My mother lost her husband of 57 years this summer. They married in 1956 and divorced in ‘99 so “together” for 43 years. If you had seen them in the last 30 days of his life though, you may have been confused. When they separated back in the 90s, none of the 10 offspring could have predicted the recent course of events when my father was admitted to the ICU 800 miles away. My parents’ divorce was not one of those amicable, ‘we grew apart’ separations. Their divorce should have been a “simple one” but took 4 long, contentious years to settle.
As the years passed following the signed divorce agreement, my parent’s relationship became one built on encouragement and concern. My mother was one of my father’s biggest supporters through the years, even after the divorce. She didn’t want him to feel badly – either physically or emotionally – and often took steps to protect him, her former spouse.
My sister and brother who lived locally did the lion’s share my father’s caregiving. But when it became evident that he was “really” sick and may be facing the end, it was my mother who flew to Chicago to support my father and my siblings. My father and his “health care director” were facing huge, life changing decisions. Those decisions were difficult to make and difficult to enforce once they were made. My father felt better knowing Mom was there and part of the process.
My mother’s presence brought comfort to my ailing father. It was her company that he desired. It was in her hand that he wanted to place his. It was her name that he called out when she left to return home. It was her picture that was found in the box stashed in his closet.
I’m not sure if they had that “conversation” that people talk about when you have the chance to say good-bye. My wish for them was to exchange a few simple words and short phrases. A heartfelt ‘Thank You’, ‘I’m Sorry’, ‘You were the Best’, ‘Thank You’, ‘We had a Good Life’, etc. would have been healing words for both of them. Simple words and short phrases would deliver the final message.
Many people asked me why my mother was there. My response wasn’t always the same. Sometimes it was to support my siblings in the decisions. Or because she was married to him for 40+ years. Another, they had 10 children together. Sometimes, she doesn’t hate him, she simply doesn’t want to be married to him. I never asked my mother why she went as it wasn’t important. To me, it was critical that she be there at the end. I hoped that he would feel the same way. At the end, my mother said her final farewell and kissed my father’s forehead before she headed to the airport. Within a few hours, he was gone. My mother called me to share the news. She wasn’t crying; but I did.
My parents’ love story is an important one to tell. We each marry our partner for one reason or another. Often in divorce, I hear, “I would be a much better widow than divorcee” and I can’t say that I disagree. But our marriage is part of our history – for better or worse – and the love story between my parents is part of their history.
The final chapter of my father’s life included gatherings with family, friends, former colleagues, and lastly with the woman he chose to be his wife and the mother of his children. The rocky start to their divorce makes their ending even sweeter. When it was time to take his last breath, he had spent many days with my mother by his side holding his hand or offering him what little comfort there was. They started the journey together back in August of 1956 and ended it in June. For better or worse, my mother is grieving the loss of her husband of 50+ years.