How We Live

A friend who is battling a recurrence of a lethal cancer wants to take a road trip with his wife this summer, visiting the places they’ve lived and seeing old friends and neighbors and places they fondly remember.

That impulse reminded me of the visit of my late husband Jerry’s cousin Sylvia not long after he died. I was in Maine visiting Jerry’s brother and my sister-in-law, when Sylvia came for a few days with her husband Morty. Sylvia was slipping into dementia, and Morty wanted to bring her around to see the family while she still sort of knew us. She kept asking where Jerry was, and instead of repeating over and over that he was dead, we simply started saying, “He’s not here right now.” One afternoon, when she and I were sipping tea on the porch in the late afternoon, she reached over to me, tears flooding her eyes.

“I really know Jerry is dead, ” she said brokenly. “I just can’t keep that thought in my head.” I held her hands and assured her whatever she had to do was all right.

Sylvia and Morty were, to me, a great love story. Sylvia was the unmarried grown daughter left at home to take care of her aging mother; at 50, she lived with Aunt Jenny and worked as a high school guidance counselor. Easily 100 pounds overweight, Sylvia checked herself into a Boston hospital, lost the 100 pounds, met and married Morty, regained the 100 pounds, and they lived happily together for almost 25 years. She adored him, and he her. I thought their “farewell” trip to see the cousins was precious, and as you can see, the moments of her clarity have stayed with me for almost 15 years.

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