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“I Discovered My Dying Husband Was A Serial Cheater”

When Kerstin Pilz realised her husband had cheated on her with a string of women, she had to make a choice: leave or stay to care for the man who had betrayed her.

By Kerstin Pilz

You have reason to believe your husband is having an affair, and you have the password to his inbox. He gave it to you after a malignant tumour the size of a golf ball was found inside his brain. Tomorrow, you’ll take him home from the hospital. Tonight is your last chance. What would you do?

I did the obvious – drank an entire bottle of wine until I was reckless enough to press enter. Just a quick peek, to make sure it was all in my head, stupid paranoid thoughts. But it wasn’t. Everything I’d feared was there in his inbox. And more. I learned he’d been unfaithful since our wedding day, only a few years earlier.

There was a stylish widow who spoke three languages, a schoolteacher from Rome, a busty hairdresser…I stopped counting. My head was spinning, and my heart was shattered into a thousand spiky shards.


Everything I’d feared was there in his inbox. And more. I learned he’d been unfaithful since our wedding day, only a few years earlier.

Ours was a passionate late-life love affair, a second marriage for both of us. I was a 43-year-old childless, lonely workaholic, married to an academic career in Italian Studies that took more than it gave. Gianni was a charming, whip-smart Italian forensic psychiatrist 13 years my senior, with a penchant for clothes in bright, clashing colours.

We met over the buffet at the Italian Institute of Culture in Sydney in 2006, where I’d given a talk about my research. Gianni was intrigued by this German ‘smarty pants’, who dared to address an Italian audience in their own language. He directed his bottle green eyes directly at me and invited me on a ride on his yellow Harley across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Gianni had retired early to live life to the fullest, as he proudly declared, which meant month-long motorbike rides, far-flung international travel and a jam-packed social life. My social life, meanwhile, was practically non-existent; travel was a neglected passion, and I rarely gave myself permission to live life to the fullest. The attraction was immediate. Un colpo di fulmine. A thunderbolt.

We met for our first date two weeks later, and Gianni instantly turned my life, our lives, into a champagnecoloured fairy tale, every day making  me feel like the lead in a steamy, perimenopausal rom com.


Soon afterwards, I was offered a dream job teaching aboard a university campus on a converted cruise ship, “The Scholar Ship”. Gianni had encouraged me to apply and enthusiastically came along as my accompanying spouse. We set sail from Hong Kong on the first of January 2008, headed to 10 different ports around the world, feeling like we were the luckiest couple in the world.

Two weeks later, docked in Bangkok, I visited tailor shops and found myself looking at bespoke wedding dresses in an album two salesgirls had flung at me. ‘Cheaper than your country,’ they insisted, though nobody had mentioned marriage. I’d come for a pair of shorts. But the idea was catching. Later, when I showed Gianni a sample of silk fabric, he snatched it out of my hand, declaring it “perfect for a wedding dress!”.

And just like that, it happened.

“Do you want to be my wife?”

A life-altering question.

“Yes, yes and yes,” I said the words before any other thoughts could form. I threw my body across his and suddenly the woman who rejected marriage as a patriarchal institution was superseded by a new me, the woman who wanted to live forever in the sparkle of her new soulmate.

In that moment, it felt as if the world was our oyster, our future a never-ending adventure, our marriage a technicoloured Disney tale.

When a specialist said what nobody dared to think — cancer, metastatic melanoma — all our plans evaporated

But things soon began to unravel. The global financial crisis forced the cancellation of the next semester of the floating university. Our plans for a new life quashed, we quickly came up with an even better plan, an adult gap year that would allow us to keep travelling just for fun.

When on the eve of departure Gianni discovered a pea-sized lump behind his right ear, I wasn’t alarmed at first; I knew my husband was a hypochondriac of the first order. But when a specialist said what nobody dared to think — cancer, metastatic melanoma — all our plans evaporated.

Gianni bravely soldiered on, from one operation to the next, and I stood by him all the way. But as the cancer escalated to stage four, showing up in the lungs, and later as a tumour in his brain, our marriage started to crack under the strain, and I realised that cancer has the power to destroy more than the body it inhabits.

Up until then, I’d ignored all the red flags. The psychotherapist friend who had tried to warn me months earlier that Gianni was “flirtatious” and an “ageing narcissist”. His secrecy about his passwords, his obsessive texting, his frequent trips to Italy to see his ageing parents. I’d dismissed it all as part of the quirky, unusual, irresistible man I’d fallen in love with.


It was only in the days before the operation to remove the brain tumour, his Facebook page suddenly swarming with melodramatic declarations of well wishes, hearts and kiss emojis sent by women I’d never heard of, that I felt uneasy. When Gianni appointed his brother to update his social media page with news of his operation, after I’d overseen his logistics for over a year, I became alarmed. And pissed off.

I’d safeguarded the password for three weeks, when the brain tumour rendered Gianni’s hands two useless appendages, making it impossible for him to download the medical files he urgently needed.

So, there I was, alone on Valentine’s Day in a family-sized hotel room in Townsville, a place I had never visited before, my husband a short distance away in recovering from brain surgery in his hospital bed, my finger hovering over the enter key to his inbox. Just to take a quick peek.

I pressed enter and life as I knew it ended. My terminally ill husband was also a serially unfaithful adulterer.

I had no idea what to do next. Run a mile? Leave my lying, dying, spouse when he was at his most vulnerable? Or stay and care for him, have compassion for a man who could no longer shower, dress and feed himself

My immediate problem was how to let Gianni know that I knew of his infidelity. In the end, I did the only thing I could think to do with my heartbreak. I wrote him a letter. It took 10 drafts before I hit the right note.

I’d hoped he would be repentant, but when I handed him the letter, it was a hand grenade. I’d shamed him, and, like the narcissist my friend had warned me he was, Gianni flew into a rage. Over the next few days, we moved on from fighting his cancer to fighting each other.

I had no idea what to do next. Run a mile? Leave my lying, dying, spouse when he was at his most vulnerable?

Eventually, the only thing we could agree on was that we needed time apart.

I tried to see a therapist but quickly realised that one hour a week wasn’t enough. I needed a full immersion program, so I found myself signing up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand.

Meditation was both tortuous and boring. But imagining my options from every angle, 10 hours a day, for 10 long days, brought intense clarity.

I realised that this – Gianni’s terminal illness, our predicament – was bigger than me and it challenged me to grow beyond myself. I needed to forgive the unforgivable.

Extending compassion and forgiveness to my dying spouse, rather than turning my back on him, being of service, rather than being bitter and angry, promised the better long-term outcome for both of us. I wanted to grow from this, not be broken by it. A new form of love, I realised, would start by loving myself again.

So, we both returned to home — Gianni had gone to Italy while I’d been at the retreat — and we called a truce.

Instead of travel plans, our favourite topic before the diagnosis, we now found ourselves discussing the logistics of sea funerals (legal?), what happens to our emotions after we die (do they die also?), and my husband’s bowel movements (more fibre?).

In the weeks before his death, a neighbour helped me move a single bed next to Gianni’s newly installed hospital bed so I could be near him all the time. I was painfully aware that every breath could be his last.

It was the intimacy of death and it belonged only to us.

I would make blueberry protein smoothies and freeze them in ice-cube trays so that Gianni could suck on them for nourishment and hydration. I monitored his pee, to make sure it remained clear. Every two hours I turned his stiff body, heavy like a log of wood, to prevent bedsores. I held his emaciated body for hours, rubbing warmth into his hands and feet, whispering words of comfort into his ears.

It wasn’t the intimacy I craved when I’d been jealous of his lovers. It was so much more. It was the intimacy of death and it belonged only to us.

If Gianni hadn’t been ill, our marriage wouldn’t have survived. I would have left, and I would have found it harder to forgive. But in the face of terminal cancer, we had a chance to heal what the doctors couldn’t.

We had no idea how long he would live. All we had was faith in the power of love.

The fear of death, his fear and mine, gave us more strength than we knew we had. It allowed us to love each other in new, more authentic ways. Gianni lived another ten months after I discovered his infidelities. By the end, he’d found a sense of profound peace. I learned that we always have a choice, and that choosing forgiveness, love and compassion can set us free.

Loving My Lying, Dying, Cheating Husband by Kerstin Pilz is published by Affirm Press and is out now

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BY Kerstin Pilz

Kerstin is the author of 'Loving My Lying, Dying, Cheating Husband'

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