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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