by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 10, 2005
A VALENTINE TO LONG-LASTING MARRIAGE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The house in south Florida was low and white, with green trim and a tile roof. A huge rubber tree took up half of the front yard. I was walking past it last week when I happened to look inside. I saw a small, frail woman, alone in a large space, drifting over to close the curtains.
The woman's image remains with me because in another of those same houses, my mother, recently widowed for the second time, is also turning into a small, frail woman, drifting alone in a large space.
As Valentine's Day approaches, our culture of youth presses us hard to celebrate young love and young marriage - to celebrate with chocolate and champagne; to celebrate with diamonds.
Love is fun and marriage is even more fun, say the ads. But I am haunted by another of love's realities, best expressed by G.K. Chesterton: "The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost."
For my mother's generation, divorce was rare and marriages were long-lasting. My father's favorite joke was about a couple in their 90s who were applying for a divorce. "Why did you wait so long?" the judge asked. "We wanted to wait until the children were dead," came the response.
Couples were in it for the long haul back then, "for better or for worse, 'til death do us part." Fifty-year and even 60-year marriages are not rare among my mother's friends.
Some of these marriages are based on love and affection, and others on frustration and contempt. In old age the fault lines of marriage become brutally visible. Last week I heard a story about a woman so angry about caring for her 90-year-old husband that she stopped feeding him. He grew weak, fell, and was taken to a nursing home. He was fed and started to gain weight before he died - probably of a broken heart.
And I heard another story about a woman who left her gravely ill husband in the hospital because she had airline tickets to Europe. The doctors were kind enough to keep him there until she returned; they didn't want to send a dying man home to an empty house.
Whether a long-lasting marriage is good, great or terrible, the truth is that one partner is bound to die before the other. And the loneliness of the one left behind can be unbearable. Some die soon after their partners. One woman in my mother's community drowned herself in a lake.
Even if, like my mother, you have children and grandchildren, friends, and volunteer work that you love, coming home to an empty house can be cruel. You find yourself drifting through empty rooms, turning on the television set just to hear voices, talking to photographs on the walls.
Still, life in the retirement community is not all about death and dying. Romance flourishes. The talk that week was about the new affair between a lovely widow of 83 and her new, older lover. "He can't keep his hands off of her," one of their friends told me. "I'm not a prude, but they shouldn't act like that, not in public." Even juicier, before they became a couple, the man was double-dealing her with another woman. They went on a cruise together; I was told she bought black lacy underwear for the trip.
Friendships also flourish, especially among the widows. One pair told me about their recent overnight to a Miami spa. "We were in our room, and a cruise ship was passing so close we could see the passengers" one of them said. "My roommate here lifted her shirt and flashed them!" "It was dark," said the other one said, giggling. "They couldn't see anything."
Our culture fears death so much that long life has become a fetish. Now that we are achieving it, however, it is common for people to outlive their eyesight, their hearing, their hip bones, their minds and almost always, their partners. "Old age isn't for sissies," said the comedian Martha Raye, and neither is long-lasting love. Whenever I visit Florida, I wonder if I have the strength and the character for it.
"'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," said Alfred Lord Tennyson, and who could argue with him. But as we celebrate the friskiness of young love, we should also recognize the strength it takes to be part of an older, long-lasting love. And we should realize that at the end of love, we can find ourselves drifting through a large space, sad and too much alone.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.