Exactly 20 years ago, on Valentine’s Day 1997, cancer claimed the life of my spouse. Ovarian cancer was to blame. She was just 47 years old the day she died.
I had pinned a large red heart with white lace on her hospital wall, but she never saw it. Instead of the traditional dinner out, box of candy or flowers, I sat alone with her in the hospital room, listening to each slow breath she took, while searching for some sign of what she was feeling from the emotion reflected on her face. There was none.
It seemed ironic to me that a young woman living her last few hours on Earth could look so peaceful, while inside me a muted sense of despair gnawed away, just as it had for so many long months.
I tried to turn away from my own fear of being alone, to put my attention on my wife as she lay there so quietly, but it was impossible to divert my thoughts for long. I knew I would be driving home alone that evening.
I remember thinking once, after the inevitability of her death had become clear to me, that I wished she would leave me on a summer day. We lived in a cabin, on a lake, in a glorious rain forest in western Oregon. It was our long-time dream to build our home there and to live among the elk and eagles. But February was dark and cold, and there was rain of course, and I couldn’t imagine how I could go back to that place we had built together.
Later on, I found myself feeling a bit ashamed that such a selfish thought had crossed my mind. But I came to realize that cancer changes more than one life. Those of us who survive after our spouses, our partners, our family or friends die, are thrust into aloneness in the blink of a merciless eye. We can see it coming and we can play out our impending life changes in our minds, and we can vow to be brave and resolute and to carry on with the sweet memories intact. But we can never adequately prepare for the quiet nights, the silent meals and the empty chairs.
One of the great lessons I learned from that experience was that being alone and being lonely are very different matters. I was certainly lonely for a long time after her death, but the time I spent in my “aloneness” became my place and my opportunity for growing and appreciating and mending. I learned a lot about me.
But this isn’t a story about my sadness. It’s a story of celebration, since that is how most of us who have lost someone end up. We are obligated by our humanness to grieve and to rework our ideas about how we think life is supposed to be. Ultimately though, we can connect with something much bigger than a life lost or gained, and we can begin to dance in the dark.
And so with Valentine’s Day here, twenty years later, this day I once thought was gone forever in my own life is very much alive and vibrant as it reflects both the distress and divinity that defines the human experience. I had no clue back then that male breast cancer would one day invade my own body. But I clearly remember thinking about how I would respond to cancer, if, and when, it came into my life.
I was still young enough (just 46) when cancer took my spouse, that I had a chance and the time to create a “second life.” It seemed unimaginable to me, this idea of starting over.
But I believe that life is always unfolding perfectly—under its own rules and by its own design. No matter how hard we struggle to control things, envision happy endings or plan for an ideal future, we have no power here. Life includes cancer and pain and loneliness but its virtues on the other hand, are far too great to list.
With that in mind, I celebrate Valentine’s Day with a joy that far outweighs any sorrow from my past. I have a new wife and a new life, thirteen years now, and together we light a candle on February 14, in memory of “our Valentine”—a woman whose life-and death brought us together and enriched us with the spirit of her heart, and the gift of her presence on Earth.
Aug 19, 1949--February 14, 1997