Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | August 24, 2014

very, very married


This is from a Facebook Note I wrote in February 2010, just a few months after Jeff died (in July 2009). Portions of this work were previously published on The Assertive Cancer Patient, a blog by my late friend Jeanne Sathers, who died in 2013. I’m not even gonna reread, edit, or mess with the fonts or link formats, just putting it here in all its longwinded, overwrought, grief-stricken glory. I’m reminded of it today because of a conversation on my widowed friend M’s website Refuge In Grief, specifically on her private facebook group of the same name, about the STUPID, STUPID things people say to those in grief. 
WARNING: way, way TMI (too much information). This is a real marriage, folks. 
Our marriage was over long before it ended.

Or did it end long before it was over?

The road we traveled together should have been much longer – decades longer, winding over sunny hillocks and through dark forests, with long vistas, snow squalls, soft purple sunsets. Our marriage was cut short by Jeff’s death from cancer seven months ago.

Yet it seems I am still very, very married. I’ve been doing some fairly public writing, “processing” how hard this all is: this grief thing, that cancer thing, the difficulties as well as some bits of grace and wonder we experienced the last couple of years. I have heard from not a few friends, both men and women, about their complicated relationships, breakups, doomed-to-failure love affairs, their varied sources of loneliness and strife. I have been told I am lucky to have had this pure and simple love with Jeff for all those years, and that now it can never be sullied. You know, since he’s dead and all.

Um, yeah, thanks. Except that is nowhere near the truth.

Seriously, I feel your pain. If this is you, I am not denying or belittling any of the sad changes and unfortunate decisions affecting you and yours. I am first-person-familiar with lots of it, though certainly not all.

But no long term relationship between any two people is ever that simple.

Jeff and I met in 1978. That means we have known each other for over thirty years. We were married just over nineteen years, “together” for four more, and good close friends for much of the decade before that. You don’t spend that kind of time with anybody without coming away changed by it, as they are changed by you. There can be a lot of good times and bad packed into thirty years. And there were.

When I write now about his illness, his death, and its aftermath that our family is coping with now, I speak about love. And yes, it does come out sounding pretty pure. I’ve come to think that the furnace of cancer burned away all the bullshit, all the imperfect calcifications of personality that built up and rubbed against us over time, each alone and both together. What we were left with at the end of the day really was love, pure and simple.

But I distinctly remember saying to him at least once “Just because you have cancer does not mean you are not being an asshole.” Swear to God. Felt totally justified saying it too. Of course now I have no recollection whatsoever what we disagreed about that day. But I have to admit his cancer did not prevent me from slamming the occasional door.

I was a senior in high school, he was a 29 year old artisan woodworker when we became friends. We met through the man I was seeing at the time. (Thank you, J.) Over those years we spent many, many hours together, in the sweetest, most effortless kind of friendship. When at last we shyly admitted our deeper feelings for each other, there was such a sense of joy and comfort. Here was this man I had been completely relaxed around for years; laughed and cried with; spent countless hours with drinking coffee or beer; reading the paper or doing the crossword; preparing and eating meals; cleaning up after; working; driving; relaxing. We had spent hours talking and hours not talking. He knew me, really knew me, the good and the bad. And still he wanted to be with me! Amazing. I am still amazed, gratified, blessed even now just to be able to think back on it.

As easily and gently as our friendship unfolded into love, our marriage was fraught with drama. The dice were loaded from the start. I had recently leaped into building a business started on a shoestring and with not enough planning. He was caring full time for his father, who was quite deaf and increasingly disconnected to the world by dementia. We lived in his family home, which his dad insisted on keeping as a shrine to Jeff’s long-dead mother. And I got pregnant five weeks after our wedding.

We loved, honored, and respected each other deeply. But like lots of people, for years we didn’t have enough money, enough privacy, enough time, or enough sleep. These things must take their toll, and they did. We did the best we could for each other, but sometimes that was just not good enough to sustain us.

My theory on the true value of marriage is: no matter how bad today is, you have to go home eventually. Having lived with someone else for many years and been able to simply walk away one day, I knew how important it was to have to go home and reconnoiter, for as long as it took. The process of dismantling a marriage, a family, is purposely complicated to take enough time and preparation that maybe you might as well stay together, at least for now. Yes, there are some situations “up with which you should not put” as someone memorably said. I had my list of lines that could not be crossed, as we all do. And my file of unforgivable transgressions, built from half a lifetime of experience, is quite likely different from yours. We all look at certain couples and think, why are you still there? And we all know the truth is that only two people are in a marriage, or any long term relationship, and all sorts of deals are privately struck, compromises and negotiations made and remade.

Jeff and I had been wallowing in deep water for a long time before he got sick. In retrospect it is easy to see now that many of the issues I could clearly delineate, and which he refused to recognize as problems, were due to the insidious progression of his illness. His inertia, excessive fatigue, what I saw as passivity and indeed, slacker-dom were symptoms of a problem more profound than just our personality conflicts. But it took years to track down the true cause, and when we did, it was too late.

One of the very saddest facts about our marriage is that in April 2008, I put my foot down and insisted on marriage counseling. Jeff had been unwell in varying degrees for a number of months, but at that point we still thought it was a lingering flu or infection, vitamin deficiency or allergy. We went together to the therapist exactly once. After our first oh-so-careful and delicate meeting, Jeff and I went home and affirmed to each other our commitment to getting through this. We made love. It’s possible it was for the last time; details begin to escape me.

The counselor’s office was on the third floor. Jeff was too sick to climb the stairs to her office again. I went to two more appointments alone. I got a lot off my chest. We agreed that after he recovered, Jeff would have the next couple of sessions, to outline his grievances with me- and I knew he had some. I suppose they were even valid.

Less than one month later, in May, we learned the cause of his lingering vague illnesses, his fatigue, his inability to work a full day. The diagnosis: Stage IV colon cancer, metastasized to liver and lung. The oncologist’s words to us at our first meeting, I recall so clearly, were “We’ll see if we can buy you some time” and “Don’t be under the impression that this can cure you.”

We did have some good months after that. The diagnosis came in late May. Aggressive chemotherapy started in June. Through the summer, the medicines did what they were supposed to do. Tumors receded. He felt well and strong most of the time, better than he had been in months. We had some wonderful family time; nobody talked about why this time was so precious, but it was always there in the shadows. It was a good summer. We planted strawberries, built gardens, walked in the woods, took little road trips. Our daughter’s senior year of high school began. We looked at colleges and began the excruciating process of applying – truly a family affair. Jeff spent all that fall taking photos and movies of our girl and her accomplishments, and burning audio and video discs to send with the application packets: radio, dance, piano, field hockey. Jeff and I did not miss one field hockey game, even if he had to sleep the whole rest of the day to prepare. Jeff the literature major helped our girl polish essays and organize her work. My tasks were gathering financial documents, the unending paperwork, and composing for the admissions offices what Jeff wryly called “the tear-stained letter” outlining our circumstances. His fatigue started to build again; his ailments mounted. He lost his hair, his appetite, the feeling in his fingers and toes. But still we felt fortunate compared to lots of people. His illness put all our blessings into stark relief, and we were grateful for all of it. Thanksgiving came, and Christmas. His afflictions gradually grew and grew. He never complained; took each small humiliation and taken-away ability in stride, ramping down his expectations as the horizon lowered. He showed remarkable grace and courage every day. I will never stop being proud of him for that, even as tears continue to flow. And I will never stop loving him.

I have written before of the progression of his illness and the toll it took on us all. Of the sweet gifts of friendship painted with bold strokes on the canvas of not-much-time. Of the grace of quiet moments together, magnified because we knew they were finite. There was no place for superfluous details or grievances. Our life in those weeks of home hospice care and finally, death, was deconstructed down to simplest essentials. Life actually took on a horrible beauty when seen through the lens of our helpless humanity, all of us able to keep going only because we had no choice.

So yeah. There is the sense of having lived through this thing, seen it to its completion, the honor of knowing I have done all I could. Being able to step back and see my marriage as an astronaut sees the earth, as an entire unit, from a distance, it appears as something one could hold in one’s hand, a thing of beauty and purity. But I tell you, I’d really rather have back my husband, our life together, our oh so imperfect marriage.


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