Neighbors: A Widow's Tale
“I had tried to impress very strongly upon my girls: Please don’t leave your father’s house to go directly to your husband’s house. Take at least 6 months to learn to take care of yourself…That’s because I never knew how to get on by myself; as a result, I’m ignorant of a lot of things that I shouldn’t be now.”
I spoke the other day with a friend who suffered a loss, in the autumn of 2003, like no other she had ever experienced. That was the season in which her walk here with her beloved husband came to a close, the season he passed away after a protracted and difficult illness. Almost five years on, I wondered whether she might wish to share something of her experience in gradually regaining a sense of hope, purpose, vitality, and balance in her life. She thought it would be best to begin at the very beginning, to give a sense of a loving, roller-coaster-ride of a union which now resided only in the realm of memory, and in the lives and acts of her dear children, and their own.
After her family settled in a new town in 1950, she says, “I met my husband-to-be at the first church youth meeting I attended. I was 13; he was 19. He had graduated high school and was working to get up some money for college”. When I ask this energetic and forthright woman whether it had been a case of “love at first sight”, she replies, “He was nerdy—very thin, wore glasses, and…well, he was just very nerdy. I had no interest whatsoever. He wasn’t the kind of guy I would have been looking for even if I had been looking, at that early stage”. But interestingly, her parents—especially her father—took to the hardworking, level-headed boy right away.
“Within my first year there,” she remembers, “this guy told me that we were going to be married; I told him he was crazy”. But time bore him out; by the time he had graduated seminary, she had succumbed both to his unflagging efforts, and to an inexplicable “knowing” she feels was imbued from above, at the very last of it. The two were married in 1964.
After almost four decades, five church postings, and the rearing of five children, my friend assumed the unimaginable task of tending to her husband in the final year of his life. Within two months of his death in central Illinois—the location of his last pastorate—she had returned to Poplar Bluff, the site of an earlier posting. “I had two children with families back here,” she says, citing family support as the main reason for the move.
“I’m still learning new skills, to be honest,” she confesses. “I don’t understand things from pension funds and tax things and business matters. My husband took care of all of that. But I am constantly learning”. Her hard-won strategy? “The only way I am getting through this is that I have learned to truly rely on God and my church—and also my friends, people who have been very good to me since I’ve come back”.
How would this woman advise others who find themselves in this painful situation? “One of the things I have realized is that the hurting will never completely go away, and that some times are harder than others, and that there is nothing wrong with breaking down in tears for no apparent reason now and again. Finding someone to talk to, someone who has been through it, if you can—that’s really important, too.
“And I try to keep active, as well, with my job and my church work—that way I don’t have to rely on my children being there all the time for me. I realize, in the end, I’ve got to do my own thing with my own life…My husband would’ve expected nothing less.”