I would sit for long periods with Jim in his kitchen when Lisa slept. He was a large man who had laid bricks his entire life, until he retired, five years before Lisa received a terminal prognosis of congestive heart failure. Unlike her husband, Lisa was very small, and, in the words of Jim, “the disease shrank her to the size of a tiny bird.”
“Neither of us is into the touchy-feely stuff,” Jim said to me one day. “Lisa and I have been married for almost fifty years. Before we knew she was dying, I don’t remember the last time I told her that I loved her. But she knew it by the things I did. We came home from the doctor’s office that day, the day Dr. Louis said she would be the one to leave first, and we sat at this kitchen table and had coffee. Mind you, there was nothing special about us sitting here. We did that almost every day. It was a kind of ritual.
“We never talked when we drank our coffee. She usually had a book, some woman’s novel I’d never look at, and I had a newspaper folded back to the sports section, which she wouldn’t read even if nothing else was around. We’d sit there every morning, year in, year out, not even looking at each other, just reading and drinking coffee. Well, it usually took us about fifteen minutes to drink a cup. We’d hang around it, you know. Not really drinking it, just being together without fussing.
“We started doing the same thing that day when we returned from the doctor’s office. I was hiding behind the newspaper when Lisa reached her hand over the table and held mine. I put my paper down and she saw my tears.
“Jim,” she said, ‘I love you. I always have, and I’m sorry I’ll be leaving you.’ Well, I started bawling. Can you imagine that? Me, a guy who never cried. My father taught me that men should hold in their feelings. We must have held each other’s hand, not saying anything, for a good five minutes. That was longer than I could ever remember doing. Finally, I told her how much I loved her and what she had meant to me all these years. It was as if one of my brick walls tumbled over and I was able to say things I hadn’t even thought about for years, maybe never.
“From that day on, I’ve told her how important she’s been to me. I know I’ll miss her when she’s gone, but I’ll have the memories of the last six months we had together.”
Lisa died three weeks later with Jim holding her in his arms. Just as he predicted, he was lonely without her, but at the memorial service, he spoke about their last months together and how important it was to him that he was able to relive their wonderful life together by recalling his memories.
The grief was still palpable but, I believe, less painful than it would have been had they not had those incredibly honest discussions about their intertwined lives. Instead of being hobbled by what wasn’t said and done, he was able to reflect on some of the most honest and meaningful conversations he and his wife ever had.
It’s never too early to start these conversations with a loved one.
Stan Goldberg 2011