Real Life

“How I learnt to love my lying, dying husband”

After a runaway wedding, Kerstin Pilz’s delirious romantic bliss was shattered when her new husband was diagnosed with cancer, and she discovered he’d been cheating on her.

Raiding my husband’s inbox had been a very bad idea. This thought was on repeat in my head as I sat opposite a senior monk in mustard robes, mesmerised by his ability to sit in full lotus. He wanted me to focus on my breath. “Watch it rise and fall,” he said. It sounded easy, but my mind kept returning to the moment that changed everything. The moment I pressed enter on my husband’s inbox, triggering a nuclear explosion in my heart.

That was when I learned my terminally ill husband, Gianni, had been a serially unfaithful philanderer for most of our marriage. Reading through his inbox I felt physically sick. Shortly after our wedding, he’d returned to his hometown, Rome, to visit his elderly mother, and, unbeknown to me, a handful of longstanding lovers. Once he’d resumed his old ways, as I was discovering, there was no stopping him.

I never thought I’d turn to a monk for advice, but after two complimentary counselling sessions at the hospital where Gianni was undergoing radiation treatment to shrink the golf ball-sized tumour in his brain, I knew therapy would take too long. I needed a crash course in forgiveness. Time was running out and I had to choose. Stay and care for my lying, dying, cheating spouse? Or leave him when he was at his most vulnerable? What would I regret more? What would serve us both?

Buddhists are supposed to be experts at such things, so I figured a 10-day silent meditation retreat at a monastery in Thailand was my best option. Living alongside real monks, I’d become spiritually awakened through absorption, keeping my heart open when it was broken.

The therapist at the hospital didn’t think this was a good idea, offering antidepressants instead. But I didn’t want drugs. I’d already tried self-medicating with wine, but it only made me feel worse. I needed to be awake to figure this out and I needed new tools. So, I booked a ticket to Thailand.

“Maybe you can find a new way of loving me,” Gianni said before I left.

I said I’d try, but I had no idea how.

Kerstin Pilz and her husband Gianni on their wedding day.
Kerstin Pilz and her husband Gianni on their wedding day.

Apparently, it starts with the hips. “Your hips very stiff, lot of tension, lot of problems,” the monk said, pointing at my knees which were almost up to my ears as I sat cross-legged. “Meditation, you choose your thoughts, they don’t rule you,” he started our daily dharma talk. I tried hard, hour after excruciating hour of meditation, 10 hours a day, to recall only happy memories. It should have been easy, there were so many. The deep blue sky on our wedding day aboard a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean. Gianni’s bottle-green eyes that sparkled with mischief. The handscribbled note before our first date, inviting me on a ride on his Harley. But now none of it made me smile, it only made me focus harder on images of him with his lovers.

Ours was a late-life fairytale. I was a perimenopausal workaholic in my forties, married to an academic career in Italian Studies that didn’t love me back. Gianni was a divorced 55-year-old retired forensic psychiatrist from Rome who loved to wear clothes in outrageous colour combinations and had circumnavigated Australia three times on his motorbike. We met on a blustery Sydney evening over canapés at the Italian Institute of Culture, where I’d had the audacity, as he would say later, to speak to an Italian audience in their own language about their own culture. He was charismatic, loving and generous and pursued me relentlessly. I was blinded by love.

Three months after our first date, he slipped a large diamond on my unmanicured finger. “Thank you for saving my life,” he said, referring to the asymmetrical mole I’d found on the crown of his head on our first bushwalk together. It was caught just in time and a surgeon pronounced him a very lucky man.

The ring wasn’t meant to be a proposal, rather a token of his gratitude, yet once it was on my finger, I was never going to take it off again. Suddenly I wanted everything the ring appeared to promise, and life seemed to fall into place. I was hired for my dream job sailing around the world teaching, with Gianni as my accompanying spouse. Living life to the fullest was our mantra.

Kerstin Pilz with a monk who helped her find happiness.
Kerstin Pilz said she was able to forgive her husband thanks to the monks on her meditation retreat.

On the eve of another loop around the world, our romance abruptly stalled in the disinfectant-scented limbo of hospitals when my new husband found a pea-sized lump behind his right ear. Malignant melanoma. His luck had run out.

Thinking of Gianni as the man he was now, not the man I’d married, allowed me to keep my heart open. And apparently also my hips. “Your hips more open now,” the monk said on my last day, before pulling out a final tool. The parable of the Second Arrow. “We cannot control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our choice,” he said. I took it to mean that while we can’t avoid pain, we can choose our suffering.

Having looked into my stone-cold-sober mind every waking minute for 10 of the longest, most boring days of my life, I now had a very good idea what my second arrow could look like. I could become a bitter woman of a certain age, who worked too hard and drank too much to forget she’d left the man she loved when he was dying, or I could keep my heart open. I wanted to cultivate good emotions like the monk had taught me, so I could grow from my heartbreak, not be erased by it. Forgiveness and compassion, I realised, are essential life skills.

Staying together, in sickness and in health, as we had promised in our vows, allowed us to take our relationship to the next level. He never said sorry, but he said thank you a lot, as if he was healing himself with gratitude, and I was fine with that.

The cover of Loving my Lying, Dying Cheating Husband by Kirstin Pilz.

When he could no longer dress himself, we had fun playing dress-ups. He’d let me choose the colours, and together we’d admire him in the mirror. Then we’d go into the town centre of Mission Beach where we’d relocated, and where he’d hold court from his wheelchair, charming all and sundry with his crooked smile. It was a time of healing for both of us. If he hadn’t been sick, our marriage wouldn’t have survived. The doctors couldn’t heal his cancer, but in being vulnerable together, we could heal what was broken.

When his hands turned cold on a hot tropical summer’s day, I held them in mine. I kept holding him until he drew his last breath. Gianni died six months after his 60th birthday. We’d been together four short, action-packed years that felt like a lifetime. Our new friends helped me improvise a beachside funeral. The night before, unable to sleep, I thumbed through Gianni’s address book and did the only sensible thing. I rang his lovers in Italy. It seemed only fair that they should know of his passing.

Forgiveness, I learned, is an act of self-healing. Despite everything, we found a new way of loving, and a sense of peace.

Forgiving the person who hurt me set me free. But I wasn’t prepared for the arrows of grief. Death, I discovered, is never the end of the story, and more disruption was coming my way. Now, though, I was ready for it.

Loving my Lying, Dying Cheating Husband by Kerstin Pilz, Affirm, is out now.

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