My Years as a Widow-in-Waiting
This woman's days were filled with uncertainty when her husband’s health began its steady decline, but she clawed her way back
Nancy K. Schlossberg is co-president of TransitionWorks, a consulting firm; professor emerita at the College of Education, University of Maryland, College Park and served as president of the National Career Development Association. She is the author of nine books, including Retire Smart Retire Happy. Her website is transitionsthroughlife.com.
After we were married, I told him I would stop working to take care of the children. Steve knew how much I was committed to my field (adult transitions and career development) and wouldn’t hear of it. “We will figure this out and share responsibilities,” he said.
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He has made my life wonderful.
The Beginning of the End
Six years ago, I received a call to come to the George Washington University Hospital emergency room, in Washington, D.C., because Steve had fallen down a 188-foot subway escalator. It took the doctors more than five hours to stitch him up.
That was the beginning of Steve’s gradual six-year decline. It was also the start of my time as a widow-in-waiting, when my life revolved around him, his health and his care.
First, Steve used a cane, then a walker and finally a wheelchair. He had numerous surgeries, including a pacemaker insertion, a hip replacement, a knee replacement and a heart bypass.
When he had a major fever, our children came immediately because the doctors did not expect him to survive. (He was saved by massive doses of antibiotics.) A month later, Steve had emergency surgery on an incarcerated hernia. Once again, the children came for his anticipated death.
After that hospitalization, his doctors suggested Steve have no more surgery and he began a period of hospice at home with round-the-clock-care. Though not actively dying, he was very frail, with dementia and a diminished quality of life.
What It Means to Have One’s Life on Hold
As a widow-in-waiting, my life was continually on hold, filled with cancellations, conflict and coping.
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I canceled a business trip to South Dakota because, at that time, Steve was actively dying. Then I canceled a trip to celebrate a friend's big birthday in Las Vegas due to Steve's emergency palliative hernia surgery. When my friend died, I wanted to go to her funeral, but stayed home instead.
I discussed these cancellations with my friend Stephanie, whose husband was ill, and learned that she had similar experiences. Stephanie had to cancel a trip to New York because of her husband’s fifth hospitalization in a year.
We swapped tales of continually nixing theater, lunch and dinner dates. Every time we thought things were stabilizing — boom! — a fever would go over the top or there’d be a fall or another dramatic event.
For many widows-in-waiting, life is suspended.
The Apartment We Passed On
Several years ago, Steve and I put our apartment on the market and placed a deposit on a home in a retirement community, thinking it would be good for him to be in a protected environment with activities on the premises. Two weeks after the real estate agent began marketing our apartment, we learned that Steve was bleeding internally and went to the Mayo Clinic for a procedure.
I panicked, canceled the apartment in the retirement community and took our place off the market.
I’ve found myself constantly experiencing opposing emotions. I want Steve to live; I want him to die. I want to be with him all the time; I want to be out doing things.
Going From Dysfunctional to Rock Star
When Steve’s decline first began, I was dysfunctional. One time, I drove my car into the bus station and ripped a city sign right out of its concrete. I had to go to traffic school, pay an enormous fee and see my insurance premium raised.
That event served as a wake-up call, so I began trying to reframe what I was experiencing. My new take: I decided I was the rock star of Apartment 53.
I’d go out and return home to Steve and his professional caregivers who were all excited when I told them what was going on in the real world. I had fun kidding Steve about his being married to a celebrity.
It also gave me something to reply to the question: How are you and Steve doing? I’d say "Steve has stabilized and I am a rock star." I wanted to be viewed as someone who who was still fun to go out with.
The Importance of Support
Family and friends helped me cope with this up-in-the-air time of life.
Our adult children, Karen and Mark, their spouses and children were lifesavers to Steve and me. They visited, they called, they cared.
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Friends were a source of comfort, too, inviting me to come over or go out.
I eventually began taking three-day trips each month. When Steve first asked why, I told him the truth: I had speaking engagements and caregivers need to get away. He always says, “Have a wonderful time.”
I also spent a lot of time thinking about life without Steve. Would I stay in our apartment? Would I downsize? Would I move back to Washington, D.C.?
My Rehearsal Time
One thing that helped in this transition period was remembering the work of my mentor, Bernice Neugarten, one of the first psychologists to study adult development and aging. Neugarten believed that women engage in what she called “rehearsing for widowhood.”
That’s exactly what I was doing.
I rehearsed by comparing notes, discussing what was not discussible with Stephanie, and building humor into my life. It wasn’t easy.
But when I looked at Steve, struggling to breathe and stay alive, I had to count my blessings: I had a special husband who worked to make a difference in the world, fought for workers rights and civil rights and always showed his love for me.
In December 2011, the inevitable happened. Steve died.
I was in a rehab center at the time, recovering from emergency back surgery and a hip replacement. Strangely, being ill provided me with a protected period to grieve.
I moved back into the world gradually — with care at home, lots of physical therapy and a determination to walk again.
Five months after Steve’s death, my family and I had a memorial in Washington, D.C., to celebrate his life. I was no longer a widow-in-waiting. I was becoming the optimistic person I had always been, now carving out a new life strengthened by almost 50 years in a marriage filled with love, romance, excitement.
I was, I am, ready to move on.
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