I’m scared of dying. The one thing that scares me even more is outliving my husband.
It took me years to find Randy. Four decades. And now that I’m rather used to feeling cherished, the prospect of losing him can disturb a decent night’s sleep.
I met and came to adore my neighbors Joyce and Irwin when they were both in their 80s. They became my role models for aging with grace, humor — and feistiness. Even they admitted they had a long history of fighting. But the arguments tended toward topics like what Socrates said vs. what Plato wrote. They were my intellectual friends. Joyce and I were having coffee one day when she said, “Can I tell you a secret?”
“Sure,” I replied. Who turns down a secret?
She leaned closer, lowered her voice, and said, “I am so in love with Irwin.”
Not a juicy secret, but a sweet one.
Joyce confessed that she feared she would outlive Irwin. They’d been together since she was 14 and he was 17. “I couldn’t do it,” she said.
She didn’t have to. She died after suffering a stroke last March. Irwin’s grief was deep and dignified. I ached for him, but I was grateful that Joyce had been spared the pain of being alone. Somehow I knew she was right; he could handle it better. But every day he asked, “What’s the date?” Until the day he nodded and began having breathing problems. He went into the hospital saying it was his “last dance” and died at 1:23 a.m. It was their 66th wedding anniversary.
We didn’t think Randy’s mother would thrive or even survive when she was widowed. Larry and she had also been together since they were teens. She wasn’t eager to move into a senior living community, but we wanted her to be closer to us, so we insisted. It took months for her to go from resentful to enthused. She made friends and signed up for chair yoga, current events, and every museum outing. She dyed her hair red. She was an energetic dumpling zipping around on her walker, usually with a banana or two tucked inside the seat. (When we flew to Chicago for my stepdaughter’s wedding, Ruth was stopped going through security. A gun-like object had appeared in the seat of her walker: a banana.)
Then, over a hot bridge game, she met Otto, now 94 years old.
He’d had so many illnesses and operations that even he couldn’t believe he was still alive. “I have no organs left,” he said. “I’m held together by pills.” By then, Ruth was back and forth to hospitals with heart problems. But that failing heart adored Otto. At night they’d take turns visiting each other’s apartments and watch reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, sometimes The Carol Burnett Show.
Of course, I had to ask her, “So, do Otto and you have — you know — sex?”
She smiled. And said, “He’s very passionate.”
Last December, when the doctor told Ruth that her heart had weakened, she said, “No more hospitals.” He explained that she would “most likely pass from this.” Her response: “I’ve led a blessed life. I’m ready to go home.”
Hospice care was set up in her apartment. The way she wanted. When we received the early morning call from an aide saying that Ruth’s pulse had stopped, that she was gone, we hurried over to find hospice workers waiting in her living room. But it was a sobbing Otto who was sitting by her bedside, watching over her, until Randy and I arrived.
Joyce died before Irwin. Ruth found love again. I think of them when I’m lying awake in bed at night, worrying about how I’d emotionally survive if my warm, loving man weren’t next to me. If I’m not lucky enough to get hit by a bus first, well, maybe I’ll find an Otto.
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