On Halloween morning, the prep team wheeled me into the operating room for my seventh knee surgery. “The nurse has my number to call when you get out,” my friend, Adele said.
I’m divorced, live alone with no family nearby, and at midlife, I rely on friends like Adele during emergencies. It’s only now in moments like these, 17 years after my husband left, that I fully appreciate our marriage vow to have each other’s backs “in sickness and in health”—and grasp the magnitude of my loss.
My mom and grandmother lived until their late 80s. Judging by their longevity, approximately two-thirds of my life is over. Surprisingly, by the time you reach your 50s, your physical slide has already begun. Diet and exercise can slow the progression, but the descent is inevitable.
In his “all the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It, Shakespeare describes the seven stages of life, beginning with “the infant mewling and puking” and ending with second childhood “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Although I don’t look it—and can’t imagine a time when I won’t want to dance if I’m able—I’m headed toward the cusp of stage six, sporting spectacles and shrinking, with an occasional wobbly tremble in my voice at church.
Over 30 years ago, when I was 26 and he was 33, my ex-husband and I exchanged marriage vows. “Truly, then, these words are most serious,” my grandfather, the minister who officiated our wedding, told us as we stood before him at the altar. “Not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.” Dating back to medieval England, these vows have been recited by millions of couples around the world ever since.
But after 20 years of marriage, my husband had an affair and left. Although I went to great lengths to oppose the divorce, I was unsuccessful. Still, as a young, healthy, fresh-faced woman, I had made those vows with all my heart. But what could I possibly know back then about the “in sickness” part?
When my husband left, I was recovering from my fourth knee surgery. Two more surgeries followed a few years later. I was relatively young and healthy even then and bounced back fairly quickly, though with each health crisis, my recovery extended a bit longer. Over the years, there would be more health issues I dealt with alone. I never told any of my friends or even my own children about the cancer scares or my collapse at Barnes & Noble when EMS rushed me to the emergency room. On my own, I endured the unexplained bleeding, biopsies, and the endless waiting alone in doctors’ offices, watching partners hold each other’s hands while I sat alone, trying to be brave.
“You get to date again!” some of my married friends said after my husband left. They meant well and were probably just trying to cheer me up. But they were clueless about the nightmare of midlife dating. They didn’t seem to realize how lucky they were to have a faithful spouse, a good provider, and a loving father at home, not to mention a dedicated partner to grow old with.
Betrayal in a marriage is one thing and going from richer to poorer is no picnic. But I wonder if anything can test a marriage more than the sort of sickness that leads to death?
In her late 50s, when she married a man named Jim who she’d met on Match.com, author Joyce Maynard had the opportunity to find out. Like me, she’d all but given up on marriage, her first husband having also had an affair. She had tried to save her marriage too and spent decades as a single mom. And then she met Jim. But soon after they celebrated their first anniversary, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her memoir The Best of Us, a hard, gut-wrenching read, recounts their two-year journey before his death. “This was marriage,” she wrote, and despite all that happened, “I had never felt closer to him.”
No one wants to suffer that way. But how blessed they both were to have each other; their story is a loving testament to the power and joy of marital commitment.
A decade after my divorce, my children were grown. I sold the Brooklyn home I could no longer afford, moved south, and started a new life. It was during this time that I had my seventh knee surgery.
Neither of my children were available to fly in and help me. Local friends had conflicts. And the man I’d been dating suddenly disappeared. But my friend Adele boarded her dog and drove eight hours from Florida to spend a week doing what I couldn’t. She made coffee, cooked, tidied the house and washed laundry, refilled my ice packs, drove me to physical therapy, and spotted me at the bottom of the staircase as I climbed upstairs to bed each night. Other friends ran errands, brought food, and sent flowers. I don’t know what I would have done without any of them.
Indeed, aging solo for baby boomers is an epidemic; 1 in 6 lives alone. Divorce and family breakdown have contributed to the kinless society in which so many of us find ourselves. In 2018, U.K. former Prime Minister Theresa Kay even appointed a Minister of Loneliness. That same year, I printed an emergency card for my wallet with the names and phone numbers of local friends. Is it any wonder that communal living for boomer women is on the rise?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m eternally grateful for my friends. But this wasn’t how my life was supposed to turn out.
Before my recent surgery, I attended a college alumni function. I listened intently to a fellow alum, in his 90s, explain how he’d taken care of his wife with dementia, but finally had to put her in a nearby facility given his own advancing age. These stories always bring tears to my eyes. My husband robbed me of that loving experience, however difficult it might have been.
I love to watch older couples whenever I go out to dinner with friends. Sure, some of them angle their chairs away from each other and eat in silence. But last week, I saw an elderly man push his companion’s wheelchair outdoors after lunch, hook it up to a bicycle from which he’d removed the front wheel, and pedal the two of them off together for a stroll in the sunshine. One in sickness, the other in health.
Beverly Willett is the author of Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection.