“Dying is no big deal—everybody will manage it. Living is the trick,” says Red Smith, a Pulitzer Prize winner for column writing, not just sports writing, which he did all his life, himself living the trick until days before his death, at past 90.
Smith perhaps felt the need to set the living straight, precisely because dying seems to have become somewhat synonymous with martyrdom, such that, almost as a matter of course, it elicits not just great compassion but general absolution, if not from God, at least from the Christian bloc.
Sainthood has never come easier, indeed: Sins are forgiven, and virtues blown up. Meanwhile, woe unto anyone so base as to bring up ugly things about someone after his or her death, no matter, nay, especially, if such things were true! How very nice for the dead spouse. But I’ve always wondered how the widowed is affected so far as the prospects of remarriage are particularly concerned.
Anyway, according to statistics, widowers are more affected than widows. A woman dating a widower has a tough act to follow. If the wife died fairly young, the problem is even compounded: She will never grow older or more wrinkled or fatter. And if the prospective second wife were a best friend, the ghost of marriage past can come a-haunting, and the tongues of some of the living go a-wagging.
I remember a grand dame at a dinner in her home pointing to her commissioned life-size portrait. There hung in the living room a younger version of her wearing the most exquisite, expensive-looking necklace.
She said it did not exist—it was a mere creation of her imagination, painted precisely to torment her husband’s future bride, drive her mad in search of it. She had other landmines planted, I presume, for any future intruders.
She died in her late 80s, a few years after our dinner. Her husband has not remarried and, now in his very frail 90s, very unlikely will.
Curiously, widowers don’t seem to lack for dates. But remarrying is another matter, and its chances are vastly, if not decidedly, reduced if they have attentive-enough children. And it’s just as well: Everybody can relax and have their fun without any ominous commitments.
A friend who lost his young wife suddenly and is childless is a hard case, and seems growing into an even harder one. Sitting beside me at a lunch that painfully reminded us all of her last presence among us in the same home, he said, unasked, “I’m wearing her jacket.”
It was the first time I had seen him since the funeral, and I could sense he wanted to talk about her, so I encouraged him, knowing by experience that talking about one’s loss always helps.
“Her face was untouched by the accident,” he said, picking out of his wallet a most recent picture of her, pretty and younger-looking than her 54 years. She had been making her presence felt, he said.
“I know she will want me to move on, and I will,” he said as expected, though not necessarily meant. He has been pouring his energy and sorrow into the effort of collecting her writings as a journalist, teacher and rights advocate.
Another case is a widower friend from the States. His wife died last year, after a few years of tri-weekly dialysis, leaving, apart from him, three children and five grandchildren. She was in her early 70s and had had her fair share of conjugal conflicts, some of them left unresolved.
Their Manila visits provided respite—they stayed with each other’s relatives. They stopped visiting when she was stricken. When a chance at transplant came, she didn’t let him know and passed it up—she herself phoned me about it, and I was only too shocked to say anything.
Only two months ago, the widower visited for the first time since her death nearly a year earlier. Toward the end of his trip, as was his wont, he called, “Hi, hi, hi!” laughing but this time with some awkwardness. We first reminisced on the years when our children were playmates in the States, then updated each other. Finally, he began to tell me about her.
“When I left her at the hospital late that night for a simple surgical procedure,” he said softly, “I didn’t know it would be the last time I would see her alive.” She had suffered a heart attack, leaving him stunned, angry, and in the end too physically drained, he said, to even think of suing the hospital.
“But your marriage lasted until the end,” I said, hoping to console him—after all, my own marriage didn’t.
“You know, there were times when I thought of leaving her,” he said. “Now, it doesn’t even occur to me—leaving her.”
Surely, he meant her memory. And just as surely, no woman would like to intrude into that territory.