My sweetheart speaks often of “being one” or “becoming one” and I don’t really get it. I love him, I want to make a life with him, I am happy when we are together and I think about him and us all the time. But I am my own fiercely independent person with 6 decades and three marriages already under my belt. My individual identity has been hard won and I treasure it. The whole “becomingone” thing strikes me as the stuff of Hallmark Valentines—-hokey, cheesy, impossible and undesirable.
But he is away right now, trying a month in Florida as a baby step to transitioning out of his job and into a life that includes being warm in the winter. And during his absence we have talked more rather than less. I am not a phone person, but when the man you love is hundreds of miles away you gotta suck it up and stay in touch. He has a wonderful voice, a rich warm baritone that I am always happy to have in my ear. And sharing the minutiae of our lives in daily phone calls has brought us closer. It makes me realize how important that is in a relationship and how much I have missed it.
My first husband was a sharer and we were young together, building our lives and careers. We talked a lot and helped each other with career advice and suggestions. But there were deeper things that went unsaid; the fact that I didn’t really love him, should not have married him and that he was trying to fill the gaping love hole left by his abusive father and disconnected wife in the arms of a string of other women.
My second husband preferred me silent or in another room, or city or state. We liked each other best when he was traveling. We talked in the early days when figuring out where the land mines lay in each of our histories, but there was never anything approaching emotional intimacy.
Tom was a calm and quiet man who thought and processed for a long time before coming to dead-on conclusions. He would listen to me chatter endlessly and then say exactly what I needed to hear to feel better or take the right action. We shared everything in our lives, daily travails and triumphs, plans and hopes for the future, spontaneous desires to go here or do that. So I was brought up short by how little he wanted to speak of the biggest life event of all—dying. I badly wanted to get inside his head and assess how he was processing all of it—the shocking diagnosis, the treatment plan, the failure of same, the inevitability of an abbreviated life span. But he went silent. We faced each day, each chemo appointment, with resignation if not good humor. When told his best outcome would be 2-3 years, he dismissed that as not enough and said he would settle for 10, feeling he was being pretty reasonable to accept even that much being shaved off our years together. He seemed so sure and looked so strong that I bought into the plan and we just shelved the whole topic of dying.
I look at pictures from our last Christmas together and cannot believe I did not take in the strange cast to his skin, the look of weary knowing in his eyes, the clear signs that he was leaving me very soon. We were both determined to make our planned New Year’s trip to New York to see the country house of dear friends. Right up until a day or two before, we kept thinking we could do it. Finally his pain became so great that he said he could not sit in a car that long, that if it was a shorter trip he would make it for sure. As it turns out we went to the ER on New Year’s Day when he could no longer tolerate the pain. He stayed there for two weeks, we had one more trip to the oncologist to start yet another chemo cocktail, but she said he was too weak and sent us home to call hospice, assuring us that some people get stronger in hospice care and can start chemo again. You know you are at the end of the road when the brightest picture of the future is a chance for more horrible chemo. He died Feb. 13.
Our time together was mostly so sweet and good that I try very hard not to live on Regrets Street. But I never imagined that he would slip away into the ether without one final big talk. THE talk. The “I know you are going to be fine, sweetheart. My mom will be waiting for you as will lots of others who love you and you can join the Carpenters Club headed by one Jesus H. Christ who is sure to make you Vice President. And Alyssa and I will miss you terribly, but we will be ok. We will go on living and loving in your memory. We will hike and bike and kayak because you can’t and we will think of you and love you every single time.” And his lines would be “I know it must be wonderful where I’m going and I’m not afraid. I am so very sad to leave you, but you are strong and that lets me know you will be ok so I can leave with no worries.” And we would agree that we had been the love of each other’s lives and that we were so immeasurably grateful to God for bringing us together while also pissed at him for giving us such a short, delicious taste of human love at its finest. We would reminisce about the special times and trips and family events we’d shared and maybe linger over pictures on our phones. He would slip away on a cloud of morphine and I would hold his hand and be the last thing he saw on Earth.
But none of that happened. He went quiet months before he died and when I would gently ask if he wanted to talk he would not really even answer. He had already left me. He was doing the work of the terminally ill to separate. Also, he was afraid and determined to cling to life instead of going gently. This surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Even before he got sick he had said “I believe we make our heaven right here on earth, by treating others well every day.” That is how he lived. How many of us can say that? No wonder he didn’t want to go.
So, with Tom I had true intimacy. He knew me to the core and loved me anyway. He accepted me exactly as I was so it was safe to show him all the warts and watch him turn them into beauty marks. I gave him all the love I had, but it was probably not as much as I received. I think he just had a bigger tank. But he taught me how to love, what it meant to open yourself completely to another human being and see only love reflected back.
John says no one has ever looked at him the way I do. I believe him. No one had ever looked at me the way Tom did—with pure love, acceptance and understanding. That is a gift I can pay forward. John deserves to be loved like that. We ALL deserve to be loved like that and now that I know how, now that my tank has been filled and refilled and topped off endlessly by my sweet departed husband, I think my mission, for however many years I might be granted on this planet, is to spread it like a blanket. OR, as Tom’s brother said at his funeral, like mulch. He encouraged all who had known Tom and basked in his love and goodness to go out and spread it like mulch. (Once a nursery owner, always a nursery owner.)
Meeting John does not feel accidental. It feels purposeful. He too has a huge love tank, but has been running on fumes for a very long time. He is so unaccustomed to having someone truly care that when I asked him how his round of golf went it took me several tries to tease out that he shot a dazzling 77. If I had shot 77 I would have posted a picture of the score card on Facebook! That’s what Facebook is FOR—unabashed bragging. But he is not a social media participant and was raised never to brag. I like being the one who gets to show him that when you share your triumphs with someone who loves you and cares about your daily interactions with the world it isn’t bragging. And as he does more of this sharing so do I and the tight little buds we are start to open into flowers and our bond grows deeper. This is all quite beautiful and breathtaking to discover anew in one’s 7th decade. I guess we just are never really done growing up. It seems there is always something new to explore or deepen or understand more fully.
I don’t really have the intention to merge my identity with his or to truly “become one.” I’ll be satisfied with becoming two who love and care for each other to our very cores. But I do like the idea that we are never done learning how to love and that as each layer is exposed and peeled back there is something even more precious underneath. What a privilege to witness another’s life and try to create a safe space for them to become their own true and best self. Even in the midst of dirty laundry and back aches and tax returns and the train wreck that is our government, this is something wonderful to hold fast to and celebrate.