We have never met. If she passed me on the street, there would be no recognition. But a woman I’ll call Janet is also a woman I call a friend.

Because I often write in an unabashedly personal way in this space, Janet began emailing me with comments and reactions. We realized that we shared a lot of common ground: age and generation, adult children and grandchildren, and yes, long marriages played out in South Jersey.

I liked Janet instantly. I liked the way she thought, the way she shared ideas and what was obviously her generous spirit. And then, about a year ago, the tone of her emails changed. At first, I just sensed it. And then it became explicit.

Her husband was ill. Very ill. The kind of ill that’s scary.

My email friend was learning a new vocabulary, and the words involved were not welcome. Malignancy. Massive. Metastasis.

The treadmill of the ordinary had suddenly ground to a halt. Janet was in a dark place, and she was terrified. There was nothing to do on my end but listen – if reading emails is the new form of listening.

I once suggested we talk by phone, but Janet didn’t want to. I suppose in a world that was spinning out of control, she didn’t want to change anything that might upset her carefully constructed equilibrium. I was right there with her. I was identifying with her fear, her inability to imagine life without her partner of five-plus decades. Yes, unimaginable. Count me in. Unimaginable.

And in some odd way, that terror drew me closer to my guy, a man I was too prone to criticize in the way of very married folks. I found myself feeling not just more attached to him – I was more tender and less apt to make a fuss over the little stuff that so often gets enlarged way out of proportion.

But Janet was dealing with the really big stuff that was coming in a steady, pummeling stream. One of her worst days was when a hospital bed was installed in the living room of their home. “I reach over in our bed, and there’s nobody there,” she wrote in one email.

“I hate it!” she said of the infirmary that had replaced the living room she had cherished.

Then the countdown. “They gave him four to six weeks – maybe less,” Janet wrote one day. “What does ‘maybe less’ mean anyway?” What indeed?

“There are no words for my feelings,” she wrote on another day. This was a woman who had once described a perfect husband and a perfect life. Our strange friendship continued through the day the email came with the words I’d been bracing for: “My husband passed away.”

Then Janet noted the precise date and time – 1:11 am. And I sat down at my kitchen table and cried for this woman I’d never met. I cried for her loss. For the empty chair next to hers at the den TV.

I cried for the years and the kids and the grandkids and the meatloaf meals and the walks around the block they took on warm spring nights and the cereal she would automatically pick up at the supermarket and then put back because he wouldn’t be there to eat it.

I cried for myself – my terrors that someday, this might be my story. That I would note the time on the clock that ticks away our lives. Then I took Janet’s advice. I gave my husband a huge hug when he walked in the door. And I told him I loved him.

August 2015
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