The story of Maureen and Wally
On Sept. 19, 2012, my 55-year-old college sweetheart -- now husband of 32 years -- came home from work.
I went off to my yoga class, leaving dinner for him and our middle child, our 26-year-old daughter who was preparing to move to be with her boyfriend in Madison. Our two sons were living their lives -- the oldest, 29, settled in Minneapolis. The youngest, almost 24, was settling into academic life in Carbondale.
My husband Wally was an attorney and a business partner in a small title insurance company. He exercised on the treadmill and with weights 90 minutes daily. We hiked and biked together, especially now that the kids were flying out of the nest. He would leave me in the dust, but not too far behind because he wanted to be sure we were together on our treks.
He loved his kids -- coaching, cheering, laughing and sharing his passion for the Cubs, Bears and Bulls with them. He loved me. We made it through the tough times, the business of raising three kids while both working full time.
We were starting to travel more, cook together, visit the kids when we could. Whew ... we did still really LIKE each other after the craziness of raising kids.
I came home from yoga and Wally was complaining of severe heartburn. He said he had taken some anti-heartburn meds and was feeling a bit better. I was wary. Did his arm hurt? Chest? Neck? All were negative.
As we settled into the evening he was still complaining a bit. And suddenly he fell out of his chair to the floor, unconscious.
I yelled for my daughter to call 911. I started CPR. The wonderful Batavia paramedics came. They took over, one took my daughter and me to another room and then they finally loaded Wally into the ambulance.
I knew it was bad and called my sister who lives in Chicago. "Please come to Mercy Hospital." My daughter and I followed the ambulance.
I lost my darling, my partner, the father of my children, my first love shortly after he got to the hospital.
We found out it was hidden heart disease. He seemed fit and healthy, but his arteries were 75 percent blocked.
What got me through my grief?
In the first few days:
• My children, who stayed by my side, and I by theirs, who cried with me, and I with them, during this devastatingly unreal time.
• My siblings and siblings-in-law, who rallied and stayed at my house, who arranged flights from Minnesota for our oldest, who drove in the night to SIU to pick up our youngest. My nieces and nephews, who gathered around their cousins, organized my house, cleaned and cooked.
• My dear friends: Our closest friends who also came to the hospital that night; my college roommates who never left my side; my wonderful neighbors filling my fridge with food and heart with gratitude; my colleagues who picked up the slack at work so I did not have to worry and gathered around me; my cousins, who traveled from across the country to share the grief; and Wally's colleagues and friends, who had the look of shock and loss, like all of us.
And all of these people let me talk or cry or sleep or do nothing at all, whatever I needed. They were and are my village.
For six weeks I could do nothing but cry.
I cried when I took out the trash.
I cried when I walked into our bedroom.
Clean the cat's litterbox? Cried.
I cried all the time.
I found I was always trying to flee my house or have my house filled with friends or siblings. I kept thinking "NO! Wally and I were supposed to (fill in the blank)."
When I finally crashed and burned, when the waves were too much in spite of the love around me, I started to think of my parents. Sure could have used my mom and dad then.
A memory I hold of my dad from late 1990 helped me to remember just how lucky and blessed I had been. In 1990, visiting with my parents when my dad was very sick with cancer, I sat at his kitchen table with him early one morning. I was up with my youngest, a toddler who was an early riser like his grandfather.
My dad said to me that morning, "You know, pumpkin, I am a lucky man."
I was dumbstruck. How could this 63-year-old man think he was lucky? Cancer was ravaging his body and death was near, and his wife, my mom, had also been diagnosed with cancer.
He went on to tell me that he felt he was lucky for many reasons: his long marriage, his five children (although it was devastating to them when my sister was killed in 1976), his six beautiful grandchildren, his friends and his big Irish family.
I used that memory of my dad to help me deal with my new grief.
I was lucky. I found Wally when I was 21. We had a fabulous life. Yes, there were times of grief, of troubles with kids or finances, but we had each other, our kids, our friends ... our LIFE TOGETHER. The best man from our wedding said to me, "You two were the perfect couple." I disagreed and said we were perfect for each other!
I supported myself by attending individual counseling and also attending a widow/widower group. I read about this new normal I had to live and about the grieving process. I learned to be gentle with myself -- no preconceived ideas of what I should or should not do or say or think. I relied on my family and friends for support.
Gradually, the waves went from knocking me over to pushing me a bit to nipping my ankles. Now, more than five years after Wally's death, there are still times that those waves of grief nip me. I still shed tears when I hear certain songs, I cried writing this when I thought of my kids who miss their dad so much and of what our lives might have been.
I will always, always, always love Wally with all my heart. But I also honor his life by living mine. He was exceedingly proud of me. He loved that I was a strong, smart, independent woman who loved him with all my heart.
My life today is not what I thought it would be six years ago. But I am living a good and whole life.
Losing a spouse is not an event I wish for anyone. It is devastating. But do the math ... it will happen to almost 50 percent of us.
Be gentle with yourself.
Don't let anyone "should" on you.
Let your friends and family support you.
Have quiet time.
And sometimes, a glass or two of wine.
Grief is the price we pay for loving someone deeply. But I would not change a day of my life because the LOVE has shaped my life and will go on forever.