Do you ever wonder if…instead of him…it had been you?
Instead…I was the one with the out-of-nowhere terminal diagnosis and the slow, painful progression toward my early death in my 40s with so much I wanted to do and see and experience. What would have been the prognosis of our family’s collective pain had it been me? Would he have been left all alone to contend with the aftermath of my absence? Would his daughters have moved home for awhile to keep an eye on their dad, or would they have stayed in school elsewhere, knowing he would figure it out on his own? Would they have made the choices they made with their lives after college, follow the paths they decided to take, gone in another direction instead, kept him informed, stayed close, respected his advice and wisdom – or look for wisdom and advice in all the other adults or peers they knew?
Would he have downsized and moved away, sold our stuff, gave away my car, met someone else, gotten remarried, taken on another life altogether….or would he have stayed where he was, doing what he was doing, living a middle aged man’s suddenly single life, traveling and doing new things with his time? Would he have honored my memory with luminaries, missed me, cried for me, written letters to me, tried to figure out where I went after I took my last breath, gone to counseling or joined a widower’s support group, looked up through the night sky with his massive telescope and at thick, colorful trees and yawning blue bodies of water for signs that I was still there in some new way and still loved him?
Would he have kept family traditions alive, tried to connect with his girls, understand and honor their pain, and try to see them and be with them in their busy lives? Would he have worried incessantly about them, or would he have looked at them and thought they look fine to me … having fun with their friends … finishing school … they will be ok without a mom…?
Would he have made small goals to keep the shrinking patchwork of remaining family together and cried at night when he could see it was not working … that my death changed e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g?
And COVID…how would he have handled COVID? Would he have gotten a vaccine (yes) or worn a mask in stores (maybe, sometimes) or stayed at home for days on end (yes – he worked from home anyway)? Would he have railed on social media about everything wrong in the world and then disengage from his more liberal daughters when they expressed their own minds and perspectives? Or, would he have recognized that they are their own persons with their own developing minds and life experiences…and just love them as they are?
I think of this often. Not because I believe he would have done things wrong (LOL) but mostly because of everything in our jointly held life that has folded and unfolded since he left us. How people moved away that may not have otherwise moved away. How holidays are not the same – not even close – and nothing we do even resembles that life anymore. How some family members stayed at a distance as if he was the only person who mattered within our family of four and we do not exist separate from him. How one daughter’s pathway has led to a life quite different than he would have imagined or projected…and had he been here…instead of me…would she still be on that same path?
How he would be viewed as a widower versus how I am viewed as a widow. How nothing is more adorable to a bunch of women of all ages than a lonely handsome widower with two grown daughters who have moved out and two aging dachshunds who sit on his lap in the evening. And nothing is more pathetic than a premenopausal widow with some extra stress-infused crow’s feet around her eyes, a stubborn middle aged ten pounds, an identity crisis…and the otherwise same exact baggage.
There were times when I wish I could have taken his place. There were times when I would have given anything to take his pain and hold his suffering, just to give him a break, or instead, a second half life without me. Then I could have let him be the one to live with the images, smells and sounds, the pain and failures and loneliness – and maybe he would have done a better job with everything and everyone in our collective family than I have. Maybe he would not have spent every day believing he was a big failure at this whole thing, looking outside and inside for some kind of validation that there is no roadmap for this.
That…if he had been the one to live, people would have healed faster and better and more completely, would have gotten on with things quicker, would have grabbed onto him tightly in love and support and not let him go. His children would not have been essentially forgotten and largely ignored by those who should have held them the closest. There would have been more laughter and happiness, intimacy and bonding, some reflection that resulted in loving action and openness to all the love lost and the love left behind.
What if it had been me? What if it had been you?