Ann Brenoff’s “On The Fly” is a weekly column about navigating growing older ― and a few other things.
“Hearts expand,” I told my daughter when we adopted her younger brother years ago. Hearts don’t contain a finite amount of love that gets divided up among those we care about. It’s quite the opposite, I told her. A healthy heart just grows and grows and allows you to love new people without taking anything away from the ones you already love.
Yes, I told her all those things. But it wasn’t until I met Charlie after my husband died that I really understood what they meant.
On Jan. 4, 2017, my husband Vic died after a brutal battle with heart and kidney disease. We spent the two years before his death in a constant state of misery, stress and worry. My kids and I were his caregivers through multiple and frequent hospital stays, dialysis treatments three times a week, and eventually a nursing home stint that seared horrifying and lasting images in our memories. Suffice it to say that what passes for end-of-life care in this country is something that nobody should ever have to live through.
Charlie’s life followed a similar path, although his caregiving stint wasn’t as intense or long-lasting as mine. He lost his beloved wife of 33 years just five months before my husband died.
Charlie and I didn’t know one another when our spouses were alive, but given the overlapping dates of some of their stays in the same hospital, we figure that we likely passed one another in the hallway. When we compared notes, we both knew which elevators were the fast ones and which ones moved slowly ― because when you spend 20 hours a day at your loved one’s bedside, you take the slow elevators and call it “me time.”
Both Charlie and I have the same takeaway from our caregiving experiences: Life is short and a healthy life is even shorter. Make the most of that knowledge.
“A new love doesn’t erase anything, nor should it have to.”
Since we began dating last June, we’ve gotten a few raised eyebrows about the speed with which we both felt ready to move on. Charlie says to just ignore those eyebrows, but I can’t. I hate judgy people who think they know what’s best for me even though they never watched their husband’s blood spinning around the dialysis machine while they were on hold for an hour with the insurance company and their kid was texting to ask if they were coming to watch his soccer game and what was for dinner. Yeah, that.
Here’s what I want to say to the raised eyebrow people: I lost my husband in pieces as my role slowly drifted away from being his wife and partner to being his full-time case manager ― a job that I performed out of deep love and commitment with a healthy dose of obligation. I became a widow in the real sense of the word long before he took his last breath. Maybe that explains my readiness to get on with my life. Or maybe judgy people should just mind their own business.
For his part, Charlie knew what a happy partnership tasted like and was just hungry for more. We both prefer being coupled to flying solo, and we share many of the same values. My kids come first for me, as his daughter does for him. We agree that money mostly matters when you don’t have enough of it, and it’s important to learn to live on less. And we both know that the best thing you can do in your life is to make a difference in someone else’s. Give of yourself generously, be honest or why be at all, and do your best to stay out of doctors’ offices because bad news will find you; no need to go looking for it. About the only concern we’re having is how to introduce our neurotic dogs ― and rehoming would never be an option for either of us.
I first spotted Charlie on a dating site last spring, where it can honestly be said that there aren’t a whole lot of men in their late 60s eager to date women their age. I was there because I was reporting a story on online romance scams. He says he was there waiting for me. I like that he always says stuff like that. He’s a cornball, not a player, and he always shows up with flowers for me.
Charlie recalls that our first phone call lasted more than two hours and says that long before it ended, he was smitten. Neither of us remember what we talked about, but both of us remember the ease with which we talked.
And yes, of course, we do have the widowed-in-common thing going for us. I don’t think either of us defines ourselves by our marital status. But it certainly helps him to understand that all the photos I still have displayed around the house matter and need to be there ― for me and for my kids. And in kind, I love the ease with which Charlie tells me stories about his life with Mary. A new love doesn’t erase anything, nor should it have to.
And so, world, on the occasion of the day we celebrate romance, I am officially announcing that Charlie and I are dating ― seriously dating; make that very seriously dating. Our love for each other doesn’t detract from what we had with our spouses. No one is being dishonored ― quite the contrary. And I am living proof that expanding your heart to make room for someone new is pretty darn terrific.