The other day while knitting, for diversion I picked one of the first movies that popped up in the first fringe netflix category I could find. It was Our Souls at Night starring the aged Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. They play long-widowed neighbours who finally decide to spend their nights together to relieve their loneliness. Because netflix doesn’t have any really fringe categories, of course a romance develops. Watching about a third of it was enough to get the idea.
In these months of terminal illness, I have at times asked Roy what he is thinking or feeling about his future without me, but he hasn’t wanted to talk about it much. I often mention him having another relationship once I’m gone, and we’ve made some good jokes about him bringing a date to my funeral. But I thought I should respect him not wanting to talk seriously about the time after me, and especially another woman after me, which for him feels uncomfortably close to infidelity.
Lucie, a kind friend who lost her husband to a sarcoma years ago, told me that she decided while her beloved was ill to simply make the most of her time with him while he was still alive. She knew there would be plenty of time to miss him once he was gone and to figure out her future when it came. She wanted to enjoy being with him while she could. I thought that was wise.
But not talking about it has allowed me not to think about it too much either. As I was watching that movie, Roy arrived home from work, and I turned it off. I realized why I had chosen it. And why I’d started reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of losing her husband. I’ve been thinking more about Roy, in particular Roy without Susan. It’s time I attend to him in some way. Unlike me, he has been quite selfless in his attendance to his beloved. He has demanded so little for himself. He has always stepped aside to allow my children and my family priority—reasoning that he gets more time with me anyway. He patiently learned to navigate the tricky territory of helping a fiercely independent person. He even learned to load the dishwasher such that it doesn’t require reloading! He’s been pretty sweet. And he never complains or says anything that might make me feel bad for leaving him—though I feel bad anyway. In fact, he often comments on how lucky he is. I think I’m the lucky one.
But I have no idea what to do about his future without me. How do I comfort him now for when I won’t be here? How can I know what he might need? Reading Joan Didion’s book and watching that movie are part of my way of trying to learn what he might need in a time of mourning or in the years to follow. Of course, neither book nor movie will tell me. For one thing, Didion’s book documents a pathological grief, not the healthier mourning I expect Roy to experience after these months of preparation. And the movie is really just about two older people who don’t want to be alone anymore. I’ll have to keep looking for sources of insight.
From my own years of experience after the loss of a spouse (mine didn’t die but disappeared, abandoning us for his alcoholism), the pain of loneliness has no cure other than what one is lonely for. I suffered through years of acute loneliness despite having friends and family and my children. My longing was for an intimate partner, for something those other relationships couldn’t give me. Of course, social time and work and fun all helped to divert me from that pain at times. But nothing could cure it. (Unfortunately, I ended up entering another unsuitable marriage in an attempt to end those years of suffering.)
So what can I do for Roy? I recall reading not so long ago about a woman who, from her deathbed, sent out a plea for a new wife for her soon-to-be widowed husband. I have joked with Roy that I could help him create a new OK Cupid profile. (That’s how we met!) Or tinder. But realistically, as much as I’d like to, I can’t help him with this one. Without bitterness or self-pity, he says he imagines going on alone—but I don’t want him to be lonely. Neither of us have any idea when or if he’ll want a new relationship. Nor do we have any idea what woman would be right for him. He sweetly says that nobody could compare to me. But I say he’d probably end up with someone completely different from me—so there wouldn’t be any point in comparison. He says maybe he’ll get a dog. (Roy is not a dog person.) So we joke about what kind of dog would best replace me. We agree a border collie mix.
The only worthwhile thing I can do –aside from taking him shopping for some decent clothes– is follow my friend Lucie’s advice myself. I can make the most of this time together. I can do my part in making our relationship the healthiest, most loving possible, so Roy has a good model to work from for next time. Most importantly, I can love him all I can so he is left feeling full of love—enough to last him a good long time, until he is ready for someone else and s/he (you never know) for him. I definitely don’t want to leave him depleted and burnt out. I need to pour love like water from a big jug, over and into him until he is fully saturated like a sponge, overflowing.
So far, that’s all I’ve figured out. And once again, I see it’s the same conclusion as in so many of these posts. It keeps coming down to love. And more love.