When I was growing up in a small Midwestern town in the ’60s, widowhood was a status universally recognized as legitimate and sufficient in and of itself. It was not uncommon for women in such towns who had lost their husbands to be known as “the Widow So-and-So,” and that was, up to a point, all you needed to know about them. The notion that they might someday remarry was unthinkable, though of course they not infrequently did so: The point was that they were widows, and there, as Dr. Johnson said, was an end on it.
No such thing was true of men who lost their wives to illness or accidental death. Scarcely anyone called them “widowers,” a word I cannot recall hearing as a boy, and no matter how fulfilling their marriages had been, it was taken for granted, especially if they had children, that they would find another companion after a decent interval and carry on with the business of life. Such was the done thing, and we had it on the very best of authority (“it is not good that the man should be alone”) that it was meet and proper. It still is. I know any number of widowers whose wives not only ordered them to remarry but also told them whom—and whom not—to date after their deaths, sometimes jokingly and at other times with perfect seriousness.
In my own case, these conversations were neither frivolous nor hypothetical. When I met Hilary, my wife-to-be, we were of mature age—we both turned 50 three months later—and she was living under sentence of premature death. I found out within days of meeting her that she had only recently been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a rare, slow-developing disease of the lungs and heart, and that she could expect to live for no more than two or three years. This was all the more shocking because I had fallen in love with her at first sight—and she, I later learned, with me as well. As if that weren’t fraught enough, I was myself seriously ill at the time, though I didn’t realize it, having been too willful, as so many men are, to go to a doctor. Yet all that mattered to me was that after having been unlucky in love for most of my life, I had met, purely by chance, a woman with whom I found myself to be suddenly and overwhelmingly in love, but whom I could not hope to have in my life for more than an agonizingly brief time.
I assume there are men who would approach such a dilemma by running the romantic equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis. I am not one of them. I knew at once that if I could get Hilary to go out with me, I would then do everything in my power to persuade her to marry me, no matter how long she had left. That was what happened, albeit after a certain amount of intervening slapstick. My own as-yet-undiscovered illness landed me in the hospital a month after our first meeting and three days before what was to have been our first date. Instead of going to see Waiting for Godot with me—a too-good-to-be-true detail I would never have dared to make up—she visited me in my hospital room, bringing a fat deli sandwich for me to eat in place of the hospital food she loathed. Two nights after that, a nurse came into the room and caught us kissing ardently, unfazed by the oxygen cannula in my nose.
When I left the hospital, restored to health, Hilary came home with me. She married me two years later, still sick unto death but sustained now by treatments that promised to give her a chance at more life. And they did: We were together for 15 years, the first few of which were largely unshadowed by her grave disease. Long after her condition worsened, we did all we could to lead a reasonably normal life together, and it was not until her last two years that she was finally, inescapably reduced to being a true invalid, unable to get around without a walker or, at the end, a wheelchair. Yet we still relished each other’s company, and when she died on the last day of March—an end that no one, not even her doctors, had ever really believed would come to pass—I knew, as Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his diary on the day his first wife died in childbirth, that the light had gone out of my life.
What is it about a person with which we fall in love? In Hilary’s case, the first thing I saw when I walked into the bar where she was waiting for the other guests at a dinner party to which we had both been invited was her radiant smile. It was the kind that covers your whole face, a sure sign of total engagement with the world.
Within minutes, I knew myself to be in the presence of a woman who was smart, funny, generous, and, I soon discovered, gallant. Her devastating illness frightened her—she eventually admitted to me that she had at one point considered suicide—but it did not stop her from finding joy in the moment. As newly developed palliative measures slowed the inexorable course of the disease, she leaped headfirst into every fresh experience I offered her, some of them imprudent to the point of lunacy (we actually went on an overnight windjammer cruise in Maine one summer weekend, even though she could no longer swim) but all made wondrous by her enthusiasm. Unable to work, she traveled throughout the country with me to the regional-theater productions that I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, refusing to let her fragility stop her from living as intensely as she could. While her doctors frowned on the heedless prodigality with which she poured her energy into those trips, I suspected—and confirmed after her death—that they secretly admired her for it.
Our marriage was not without its bumpy patches, for we were strong-willed people of a certain age who were well and truly set in our ways. I have never known a more stubborn person than Hilary—she dyed her hair red, and the color suited her temperament—and it took me a long time to understand that this stubbornness was part of what kept her alive. She refused to give in, whether to illness or to me. As a result, we were capable of exasperating each other almost without limit. Almost, but never quite: Neither one of us held grudges, and our quarrels, however furious, always ended in laughter.
Nor was Hilary in any way the proverbially submissive spouse: She had a sharp and clever tongue and unhesitatingly used it to prick my pomposities. From time to time I would scribble down the conversations in which she got the better of me and post them on my blog, and although she was a private person who insisted that I refer to her there not by name but as “Mrs. T,” it amused her to see them in print.
One night I was ineptly wrapping Christmas presents, and this typical exchange ensued:
“Do the best you can,” she said. “It’s the thought that counts.”
“I guess it’s sort of the Marxist approach to wrapping presents.”
“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his means.”
“That’s the most pretentious thing you’ve said all year. Just shut up and wrap, OK?”
Not long after we met, Hilary learned that her illness could be cured with a double-lung transplant, and the two of us gave serious thought to having her evaluated for entry into a transplant program. Such decisions cannot be made lightly, for a double-lung transplant is a radical, life-transforming operation, but we knew that the drug-based therapies that were keeping her alive were both debilitating (she suffered from chronic joint pain and constant nausea during most of the time that I knew her) and would in time lose their therapeutic effect. So, in 2010, we—I say “we” because admission into many transplant programs requires that you have a spouse, domestic partner, or committed caregiver—were accepted by New York-Presbyterian Hospital lung-transplant program. A couple of years after that, Hilary was placed on the waiting list for transplant, and we started keeping our cellphones turned on around the clock as we waited for what we referred to as “the Big Call.”
It never came. Not only was Hilary’s condition deteriorating too gradually to give her priority on the list, but her blood type (A-positive) and size (she was quite short) meant that it was unusual to find donor lungs with which she was compatible. So we kept on living our shared lives, flying to Florida each January to spare her the bitter, lung-freezing cold of New York winters, spending our summers traveling by plane or car to theater festivals, and seizing every hour we had. Those hours grew more precious as she grew sicker. Her doctors ordered her to stop flying in 2017, and a year later she underwent a health crisis that came close to killing her. By the spring of 2019, she had moved up the transplant list to a position of high priority. She received two “big calls,” but neither worked out—the donor lungs ended up being unsuitable for transplant. For years we had divided our time between apartments in New York and rural Connecticut, where it was easier for her to manage from day to day, but she had another major crisis that summer and was airlifted from Hartford to New York. Save for a lone weekend visit to two old friends, she never again left our apartment in upper Manhattan other than to go to the transplant center, a mile from our door.
Even then, we contrived to find pockets of joy in Hilary’s fast-shrinking life. Unable to go to the theater together, we watched movies on TV, sometimes as many as three a night, and discussed them as passionately as we had once discussed the plays I reviewed. She loved music even more than theater, and we listened to it constantly. Instead of visiting museums and galleries, we studied the prints and paintings on the walls of our apartment, grateful that we had started collecting art together around the time that we met. And—above all—we talked. In the end, a happy marriage is more talk than anything else, and Hilary and I never ran out of things to talk about. Her joint pain forced her to take daily doses of opiates, but her mind stayed agile and unpredictable, and I never spoke with her, no matter how brief the conversation, without smiling at her wit.
On top of all this, I was inspired by Hilary’s courage. I had once dubbed her “my gallant gal,” but that silly-sounding nickname turned out to be nothing more than the simple truth. Even though she had long since lapsed from the Catholicism of her youth, she was struck by a couplet from Cardinal Newman’s Dream of Gerontius that I liked to quote, perhaps because it summed up her own personality: “And, ere afresh the ruin on me fall, / Use well the interval.” She used her interval well, and I marveled at the gallantry with which she shrugged off the fearful ruin that was falling on her frail body, just as she never lost her glorious smile.
Nevertheless, the clock was running out, and in December it sped up: Hilary underwent a respiratory crisis so dire that I had to call an ambulance. She barely made it through the night, and the doctors at New York-Presbyterian told me the next day that she would never leave the hospital again, that she would have to wait there for a transplant that might or might not come. We now watched movies in the intensive-care room where I visited her each night, bringing my laptop so that I could work by her bedside when she was too tired to talk, as was increasingly the case. I knew that she was very close to giving up hope, as was I.
Then, to our astonishment, Hilary was told at the end of February that a compatible pair of donor lungs had become available. She underwent a 20-hour-long operation the next day, and the surgeon said afterward that she had a fair chance of survival. She herself knew nothing of the results—a double-lung transplant recipient is put into a medically induced coma after surgery in order to recover from the trauma of the procedure—but I was replete with hope for the first time in months. It didn’t last: The transplant came too late. She started to fail a week later, suffering a stroke that was followed by kidney failure and a bacterial infection. As the saying goes, she died of everything.
Hilary regained consciousness just long enough for us to spend one more good day together. She was on a ventilator and could not speak, so I held her hand and played music that she loved on my laptop. The next night, having been assured by her sorrowful doctors that there was, at long last, no hope left at all, I followed her oft-stated wishes and ordered that life-sustaining measures be withdrawn. She died an hour later, peacefully.
Now I am alone again, far more so than when Hilary and I first met. Her final illness coincided with the arrival in New York of the coronavirus pandemic, and when I went back to our apartment after she died, I returned to a lockdown that has yet to be lifted as I write these words. I have not touched a human being since I kissed Hilary for the last time.
To be simultaneously in mourning and isolation is an experience for which nothing in my life—in anyone’s life, I expect—could possibly have prepared me. To be sure, I have been buoyed by phone calls, email messages, and FaceTime visits, as well as an avalanche of support on social media. It seems that people all over America found themselves caught up in the story of Hilary’s valiant struggle, which I had chronicled on my blog as it was unfolding, and hundreds of thousands of them read what I wrote about her in the days following her death. I am both alone and not alone, and I am grateful beyond words for the sympathy that has flowed through my laptop.
Still, there is no substitute for the corporeal presence of friends, much less a loving spouse. I spend my days and nights in rooms haunted by Hilary’s ghost, surrounded by books on the shelves and art on the walls but cut off from the ceaseless surprise of her companionship, the thing about which Stephen Sondheim wrote in “Being Alive,” the last and most poignant song in Company: “Somebody sit in my chair / And ruin my sleep / And make me aware / Of being alive.” I, too, have no one to sit in my chair anymore, to mislay my books, to wake me at three in the morning with an urgent request for help, to make me aware—as if I will ever again need to be made aware—that it is not good that a human being should be alone. “I want you to find somebody after I die,” Hilary told me more than once. “You were a terrible singleton.” No doubt I was, but it doesn’t matter: I am a widower, and I cannot imagine that I will be anything else again.
What, then, shall I do? How shall I live? I answered that question for myself on the night Hilary died when I posted these lines on my blog:
Raymond Aron said it: “There is no apprenticeship to misfortune. When it strikes us, we still have everything to learn.” I shall now try to learn the lesson of misfortune in a manner as worthy as possible of my beloved Hilary, who faced death as she faced life, with indomitable courage.
I am trying to learn that lesson every day, and not doing a very good job of it, so far as I can tell. I cry without warning, take sleeping pills at night, wonder how to get from one day to the next. All my wounds are open, red and raw. And yet I continue to work, to hit my deadlines, to console friends who find themselves overcome by the burden of solitude—and, ever and always, to remember my life’s companion, whose gallantry in the face of suffering will lift me up to the end of my days. Never has that most homely and beautiful of Jewish sayings been truer: For me as for all who knew Hilary, her memory will be as a blessing.
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