I called my best friend the other day and said: “I need some advice. And since Joel isn’t here, I’m calling you.”
“Isn’t that funny,” she replied. “I was just about to ask you where he is.”
We both stayed quiet for a minute, taking in the loss of my husband. He was her friend, too.
“I know,” I finally said. “Where is he?!”
I shake my head a lot, in disbelief that this is my life. That my husband died. That I’m not even 50 years old, and here I am a widow. I think of my daughter, who is so different than the 13-year-old she was when her daddy died. She had braces. Purple streaks in her hair. She smiled and laughed easily. I think how I was different then, too, three years ago. Worried and anxious about Joel’s health — he had multiple sclerosis — and feeling inadequate as a nurse.
Joel and I started out as friends, becoming romantic years later when the timing was finally right. I knew I would love this man forever, though, when early into our friendship, he told me this joke:
Where do cantaloupes and honeydew go during the summer?
— John Cougar Mellencamp
For some reason, this cracked me up. It was the late 1980s, and the world still mostly thought of him as rocker, John Cougar. The Mellencamp name alone was funny. This joke still makes me smile when I think of it, and I can picture exactly where we were when Joel said it — in the mail room of the record label we both worked for. I was sitting on the counter, my legs swinging beneath me. He laughed at the punch line, too, his face full and happy, a twinkle in his green eyes.
I was waiting on line for a movie recently, when I spotted an older couple in front of me. The wife was angry because the husband didn’t buy the tickets online like she had asked him to. He was nonchalant, certain that the movie was not going to sell out. Even if it did, he said, there was another movie they wanted to see, starting around the same time. The wife wasn’t having it. She was holding on to her anger and resentment over the husband not doing things her way. He seemed all too used to it, even told her to be quiet and rolled his eyes. She rolled hers. They were together, but apart.
I notice things like this all the time. When I am around people who have been married for years, it doesn’t seem like they enjoy each other’s company too much. There seems to be a shortness, an annoyance with every exchange. I’ve been in cars with friends, couples who argue over which freeway lane to drive in. I’ve had dinner at friends’ homes, and they argue over which wine glasses to use. It doesn’t mean there isn’t love, but I wonder if there’s any like left.
I went with my daughter to a college fair a few weeks ago. School events are difficult for me. I want my husband there with us, to be a sounding board, to weigh in. But as I looked around the room, I realized that if Joel were there with us, I probably would have been mad or annoyed that he wouldn’t be quite sure what we were doing there. But if he had decided to stay home that morning, I’d also be mad and annoyed by his absence. Even in death, the poor guy can’t win!
As you spend years and decades with someone, I think people naturally start to take each other for granted. Work, kids, life, keeps everyone busy. And edgy and frustrated. My mother-in-law has often said that people are sometimes nicer to strangers than they are to the people they love the most. Life is funny that way.
I will not know the luxury of growing old with my husband, but I do know this: Joel and I really liked each other. We laughed and talked and hugged throughout the day, and as sappy as it sounds, we often fell asleep holding hands. We always said “I love you.” But we would also say, “I like you.” That second part was just as important.
Would I have been aggravated if we got to the movies and had to wait on line? Absolutely. So would he. But I would have been thrilled to sit in the dark with him, to whisper about what we were watching or about the people sitting near us, our fingers touching as we shared a large popcorn.