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The Decision of a Lifetime

Most importantly to me, a house with no spouse. Maybe with all-day, all-night nurses for a spell. Would I get up enough strength to even be able to walk around again? All that strength I'd built up this summer by swimming in my pool surely would be gone. The summer would be over, the swimming ended for the year.

No spouse. Today, in August of 2004, I can say I've reached a point of reconciliation over my loss. You must know that Lois and I celebrated our 60th anniversary on 9/11/01 -- yes, that now-infamous day, as our 60th! The 9/11 when we married was a Saturday, so we could fly off on our honeymoon, but this 9/11 was a Tuesday. So we celebrated with a family dinner at home on Saturday night, Sept. 8. All three children, their spouses, and all seven grandchildren were at the table. In a way, we had cheated those terrorists. So when the attack came the following Tuesday Lois and I were still at the table just finishing a leisurely breakfast when we got word: Turn on your TV. We saw the second plane hit the tower. We saw it all with awe.


Roberts, at his backyard pool earlier this week. Despite physical ailments, the 93-year-old built up his strength over the summer by swimming laps. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

About the Author

Chalmers M. Roberts was once described as a "one-man band who could and did cover any story in the paper." Besides serving as chief diplomatic correspondent of The Post, he wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, the White House, the redevelopment of Southwest Washington in the early 1950s and the Watts riots in 1965. He is the author of books on such topics as nuclear arms control and the joys of being a grandfather. He lives in Bethesda.

_____The Heart_____
Hearts in the Right Place (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
QUICK STUDY : A weekly digest of new research on major health topics (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
A Weekly Shot of News and Notes (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
How Can You Rehab a Broken Heart? Exercise, Diet, Stress Reduction (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
Hold the Nitro? (The Washington Post, Mar 29, 2005)
More Heart News

The loss of a spouse -- especially after such a long and loving marriage as ours of 60 years -- is, I believe, the hardest blow in life. I lost Lois on Nov. 3, 2001. When she had fallen and broken a hip some years earlier, our way of life was vastly altered. We moved the bedroom down from the second floor to what had been built as a kid's playroom, then had become my office after retirement. I had grab bars put up for her in the tiny shower tucked into the corner of the small bathroom, and we made many other adjustments. In her last few years Lois developed dementia but she knew me to the end.

Honestly, I have been attracted to many women, loved a few but none as deeply, so passionately as Lois -- Lopie, as her parents dubbed her and everyone called her once they knew her. She died at 92 -- I married an older woman. My darling Lopie (pronounced Low-Pea).

I could not face the first anniversary of her death alone, so I asked my daughter and son-in-law to have dinner with me. That helped. Oddly, very oddly, the morning after that first anniversary of her death I woke up feeling that a very large weight had been lifted from my chest. That was, I think, the moment of my acceptance of what I have called my "reconciliation" to her death. Reconciliation, but no more.

All this came back to me as I thought through, as best I could, the suggested heart operation, the long rehabilitation -- and all to come home to what? A house with no spouse.

Back when I was just 80 I wrote my last book, a lighthearted look at growing old titled "How Did I Get Here So Fast?" In it I gave my credo: "Keep your heart pumping, your noodle active and your mood cheery."

But I had assumed I'd always have my spouse, and I was wrong.

Not that I feel alone. My children have been superb, my grandchildren most satisfactory, and so have been many of my friends, neighbors new and old, so loving, so thoughtful, so great in rallying round. I surely do not complain there.

But I would be coming home without a spouse.

So what would happen if I decided not to have the operation? David put that question directly to Dr. Oskoui. Almost certainly, he replied, one of two outcomes will follow, and the chance of one is about the same as the chance of the second. One possibility is that my aortic valve explodes with a rush of blood filling my body, ending my life instantly. Or, I would again suffer from shortage of breath such as brought me to Sibley earlier this month. I would return to the hospital, and would die in perhaps a couple of weeks as the valve slowly failed.

Without a spouse, not so bad a choice, it now seems to me. Most of us, contemplating death, hope to more or less drop dead. Quickly, unknowingly, painlessly. And I'd have a 50-50 shot at that. Not bad.

I might say, too, that I feel content. I've done my thing. Raised my kids. Helped each of them get a house. Did my newspapering, my journalism, as best I could, dammit. Had my byline in The Washington Post since 1949 -- not bad, either.

So that's how I came to decide "no" on the heart valve operation. I'm sorry I took so long to explain.

I do want to add a final word, about the hereafter. I do not believe in it. I think that the religions which promise various after-life scenarios basically invented them to meet the longing for an answer to life's mysteries. Indeed, my son David, a professor of astrophysics, tells me that colleagues have spent years listening to outer space for some word of some other life somewhere. I think we are too much bound in narrow "Earth think." Einstein at least began to think outside it.

I agree with Francis Crick, the eminent Cambridge don, the winner of the Nobel Prize for his co-discovery of the double helix, the blueprint of life, who wrote: "In the fullness of time, educated people will believe there is no soul independent of the body, and hence no life after death."


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