A letter to my late-wife on our eighth wedding anniversary
Many know us as the couple devastated by colon cancer. They know how you suffered for two years before death. They know the grief and emptiness in my life now.
While we were a young couple affected by cancer other events had better defined us. There was our marriage before family and friends at your parents’ white church in Vermont. We visited and connected with friends regularly throughout the Northeast and overseas while making new friends together in the Washington, DC-metro area. And, there’s the joy we shared from our daughter Eleanor’s birth in 2013. We had a blessed marriage firmly rooted in God’s love.
Even with a cancer diagnosis, you courageously managed a vigorous treatment plan and a full-time job; and you lived life fully at home raising our daughter and travelling elsewhere. Six months before you died, you reported on a story in the Great Bear Rainforest for the Nature Conservancy’s magazine. You interviewed dozens and wrote compelling prose for what was your final magazine piece. Always one to quickly make connections and friendships with those you meet, you gave your new boots to a teen-aged girl there who needed them more than you.
In August, you took Eleanor to visit your parents and grandmother in Vermont. You shared with her the joys of your childhood home — midday walks to collect today’s mail at the Post Office, invent games to play in the yard, and consume lots of maple cremees. In September, we visited my parents in Buffalo and escaped for a romantic night away at a mansion and dined on French cuisine.
When we returned home from Buffalo, you began a new chemotherapy regimen. The results were promising, but your body had already started to shut down. Your joints ached constantly and no longer would allow you sleep comfortably. No matter what you ate you could not get enough nutrition. Weeks later, you were hospitalized. Your liver began to fail. The doctors told us no other treatments were available, but you had already had enough. You said you were looking forward to heaven. I said it was OK for you to go; you didn’t have to fight to stay for me.
Palliative care and hospice arranged for you to spend a last Christmas at our home. Three weeks later and you were dead.
But before you died, I told Eleanor the truth. Like everyone who loved or knew you, she did not want you to die. Days after your death, Eleanor thought the house was too quiet and suggested we get a baby. Then she said we should get a new mommy because she really liked mommies. How would I find a new mommy, I asked. Well, I could go with you, she said. I told her that you were special. You can’t be replaced.
I often think about the words you wrote or said before you died. In particular, you said to your childhood best friend that as a mother you hoped you had instilled in Eleanor life’s important lessons — about God, how to love and be kind, have an interest in nature and books, and live with a general curiosity for the world. You also said:
For all the things I haven’t had time to teach her yet, I’m grateful that there are many others that know those lessons maybe even better than I. I am grateful for her amazing father, who is the strongest man I know and the most loving and has extremely good instincts when it comes to raising her. In a way I don’t think he needs me…and that’s good.
Months later I still think you’re wrong — I do need you. But the love from family and friends makes your absence easier to bear.
Our friends from church planned Eleanor’s party to celebrate her fourth birthday with a cake in the shape of Daniel Tiger. As her friends sang ‘Happy Birthday’ I stood by her side and she held my hand. I imagined you stood at her left holding her other hand.
Eleanor has now outgrown her size 4 clothes you bought for her. She’s reading sight words and sounding out unfamiliar words — mastering the Bob’s books series your cousin Deb gave her. We still go to the library. I enrolled her in ballet classes on Saturdays and bought her the required attire. The other day she panicked in the backseat after noticing a run in a pair of her tights (I didn’t know what to say except that we’ll fix it together). On Sundays, she now bravely walks to kid’s church all by herself. She’s quite the little lady.
Though I do worry about Eleanor finding joy in life as you were the source of so much of it. I don’t notice her grieving except through absence of sounds that once echoed in our home before you died. I can make Eleanor laugh but I’m unable to make her sweetly giggle like you always could.
As for me, I’m getting used to being without you. I make decisions by myself. I’ve been running the dogwalker’s schedule and our Amazon Prime account. Removing your name from a marriage and life we were building together has been a struggle. We had shared bank accounts and bought our house. Legally, you are no longer part of such things. I don’t wear my wedding ring — it’s in a box next to yours.
Although I know you are in heaven without pain and fear, I selfishly wish you were here with me. Some nights I reach over to your side of the bed and hope I’ll feel you next to me. As I run my hand along the mattress, there’s the indent where your left hip should be but instead the space is empty.
It’s now about six months after your death. It’s our wedding anniversary. In our vows eight years ago, we promised to love each other. We promised to comfort and honor in sickness and health. We promised to be faithful. These promises came with the caveat that such a covenant remain unbroken until death. I have kept my vows.
Wishing you a happy anniversary today still seems appropriate as I look forward to remembering us and how we’d lived since. I’m opening one of our favorite bottles of Burgundy, pouring a glass, inhaling its smell, and taking small sips as I think of you. As I am alone, there will be no special dinners or gift exchanges.
I’m remembering one of our last sunsets together while you were in hospice and the facility’s volunteers serenaded us with “It Is Well With My Soul.” And, I’ll wish we could have amended our vows this year with words you said to me just days before you died: You are what I always wanted.