Since he’s been gone
Susan Lapinski of New York City is an award-winning journalist who co-authored the book “In a Family Way” with her late husband, Michael deCourcy Hinds. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host a follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.
There are more than 13 million widows in the United States of America, and sadly, I am one of them. I miss Michael, the six-foot-five-inch leprechaun I married, for a million reasons–maybe most of all because he made me laugh every day we were together.
“You’re Catholic, so you can’t divorce me!” he would often tease, as if the religion I’d been raised in provided some kind of magical insurance policy against going our separate ways.
Ah, but I wasn’t going anywhere. Michael too was a writer, and we collaborated on absolutely everything—wondrous children; the dilapidated homes we bought and hammered into shape; a jukebox full of our favorite music from the 60s and 70s; the diary of parenthood and many magazine pieces we co-authored. Despite our different writing styles we were always able to mesh ideas, blend voices and share a byline. And so we moseyed on through life, side by side and hand in hand.
Our daughters were still girls on the cusp of life when we received Michael’s hopeless diagnosis, stage-four multiple myeloma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer. Horrific and ultimately futile medical treatments followed.
Still we allowed ourselves to hope, but our hopes crashed and burned, one after another after another, until the world we thought we knew felt ashen and alien. Michael spent most of his last year in the hospital and died at 58. We had been married for 33 years, the best years of my life, when everything I’d wished for—a family, a writing life, a core of peace and purpose—came together on his watch.
For me, widowhood was annihilating, but not in ways suffered by other women I’ve read about. More than 115 million widows around the world live in devastating poverty, according to a study released last summer by the Loomba Foundation, a UK-based group that supports widows’ rights. The very worst consequences, including abuse and exploitation, befall Afghan’s two million widows and those in Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa.
Unlucky as I was to lose my husband far too soon, I am fortunate to be able to live on with dignity, thanks to Michael’s planning for the family he left behind. And although I’ve struggled to get up to speed on dreaded things like taxes that he once finessed for both of us, most of my struggles have been emotional ones. How, I continue to ask myself, can I face each new day without the person I loved most in the world? Where do you go after hitting rock-bottom?
As a new widow I’d lie on my sofa and stare at the clothes I needed to launder, wishing the blue jeans and turtlenecks would walk themselves to the washing machine. When I’d finally wrench myself into a sitting position I sometimes forced my feet to take me swimming at the neighborhood Y. The pool was chilly, the lanes jammed with aggressive strokers, the water chlorinated to the nth degree. The overall effect was that of swimming through cleanser. I hated the pool, hated everything about swimming there. But the alternative—staying home with my grief—was even worse.
One night, while halfheartedly watching the local news, I learned that Billy Joel was about to take the stage at nearby Madison Square Garden. “All tickets are sold out,” the newscaster emphasized. Something in my rock-like strata stirred. How could every seat in that giant amphitheater be spoken for? Hardly knowing what I was doing or why, I pushed on my shoes and headed out into the beginnings of a snowstorm.
My last-minute ticket put me in the very last row of the Garden. My seatmates were a friendly family from Long Island. We all agreed that Billy, bald-headed and beaming, was in fine form that night. Maybe it was because his daughter Alexa was sitting ringside. When Billy serenaded his only child—and us—with New York State of Mind, I felt like I was being rocked to an urban lullabye. Back on the snow-covered street once the concert ended, I kept singing out about The New York Times, the Daily News, Chinatown and riding the Hudson River Line, until I was safely home.
Swimming lap after lap couldn’t get me back on my feet, but something in the regenerative power of music did start me up again. Since that snowy night at the Garden, I’ve continued to seek out the troubadours of my youth–Judy Collins, John Sebastian, Tina Turner, Leon Russell, Elton John and, of course, Billy Joel. I feel strengthened by their lyrics, comforted by their songs. Michael, my beautiful husband, is gone. The music, our music, lives on.
Photo Credit: Singer Billy Joel performs during the first of his 11 sold out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York January 23, 2006. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid