Starting Over Thirty Years Later

As we’re exploring memory and history this week, we’re honored to get to include a post from Kristine‘s (you’ll remember her lovely and simple wedding) mom, Karen. There is nothing to add to this post other than, may we all be so blessed, tragedy or no. And mostly, I hope this reminds us all to pay attention and to invest in the love right in front of us.

Some time ago, my daughter asked me to write about my marriage to her father. It has taken a while to do this—too busy, didn’t know what to say, too personal—but I think mostly too painful. I lost Dougie five years ago and sometimes it feels like yesterday.

We met at work when I was a college senior and he was in graduate school. I was an intern and I noticed him right off when he was hired as a psychologist. I went home that night excited about the new guy at work and made it my business to get to know him. The attraction was mutual. We chatted at work and always found ways to be together. We went out a few times, friendly, but he was in a five-year relationship. Though this was daunting, our friendly dating soon turned to romance.

What a guy! He was attentive and adoring (and so sexy) to me and a genuinely good person. Everyone loved Dougie. I think my family loved him more than me at times—luckily the relationship worked out and that was never tested! We dated for two and a half years and married in my parents’ backyard. They were slightly appalled at the idea (church weddings stuck better my mom said), but we loved the big old oak tree, and that’s where we got married. It was simple and yet elegant—my aunt made my dress and friends helped with food. A harpist and flautist played during the service, and we read the vows we created for each other. We had gone to premarital counseling and it was our therapist’s idea to write vows about what we wanted from each other and what we were giving to each other. They were so beautiful and poetic and touching. We had a band to dance to, so much fun. Dougie and I both came from dancing families and it was something we loved throughout our life together.

Thirty years and three kids later and we were still in love, still holding hands and loving to just be together, as a couple and as a family. We loved every stage. Even the one when we had two babies, and Doug would come home and I was still in my bathrobe. He was the guy who was there completely for his kids. When they were ill (all three had traumatic events in their young lives) he did the research to get the best care wherever it took us. He was the coach and the school volunteer and leader. He car pooled and gave Eskimo kisses and played shamu in the pool and made special lunches to take to school (hugely popular with the friends)!

As much as we loved the family life and grieved as our kids left for college, we were ready to be empty nesters; our youngest said we were a little too ready! We sent Thom off to college and eagerly started the next chapter—Dougie and Karen, playing and traveling together (mostly traveling to see the kids of course).

But something was wrong.

Dougie didn’t feel good. He coughed and had no energy. His shoulder hurt. His doctor looked and looked and took x-rays and found nothing. He got worse. We went to Cabo for a friend’s wedding, excited to go back to where we had so many happy memories, and he got sicker. Finally, we went to a pulmonologist. A few days later life changed—he had Stage Four Non Small Cell Lung Cancer. The prognosis was not good.

Our two daughters, Kristine and Kayley, had been living back east with undergraduate degrees completed and looking into graduate school options. They came home. Thom had gone to college closer to family and was home frequently. We all learned to give meds, make protein shakes, visit during dreaded chemo sessions, and learn all there was to know about this awful disease. We huddled together to make the unbearable more bearable. We learned important lessons about family and friends and about living and dying. A social worker friend taught us about windows. You never know what life has to offer, so open the window and live. Dougie opened windows. He bought a big screen TV to watch baseball games. We went to Catalina Island, a favorite family spot, with family and friends. He and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary on the Big Island of Hawaii at our favorite hotel. He loved being there, the laid-back life-style and the beauty. He mostly slept that last trip, too sick to enjoy our usual activities.

We had the good fortune to live in the same neighborhood as our family grew. We made amazing friends and I think had made our mark in the neighborhood and the schools. Dougie was open about his cancer and invited everyone in. And boy did they come. The cards, flowers, food, books, music, phone calls, and visits were a daily occurrence. He walked everyday and stopped to chat with everyone he saw. He rekindled old but still deep friendships.

Lung cancer is a terrible disease. It hurts so badly and the chemo sapped whatever energy he might have still had. The drugs didn’t help. Six months. That is how long it took. It robbed me of my lifelong love and my children of their father. It is hard enough to endure, but to watch my children mourn was about impossible.

What to do with my life? How to lose my love, my future, our plans; it was difficult. My kids stayed close for a year and then continued their studies, staying on the West Coast this time. Thom finished his undergrad degree. Life went on but we all had so much grieving to do, to incorporate the new reality into our lives, to learn to live with this hole in our hearts.

It got harder and harder to focus at work, to find meaning in anything I was doing, even though I had a job I loved. Three years into being on my own, it became clear to me that I needed a change. I started looking around, knowing I wanted to contribute, I wanted some adventure, but it had to have significance, to matter. Peace Corps service kept coming up. So, I joined! Kind of running away but I think also, a way to find some meaning and provide a challenge. I was looking for a life that made me think when I got out of bed in the morning. Peace Corps provided that and more. I found I could not only survive, but thrive in a new and different culture, radically different than any experience I had in the past. I experienced the challenges of just getting through the day—will I have water, is that spider poisonous, do I have enough buckets to catch the rain coming through the roof. And I was productive; I fully participated in the life of my village. We built a library together and it became an important part of the community. There wasn’t a morning or night that Dougie wasn’t there with me.

I am back in the States now. Sold the family home, gave my son my car (I did finally get a phone), and trying to find my place. I am starting a new business and staying with close friends as I help my mother mend from major surgery and learn to live without her husband, my father, who passed away in the last year. We are moving to the Bay Area when she is well and we are both excited about starting new adventures where my kids are living.

I loved being a couple. I loved being that someone special to my mate. I loved how he made me a better person. His patience and kindness softened me, I think. I am young (age is relative) and hope to find someone to again share life with. I do have self-talk sometimes about how most people don’t have what Dougie and I had even once, so why do I think I can have it twice. I don’t know, I just want it.

So why am I sharing my story, my family’s story? From the perspective of someone who was married for thirty years and was looking forward to the next thirty, I encourage you to thoughtfully take this step and to appreciate the journey. It may not be exactly what you plan, there may be many more bumps along the way than anticipated, there may even be tragedy. It is worth it.

Should the worst happen, should you face what seems to be impossible, you will find your journey still continues. And it matters.

I wish the best for you all as you begin your lives together. And I encourage you, to take a minute today, every day, to say I love you to those you care about and build those special memories.

Photos from Karen’s personal collection

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  • Louise

    What a beautiful post Karen. It made me cry and I hope that my two year marriage can turn into what you had with Doug for thirty years. I commend you for trying something new, joining the Peace Corps, and I do hope that you will find love again. Thank you for sharing.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m marrying in 2 days, and this is a good reminder to never take a moment of it for granted. I’m so sorry for your loss but so glad you experienced a happy and loving marriage.

    It took a lot of courage to take on new challenges like the Peace Corps. Good for you.

    • I hope the wedding is fantastic for you and yours!

  • Oh, Gosh, This one made me cry. I am at work, and trying to hide it. I feel much the way you do about my husband. We’re relatively early on, but I love him, us and marriage so much, its hard to imagine ever feeling any other way. THANK you for facing your painful memories and sharing your love for Dougie with all of us. This is one of those posts that makes me feel grateful and hopeful and inspired and heartbroken all at the same time.
    Thank you.

  • Stalking Sarah

    This is so, so beautiful and I am in tears on my morning commute. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you, Sheryl!

  • Thank you for this one. It’s so wonderful to read about your amazing marriage and the strength and dignity you’ve shown through the hard times. Gives me hope for the future.

  • Senorita

    Your love story is one for the ages. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    When FI and I first started dating, I would lie awake for an hour while he slept away just because it felt so good to be all intertwined with him. It still surprises me sometimes that even after three straight years of great cuddling, it can still feel like a hit of some very hard drugs to slip my hand into his.

    How amazing that you got to feel that way after 30 years. Neither of our parents are very good at the happy marriage thing, it’s couples like you who make me think it really is possible. I only hope we’ll be as blessed to be as happy as you guys in another 27 years.

  • Oh jeez, I didn’t know there’d be onions in my google reader this morning. Beautiful.

  • kyley

    Oh, thank you for this beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. This made me cry and, most of all, made me so very thankful for the loves in my life. I wish you all the best.

  • Oh my. What a moving and beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Kelly

    I am crying in my office. This story is so powerful. Wow. I worry all the time about what I would do if I lost my husband — now or in 30 years — and I really don’t know the answer. You are a very strong lady and an inspiration to us all.

  • We are and will always be so proud of you for the decisions you have made! Five years after losing Daddy, we miss him every day, but we are so thankful to have a strong and supportive role model for embracing life (and love) to the fullest! XOXOXOXO

  • KB

    All I can think after reading this post is, “I want this.” I hope to not only have that kind of enduring love, but also your wisdom and appreciation so many years down the road.

  • Jessica

    A beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing. Your marriage reminds me a lot of my grandparents’ (they are married 58 years and still going strong!) A wonderful story about what love really is and what marriage really is.

  • This is beautiful — thank you for sharing this.

  • Class of 1980

    Amazing story. Amazing marriage and family.

    In the last year, I’ve seen so many lives around me change in a moment. We all know intellectually that this happens, but we are still surprised when there are no more second chances to make the most of what we have with someone.

    It’s made me think often about the young posters on APW planning their weddings.

    I think … Do they really know how serious the vows are? Do they know the vows WILL be tested sooner or later?

  • Kathleen M

    NSFW! Tearing up!
    Karen, what a beautiful and inspiring post. You’ve encouraged me to think about my marriage both in the long term and in the moment. Sometimes I forget what a big thing a marriage is, and you’ve reminded me. I wish you all the best in this new phase of your life.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s easy to get so caught up in planning an uncertain future with our spouse that we forget to enjoy the present life we are living together. A wonderful reminder.

    Your story, and your hope for a future love story remind me so much of one of the women I most admire in my own life. My Grandmother. She and my Grandfather were the image of a happy marriage, so much so that they attracted all the friends and acquaintances of their 6 children and wound up with an even larger “adopted” family due to their warmth and loving example… but my Grandfather was taken from her roughly 15 years ago (suddenly by way of a heart attack as they both slept). She just remarried a little over a month ago… at the age of 80… to her high school sweetheart! I have never seen a happier couple of newlyweds!!

  • Cari Ann

    Karen – you are and have always been such a lovely, amazing person. Thank you for sharing. We love you much, Cari and Jared

  • Zephyr

    I am so moved by your honesty and courage and the love that spill out of those photos. Thank you for sharing that with us.

  • Jashshea

    Thankfully I read this at home alone. What a wonderful story and an amazing life you shared. And a big huge amazing high five to you for pushing through the pain and continuing your own amazing life, Karen. You are a complete and total badass. (And absolutely beautiful, as are your children).

    Thank you for reminding me how important it is to remember to love the people I love every. single. day.

  • Jared Potts

    Karen- You are an amazing and strong woman. I admire all that you have done and most importantly you have caused me to once again reconsider my priorities. The best to you and your family.

    Jared Potts

  • Cali

    Oh wow… this is amazing. This is what I hope that my fiance and I will have thirty, forty, fifty years down the road. It also touched on this really weird thing that’s happened since we got engaged… which is that, officially facing “forever” together, it’s like the reality of what that means has hit me, and it’s overwhelming. I’ve had nightmares about him dying, and I’m trying to focus on the fact that we will face scary stuff and tragic stuff in our future, because it’s inevitable, so we need to enjoy the moment with everything we’ve got. Thank you for the reminder!

  • emma

    Beautiful, thank you for sharing your story. This is my biggset fear – building and surrounding myself with the life I want and then loosing something without notice or control. The deaths in my family have happened very suddenly and caused this fear. Due to this fear I push myself to enjoy the present everyday. As you say, the journey. The morning snuggle, the routine dinners, the thunderstorm on my husband’s well planned anniversary golf date. If you’re with the person you love you should count yourself full and blessed.

    I recently finished Jai Pausch’s book, Dream New Dreams. (Her late husband Randy wrote The Last Lecture, one of my favorite books). I’d HIGHLY recommend it, especially for anyone coping with seeing a dream die and pushing yourself to dream new dreams.

    • Karen Harrington

      Thanks Emma, I read The Last Lecture in the last year and it is also a favorite of mine. I’ll pick up Jai’s – she was inspirational in her husband’s book. And like you, I count myself as blessed. Appreciate your comment, all the comments!

  • Karen this is so, so wonderful. Poignant advice around a beautiful and heart breaking story. Dougie is lucky to have had you, your kids are lucky to have had such a wonderfully matched set of parents. Your story is inspiring and your words will stick with me. Thank you for reminding us what life is about and may you get everything you want as you continue along your journey!

  • Thank you for sharing this with us. Your story does remind me to take advantage of the times I have with my husband and my family, as much as I can.

  • Jashshea

    Oh, and APW – you sly foxes! Posting this after all of us spent all day fussing about chores sharing with our partners.

    For today, I will remember that I’m so blessed that I get to spend my life with one of my favorite people, even if that person leaves his socks on the floor.

  • Erika

    What a beautiful story. I looooove when our mothers post as your wisdom and thoughts are so important for all of us to hear. I’m so sad to hear that Dougie was taken from all of you with lung cancer. There is a great organization here in the Bay Area (your soon to be new home) the Bonnie J Adario Lung Cancer Foundation that I’ve gotten a little involved with and the stories are just all so sudden. There isn’t much time left when someone has the disease.

    And how incredible to go do the Peace Corps! Rock on!

    Sounds like between your family and your parents you’ve had enough sadness for a while. Come up to the Bay Area, and live in the sunshine (and sometimes fog) and let the joy just pour over you. Sending you a million hugs of thanks for your post, sharing your bravery, and some extra good thoughts and wishes for your move up here with your mom.

  • Rachel

    Beautiful, sob, beautiful… thank you for sharing.

  • JenMcC

    Thank you for your beautiful post. I cried a bit in reading it, but in that way where the tears are a form of gratitude for all life offers, good and difficult. I especially appreciated your advice at the end. It is the most important thing to remember, but also easy to forget in the details of daily life. Thank you for the moving reminder to appreciate everything. And thank you also for these words:

    “I encourage you to thoughtfully take this step and to appreciate the journey. It may not be exactly what you plan, there may be many more bumps along the way than anticipated, there may even be tragedy. It is worth it.”

    They really resonated with me.

    Also, I want to congratulate and commend you on your Peace Corps service. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but have not yet; it’s inspiring to see how you did it, and I really admire it.

    Best wishes for your new chapter and a fulfilling future.

  • Oh my heart. What a beautiful love story. And beautifully told. Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful example of courage and determination not to give up on life or love even in the face of tragedy and heartbreak.

    Knowing that there is life after makes it easier to love with abandon, despite the risk of loss.

  • marbella

    Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful story. You are an inspiration.

  • nancy

    this is one of the most beautiful stories and you sound like an amazing woman. thank you for sharing and blessings on your future and your family.

  • Ari

    Karen, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to Kristine, “I want what your parents have.” Thank you for sharing this.

    All my love,

  • Betty

    Thank you so much for writing this! My fiance and I were in a car accident and although it wasn’t too bad, I’ve always had a fear of being in one and it reminded me how quickly he could be taken from me. Then a few months ago he had a freak medical issue (blood clot doctors couldn’t explain given his age and good health) and it only increased my fears. I usually just try not to think about it, but recently at work an angry customer told me she hopes my husband dies (talk about a horrible thing to say to someone!) and it reopened all those fears I had been hiding deep inside me. Sometimes we need to accept that bad things can and will happen, and not dwell on what we cannot control. It’s something I’ll be working on, and this has really helped to remind me how important it is to enjoy what I have and not let my fear of losing him ruin our time together. Thank you again!

    • Beth

      that’s an awful thing to say to someone! and i know what you mean– i am sometimes very anxious about future unknowns, especially when it comes to those who are dearest to me.

  • KC

    What an incredibly courageous, beautiful, strong woman you are. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Believe it or not, I have never teared up at an APW post until today. This was so lovely. I’m so sorry for your loss but I love how hopeful your story is. Thank you for sharing!

  • J. F.

    What a beautiful story and message–I’m so, so glad you shared. (I, too, teared up like crazy.)
    Today is my 4-year wedding anniversary. My husband and I have been apart for the last 3 months (he’s at an out-of-state internship); in a week he comes home, and the NEXT DAY we’re moving halfway across the country for grad school for him. I’m incredibly nervous, sad to be leaving my friends, family and job, and just generally overwhelmed (packing everything myself! ah!). Thank you for this inspiring reminder to appreciate the journey. I needed it today.

  • Sam

    Kinda puts the ‘his dirty socks on the floor drive me nuts’ everyday annoyances into perspective.
    Amazing post. May we all be so blessed, beloved and brave.

  • Beth

    so lovely to read about such a happy partnership, even if it ended too soon. i find myself pinching myself, feeling so lucky to be with my husband, but it makes me sad to so rarely hear that others are happily married (outside of APW). thank you for sharing your beautiful story.

  • Glenn johnson

    Beautiful family. Miss Doug. Miss you. Love your Love

  • Lauren SJ

    What a beautiful, poignant, memorable story, my friend. Such a wonderful and thought provoking message
    that I shall share with many close to me and even perhaps resend it, on each of their anniversary, to remind them of their love for one another, something we all need every once in a while! My tears, while reading, were filled with sadness, happiness and many memories of Dougie. Thanks for sharing. Miss Doug, as well, and love you too!

  • Kerri

    Thank you for sharing this difficult story. I lost my father to cancer a year and half ago and understand what you mean by the grieving process. Sometimes I am afraid to spend the time to grieve but stories like this force me to face it head on, and for that I am grateful.