You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Barbara loved “The Big Chill”. In her typical way ahead of the curve fashion, she identified with a bunch of characters fifteen years older than her suddenly facing their own mortality, because she had already seen so much in life. The scene at the beginning of  the movie, where one of Alex’s friends plays the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the funeral was one of her favorites, and mine too. I’ve been thinking about that song a lot over the last six months, and especially now.

Kris’ battle with cancer started ten months before Barbara lost hers, so the two have always been tangled up for both me and my brother. Two passings of two women, married to two brothers with so much in common, but very much individuals all. Though cancer took them both within six months, their journeys could hardly have been more different.

Kris’s diagnosis came last February as a shock to everyone. We all pulled for her as she fought to buy time against a very aggressive cancer. She was lucky, and they found a treatment that bought her fifteen months, time she used well. Her youngest graduated high school, she got to visit her parents, she got to have her siblings around for Christmas, she got her writing in shape to publish. She and Dan had those difficult conversations you put off until the end. She got to say goodbye.

Barbara went into the hospital on November third. She died on the ninth. There was no drawn-out battle knowing she was in a terminal fight for us. But there were no loose ends, either. In June she was there as our daughter remarried, and four weeks before she went into the hospital she was there as the grandchildren’s father remarried. Both weddings prominently featured our grandkids, and it was clear that those kids had four parents who were all united in their focus on raising them well. Two weeks before she was hospitalized, we went out for our usual monthly get-together dinner with friends. Nobody had a clue how ill she was.

Barbara hated goodbyes. Well, the last thing she said to me was ‘Hello, Love’. She also had spent way too much time in the hospital as a kid. Her awareness of her own mortality was such a part of her that we had already discussed those things most people put off until the end. She didn’t need a year of time bought at the expense of painful treatments. She got to live the last year of her life without a sword hanging over her head. 

I was spared a year of dread, a year of memories of watching her fight and slip away. Already now, after six months, the memories are of her as she lived, not as she died. So many surviving spouses are haunted by those final memories, just because there are so many of them.

For his part, Dan got fifteen months to prepare for his loss, to come to terms with it.

No, we couldn’t get what we wanted. Thirty years was far too short for me and Barbara, and twenty-six was cruelly short for Dan and Kris.

I know I’m going to make it on my path into this new life, and I’m confident Dan will be OK on his own journey. It won’t be easy, but we will make it. Because in those two very different overlapping final years, we both got what we needed.

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