Love, illness and divorce: who can say where the road goes?

Relationships|September 22nd 2010

There is a fascinating ITV programme that airs late on a Monday night called Surgery School. It follows real-life junior doctors who are training to be surgeons and previously the only impact it had on me was to affirm that if  I ever do need surgery, I hope the consultant operates on me!

It’s a bit like law: as able as the trainee surgeons may be in theory, nothing is as vital as practical experience. For the same reason, I wouldn’t want a trainee solicitor appearing for me in court.

The most recent programme showed a trainee surgeon working in the intensive care unit of a busy hospital, and in particular how he dealt with the death of a patient. This is a situation that every doctor has to come to terms with and I’m sure it never gets any easier. The episode focused on one of his most seriously ill patients, an elderly lady called Maureen who was suffering from bowel cancer. She had undergone major surgery and was barely conscious. However her husband, a softly spoken Irishman called Michael, was constantly by her bedside despite his obvious exhaustion and age. When she was rushed off for more surgery and returned to intensive care, he quietly remarked how relieved he was as he thought he might have lost her. He couldn’t have been a gentler, more loving husband.

There he was, quietly reassuring and comforting her, stroking her arm and letting her know he was there despite the fact that she was in no position to respond. Three days later she died. I’m certain she will have known her husband was there by her side and that her final hours will have been spent peacefully with him. Love is deeply comforting and manifests itself at the most difficult times of our lives.

A few weeks ago I learned that one of my clients from many years ago had also passed away from cancer. I remembered her well. She was a gracious lady, who was deeply distressed by her husband’s desire to divorce her. I seem to remember that the woman he wanted to marry in her place was younger, prettier and far more outgoing than she was. Despite her unspoken and self-evident love for her husband, my client bore his decision to divorce with calmness and dignity. Her conduct throughout the divorce was exemplary. She threw no mud, was resigned to the outcome and went through the motions in a way that did her no favours. As I recall the major sticking point was that her husband had a problem giving full and frank disclosure. He provided a disclosure of sorts, but it was neither full nor frank and we had to almost drag out of him what we could. All the while, she made little effort to reveal his assets.

In those days the starting point wasn’t a 50:50 split, nor was there the discovery process that exists today. So when we finally reached a ball park area that would meet our client’s needs, we arranged a round table meeting to negotiate a settlement.

This took place in a pretty coastal town on the Norfolk coast. The solicitor’s offices were large but clearly in need of a good lick of paint. At that time there were also no woman lawyers in the firm!

We began our deliberations and it soon rolled around to lunchtime. At that point a waitress wheeled a trolley laden with a buffet lunch into our room. The spread included cocktail sausages, sausage rolls and doorstep ham and pickle and corned beef sandwiches, together with a pot of tea. “You’ll love all that food“, she said as she left, not realising there was nothing kosher on the trolley that I could eat!

I went hungry and continued with the afternoon negotiations, which finally ended in a stalemate for the umpteenth time. I said that I didn’t believe we had yet had full disclosure. With my client sensing we were getting nowhere, she finally mentioned with some hesitation: “Does the yacht count? The one he has in Cannes?”

With that remark I abruptly ended the negotiations and left the other side in no doubt of my feelings, not least because of the sympathy I had for my client. The very expensive yacht had not been disclosed and my client had been fully prepared to overlook it until her patience was finally exhausted.

I knew as the case finally settled (on the instructions of my client, who told me firmly she had received enough in the settlement) that she was beginning to suffer from the early stages of cancer. I have discovered, from a shared acquaintance, that this client went on to fight it bravely for the rest of her life until she passed away a few weeks ago. She had never remarried.

I understand that as my client became extremely ill, her former husband made a rare visit to see her. And in those final moments of her life they were finally able to make peace with one another. The man she loved had briefly returned to her and it was enough.

I wonder whether through all those years of fighting cancer, she was hanging on in hope of that meeting.

Who knows: the power of enduring love may mean that the memory of those women remains inextricably locked in the respective hearts of Michael and my client’s former husband. It brings to mind the lyrics of Enya’s song ‘Only Time’: who can say where the road goes?

We can’t choose who we fall in love with, or whether they will ever, or always, love us in return. We can’t choose the amount of time we will ever get to spend with them – or when that time will be over. Despite all that, love endures in all our hearts with disregard for the passing of time, or what happens in the intervening years.

Author: Stowe Family Law

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