Joanne and Me 1970
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of my first wife. As I write these words, I feel a kind of stunned disbelief- how could she have been dead so long? And yet it also feels much longer- all the kids are grown, or nearly so, I have been married to Deb now for going on 12 years, and, face it, I look A LOT OLDER!!
That time in my life, her 8 year illness, her decline, her death, brings so many different feelings when I remember it. Strangely, the one that comes up first is joy; because, really, there is no greater joy than facing ALL of life with a strong love and a community that supports you. (And also, gallows humor is pretty damn funny).
I met Joanne when I was 16 and I’d like to be able to say that we caught each other’s eyes and knew, right then, that we should spend our lives together but, c’mon, it was the 60s and I was 16! We finally began a “relationship” (if anyone had been calling it that then) when I was 18 or so, but it was a pretty loose thing. It wasn’t until I moved 3000 miles away and missed her too much to describe that I realized she was Important (capital I intended). She moved to California to move in with me.
Once again, I’d like to say we lived happily ever after but, hey, now it was the early 70’s! Lesbians just weren’t doing that. Monogamy was a bourgeois invention to support the Man, we needed to be free, marriage was to keep women imprisoned by men, blah, blah, blah… The two of us fell apart within a few years.
But here’s the really strange, or maybe pretty lesbian, part- we never really fell out. We morphed into the kind of friends who call each other at the worst times, just to hear a loving voice. We encouraged each other, came through for each other, protected each other (well, ok, maybe she just protected me). I knew, even then, that having a true friend that loves you, absolutely no matter what, is a supreme blessing. And I felt that, even while we were breaking up!
I hesitate to say this (my kids read my blog) but the gen-xers did not invent Friends With Benefits. There was that too, when we were single, lonely, whatever. We didn’t really consider turning it into Something again until…
I remember the day she told me about the cancer. She asked to go out with me and the person I was living with. We met at a restaurant and sat in the bar area. I was looking forward to seeing her. She came in with that big old smile she had, her confident walk, a little trouble in her face.
“Well,” she said, “the good news is I’m not crazy! The bad news is, it’s really bad.”
She had been experiencing severe back pain for 2 years, and couldn’t even get a doctor to give her an xray. (One of the doctors later admitted to her that he hadn’t taken her seriously because, in the medical community, if an African-American presents with back pain, they are assumed to be malingering!!!!) By the time she was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a form of blood cancer that breaks your bones, she had a broken back. She was given six months to a year to live.
I was there for her right away. You bet; this was my friend! I had her power of attorney within a year. She said it was because I was the only one who could pull the plug if I needed to (and eventually, I pretty much did need to). What I couldn’t have predicted was that we would fall in love again, and this time we would have a marriage. For 6 ½ years, we lived with death in the background, but it only seemed to make life more vital. (Well, at least after I got done panicking! That took a couple of years.)
She started talking right away about having a child together. I thought she was out of her mind! A baby and a dying partner? Not to mention the older kids…
About 4 years in, we went to Hawaii and somehow, being in that air just helped me get ready to take the risk. Was I going to put off life because of what might happen? That didn’t seem to line up with anything else we were doing. So, we came back prepared to begin having a baby (we planned for me to give birth).
The universe had a different plan! The day we came home, we met a mother who needed to place her baby. Within a week, my youngest daughter, two months old, had moved in with us, forever (although we didn’t know it was forever for a long time). One of our friends said, “I was thinking this just doesn’t happen to people, and then I thought, it does if it’s you two!”
It was a crazy decision (I’m sure you’d all agree) and the expected result, the one I feared, happened- Joanne died 2 ½ years later. But it was also a right decision- the blessings that have come from loving a dying woman (her, specifically) and bringing that baby, now 17, into our lives cannot be counted. Everything is richer having learned even more deeply that some crazy things are right things.
I can see that many good things in my life are possible because I learned to live more fully. And even loving again, taking the risk of losing love, eyes open to the preciousness in each day, has made my marriage to Deb, and our true love, richer and deeper, because I’m just not that timid, uncertain person I was so long ago.
I honor Joanne for helping me learn that love is the only answer, the only thing worth risking everything for. I thank her for opening up my life ever more fully to the living. If there is a life beyond this one, I know she’s somewhere winning at Scrabble, attracting people to come near, just to be around her and most of all, laughing a hearty laugh.
Happy death day, my friend!