I walk the streets of my neighborhood on this warm summer day. On the other side of the street I catch a glimpse of a woman wheeling a shopping cart. She was once a dear friend of mine, and now she doesn't recognize me, and I don't want her to.
She is lost to the world. Her husband died a few years ago. The saddest thing to me is I know she never loved him. She told this secret to me so many times.
I moved to my neighborhood as a young woman in my 20s with two little girls and a load of problems. Since retiring, I have had the time to observe the neighborhood and I have noticed that so few of us are left. So many of my peers have died or have moved to a warm climate. The ones that I recognize became widows during the past five years. These are the women who had married well. These are the women who never lost moments of sleep worrying about paying the rent. These are the women who never entered the work force during their marriages, and these are the women who didn't have a sick husband when they were still young.
I walk through the streets and see women my age sitting beside their husbands in their wheelchairs, wiping their brows, reading to them, or watching them sleep and I think to myself, "this is the natural order of things." I cannot feel sympathy although I know I should.
I lived through my own years of tending to a sick husband, but I was in my 30s and early 30s. That wasn't the way it should have been. I spent most of my nights listening to a man breathing in the bed next to me as I planned my strategy of the fastest way to get him to the hospital. I watched a man often use this illness to keep our little family his slave. I lost my youth, and I deprived my children of so much of the love meant for them, as I lost myself in my life and the burden of his illness.
Yet I understand that all I lived through at a young age has made me see life so differently than my friends, the recent widows. I had to build a life for my children and myself when I was left on my own, some of these women have decided to make widowhood their vocation. These ladies have chosen to stop growing, to stop living and for that I so pity them. They have been so totally dependent on the man they married and lived with for 40 or 50 years, that functioning on their own is beyond their realm of reality. A simple trip to Manhattan on the subway is frightening. A trip to a foreign country is out of the question. Decisions on finances, major medical and taxes are beyond them. And so if a miracle happens and some widower of their own age comes into their lives they grab onto him.
I had lunch the other day with one of my friends, a widow of five years and who unfortunately falls into the group I've just described. At the table next to ours sat a woman and gentleman who had to be at least 75-years-old. She had obviously come from the beauty parlor, and her white hair was teased and sprayed to perfection. He wore a tie and jacket. He suggested the meal, and how they might share each course, as well as the price. I listened to him break down each detail to her, and she was enthralled. I felt ill watching and listening. I whispered to my friend, "I'd rather die than be that woman." She looked at me as though I were a lost soul. She, I realized wished she could be that woman.
Then there are the ladies who as soon as the first year of mourning has passed, actively seek another mate. I saw that happen with a friend I've known since childhood. In fact she met her husband at my 16th birthday party. They married when she was 18, and for all intents and purposes I believe they had a happy marriage. He died two years ago. A year later she let neighbors and friends know she was interested in meeting suitable men. She is happily living with a recent widower.
I knew early on in my life that I would never again be capable of taking care of a sick husband. It had almost destroyed me. I realized if I married again either I would have to end up repeating history, or worse yet I'd be the sick one and he'd have to take care of me. I look at my friend and am amazed she doesn't see the obvious.
I don't think of myself as a coward, but maybe I am. I realize what is good for one person is not always good for another.
Life is not an easy journey. There are things we cannot prevent, things we have no control over, but for me I've had no regrets. I have shared a lot of myself with someone I cared about a great deal, but I never looked for another husband. I knew myself well enough to know I'd be awful at the job.