I lost my first wife to cancer in 1974. I didn’t do a very good job of handling her loss then and in some ways I’m still paying the price for bungling it now. I’ll try to explain.

Michele and I were married in 1958 and had three children by the time she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (lymphosarcoma) in 1966. Her doctor did not tell her what the diagnosis was, he only told me and asked me not to tell my wife. He said there was no point in telling her because it would only cause her to become depressed. He went on to say that he had patients that have lived for up to twenty years with this type of cancer and there was no need to ruin Michele’s future by telling her anything. I told the doctor that I had never lied to my wife and if I did lie she would probably be able to tell from looking into my eyes. He said I needed to be strong and not give her diagnosis away to anyone, not even her Mom and Dad.

There were no support groups in existence back then, so I went to my clergyman to see whether he agreed with the doctor. He, to my dismay, emphatically agreed with the doctor and said that I should never tell Michele or anyone else about her disease. Not even in the end when it was clear that she was dying.

Radiation treatment was the mode at that time. She had a remission for a while but the disease finally took her from the children and me in July of 1974. We had been married for sixteen years and she was sick for the last eight years. I was devastated and so were the children.

But, life goes on. The children (three girls) and I tried to make the best of it but it became very difficult for us all. No one could understand why I hadn’t told anyone about Michele’s disease, not her mother, father or sister and certainly none of my children. They would never forgive me. Several years later I remarried. My new wife had no children of her own but she did not get along with my kids.

Eventually, after a few months of living together my children and I began to grow apart. Two of them went to live with their grandmother. In an attempt to save the marriage I took a job out west and we moved to Arizona. Unfortunately, that didn’t help the marriage and we were divorced after only a couple of years.

Now, alone again, I started to drink heavily to escape my depression. Of course drinking didn’t solve anything but I was already “hooked” and couldn’t give it up. My excuse was that the alcohol helped me fall asleep at night. I was a “closet” drinker and no one knew about my heavy drinking except my youngest daughter who had stayed with me throughout this whole ordeal. It was she who finally convinced me that I needed to admit myself into a treatment center, which I promptly did. After a month of treatment I came out sober and I haven’t had drop of alcohol since then. That was thirteen years ago.

Ultimately, I moved back east in 1988 to be closer to my family. About a year later, I met Geri (short for Geraldine). Geri is a wonderful woman. She is easy going and fun to be with. I had literally never met anyone like her before. A year later, we bought a house and moved in together. Life was wonderful for us living together. I had never known such happiness before. Then in 1995, during a routine visit with her doctor, Geri learned that she had ovarian cancer. Lightning does strike twice in the same place. Since then, she has undergone major surgery twice followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment.

For me, the important thing that has happened this time is that Geri and I are well aware of what is happening. We are fighting this disease together. And, we both know that in the end Geri will probably die, barring any new medical breakthroughs. We are not anticipating any miracles. I’m retired now and I can care for most of Geri’s needs myself. We have been to the lawyers office together to update our will. We have also individually prepared a living will as well as a power of attorney (we never officially got married). Geri has bought a burial plot and is in the process of paying for her own funeral. On occasion we discuss some of the most important things that she would like to have done with her belongings after she is gone. Most of the important stuff is already in her will but she wants me to see to it that her wishes are carried out.

As for me, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I will do when Geri is no longer with me. There are many things I am unable to do right now because I am Geri’s caregiver. For example, I can’t sign up for any courses at the local college because I can’t commit to a definite schedule of classes. But, later on I can attend as many classes as I can handle. Maybe I could even get into a Masters program. I enjoy traveling, golfing, fishing, art, music and theater. I might even join a singles group to find new friends. I hate to have dinner alone and finding new friends to share these things with would be wonderful. I share these thoughts with Geri. In many ways, she finds my plans comforting because she won’t have to worry about what will happen to me after she is gone.

Believe me, it is much easier on everyone concerned if you face the inevitability of death together. After all, we are all going to die someday. Isn’t it better if you can help someone face the unknown rather than merely ignoring it? After experiencing both methods, I can tell you that sharing the inevitability of death is far, far better than ignoring it.

Ed Wirkman