at the root.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my husband’s dead wife would still be in the very fabric of the house, but why shouldn’t she be? After all, the photos of her were still in the den: the one I’d seen on the cover of People magazine, her arms wrapped around the family’s golden retriever. Snapshots from vacations in Martha’s Vineyard, she and my husband posing alongside the daughter they’d lost, and the son who’d survived but was still too traumatized to sleep in his own bed.

I carefully placed the hair back on the sweater and put it back where I’d found it.

My husband’s first wife was Elizabeth Glaser. She died of complications from AIDS a few months before I met Paul. The Glasers’ story was headline news: In 1981, Elizabeth received a blood transfusion while giving birth to their daughter, Ariel, and was infected with HIV. She unknowingly passed the virus on to Ariel, and later to their son, Jake. Ariel died at age 7. Jake was 10 when I came into the picture, and there was tremendous fear around his future. Paul was the only family member who had not contracted HIV.

“You certainly have big shoes to fill,” one of Elizabeth’s friends said to me at the first dinner party I hosted at what was now our house. I was a studio film executive and was rarely at a loss for words. That night, I could find none. Maybe that was why I walked a mile, or a few blocks at least, in her sweater — because I couldn’t fill her shoes. Maybe I was trying to understand her and the Other Glaser Family. 

The media cast the family in classic roles, heightened because of Paul’s celebrity. Paul, who played Starsky in the famous 1970s TV show “Starsky & Hutch,” was now more famous for being a widower. Elizabeth was the saint fighting to save her son. Jake was the poster child for the cause. They were held up as examples, handling a tragic situation far better than mere mortals ever could. No one wanted to see the flaws that made them too much like everyone else, or the messiness and strife that continued long after Elizabeth’s death.

Paul wanted to have a child right away. Like so many women, I thought I could heal my partner. What better way to do it than create a new family? We leapt into the future, hoping healing would follow. 

I adopted Jake when I was pregnant with Zoe. He was an HIV-positive boy who had lost his sister and mother and was acting out. He rebelled against taking his meds, hiding them, flushing them down the toilet. The day of the adoption, we went downtown to the family court with the crowds and the heat and plastic chairs and waited for a judge to make it official. There was a boy holding a balloon that said “Congratulations” sitting next to a woman I assumed was his adoptive mother, a stuffed animal tucked under his arm. He was beaming, as if saying, “I can’t believe how lucky I am.” I was moved by the largeness of spirit, how every adoption is a selfless choice. I caught Jake’s eye and knew he had been looking at the boy. Did he see what I saw? I imagine he had a riot of conflicting emotions, guilt among them.

My daughter says she doesn’t remember sitting down to discuss what, exactly, happened to Elizabeth and Ariel, or why her dad and brother would go up onstage at Pediatric AIDS Foundation events, but nobody ever mentioned her or me. I understood intellectually the Foundation needed to freeze the Glaser family in time, and having Zoe and me in the picture was off-brand. Yet it was painful knowing that my daughter felt the division both within our family and outside of it. Zoe both wanted to be part of the Other Glasers and didn’t. She was jealous of the attention Jake got but didn’t want to get attention for those same reasons.

This much I know: A daughter cannot replace a daughter. The symmetry of Zoe and Ariel is apparent. Both resembled their father, with blueberry eyes and dark hair. Paul couldn’t discuss Ariel or my fears that he might not be able to get close to our daughter because of his history. Would it have been easier if Zoe were a boy?

When our marriage fell apart, it was no surprise how the lines divided: me and Zoe, Paul and Jake. 

In families, many of us bring shadows with us, emotional baggage, from divorce or death, or simply from the disparity between what we’d like our relationships to be versus what they actually are. Like with paint, trying too hard to blend it only makes things muddy. I could walk a few blocks in Elizabeth’s sweater, but couldn’t change how Paul or Jake’s history shaped the history we were building together.

I realize now Paul and Jake hadn’t even begun to grieve; I realize now that you cannot heal what is not yours to heal. But in fits and starts, we felt our way to peace. 

Recently, I was at Jake’s apartment, introducing him to my boyfriend, the first man I’ve lived with since Paul. Jake was wryly recounting some difficult times from his youth, then turned to us: “Nobody can understand what we went through in our family,” he said. It takes a minute, but I smile to myself. “Our family.” We’d all lived with different shadows, yet what we went through separately helped define us as a family — not as Big, nor Happy, but One. 

Tracy Barone is the author of “Happy Family.”

 

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