"We spent all those years together," he says, "Now she's just gone"

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Together since 1989 and married in 1996, Robin Wright was Sean Penn’s longtime anchor. Then, after some false starts and changing of minds, the two finally divorced last August.

While Wright rhapsodized about relishing her independence and harboring no regrets when it came to her ex, Penn, looking back, says, “She is a ghost to me now.”

Speaking to author-historian Douglas Brinkley for Vanity Fair‘s July issue, on the nation’s newsstands next Tuesday, the Mystic River and Milk Best Actor Oscar winner says, “We spent all those years together Now she’s just gone.”

The couple’s $15 million northern California home was sold, and Penn, 49, now lives in Malibu near his mom, actress Eileen Ryan.

Shifts Focus

Penn’s personal life, he says, now revolves around issues that concern him, such as aiding the victims and helping to rebuild Haiti after last January’s devastating 7.0 earthquake.

As co-founder, with L.A.-based, Sarajevo-born philanthropist Diana Jenkins, of the relief organization J/P HRO, Penn’s commitment to the Caribbean nation is long-term. “There is no exit for me until there is more life than death,” he says.

As such, Vanity Fair reports, Penn was recently made official “camp manager” of a Port-au-Prince displaced persons facility that has assisted some 50,000 quake survivors – to whom he’s dispensed medicine, among other tasks (sweeping floors, hauling bags of rice).

Reunited with Wright for Son

Yet he is also there for his family. When his 16-year-old son with Wright, Hopper – named for the recently deceased actor Dennis Hopper, a friend of Penn’s – sustained a life-threatening head injury in a skateboarding accident, Penn joined Wright in the hospital to be there for the teen and pray for him.

“He underwent risky surgery due to intense bleeding of the brain,” Penn says, “and he pulled through.”

His son’s brush with death was life-altering for Penn, writes Brinkley. With a karmic debt to be repaid, Penn began painstakingly re-assessing his life’s priorities, and spent time with T Bone Burnett, the composer-producer who in the 1970s helped Bob Dylan find Jesus.

“I wanted to give back something more to help struggling people, but I didn’t know how to best do it,” says Penn. “I was for 20 years in a relationship with Robin and 18 years with children. I didn’t have time to commit to anything – for real – in places like Iraq, except to denounce the war. But now I’m single. I can lend a hand.”