You may not always know how what you write will be received, but I am absolutely certain that this piece will resonate with many of my readers -- it is about the struggle to live on when those whom you have loved are gone.
I lost my spouse, Suzanne, last June. We were married one day short of 61 years, and with the exception of occasional personal and professional travel, we were together almost every day of those years. She had been very ill for a long time, so her death was not unexpected.
But it was devastating, nonetheless. And then, less than four months later, my younger brother died of ALS.
That was, in a way, harder to bear. Sue was a decade older and was essentially non-responsive for the last two months before she passed away. Craig, however, was fully aware; the day before he died, he could print on his iPad the birthplace of the Republican candidate for President in 1948, Thomas Dewey.
There was a long-running family joke about this; his birth on October 27, 1949, interfered with a trip I had wanted to make to hear Dewey, then the governor of New York speak at the Hotel Jamestown in our home county of Chautauqua.
I had kidded him about this hundreds of times over our lives together. “But for your birth, Craig, I would have gotten to see Dewey in person --- the guy the Chicago Tribune elected until Harry Truman got more votes.”
Suddenly, my family was struck by two of the most hideous diseases for which there still is essentially no cure, or even -- dare I say it -- no real medical treatment. Parkinson’s disease and ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Suddenly, I found myself a member of a club that I had never before known about -- the club of those that have lost spouses and close relatives. I’m not a club joiner by nature, but I was in this one, like it or not. Sure enough, within a few days a fellow member of the club came to my door and told me her story.
So many of us go through long periods of bedside waiting knowing the end is coming, and there is nothing we can do but wait. And then death happens.
Those individual stories require hours of sympathetic telling and listening. For while each story is different, the need to be listened to is not.
I once owned James Boren’s little book When in Doubt Mumble: A Bureaucrat’s Handbook. There ought to be one for those of us who have lost a spouse: When in Doubt, Listen. I’ve found listening is a soothing medication both for the speaker and the listener, the benefits of which last.
But no matter how sympathetic your listeners may be, for many living on after such a loss is very hard. What has worked best for me and for those I know well, is to do the best one can at living the best of your life. Stay active; do old things; continue friendships and commitments; do new things.
If you played golf and no longer can, it doesn’t mean those old golfing buddies are gone, nor does it mean that the chef at your club isn’t still great. Eat out there occasionally and see your old friends. Same thing with church. Go; meet your friends; find friends that maybe were more her friends; but by all means participate. Find or in my case, refind one’s university.
Check out again those places that were so absolutely familiar one could count most every stone. Reconnect with people where you spent 35 of the best and most productive professional years of your life. In my case, look up those students you knew way back when, such as a now world-renowned cardiologist at Duke University who you thought would never stop going to school. He had three degrees when he graduated from Bowling Green and then had an offer from Harvard. He took his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Cal Tech and then went to Harvard medical school, before ending up a professor at Duke.
Look up Brigitte Wex again; a brilliant chemist who got her start in your labs at BG who is now dean of the college of science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, and the student from a family of teachers in Nigeria who took his BS degree at Mendeleev University in Moscow and his doctorate with me at BG. On the day he received notice that he had been awarded a green card, I was standing with Sue and a group from the Toledo Museum of Art in Budapest waiting to go into the highest chamber of their parliament.
It helps me to reflect that the president of the company I started was born in Kyiv, a Soviet, then a Ukrainian, and finally an American citizen. His vice-president for operations, by the way is a Russian who also became an American, and who is incredibly saddened by what Putin has done to their countries and more so by the number of Russians that believe Putin is doing the right thing.
Propaganda clearly rules again in Mother Russia.
But even more importantly, find ways you can help others. A good friend of mine is so incredibly busy doing things for others that she almost has no time for herself – or so you might perceive. She works on multiple church projects, she’s more than a surrogate mother to her seven grandchildren, and she has come out of her Covid-induced shell a-blazing. I find her energy absolutely fascinating and something I hope to replicate in my own way as long as I can.
You might also do as I have done: Write. Write about a topic you and another have unique insights into; write memories, advisories, recollections, ideas - let your political feelings hang out. What do you, at your age, care if your boss -- or former boss -- doesn’t like what you have to say? You may well be more right, when it comes to seeing the whole picture, than those in charge now.
Stay active in current affairs, and don’t be afraid to speak your mind. I don’t hate Donald Trump, but I despise how he behaves, and how he takes advantages of others and lies and tries to flout the law.
I was raised a Republican, by the way. I don’t hate U.S. Rep. Bob Latta either, who currently represents me in Congress, but I do think he’s doing an awful job. What about Randy Gardner, now chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents?
Again, it’s not personal, but it is his inability to do the job to which he was appointed by his political friends – preside over the state university system -- that I find maddening.
Even if you get attacked, writing is a fulfilling and enlarging experience, and meeting other writers is an added bonus.
Most of all, live! In the words of another good friend I’ve known since college, “when you’re our age people can do anything they want as long as no one gets hurt.” Remember that! LIVE ON, those who have lost spouses!
Share your thoughts; enjoy your days; stay in the middle of things. True; for many of us the hurt of loss will never go away. But we still have time to still make a difference. Go and do it.
And don’t forget you have friends that need your listening ears too.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMasters Distinguished Professor emeritus and the foun.der of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University.
Photo by Camille Brodard on Unsplash