Finding Love in the Wake of Death


Joe and I met when my daughter, Julie, was in junior high. He was her drama teacher. I came home after a parent-teacher conference and said to her, “So what can you tell me about this Joe guy?” He was very bright, very funny, very tuned in to the kids. I’d gotten divorced from Julie’s dad when she was four, and after that I hadn’t dated. I didn’t want men coming in and out of the house.

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Not long after, my daughter had a sweet 16 party, and we invited Joe. He came toward the end, and when he left, he kissed my hand. He was in many ways a really old-fashioned person and not given to public demonstrations, though I didn’t know that then. After the party, he suggested we meet to discuss something going on at the school. I told Julie, and she said, “You can call this one a meeting, but after that you have to call it a date.”

We moved in together after about a year. And a year after that, he started having symptoms that felt like water in his ear. He got it checked, and we found out he had a brain tumor. We just had a year together before he got diagnosed. But it was a really good year. It was.

His tumor wasn’t cancerous, but it could be deadly if it couldn’t be removed. He had surgery, but they were only able to take out a small part. It left him really impaired. He kept teaching for a while, but he had to stop. His memory was deteriorating, his physical capacity. And then his mom started having a lot of difficulty, so she came to live with us. I was working, too, but it was just one of those things. You don’t even think about it—you just do it. But you kind of lose yourself.

Once I couldn’t lift his mother, we found an assisted-living place for her. Then she broke her hip and died, and about that time, I started to realize I couldn’t take care of Joe on my own anymore. We found an assisted-living place where we could live together. But eventually Joe couldn’t even remember that he needed a walker: He’d stand up and try to walk and then fall, and I couldn’t get him up. The assisted-living place had a memory facility, so he moved there, and I stayed in our apartment. A lot of people he lived with had moments of real hostility—Alzheimer’s changes people. But Joe didn’t have Alzheimer’s. Everybody loved him, even in memory care. He’d have these thoughts and try to express them with the most intelligent three words, and then it would be gone. But he’d just let it pass. That was his personality. He was the least moody person I’ve ever been around. And he did always seem to know who I was. The actual connection might have gotten a bit lost from time to time, but he saw me as a positive person.

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About a year before he died, he fell and had to go to the nursing side of the facility.
I’d visit him every day, and, well, the only other person I saw on an everyday basis was this guy visiting the woman next door. We’d pass as he was getting off the elevator bringing her Starbucks and make jokes about him being the delivery guy. One day we exchanged stories. His name was Sam, and he’d been married to the woman in the next room for 35 years. For the last 10 she’d had Alzheimer’s.

From the start, we were totally comfortable talking, which was kind of amazing, especially because of the situations we’d been in. By that point, I could hold Joe’s hand, but it wasn’t the same. It hadn’t been a marriage, honestly, for a long time.

All of a sudden, though, there were things that got turned back on again. Sam and I developed a romantic relationship a few months before Joe died. In the beginning, I thought, Is this really okay? I’ve felt all along that if Joe had known, he would’ve been glad, but I was still living in the same facility where Joe was in memory care, and I knew there would be judgment. The world gets so small in places like that.

Two months before Joe passed away, I moved out and found a place a block away from Sam. By then, his wife’s children from a previous marriage had assumed her care, and then she and Sam got divorced, encouraged by the children. It’s a very sad story. Much sadder than mine in a lot of ways.

We’d just decided Sam would come live with me when Joe died. That day my daughter and her partner were with me in the room with Joe, and they suggested that we go to lunch, but I just didn’t feel right leaving. An hour later, he died.

In the weeks and months afterward, I didn’t know what to do with myself. My whole day had been built around when I was going to go spend time with Joe. But Sam was very tender and loving. He just starts doing things for you. He understood. And still does. He’s the least judgmental person. He and Joe both. I got lucky twice.

Sometimes I think, If something debilitates Sam, would I do it all over again? Yes. The one thing both Sam and I would say is, Don’t feel guilty. If you’re hurting other people, it’s different, but otherwise it’s okay to fall in love. Again. Even in your seventies. It’s still okay to fall in love.

This article originally appears in the December 2017 issue of ELLE.

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