Taking My Ex Back In (for His Own Good)

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Modern Love

Tim was on the other side of the kitchen counter looking at a list I had written of what he should check on in the house while my husband, Din, and I were on vacation.

“What’s that thing on your neck?” I asked.

Tim touched the egg-size swelling below his left jaw. “I don’t know.”

Din suggested it might be a clogged salivary gland. He’d had one once, and the doctor had prescribed sucking on lemon drops.

I didn’t know whether Tim sucked any lemon drops while we were away, only that when we got back a week later, the swelling was the size of a half-orange.

Tim and I shared a daughter, though we had not been romantically involved for 20 years. I asked if he had seen a doctor. He said he had been to the Native American clinic, which had suggested an endoscopy to see if the growth was cancerous.

I drove Tim to the test. At 6-foot-3, he usually carried 215 pounds. He was now below 200 and looking dusky. I had known him since I was 24, the age our daughter was now.

We had met on a movie set in South Carolina when I jumped off the back of a production van and into the path of Tim and his father, Will Sampson. I recognized Will from his role as the Chief in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but had never in person seen anything like these two men: hugely tall, dressed in cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, Tim’s hair black and lustrous, Will’s silver hair braided with red ribbon.

I said “hey” and was gone. Tim later told me that as he and his father had watched me run off, Will had drawled, “Not baaaad.”

Tim looked bad today. His hair seemed to have collapsed. Gone, too, was his enviable posture. He appeared caved in on himself as he walked from the waiting room to the lab, and I knew.

“There’s a hole on the back of my tongue,” he said later.

Tim had stage 4 cancer, an HPV-related tumor, the same type and in the same location that the actor Michael Douglas had. Tim did not remind me that Mr. Douglas had produced “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the stage version of which Tim later performed on Broadway, reprising the role his father had made famous.

Before long, Tim was living in our guest room. I had insisted he move out of the $250-a-month room he’d been renting in a rundown house where a childlike bearded woman from upstairs would knock on his door after midnight wearing a negligee, and a man in the room below smoked incessantly despite being hooked to an oxygen tank.

It was no place to undergo cancer treatment, which I had urged Tim to start.

“I’m going to use cannabis oil,” he said. He had a medical marijuana card to treat pain for ailments incurred over decades as a professional stuntman and active alcoholic.

I loved Tim deeply when we were a couple, but our day-to-day lives had been a wreck, especially after our daughter Tava (“feather” in Creek) was born and Tim and his friends kept brawling in our house after long nights of boozing, leaving clumps of hair — and once a tooth — on the floor.

I left Tim before Tava turned 3. He was 36. Later that week, he took his last drink.

Several months after the diagnosis, Tim was having trouble swallowing. The growth was the size of a half-cabbage, and no matter how strenuously Din and I pleaded with him to get traditional medical treatment, he declined. Where he came from in Oklahoma, he said, Indians went to the hospital for cancer treatment and died.

I said I appreciated his suspicion of white hospitals, but we were in Portland, Ore., home of some of the best cancer centers in the country. But I was not his wife and never had been. I could not force him to do anything.

Tim was lying on Tava’s childhood bed the day she was scheduled to fly home for Thanksgiving.

“I don’t care what I have to go through,” he said. “I only care about what it’s going to do to her.”

I had seen him cry maybe twice in 30 years, and never like this, helpless to not cause his child pain. I kept my hands on him until he quieted.

“Wow,” he said. “That felt good.”

We decided I would tell Tava. I made it simple. I held her hands and said her daddy had cancer, and that whatever happened she was going to be fine. I also told her he was being stubborn about treatment, and that maybe a word from her —

“Daddy,” she said. “You gotta bust a move.”

Earlier in the week, Tim’s doctor had said, “Your window for treating this is almost closed.” Still, Tim had stalled. Now he wanted to do everything, and right away.

He set up the guest room so he had what he’d need within arm’s reach: meds, mouth swabs, TV remote. He would move from bedroom to bathroom several times a day, wearing scrubs not unlike the ones he wore when performing the role of the Chief, though they hung more loosely as the weeks went by.

We did not tell many people about Tim’s condition or that he was staying with us. Those who knew sometimes said, “It’s good of you to have your ex living with you.” Or, “That’s really cool of Din.” But Tim was in serious trouble, and helping him did not strike either of us as anything but normal.

In February Tim started nine weeks of radiation, five days a week. Chemo had worked him over — his weight dipped below 170, his hair was gone, his face spattered with chemo-related hyperpigmentation. But the toll radiation took was devastating; each day he looked more wasted.

He said he felt full of poison, made from poison. Even water tasted “like garbage.” I would sit him at the counter and scramble him an egg. He would look at it. I made him a portion of oatmeal a 5-year-old could finish in two minutes. It would take Tim 30, with me saying, “Come on, babe, one more bite.”

His weight dropped to 153; he looked as if he were made of sticks. He needed to rest during the three steps from bedroom to bathroom. I told Din I didn’t think Tim was going to make it.

I had been there before with Tim’s father. Nearly three decades earlier, Will was recuperating from a heart-lung transplant in a Houston hospital. While the transplant had been successful, he had been too ill from hard living and undiagnosed scleroderma to rally. Tim and I flew from Los Angeles to be with Will in the I.C.U. He was unconscious, but you could feel a spark zipping around the room. The next morning, the spark was gone.

Tim and I watched the blood pressure monitor drop from 9 to 6 to zero. They revived him, but only for 20 minutes. After they revived him again, a doctor pulled aside us and asked, “What do you want us to do?”

Tim looked as if the floor was falling from beneath him, and I saw that there was no way he could decide. I shook my head at the doctor: If Will’s heart stopped again, let him go. Within minutes he was gone.

I found a pay phone and sobbed to my mother that I didn’t understand how some girl from Brooklyn got to make the call for a man who’d had to break the back of the world to survive.

“Because you could,” she said.

“My dad liked you,” Tim told me then. “He knew you’d take care of me.”

I thought of this as I tried to get Tim to eat that egg, that oatmeal. Din was there with the assist. He and Tim had been basketball stars in high school; they had long watched N.B.A. games together in our kitchen, hooting and disputing calls and pantomiming overhead jump shots.

Now, no matter his other engagements, my husband was home with Tim whenever the Trailblazers were on TV, Din sipping a beer, Tim struggling to breathe, his eyes above the paper mask showing he was barely hanging on.

Tim finished his treatments in May. Food still tasted like trash, but he could eat ice cream. I bought it by the half-gallon. His weight climbed through the 160s. He said his goal was to get his taste back by Thanksgiving. It was back by August.

He asked if I would make him my mother’s meat sauce. When Tava was home that month for a visit, she moved frozen containers of that sauce, and her father, to a studio apartment.

“You guys saved my life,” Tim sometimes says now, three years later.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” we say, and go back to watching the game.