In 2009 my husband was windsurfing off the coast of Maui; flexing his well-toned muscles as he perfected his jibes; falling off the board and climbing back on, conquering the force of nature to be one with it. Meanwhile, I, his landlubbing wife, safely planted in the sand, was snapping photos of my seventy-two-year-old daredevil.
In 2010 this vigorous specimen of manhood was diagnosed with genetically acquired primary biliary cirrhosis. For the next seven years he bravely fought this new and insidious force of nature, jibing and falling and climbing back up, but little by little, cruel insult by insult, from cane to walker to wheelchair to bed, the relentless disease robbed him of strength. On June 14, 2017, the disease claimed whatever fragments of pain-free life remained.
Creativity can make the inevitable easier to face.
Bob hated being attended by caretakers, and I was possessive of his time, like a jealous wife or overprotective mother. During those difficult years, he became my calling. At the beginning, I put aside my writing; thought of it as a selfish pastime. I had just started an art suspense novel, Stolen Light, and was getting to know the protagonists—Erika Shawn, an editor at Art News magazine, and Harrison Wheatley, an art history professor—and I was discovering their irrepressible attraction for each other at the same time they themselves were. By investing myself in their blossoming intimacy while my own was in its wintry decline, I felt unfaithful, somehow; wondered, guiltily, if I was coveting the lives of the very characters I had created.
But then, with Bob’s encouragement—insistence, really—I went back to writing the novel. I discovered that the intensified bond with Bob deepened my connection with my fictional characters, and conversely, that my empathy with my characters—youthful, energetic, erotic—energized my connection with him.
In the end notes, I thanked “my husband, Bob, whose support on arid days is life-saving; on finger-flying days: icing on the cake.” He was touched to the point of elation. Then he read the book itself. Watching him turn the pages and seeing his changing expressions moved me to the point of elation! It was then that I fully understood the power of words, like music, to elevate the spirit and revitalize a marriage mired in the business of warding off death.
Connection As We Read Aloud
We began to read aloud to each other—Martin Cruz Smith (Red Square), David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks), even my new work in progress, Semblance of Guilt. (I had never shared my rough drafts with him, afraid of a negative reception and resultant self-doubt, but now that we were above and beyond all petty vanities—I was pulling up this proud man’s Depends, for god’s sake!—I threw caution to the wind.)
When Bob became too weak to read aloud, I took over. The sound of our voices, mine reading, his in spotted commentary, was comforting, and the mutual awareness of our bodies reclining side by side was reminiscent of our more vigorous connecting.
Now that over a year has passed since Bob died, casual acquaintances ask, “Are you dating again?” The directness of the question (to which my answer is “no”) seems a lot like, “It’s been six weeks since the cast came off. Aren’t you back out on the football field?”
Knowing a woman is dating again does not indicate her state of mind. She may only be desperate for company. It’s more enlightening, I think, to know that her—my—passion for life has returned; that I’m enjoying music again; that I’m moved by the sight of Van Gogh’s Starry Night; and that I’m getting the glitches out of the last chapters of a novel in the works, a sequel to Stolen Light.
To qualify the “no” in answer to the dating question: Recently, I had dinner at New York City’s Harvard Club with an old high school classmate. We met to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a book. All was aboveboard. The man is happily married, and besides, I still hadn’t been able to part with my husband’s list of meds stuck to the refrigerator door with a tulip magnet.
Nevertheless, our interaction was lively and stimulating, and there was some playful sparring, harmless but rejuvenating, and I realized that appreciating myself through the eyes of someone from the opposite sex was something I missed. Much of our talk was nostalgic, harping back to our school days, and I found myself thinking of my youth as a formative period of time that neither Bob, my children, my grandchildren, nor my present-day best friends had inhabited.
Perhaps we each live many lives, linked by the flow of time and our unique perspective, and we can only wonder what the next one will bring and prepare to greet it with an open mind.
Claudia Riess, a Vassar graduate, has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker and Holt Rinehart and Winston. She has written four novels and is publishing another soon. For more information about the author and her work, visit www.claudiariessbooks.com.