The setting: I am in the Manhattan office of a colleague I much admire for his leadership and stellar career, and we are having a rich conversation on aging, aging men in particular. He tells me a story of his friend who lost his wife of many years, and then suffered deeply and for an extended time the loss of his life partner. In a candid moment with my colleague this widower in pain gives his friend his best advice on aging. He says it in two words: “Go first!”
As I heard this I took the words at two levels. The first was—good advice, who wants to go through the pain of that loss? I thought…
In about 10 seconds, I hear a second voice in my head, one I did not voice to my colleague. “And who do we think we are that we have a right to inflict the loss and grief process on our spouse/partner.”
I could not get this conversation out of my head for several days, coming back to it with strong reaction.
The more I thought about it, the more it felt to me that an act of love for your life partner would be to let them go first. Gladly we have little if any control over these things, although there are advocates for assisted suicide and I have had thoughts at times that for the suffering this may indeed be an option we should offer. But that feels different than what we are talking about.
The advice from this man still in grief was to go first, as if your partner should be the one to bear that burden.
My truth is, in this, my 70th year, that if it happens that my wife Patricia is the first to go to the other side, then I best be ready for that. And if I could have my preferences, and if it would spare her a lot of pain, I will take the bullet and do the suffering as it comes my way in the letting go of her.
And I may be making brave talk here. This is how it seems to me now—ask me, if it happens, how it went when it is over; or ask me in ten years if we are both still around, how I am feeling about my bold assertions. I may change my mind over time—talk can be cheap when compared to the experience.
Still, as it is now, I figured I ought to tell Patricia what I had been thinking. On one of our regular night time walks under the stars, after some weeks of hesitating and waiting to see if I meant it, I found a good enough time to bring up this heavy topic. Tears welled up in my eyes as I shared my thinking and I thought of losing her. Patricia got what I was saying and took it to heart. She takes all things to heart. She knew this was the “death do us part” section of our vows re-affirmed in the reality of being 70, versus 32 years ago in the imagining space when we were in early mid-life and the words came easily.
So what is your take on this advice and where do you stand do you think? Or would you rather not think about it because it is out of your hands? That may be the wiser way to go for all I know.
My 77-year-old friend Fred Andrle created a haunting haiku on this. The former NPR radio personality at WOSU, Columbus Ohio, now retired and a haiku composer, put it this way, so beautifully.
Ah-h; so few images, so poignant. One of the two goes first. And then the winter comes.