Dear Jack and Grace,
In a recent phone conversation, Jack mentioned that as you are now both in your 80s, you have been talking about the inevitable parting that is ahead of you. That’s good. It is realistic. Sooner or later one of you is going to be left. I recall only one occasion when husband and wife died together, and that was in a car crash. Although my parents died within a few weeks of one another in their late 80s, both my grandfathers outlived their spouses by some years. In my years of ministry, I have met many “relicts” as they used to be called.
I myself have been “solo” since I was 72 – more than 11 years. I know something of the pain of parting, and the change of circumstances that follows. Of course, nothing can really prepare us for this eventuality, but I think something could be done to temper those agonising bewildering months and years that follow. Finding out the hard way of the many things I was faced with when my Barbie died, I have tried to leave information that may be of ready assistance to my children when my time comes to die.
I think the most important first step is for couples to talk about the inevitable parting, each explaining to the other what their wishes are about such things as content of funeral services, burial or cremation, and where ashes should go. Not all couples are equally familiar with financial arrangements about the home, where important documents are kept, what bills have to be paid and when, where family records are kept, where the record of Christmas cards exchanged is (useful for notifying friends of the other’s death), the addresses of close friends of one that may not have been close friends of the other. (A good idea might be to keep a notebook “Where to find” you could each enter such things in.) Often the husband or wife has handled such things by him/herself. It is often the husband who has attended to the outside chores. He knows from years of practice where the lawn mower is, how to start it, whether it uses petrol or petrol and oil; where seeds are kept and when they should be planted, what are all the gadgets he keeps in his workshop, and so on.
On the other hand, it is often that the wife has done the shopping, cooked the meals, done the housework, leaving the husband ignorant of such arts. If you haven’t worried about meals much, you need to know your way around a supermarket, what cuts of meat there are etc, how to plan meals, how to cook them - at what temperature and for how long. These are mysteries that many men have not been let in to, or have not seen fit to be concerned about.
Then the awful day arrives without warning!
In latter years, my wife used to ask me to take a turn with the cooking. My usual reply was that in our generation the women looked after the indoors while the men took charge of the outdoor tasks around the home. I don’t quite know what prompted my change of heart, but while we were overseas my wife took ill. Sometime after, I promised her that when we got home, that for a start, once a week, on Wednesdays, I would plan the evening meal, buy the necessary ingredients, prepare and cook the meal, and wash up afterwards. We got home on a Thursday, and she died very suddenly the following Tuesday morning. So my promise was never fulfilled.
But I had all the shopping and cooking, washing, cleaning and so on to do on my own, thereafter. One unexpected help to me was memories of my mother or wife’s housekeeping that I had unconsciously recorded. Another help I received at first was “my Little Red Cookbook” - a recipe book I started when my wife was ill about 10 years before she died. This was a compilation of basic meals and at what temperature to cook them, and how much is a “little of this, and a pinch of that”, and “how long until it looks cooked” etc. I nearly drove my wife (and also my sister) mad getting precise details. Soon after Barbie died I went to a night school nearby to try to enrol in a basic cooking class. Only cooking classes for Italian and Asian foods were available! So I learnt a lot by trial and error, augmented by advice from my sister and some friendly ladies.
Another helpful thing would be to make a list of whom you want to have your very personal possessions (like jewellery or tools etc), and if you have any requests about the disposal of other personal possessions.
One of the best things I ever did (and it was in our 70s), was to raise a matter that had for years been between us, undiscussed. With trepidation I slowly raised this (after a couple of stumbling attempts, I admit), and we talked it out. Each was able to explain to the other his/her situation way back, the circumstances, attitudes, understandings and misunderstandings at the time and over the years. It was a tremendous relief to both of us. One of the unexpected spin-offs was that we fell in love again, and I had the good fortune in our last few months of taking her into my arms daily and more, and saying, “I love you so much my darling”. Barbie echoed this in her own words. We knew that when the time came for parting, there would be no regretted “unfinished business” of this nature. This proved most significant to me.
I learnt from this, how important it is for couples at any age, but especially if they are growing older, to make the opportunity to discuss things previously left unsaid, but which are at the back of their minds. Such things may be in the nature of confessions – or perhaps even more importantly and easily overlooked, expressions of how wonderful the other is, how much is owed to that person, the depth of one’s love, and similar endearments. Even to say often, “I love you” is important at the time, and vital in memory. All this kind of thing, if left undiscussed, features later as unfinished business, and “the book once closed cannot be re-opened”.
It is also important to talk about, or even record for the other, what you remember about your ancestors, and maybe your own back ground. This can be done via a tape recording. While your spouse may value this, your children and grandchildren will probably value it even more.
It could be that with the years, your spouse has developed infirmities of some kind – e.g. loss of sight, hearing, mobility, and has become quite dependent on you. Have you ever thought of sharing ideas of how you spouse could best cope without you – what alternative aids could be available, what kind of care might be best, how you could avoid if possible, putting a burden on your children, especially
on the only one who is nearby? One often has better insight into the other and his/her “quirks of character” than the person him/herself, and may be able to suggest inner strengths not yet tapped, and better attitudes of coping with difficulty.
One of the things I have missed most – and I don’t know the answer for it, is the opportunity to talk over with Barbie everyday things, and to recall together special memories, little intimacies, and personal jokes. There is simply no other who can fulfil this role, and it is a pain that just has to be borne.
On the other hand, I recognise in my “going solo” for nearly 12 years, there have been some gains. I have discovered new insights into myself, gained new interests, new activities, new skills, new friends. I am still discovering what I don’t really want to; the strength of independence, standing on my own feet without the lifelong love and support of the other very special person.
Sometimes, but not so often now, I cry in my loneliness, which no other can assuage – I suppose it is self pity, but I excuse myself by saying it is natural and understandable. If it is a weakness, I accept it, and don’t beat myself.
Well dear friends, I hope you read and digest this, and make some use of it in pondering any ideas from it that sound useful to you. It is only one person’s point of view. But he wishes he had had as long a partnership as you two have.
God Bless, and loving regards,