I fall in love with Dave because he’s confident, sensitive, smart—and funny. Before we get married, the expensive, humorless lawyer who makes our will urges us to have a prenup. We’re not rich, but Dave is 28 years older than I, and we live in Southern California, where the point of reference is Hollywood.
“Do you think I’m going to leave you to run off with Ben Stiller?” I turn to Dave and ask, holding his hand in the lawyer’s ice-cold office. We’ve just seen Meet the Parents.
Dave shakes his head. “Do you think I’m going to run off with his mother?” I think of the wonderful Anne Meara and groan. We grin at each other as the lawyer makes several references to the likelihood that Dave will die before me. After a while, my 65-year-old fiancé gets edgy: he’s healthy and vital.
The fourth time the lawyer says, “Assuming Mr. Fine will predecease Ms. Young,” Dave whispers to me, “You could get hit by a bus, you know.”
I chuckle. “I’ll try to remember to look both ways,” I tell him.
After we’re married, a neighbor comes over to talk with me one day as I weed the garden. “I’m a little concerned about your father,” he begins. I’m confused. My father has been dead for seven years. “Yesterday he fell when your dog yanked the leash.” He looks startled when I begin to laugh. “I thought he might’ve gotten hurt,” he explains, drawing himself up.
“Oh, no, he’s okay. I’m not laughing about his fall. He’s got spinal stenosis and he loses his balance sometimes. I was laughing because he’s my husband, not my father!” The neighbor turns bright red and begins to apologize.
I shrug. “You’re not the only one to get confused. In fact, his name is Dave, and the other night at dinner I called him Dad by mistake. We had a good laugh about that.” The neighbor smiles politely, clearly thinking I come from another planet.
There’s much to joke about as a couple ages: the time-honored topics of erectile dysfunction, memory loss, and menopause are just a few. Similarly, our jokes about my running away with a rich and famous person, getting hit by a bus, or falling in love with my father help Dave and me navigate our age difference, not only when I’m 37 and he’s 65, but also at 50 and 78. His acceptance of his own foibles allows me to release some perfectionism and be vulnerable with him, and our mutual love of witticisms becomes a game that emerges whenever we contend with our many differences. We joke about masculine vs. feminine roles, Jewish vs. Christian values, American vs. British literary conventions, jazz vs. folk, seafood vs. steak, dogs vs. cats, film noir vs. rom-coms. Whoever can defend their position with more wit wins the contest and wears the figurative laurel crown—till the next difference arises and more witticisms are needed. We laugh and extol each other’s brainpower whenever we can, through all kinds of challenges and circumstances: humor sustains us.
But when Dave dies, I find myself utterly unprepared. Everyone else had foreseen the unspeakable difference—dead vs. alive—from the very beginning. I grope for the ballast of humor, but nothing comes. For a long time, I feel like I’ll never laugh again, not even when I realize, months later, that the fact that I’d found his body in the bathtub was a detail he’d have found hilarious. Instead, when I remember him laughing, his eyes crinkling, his voice rising an octave with delight, I explode in tears. Nothing is funny anymore.
My denial of his aging haunts me in grief. Why hadn’t I spent more time getting inside his head, asking more questions, simply paying more attention? We’d felt so close, sparring with our wits. But had our joking just kept us sailing along the surface, not delving into the differences, especially the difference in age? I revisit three memories again and again, trying to understand my failure.
In one memory, after we’ve moved back east, I’m heading up to bed when he says, “Elizabeth?” The tone is peculiar, and I turn to face him. The Week in Review lies crumpled in his lap. My eyebrows go up. Dave never crumples his favorite section of the Sunday paper. I cock my head. “Are you having an affair?” he asks.
My mouth falls open. “Huh?”
“I wondered if you are having an affair.”
I stare at him. “An affair?”
“No, David. I am not having an affair.”
There’s a long pause while he gazes at me speculatively. I wonder if I’m going to faint, and then remember that it’s necessary to breathe. With the intake of air comes indignation. I swing onto the bottom stair and head up to the bedroom. There, I lie under the cold sheet and shiver, thinking. My loving husband provides comfort, security, and adventure. Why would I have an affair?
In the morning, I’m still dumbfounded. We never talk about the question, where it came from, or why he’d even ask it. Ruminating on it after his death, I suddenly consider the Ben Stiller joke. Could my confident husband really have thought that I wanted anyone but him? The thought makes me ache, because I never did want anyone but him, only him, though perhaps a little happier and, yes, younger.
In another memory, I wake, slowly and with difficulty, to the sound of Dave’s voice emerging from cacophony and bustle: other men’s voices, something bumping up the stairs. “Elizabeth. Elizabeth.”
Then another voice: “Talk to her, tell her to wake up.”
“Elizabeth, wake up. Wake up, Elizabeth.” Dave sounds worried.
One eye flickers open, but the bright lights in the bedroom and everything zooming in on me make it close again.
“There she is!” a man says. “Keep talking to her.”
Dave’s voice again: “Wake up, Lizzy. Open your eyes.”
When I do, I see him at the side of the bed, utterly focused on me. My heart rises to meet him. He smiles, and tears spill down his face. The paramedics take over: load me on the gurney, bump me down the stairs and out the door. I can’t see Dave, but I hear one of the guys telling him, “If you come in your car, you’ll have a car to get home. Don’t tailgate us. Don’t speed. Meet us at the ER. You know where the hospital is, right?” I don’t hear his reply, and hope that he knows that it’s two towns over, on the left.
The young doctor who meets the ambulance walks alongside the gurney. “Were you trying to harm yourself?” he demands. I gawk at him. “Were you trying to commit suicide?” he asks impatiently. I think of my history of depression, before Dave. All the misery, and now the deep satisfaction that I’ve fought that battle and won.
“No,” I say. “I think I took too much short-acting Humalog insulin, thinking it was the long-acting Lantus. It wasn’t on purpose. I’ve had diabetes since I was 10. I’ve never done that before, but it’s not an uncommon mistake.” He looks slightly crestfallen, and I’m relieved to be turned over to the nurses, who watch to make sure that my blood sugar doesn’t drop again, that the glucagon the paramedics have given me does its work.
Dave arrives, hurrying, and then sits with me while we wait, quietly holding my hand. What goes through his mind? What does he feel? I don’t know; I don’t ask.
Long after his death, perseverating on things I don’t know and didn’t ask, I suddenly see that for him, I got hit by a bus that night. I could’ve died. My steady husband was scared. I’m haunted by his fear of my dying, by how much I must have mattered to him. We never told each other in words, and I don’t know if I did enough in deeds for him to have known how important he was to me.
In the last memory, we take the dog for a walk along a trail. It’s mid-April and the canopy of trees is light green, dappled with sun. We haven’t gone far when Dave needs to sit. “My leg is bad,” he states, unnecessarily.
I sit beside him on the bench overlooking the river and hold his hand. The dog noses around, exploring the scents in the moist dark dirt.
“I think I need to turn around,” Dave says after a few minutes. “Not much of a walk,” he comments apologetically.
“I don’t care about that. It’s beautiful. And Tasha has had a good time inhaling spring.”
We start back. After a few steps, he takes my arm. Pain wrinkles his face. He leans more and more of his weight on me as we near the car.
We go to the diner, order eggs and toast, down a cup of coffee in amiable silence. Before the second cup comes, he says, “My back is getting worse.”
“I can’t imagine being in a wheelchair like your mother.” My mother is increasingly disabled by spinal stenosis; she can’t transfer herself from her bed to the wheelchair, or from the wheelchair to a toilet.
“I know. It’s hard to imagine.” I can’t picture what it will be like either.
Our breakfast arrives, and I prepare to change the conversation by saying something about the jack-in-the-pulpit I noticed on the trail, or the beauty of the birch bark in the sun. But as he peppers his eggs, Dave goes on. “I don’t want to be dependent on you, Elizabeth.”
“I know. And I hope that you won’t be, but if it comes to that, we’ll handle it. You decided to get long-term care insurance for just this—.”
He cuts me off: “I don’t want to be like your mother.”
“You’re nothing like Mom,” I tell him, and lean over and kiss him on the mouth, a big, life-affirming kiss. As I settle back into my chair, I add with a vaudeville wink, “Nothing like Dad, either.” He grins, but I notice that his vivid blue eyes glisten as he takes a bite of toast.
The following morning I wake with a start. The house is too quiet.
I find him in the tub, lying on his back, eyes closed, hands open as if he has relinquished something. He’s clearly dead. I panic, stunned, trying to make my fingers work as I dial 911. Because he’s in the bathtub, I think briefly that he may have drowned. The dispatcher keeps me on the line until help comes.
And a lot of help comes: the fire chief, EMTs, local cops, state police. They ask about mood, then count and remove all his medications: the clonazepam for restless leg, the oxycodone for back pain. I tell them truthfully that I am quite sure he was not suicidal.
But later I wonder. Could I have misread him entirely, not known how deeply he needed to maintain his independence?
Months after, missing him terribly, I finally receive a copy of his death certificate. I read the basic facts of his life: name, birth date, parents, profession. I cry at the minimalism of the data, its inability to conjure the man. But when I get to cause of death, I’m afraid. Will it say overdose? Suicide?
When I read the answer, I finally laugh through my tears, as I know he’d have done, the sound of my laughter startling me after so much time buried beneath my grief. The certificate says atherosclerosis. A heart attack—just like Dad.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
Elizabeth Young, PhD, MSW, is a writer and therapist. She writes a blog, “Adaptions: Tales of Transformation,” for Psychology Today and is currently writing a book called Growth in Grief: Stories of Transformation in Loss.