“How do you cook one and a half eggs?” my friend asked when I told her it was my favorite breakfast.
I replied, “It’s simple; you fry three eggs and cut one in two. Then you each eat one and a half, with one and a half pieces of toast if you like.”
“Ah,” she said, “you didn’t tell me it was breakfast for two. It wouldn’t work in my house.”
I looked at my friend, who was on her way to pick up a pizza for her son-in-law, and realized my recipe wouldn’t work for many women. You had to have an easy-going husband who prioritized your enjoyment over his convenience, like my Tom.
After my husband died, I moved into a condo to pursue my new life. I recently threw a housewarming party to which 50 people from different parts of my acquaintance came. I hugged each one, offered a drink, and ran off to welcome the next one. I was too busy hosting to converse, trusting my friends to find common ground with one another.
When it was all over, I sat down to my dinner of leftover cheese and crackers and realized I was exhausted. At past parties, Tom had done the welcoming and I had done the circulating. It hadn’t occurred to me that one person couldn’t handle both. Tom loved making people feel comfortable, but he would never undertake to organize a party himself. Like Jack Spratt and his wife, we made an efficient team.
In the last decade of our marriage, Parkinson’s disease took over. Tom’s physical and cognitive abilities gradually declined until, in the final three years, spurred on by the pandemic, he wound up blind, wheelchair bound, and confused. In the beginning, I took him to see doctors and occupational therapists and to boxing, dancing, and singing lessons for people with Parkinson’s.
Towards the end, I moved us into housing with caregiver support and found technology for vision impairment. He didn’t complain and he did the best he could, but I struggled nonetheless.
In the beginning, I grieved all the precious little stuff, like walking down the street hand in hand; toward the end, I resented the endless caregiving. Some people say they like caregiving because it brings them closer to their loved one. I found it painful to watch one physical insult after another overtake my husband, to feel him become less of a companion and more of a dependent month after month.
For over a year after Tom’s death, I couldn’t look at photos of him in his sickness. He appeared so wizened, so unlike the sexy guy I had known. When he surfaced in my thoughts, all I could envision was the Parkinson’s, and I shoved the memory aside.
But now, 18 months since his death, something is beginning to change.
A friend told me that she experienced a similar loosening of feeling around 18 months after her mother died of Alzheimer’s. She said she could finally visualize the mother of her youth instead of the distant person she had nursed for years. I don’t know what has happened in my subconscious, but I’m glad to start rediscovering the vital man I loved.
I like peach preserves on my toast in the morning. When I reach for a knife to spread it these days, I stop my hand mid-air and reach for a spoon instead. I see Tom grinning at me and pointing out that jelly slides off a knife but stays in the bowl of a spoon, and you can use the back of the spoon to spread the stuff.
Something of an outsider for most of his life, he had fewer preconceptions than most people about how things should be done, and he was good at seeing past others’ preconceptions. He was much better at reading a room than I was; I was way better at working it.
Our biggest joint project was raising a son whom we uprooted at age 11 and moved to Phoenix, where parents enrolled their boys in kindergarten at age six, and where they played sports year-round. As a result, our son, who had started kindergarten at five, was smaller and less practiced than his classmates, and he felt disoriented.
At first, he withdrew into himself; then he flirted with being bad. Tom’s response was “benign neglect”: articulate your values and only act on the big stuff. I, on the other hand, looked for ways to intervene. My method paid off once when I forced our son to attend a summer program where he found his own strength. These days, I watch him parent his kids using both Tom’s techniques and mine. He’s a really good dad.
Tom believed the key to marital success was giving. He used to say, “If each one gives 100%, then both get 200%.” The arithmetic doesn’t work, but the formula did for most of our 42-year marriage. In the first 12 years, he made the money and I worked part time while managing the household.
For the next 12 years, I had the big job and he retired and ran the household, even teaching himself to cook the kind of healthy meals I preferred. After I completed my work and our son completed his education, Tom and I each settled into a “second act.” I began to write and Tom went to graduate school to become a therapist. He thoroughly enjoyed his new gig until Parkinson’s stole it away.
Research on the physiology of grief shows that it affects body systems at the cellular level, altering cortisol production, sleep patterns, immune function, heart rate and blood pressure, and blood coagulation, especially in the early months after a loss. Widowers suffer a 40% greater chance of experiencing mortality in the first six months after their spouse’s death than married men. Although science hasn’t found patterns for the psychological duration of grief, it’s known that a surviving spouse is less likely to die in the 18 months following their partner’s death if they have used hospice care.
My widowed friends resonate with the notion that grief alters 18 months after loss. One woman decided to sell her isolated house at the top of a hill and move into a condominium community where she would at least see people walking by. Her grief did not attenuate at 18 months, but she was able to make her next move. Another friend was finally able to begin therapy to get her life in order.
As for me, I have been experimenting with alternatives to a one-and-a-half fried egg breakfast: a one-egg omelet with fresh spinach, oatmeal with three kinds of seeds, and leftover lentils with parmesan cheese. I’m grateful for whatever is allowing me to visualize Tom teasing me in the kitchen rather than fumbling with his pills. Things are looking up.
How long has it taken you to overcome the loss of a partner? Do you remember the good or the bad moments? What is your life like now?