Life After Death: A Surreal Reality

Joel was my husband and the love of my life. He died 15 months ago, and what seemed so surreal for the first year is now simply real, although still impossibly hard to comprehend.
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My friend Susan told me last week that another woman has unofficially just joined our club. Unofficial because Susan hasn't reached out to her yet. She's waiting for an introduction and then, we'll see.

I am the club's newest member, and there is no expectation of me doing the reach out. The thought is too unbearable, my feelings still too raw. We are a club of widows. I am one of three members, and I've only met Susan, who I now know I would be friends with even if we didn't have this Horrible Thing in common.

Joel was my husband and the love of my life. He died 15 months ago, and what seemed so surreal for the first year is now simply real, although still impossibly hard to comprehend.

He had MS, a compromised immune system, he got bit by a mosquito, apparently... but this was the Big Mystery during his three-week hospital stay: How and why was he so sick? He was in a coma for all of but the first two days. He ultimately was one of only a few people who died of West Nile Virus in Los Angeles that year. But Joel was 50. Only 50.

Early into his hospital stay, the doctors realized that Joel was paralyzed from the neck down. They determined brain damage. So the decision to end his life on November 1 wasn't that difficult to make. It was difficult in that the confirmed West Nile diagnosis only came on October 25, a few days before my 46th birthday. I didn't want my husband to die on my birthday. But then it would be Halloween and our daughter was so excited. We picked out her Snow White costume, she had plans with friends. I did not want to deny her Halloween.

Once we knew how bad the diagnosis was, the big fear was that Joel would wake up. The likelihood of this happening was slim, but still, I worried. Waking up didn't mean, "Hey, what's going on?" Maybe a toe would wiggle or his eyes would blink. Then waking up would mean rehab. But to what end?

One of the specialists pulled me aside one day to ask me if Joel was a man of dignity. I didn't know what she meant, but I told her that quality of life was important, something we talked about a lot. She proceeded to tell me that should Joel ever wake up and go to rehab, that perhaps the best we could hope for is that he would be able to hold a comb one day. But, she continued, he wouldn't know what to do with it. Another Doctor, who had no children of his own, told my 73-year-old Father-in-Law, "You would not want your son to wake up from this."

So the scene that Friday morning in the hospital room, with our daughter, Joel's family and the Rabbi -- that was surreal. And the days that followed.... My parents and sister flew in from New York. A friend came in from Chicago. She drove me to get a bikini wax. Why was I getting a bikini wax? I hosted two days of shiva. My house was packed and there was food and conversation and noise... and I couldn't understand why so many people were over. My daughter's friends were there, too, and they were running around and laughing and music was playing like it was a party. But Joel wasn't home.

And I realized that life moves forward whether you want it to or not. And I must have made a decision to stay strong, to keep my daughter on track, to do things for myself, because that's what I've been doing. Living.

But I'm compelled now to tell people that I'm a widow. Some weird Tourette's Syndrome: I'm a widow. I am not divorced. The distinction is important to me. I let the exterminator know. The guy who trimmed the tree out front. The new handyman. I want their sympathy, and if they feel so inclined, I want a discount. Because I lost my husband and I have to do these things by myself now. It's all on me. Everything is on me.

Somehow, we travelled a lot this year. Hawaii, Chicago, Paris, New York. How did I manage these things? And where is Joel? And how is it that all of my daughters grandparents are alive, but her father isn't?

I suddenly have little compassion for people who tell me about their sick and aging parents. We are supposed to see our parents age and die, and eventually our spouse, but not at 46 and 50 years old.

In a way, I have a whole other life to look forward to now. On the way home from the hospital that day, I told two of my best friends who came to pick me up that I suspected that some people might consider me lucky. And we laughed about it. No messy divorce, no dividing any assets, no acrimony. Joel and I were together for 20-something years. We had deep love and friendship, we laughed all the time! But what we had was a Real Marriage. The MS, towards the end, was very scary. And I was angry a lot. So was Joel. And we felt disconnected from each other. Even when we were in Mexico celebrating his 50th, just two months before he went into the hospital and never came home.

I now carry some of his ashes in my yoga bag. I know that Joel wants my life to go on. I know that my heart has the capacity for infinite love. I know that life is full of sliding doors and hidden staircases. And I know that Joel is with me still.

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