My friend of many years called me to tell me that her husband is dying of cancer and has perhaps six months to live. One of the first things she said to me is: "I am going to be a widow."
Those seven words were spoken in a similar fashion to: "I had fish for lunch.", Or, "I am going on vacation." It was quite matter of fact. What else was it that I heard in her voice?
My friend Laura has been married since 1968. Laura and her husband Phil have had their ups and downs over the years. I met both of them when my ex husband introduced us in 1970 – you remember what 1970 was like; We all partied like it was 1999. Laura and Phil are both six years older than I. We were all on the front of the hippie years. To call us all dysfunctional would be kind. Dysfunction followed us all, like shadows. Some of us walked away from the druggie lifestyle. Some of us did not.
Laura and Phil spent a couple of years separated while Phil languished in jail for possession of drugs. Laura, never one to wait patiently, began an affair with another friend while Phil was incarcerated. The affair was known to many of us in our circle of friends, yet it was discreet. However, Laura's first child was a product of the affair.
When Phil gets out of jail, he and Laura took up where they left off. No one was condemned in those days for 'fooling around'. Fooling around was something everyone did, some of us were more careful about it than others. These were the days pre-AIDS. Phil and Laura may have been reunited, but their habits did not change for many years. As long as there were drugs to be had, many of the people in our circle of friends did them. I do believe that a few of us had the sense not to fall completely into the drug trap. Phil, Laura, myself and my ex husband never got into injecting drugs. A good thing; It may have been pre-AIDS, but Hepatitis was rampant.
When all the fun, and home brewed drugs began to disappear, pharmaceuticals were eagerly chased. These made for interesting times; They were legal, they were cheaply had and it seemed that every doctor wrote notes for them. In hindsight, although I do not recommend drug use to anyone, today's alternatives are not much different. There are drugs to make you sleep, drugs to make you thin, drugs to give you an erection, drugs to make you not feel pain or depression. Some things never change, except that now, all those drugs are advertised on the nightly news ….
Laura and Phil rode along on this train of drugs and existentialism for years. When the effects of the drugs began to take their toll on their children, they distanced themselves from most of them, and many of the people who had been part of the circle of friends. In the mid 1970s many of us, a bit more mature and needing to move on, took jobs and blended into regular society. We would all still see each other now and then, but weeks were not spent on speed highs at which no one slept and things got a bit out of hand. I've heard it said that the hippies all went to work for IBM; There is a line in an old Eagles song that goes something like this:
"I saw a Deadhead Sticker on a Cadillac". In my case this was almost true; I went to work for a Fortune 500 company, it could be said that I started late on my career goals. Phil got a job too, and began working as an engineer in the city. In those days, engineer jobs in high rise apartment buildings were very cush. The hours lent themselves well to the ex-druggie and there was lots of freedom as long as the work needed to be done was completed.
In 1980, AIDS raised its ugly head and we lost more friends to infection from dirty needles. In 1982 I lost track of Laura and Phil as I left my ex-husband to find a more upwardly mobile life.
It was years before I connected again with the old friends and by that time most had either died, were in jail, moved away or went 'straight'. When I saw Laura and Phil again, they had bought a house in the suburbs, were raising their two boys and except for a bit of marijuana, had stopped doing drugs. Life became pretty normal except for the fact that we survivors seemed to have X-ray vision of a type – we saw through the ordinary, we reached beyond the suburban life of our parents.
Since 1982, it seemed that although Laura and Phil had stopped doing drugs, they did not grow. They did not seek beyond the home and sheltered life they built for themselves. It was a sad life in which they both missed those party days – the days of staying up all night, all weekend, of excitement and enthusiasm. They missed the companionship of the circle. Now and then, someone would return to the city for a visit and we would all get together and talk about who was doing what, where they lived, how many kids they had. Sometimes talk got around to things like: "Remember when we all went out and did such and such with so and so". "Remember when we had the head shop on Lawrence Avenue?"
More years rolled by ….
When I married my current husband, it was mostly Laura who I remained friends with. Phil appeared to have lost a lot of his life juice. He became withdrawn, he did not want to go out much, do much other than watch TV when he was not working.
It was like he came down from a heavy weekend of speeding and never quite found his natural energy again.
Laura and I would talk about things; She always hinted at being rather unhappy in her life. Her health suffered, Phil's health was not what it once was. Phil was abusive, or so she claimed, he was not interested in sex anymore, he spent too much time at work. The two boys were no longer boys anymore, but they still lived at home and were a drain with their constant drama and angst. It appeared that "Empty Nesters" would never be something that Laura and Phil would experience. One of their sons was diagnosed as having some sort of mental disorder, probably thought about by Laura's drug use when she was pregnant. The second son, Phil's child, shown great promise, but he too grew up in a home where lack of energy or enthusiasm for life was never ending; He had no goals, no dreams, no desires.
A point in my life came when my husband, (who was never part of that circle of friends), and I decided it was time to move on with our lives. A circumstance had greatly changed our lives, and the direction we had been taking. We moved into a smaller, nicer home, put some money into it, renovated and decorated it. It was pretty nice – quite the change from my hippie girl years. More and more I found myself divorced from the remaining friends from so long ago. But Laura and I still stayed in touch.
A couple of years ago, out of the blue, Laura called to tell me that Phil had lung cancer. She was worried about him, he was taking chemotherapy and not doing well. Her words and predictions about his health were dire. But Phil hung in there – two years of radiation and chemotherapy, medical marijuana and part time jobs.
It was last summer that Laura told me that the cancer had returned and Phil was terribly ill.
When Laura called today to tell me that Phil was put into hospice, that the doctors had told them there was nothing further they could do for him and at best he had six months to live, she told me she was very sad.
Now, I understand sad. It is sad to watch anyone die, and sader still to be the principal caretaker of someone who has a terminal disease. But what was that sound in her voice as she told me she would be a widow soon?
Was it relief that Phil would not have long to suffer? Was it relief that she would be free of the weight of caring for him after these three years? Was it possible that she could see some change coming into her life?
After all, unless both a husband and wife die at the same moment, we all are destined to be either a widow or widower. Perhaps it is best that this happens while we are still vital enough to seek another lover. Perhaps the long death that is anticipated is worse for the one who lives than it is for the one who dies.
I remember going out with Laura and a number of other girlfriends long ago on a Friday night. We used to all like to dress up and go out together to nightclubs and dance and drink and flirt. Most of us did nothing more than flirt. Others of us did much more than flirt. I guess it could be said that we tested our desirability in the marketplace of the singles bar. Laura was one of those.
One night, there were six of us women out for fun. We all agree to stop drinking and leave the club by 1 AM, go out to breakfast, and then home. All of us but Laura were at the appointed place at the right time. Laura had come to me, hanging on some disco boy and begged me to wait at the restaurant for her. She was going to have herself an adventure.
Hours later, disheveled and looking radiant, Laura shown up at the restaurant. We were all beginning to worry a bit about her – as well as wonder what our husbands would say about being so late. It was the last time we all went out together. It may have been the last time that Laura felt wanted as a 'hot babe'. I do not know. It never mattered.
Just as it does not really matter now, except that I wonder about the despair in the house where Laura and Phil still stay.
One of their children, the youngest son, Phil's son, still lives at home. Laura has been progressively falling apart for most of 10 years. Knee replacements, hip replacements, carpal tunnel surgeries, you name it – Laura has probably had it.
My husband and I have thought that some of Laura's problems could have summed up as due to lack of attention from Phil. Lack of self esteem too, Laura never had it in spades anyways, and as she has aged, it seems to have taken a vacation.
So what is in the words "I am going to be a widow."? Am I hearing a sadness that such an integral part of her life is going to soon be gone … maybe when passion is gone from marriage, the comfort of a long time friend still remains. Is that what Laura will miss? Will she miss the companion that knows her so well – in fact, knows her so well that he can ignore who she is for years?
I hope that Phil's death does not drain Laura of that life force she once had. That same life force which made her cavort with disco boys and have affairs and dance all night. I hope that at the end of it all, Laura is not lost to despair or anger. I hope that all of the years of caring for Phil, for their kids, which weighs on her today, is replaced by a measure of security and satisfaction.
The words: "I am going to be a widow" are words that we all might be uttering one day. And who can say how we will feel about them as we say them?