Every October, for 41 years, I have returned to the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires on my anniversary. Twenty-one of those years, I've gone alone...
The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, MA
I was married 41 years ago today in a beautiful Vera Wang gown I found on a clearance rack at Trenchers in Garden City, Long Island. It is a beautiful gown and even though it fits, it looks silly on my almost 70-year-old body. The delicate, lacy wide brimmed hat is still lovely, but no longer ivory and encircles my head with an odd tilt. Like me, the color and texture have changed.
Afterwards, we celebrated with special family and friends at the Swan Club in Roslyn where signature fiery red canna lilies sunbathed on meticulously manicured lawns and patiently posed alongside us for the requisite outdoor photos. I remember the cannas.
But I don’t remember many of the names of the people on the guest list. Or who gave us those lovely pewter wine goblets, the ones I never used once, that greet me every morning from my windowpane glass cupboard.
I remember the way I felt when I put my hat on that morning and the way my hair flipped up at the bottom. In the photos, everyone is smiling. I was happy that day.
Our marriage, like many others, did not last forever. We were married for about 17 years and then divorced, but remained lifelong comrades for another 17 years and supported each other as best we could through good times and bad, until John's "death us do part" in December 2013.
Although it is a club with an increasingly significant membership, there are a limited number of former spouses who provide care to an ex during catastrophic illness.
I'm not sure exactly why I honored my commitment, but I did. A terminal cancer diagnosis with a limited life expectancy followed nine years of a debilitating degenerative disease. Yet the last year of John's life was in many ways a blessed and extraordinary year, rife with poignant, funny and meaningful memories and intimate dialogue. It was a privilege to be with John and my children as he transitioned from one place to another.
Some will understand that; others will not.
Even after we divorced in the 90s, every single year on October 23 I made a pilgrimage to the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge MA where we spent a few days after we were married. I would sit at the bar in the Lion's Pub and tell the bartender why it was a special day. Then I would sit in one of the sturdy rocking chairs that bedeck the clean, white, front porch.
I inhaled the smoky years of memorabilia and the scuffy footwear of others who have trodden to the fireplace to toss a match to start yet another fire. Everything in the lobby smelled old and looked familiar. I wanted to sit there for a long time.
It was the only place I knew where I could go to find John.
Before he died, he would ask me from time to time, “What do you think it will be like when I’m dead?”
“I can’t imagine, John; I can’t imagine.”
And I couldn’t.
Most people do not understand a choice that seems illogical. But divorce does not terminate a complex, nuanced family bond nor the commitment to care for a person you once pledged to stay with forever, no matter what.
There are support groups for everything, but there is no support group for ex-wives of dead husbands.
But thankfully, every October, there is the Lion's Pub at the Red Lion Inn...