For many of us, reading is the most efficient way to learn. Newspaper, magazine, book or whatever your format may be. But the past 10 months have taught me that sometimes experience is the only teacher.

You have to learn at first hand. You gotta be there.

You may know from past columns that on June 3 my wife, Marilyn, died. For nine years and 10 months, she fought ovarian cancer. We knew we would lose the battle, but we managed it well. With prayer and with the marvelous people at the Maine Medical Center in Scarborough and the Dempsey Center in Lewiston, Marilyn lived out her too-short life actively and in control.

Talking with others who have lost a wife or husband (or, worse, a child) teaches me that many of our experiences are similar, that they occur in a similar sequence and that no one can understand what happens to us until we lose the person with whom we had built a life (or, again even worse, a person who came out of that love). You gotta be there.

About the only predictable part, no matter how well you prepare for the loss, is that the structure of your life has been smashed and that you will be lonely, unimaginably lonely.

The day no longer begins with your making coffee and taking a cup upstairs for her. Nothing during the day is the same. And immediately, the coming together at the end of the day is gone. The little things you want to tell her when you’re back together can no longer be shared. You see a friend downtown and remind yourself to tell Marilyn when you get home that you saw so and so, who said …

That even happens in a circle of irony. You want to go home to tell Marilyn that so-and-so at the gym expressed sympathy over Marilyn’s death. Bizarre as that seems, it happens. You gotta be there to understand. Everyone I have talked to who has lost a life’s love has had the I-gotta-tell-her-that experience time and again.

I knew that the day after Marilyn’s funeral would be the hardest day. When family and friends left, I was alone. My focus was gone. There was no Marilyn to take care of. There was no structure. I had no idea what to do first. What to do next. Cancer had been the elephant in the room, and the new loneliness sat on me like an elephant.

While I always liked being alone some of the time — it was not uncommon for me to walk over to the farm at 4 a.m. to work alone for a few hours before the crew came in — now I was forced to be alone. I may be the only guy in history who was grateful to be on the board of selectmen. At least those meetings put me in a room with other people for a few hours each fortnight.

You may think it odd to speak of being blessed when you stare death in the face. But we were blessed to connect with the Dempsey Center. At our first counseling session, we learned what probably everybody learns the first day there, maybe like learning the ABCs in first grade. You need to make the opportunity to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.

Marilyn and I several times tiptoed up to that blunt exchange, but neither of us ever put a toe over the line. I regret that we didn’t bring ourselves to that point, but I also recall that far earlier in her illness we had gone through an exchange of regrets and forgiveness.

My friend Tom, who lost his wife 15 years ago, invited me to sit with him at a Bowdoin women’s basketball game in January. We talked basketball, of course, but we talked more about loss. Again, his experience previewed mine. He told me that in time the good memories would outweigh the bad, in number and in intensity.

I was grateful to sit with Tom that night and learn about his experience, because I had turned that corner a few days earlier. I had realized a day or two before that ball game that I was remembering Marilyn with me in a number of places, including basketball games that we had shared, rather than seeing her weakened body on the sofa barely able to watch TV, gulping air into the lungs to which her cancer has metastisized.

No lesson about the memories could be stronger than the one that Tom brought from his experience. You gotta be there, you gotta hear it from someone who was there before you.

Whether or not you go through the regrets-and-forgiveness exercise, you are bound to feel a thousand stings of guilt. More like pin pricks, but stings of guilt nonetheless. Behaving badly at a bar, slacking on doing the dishes, staying too long at work.

A dozen people have told me how these little guilts that barely registered at the time loom large in retrospect. And, it would have been so easy to turn down that last beer and head home, to turn on the water to start the dishes. To wrap up the work that had to be done and leave the rest for tomorrow. But to the person, we all seem to have taken the easy way more often than we now feel comfortable admitting.

Of all the advice I received from those who walked this path before me, none was better than that from my neighbor across the road. He lost his wife to a different cancer 10 years earlier. At Marilyn’s wake, he told me, “Bob, there’s two things. It’ll never go away. And, you have to find a place to put it.”

I’m still looking for the place to put it. But he is correct. It’ll never go away. No matter how beautifully or how well the rest of my life turns out.

  Marilyn told Bob Neal he should write about not being able to afford to keep her alive, even with Medicare.  Maybe later, Babe.  Today I hadda write about missing you.

Bob Neal


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.