My cheating husband left his dirty socks in the linen basket
– and 11 years of my life in tatters
Concluding the raw emotional story of a wife betrayed as she battled cancer
20:57 GMT, 30 May 2012
Last week writer TESSA CUNNINGHAM revealed how she separated from her husband Richard after discovering he was having an affair — while she was enduring treatment for breast cancer. In this second extract from her new book, Take Me Home, she describes how the most unexpected of events helped her rebuild her shattered life.
Sorting out the washing in the linen basket, I felt poleaxed with grief. At the bottom of the basket were my husband Richard’s socks, work shirts and boxer shorts. And I hadn’t a clue what to do with them.
Should I wash them Should I let them fester Should I parcel them up and dump them outside his girlfriend’s house
There were also the suits and ties that still hung in our wardrobe. The gardening books and magazines about surfboarding — the hobby he took up with her — on his bedside table. The razors and deodorant in the bathroom cabinet.
Extended family: Tessa and her daughters, Ellen and Elise, with her father who moved in with her following her divorce
All the little familiar items that were so inconsequential, I’d never stopped to notice them. Now every one shrieked out that my marriage was over.
After confessing to having an affair, Richard had stuffed a few handfuls of clothes into a black bin liner and disappeared. And I was left with the detritus — an 11-year marriage to unpick, a life to unravel.
I was sure I had done the right thing. One day I might even be able to forgive him. But there was no way I could ever trust or respect him. Most of all I wouldn’t respect myself if I took him back. He had cheated on me when I was being treated for breast cancer, betraying me at a time when I needed him most.
Although he had moved in with his girlfriend — a widow in her 60s — he claimed the relationship meant nothing. In endless heart-rending texts and phone calls, he begged for forgiveness and pleaded for a second chance.
But after that terrible scene at her house where I put my fist through her front door and cut my hand, landing up in a police cell, I knew I had to move on for my own sanity. And so, in December 2008 — two months after he left — I asked him to stop ringing and texting me, and I started divorce proceedings on the grounds of his infidelity, which he admitted.
Lawyers got involved. Thrashing over every last aspect of our relationship and wrangling over money was desperately painful.
'I realised it was time to stop hankering after my old life. In making such a radical change, I truly could move on'
Through it all, I was desperate to keep life as normal as possible for my daughters — Ellen, 18, and Elise, 17. They had been through enough with my illness. Although Richard was not their father, he had brought them up as his own (they were just six and four when we married in 1997) and they felt angry and betrayed.
Trying to hold things together was like fighting to keep a runaway train on the track.
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Family unit shattered: Tessa with Richard and their daughters before his affair
One day, as I took Dad’s hand to say goodbye, he kissed my cheek and held my hand just a little too long. As I looked into his eyes, I saw all the yearning that he was too proud and loving to articulate: ‘Please take me home.’
It was the last thing I wanted or expected. I was finally hoping to get my life back to normal — not throw in more upheaval. But I didn’t know how to say no. And so the words popped out of my mouth: ‘Come and live with me, Dad.’
His rheumy old eyes lit up, and for the first time in a long while I felt a spark of hope and excitement. I realised it was time to stop hankering after my old life. In making such a radical change, I truly could move on.
So Dad came to live with me in September 2010 — almost two years to the day since Richard left. And I can honestly say it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Despite — or maybe because of — his great age, his frailty and his closeness to death, Dad has given me something unexpected and priceless.
'Watching the enjoyment Dad gets out of the simplest things is a lesson in happiness'
Through his example, he’s shown me how to enjoy life — something I never imagined I would ever do again.
Born during World War I and a veteran of the Battle of Britain, there isn’t much Dad hasn’t seen or experienced in his long and rich life. He’s lived through both great joy and intense heartache — chief among them the death of my beloved older sister, aged just 26.
Through it all, Dad has learnt to roll with the punches, to grab life by the throat and never look back. Every day I’m amazed by something new that pops out of his mouth — wise, witty or just plain common sense. When I complain about the state of the girls’ bedrooms, Dad knows exactly how to bring me down to Earth.
‘I know another teenage girl who used to drive her mum mad,’ he says, looking at me meaningfully. ‘Honestly, love, let them enjoy being young. What harm are they doing’
How can I possibly argue with logic like that
I’ve always been totally secure in Dad’s love but it’s even sweeter now to feel enveloped with affection. His eyes light up when I come into a room. And I know, as far as he is concerned, I am eternally young and beautiful — his precious little girl.
Soon after he moved in, I came back from town much later than I’d anticipated to find him peering anxiously out of the window. I rushed in to check everything was fine.
‘Of course I’m OK,’ he said, brusquely. ‘I was just worried because you’d been gone so long. I know it’s silly but you’ll always be my little girl and I can’t stop worrying about you.’
As I smiled and hugged him, I don’t think he guessed just how much those words meant to me.
Life's too short: Tessa's father has taught her not to dwell on the past
Watching the enjoyment Dad gets out of the simplest things is a lesson in happiness. He treats every offer of a cup of tea as though I’ve suggested dining out at the Ritz. Throw in a couple of bourbon biscuits and a few custard creams and he is in seventh heaven.
Dad adores being in the fresh air, and at the first hint of sunshine insists on tottering into the garden where he sits in his favourite chair, watching the bees buzzing around the flower beds and our dog, Milo, crashing in and out of the lavender bushes.
His pleasure is all the more intense because he’s acutely aware his days are numbered. ‘Are you worried about dying’ I asked him recently. He looked stunned. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said. ‘We’ve all got to die, and worrying about it would be a real waste of time.’
Carers come twice a day to help him get dressed and washed. They cost just over 600 a month — paid for by the rent on his flat. He calls them his ‘Pyjama Girls’ and has endless fun teasing them. But as the months have passed and his arthritis has got worse, he has needed their help more and more.
However, far from dwelling on the past, Dad refuses to fret about all the things he can no longer do.
‘Why worry about things over which you have no control’ is his constant mantra.
Following his lead has helped me let go of much of the anger and bitterness, and concentrate instead on remembering the good times.
Most of all, Dad’s taught me to live in the moment and not worry about the future because — as his fall and my cancer have shown — none of us know what’s round the corner. Dad’s in pain much of the time but never complains. Watching him cross the room on his walking frame inch by painful inch, makes me realise just how lucky I am to feel young and fit.
I worried that living with someone old and needy so soon after recovering from breast cancer would bring back memories of my own frailty. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. I realise how far I’ve come and how blessed I am to feel healthy again.
Being around someone so determined to wring every moment of pleasure out of life is a tonic.
There are many reasons why living with Dad works so well. I have the space. I can work from home so I’m here for him. I have great carers and a supportive family. Dad’s very easy-going and appreciative of all I do.
But above all, perhaps Dad fills a need in me — a need to cherish and be cherished, to love and be loved.
He will always be my dad. I will always be his little girl but now, in the last stages of his life, I feel blessed that I am able to protect him from harm the way he has always protected me.
Most of all, I’m grateful to Dad. His unstinting love has helped me heal.
I haven’t seen Richard since Dad moved in, and he has chosen to have no contact with the girls. But I hope that, wherever he is, he is happy, too.
As I’m learning from this precious time with Dad, life is too short to fritter away being miserable.
Adapted from Take Me Home by Tessa Cunningham, published by Sidgwick & Jackson on June 14 at 12.99. Tessa Cunningham 2012. To order a copy at 10.49 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.