Losing a Partner - and Finding It Hard to Let Go

By Joan Marans Dim

My husband, Stuart, died last June after a decade-long struggle with cancer. He was 77 years old, a former journalist and public relations executive, a marathon runner, and a man beloved and respected by family and friends.

Lonely Girl

In going through his belongings, I often find things that I have forgotten about, small things that taken together are not small.

In the back of a drawer, I discover a poem that he wrote when we were students together at New York University. It reads:

           Think in the morn
           There will be no sorrow.
           Think what is today
           Is not tomorrow.

He wrote the poem when he was 25 years old, in 1961, the year we were married. He was buoyantly optimistic, or so I thought. Yet now I read sadness in his words.

To my knowledge, he never wrote another poem. I wonder if he thought he would never write a better one.

Other things I find surprise me and make me smile. He bought in multiples. I count some 20 nail clippers, perhaps 40 packs of dental floss, 10 staplers, 20 rolls of packing tape, enough soap, toothpaste, mouthwash and cotton balls to take me through the next millennium.

I discover clothes that I bought him over the last years and note that the sizes drift downward from large to small. Many of the smallest still have their price tags attached.

There are many suits from his work years, untouched in a decade. A navy blue cashmere topcoat never worn. Much too formal. A tweed sport jacket purchased years ago on an extravagant visit to Harrods in London. Also, multiple warm coats and jackets from L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer. Perhaps 30 pairs of shoes and so many socks - thick and rough hiking socks from his mountain-climbing days, cotton socks from his running days, woolen ones and argyles from his working days. There is also a tuxedo with a fine ruffled shirt, a black cummerbund, black stud buttons with matching cuff links. And a red bow tie that I bought him years ago - I decided the tuxedo needed a splash of color - that was never worn and is still in its original box.

Then, I spy a pair of jeans, mine, hanging to the side in his closet. I am a size 8. At the end, he wore my jeans, and they were too big.

In the midst of my rummaging, I receive a computer message from Stuart. Before he died, he had set his computer, without my knowledge, to remind me to do certain chores.

The first message comes, jarringly, a few weeks after his death: "Please water the blueberry bushes."

Then: "Please pick the tomatoes."

In early September: "Time to turn the mattress and change the water filter in the refrigerator. Thanks."

Five days before our quarterly taxes are to be mailed, he reminds me to mail them. He has already filled out the forms and written and signed the checks. Even stamped the envelopes.

With him gone, our papers are no longer properly filed. In fact, my new filing system is an empty box from the grocery store. I find it, at least temporarily, an efficient arrangement, because every paper that passes through my hands is now located in one spot. Nevertheless, such slippage by me would be sinful to Stuart, who kept detailed records on almost every item he touched. But then, I rationalize, in the filing department I have always been a disappointment.

There can be no doubt that we were polar opposites.

Another thing Stuart left behind is the message on our phone. His welcoming voice greets callers. Several people have mentioned the message and suggested I change it.

But one male neighbor counseled against removing the message. "Good to have a male voice answering the phone," he said. "Safer."

Another friend, Dennis, a widower from my bereavement group, said he would record Stuart's voice for me in a file on my computer, so I would always have it. And then I could replace his message with my own.

Dennis is experienced in such matters. He did the same thing with the greeting by his wife, Hope. It's been more than a year since Hope died, yet he often listens to her message. Dennis also sometimes carries a computer with him that has a video of Hope's last conscious day in which she says goodbye to her family. He's shown me the video several times; he tells me he has viewed it as many as five times a day.

A video of Stuart would be nice. But not on his last day. I'd like to see him in Central Park with our Labrador retriever, Belle. Or playing with one of our grandkids. Or maybe lifting weights at the gym. Or just sitting in his leather chair reading a favorite passage in a book that he feels compelled to share with me.

Finally, I come across Stuart's collection of stopwatches. They are relics from his running days. Eons ago, I accompanied him to Riverside Park, where he ran around a large field bordering the Hudson River. My job was to time and record each loop with one of his stopwatches.

Without thinking, I recently gave one of the watches to a friend who also runs, and then instantly regretted its loss. I cannot yet part with anything.

Joan Marans Dim, a writer and historian, is coauthor, with Antonio Masi, of New York's Golden Age of Bridges. This essay originally appeared in the New York Times; reprinted with permission.

Photo: iStock

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