I lost my wife, Jenny, four months ago, on August 31st, 2016. Her heart failed. It was the worst thing to ever happen to me in my life, and these last four months have been the hardest I’ve ever had to endure.
Jenny was a “dializor” – a term she preferred to “dialysis patient.” She initially went on dialysis at 17 years old. She had a transplant when she was 32 which lasted ten years before the very drugs that prevented rejection destroyed her kidney, finally. She received the kidney on October 1st, 1994, and thereafter October 1 was her “rebirth-day.” It was a joyous day until 2005, when her kidney failed, and then it became a sad day as another year went by on dialysis. She was on the transplant list, but she was virtually impossible to match. So, she stayed on dialysis and persevered through setbacks, health issues, low blood pressure, mysterious infections and fevers, and pain. Her last year was difficult, and she finally gave up hope. And then she died.
This is an extremely abridged version of Jenny’s life, her struggle, and her fantastic resilient spirit, but for the purpose of this post, that’s what happened. Jenny and I were together for thirty years, eight months exactly. When she died, my life was over.
I knew that Jenny would pass before me. I never expected that it would be as devastating as it was and is. When you marry someone, you become in many ways one person. Jenny and I had a common life. We grew up together. We shared everything. We had passions that we shared, which no one else understood. We named our dog “C. K. Dexter Haven” because Jenny loved how Jimmy Stewart called that out in the movie “Philadelphia Story.” “C. K. Dexter Haaaaaven!” She loved the idea of having a small regal Sheltie have a such a long name. And, I’ll be damned, but the name suits C. K. Dexter Haven to a tee. Jenny and I loved that, and we totally understood it since we loved that movie, and I can tell you I was genuinely surprised that apparently no one else got the joke. C. K. Dexter Haven (there is no short-hand here. His name is C. K. Dexter Haven) was Jenny’s last birthday present. Thank God I got her that puppy.
When you have that kind of relationship, you die when your partner dies. I used to think that it was over dramatization when the husband went crazy when his wife died, like in “Gone with the Wind” when Scarlett’s father goes crazy when his wife died. Now that it has happened to me, I get it. I heard of couples dying within days or weeks of each other. Will and Ariel Durant died within two weeks of each other. Just last week, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died within a day of each other. People can die of a broken heart. I get that. Your life is over. You have to choose to live after something like this. It is not like you died. You did die, in that your life as it was is done. There is no going back. It is over. And in order to go on, you have to choose to go on, and figure out what the hell you are going to do. And whether or not you want to.
I am blessed with a son, so no matter what else happened, my job is to help him. He needs to grow up, and he needs support and love because his life as it was is over too, at twelve years old. I cannot change that, but I can help him.
There are a lot of things in life that allow “do-overs.” In the movie “City Slickers,” the frighteningly young men were in the throes of their respective mid-life crises where they needed a “do-over.” When you lose your spouse, there is no “do-over.” It’s cussing over. Death is cussing final. Everything you should have said, you cannot say. Everything you should have done, you cannot do. There’s no reset button. You can’t “respawn.”
I’m in the middle of this. It’s been four months, so this is new. All I know is that I cannot rush the mourning. I cannot rush my son’s mourning. It is involuntary and primal this process. One of the things that has helped me is that while Jenny’s and my life was unique, what is not unique is that I lost my wife. Every successful marriage will go through this. One partner will live. One will die. It is, therefore, a fundamental part of the human experience. And I never knew it. It never even dawned on me until I lived it that this devastating thing is common. I feel that this grief is part of my DNA, that I am riding a wave of grief and mourning that shifts and morphs and moves around exposing all sides to the pain. I was with Jenny for 30 years. Given my family’s genes, I will probably live more than 30 years longer. My future life without Jenny is likely to be longer than my life with Jenny, and that that slays me. This process is like a rebirth. I have a new life. Whether I like it or not. So I think that this primal mourning prepares you for it, or it kills you.
We adopted our son at birth, and we were with the birth mother before and during labor. That, too, was a primal experience. I was getting sympathy pains. I always thought they were a myth. But no, they surprised the hell out of me. When my son was born, the flood of love that surged in me for this little baby boy was oceanic. I had no idea. There was no choice here. He was my son. He was from that moment on my guts. My sinew. My soul. I did not decide this: it was automatic.
The process of loss for my wife is similar, except it is primally enduring the pain of my past sliding behind me instead of the intense joy of creating a new future. They both seem like they are encoded in my DNA.
What do you do with this? What can you take from it? The movies treat widowhood as a transitory phase until you get your next spouse. Look at “Love Actually:” Liam Neeson gets Claudia Schiffer at the end and all is good. Or look at “Sleepless in Seattle:” Tom Hanks gets Meg Ryan and all is good. Both movies capture well the pain of widowhood, but I am not so sure of the solution. It is not so easy to move on from the love of your life.
The only thing I know at this point is that I had this beautiful life, and now it is different. It has awakened me to how ephemeral life is – not just the breathing part, but the contextual part. My life is different every day. Life changes every day. Each day is its own creation. And some people will be joining with you, and some people will be leaving. We blend our minutes and hours into days, and our days into weeks, months, and years. But each moment is discrete and unique. Some things just ooze along with minimal change, and sometimes things break suddenly, and the whole damn thing is now a new thing.
So, I decided that one thing I am going to do this year, is to be here now. Be present. Appreciate what is. Focus on the good. Embrace the bad. Alan Watts talks of life being like music. You don’t rush to the end; rather, you enjoy it as it happens. That is true. But what is more true is that life is like a playlist. One song ends, another begins. Musicians play in one, then they leave, and new musicians come in. And then, I guess, finally, you pack up your harmonica and toddle off yourself.
I know from experience that no matter what is said about death and dying, it’s not going to become real until it happens. There is no preparation. So what I can say is, if you live, surprising things will happen. Be ready to experience them, and to learn.