By Terry Ratner, RN, MFA
She walks the streets by my house. Denim jeans hide the thinness of her legs. A fanny pack buckled around her waist conceals the pack of cigarettes she needs to get through the day. She holds a plastic bag of groceries in her left hand and a black cloth purse is strapped around her shoulder.
I’ve seen her over the years walking in the neighborhood alongside a man in a motorized wheelchair, but during the last few months, I noticed she walks alone.
I spotted her today as I drove home. Her back faced me and I immediately pulled over to the side of the road. “Excuse me,” I said. She turned her head and started walking toward me.
“I couldn’t help but notice you’re walking alone,” I told her as I searched for the right words to include in my next sentence. “Where is the gentlemen you were always with?”
She was dressed in light blue jeans and a white tee-shirt with a yellow circle in the center that said, “SAVE THE WORLD.” Holding a cigarette between her two fingers, she slowly brought the filter up to her mouth and inhaled, then exhaled the most perfect smoke rings as she puffed away. I noticed when she wasn’t holding a cigarette how her forefinger and middle finger were frozen in the smoking position. Studying her was like delving into her grief at that time. I wanted to know so much about her and what happened.
“He was my husband. Next week we would have been married for 30 years. He died in April,” she said looking down as if she was studying the cracks in the pavement. “Now I’m alone.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
I wasn’t surprised at her answer. Deep down I had a feeling he had died. I regretted not having talked with them before he died—not knowing two people who lived in my neighborhood before this tragedy occurred.
At that point, I continued to listen. She told me he had suffered from prostate cancer and a heart condition. She had been his wife and caretaker and had requested social security early so that she could stay home with him the last few years.
It’s what she said next that shocked me.
“I want to go too, ” she mumbled as she faced me.
“You’re saying you want to die,” I asked as if I didn’t believe her.
“I want to be with him. I don’t want to live in this world anymore.”
I thought about my own loss and what my thoughts were after my husband’s death. Yes, I was sad and lonely, but I never wanted to die.
“Things will get better,” I told her. “This is still such a fresh loss.”
She lit up another cigarette and took a deep drag from the filter. “No, it will never be better.”
“Did you ever notice a man with a pony tail walking a silver miniature schnauzer in this neighborhood,” I asked her. Before she responded, I told her he was my husband. “He died of cancer two years ago. I know what you’re going through.”
“I think I remember him,” she said as she lit up another cigarette and turned to exhale as though she wanted to protect me from the smoke.
After expressing my condolences, I got back into my car and started driving home. I knew then that nothing I could say would ease her pain. She, like all the widows and widowers in the world needed to go through their own personal grieving process. I could only tell her my experience and hope she would be more positive in the future.
I began thinking more about life and how living on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings, at least for most of us. We need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need hope, a sense of future. And we need to rise above our immediate surroundings.
I hoped that my neighbor would seek and find a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we all live in.