It was a three minute conversation on a stairwell that turned me inside out and brought tears to my eyes.
We were both volunteers at a local elementary school and I stepped out of my room to stretch my back as he was approaching. He was 75 years old, but looked younger and in the space of 30 seconds he told me that his wife of 53 years had just died and then he added “I didn’t know what I had”, and began to cry softly.
Married 41 years myself, I felt immediate compassion for this gentleman who told me that she had developed ALS and died “without dignity.” He relayed how he would carry her to the bathroom and even told me that he found himself wishing she would die. Racked with a combination of guilt, loss, and grief, he continued to say “I didn’t know what I had.”
I touched his shoulder and told him it is clear to me how much he loved her, and that she would live on in his heart and mind. He just shook his head and cried, and I knew that his grief was in a deep place I could not massage, and that only time would soften the loss. I also knew that this was a peek at the loss many of us will feel when the love of our life suffers and dies. Unavoidable, this kind of grief waits in the shadows to clutch our hearts and stab our minds.
What I did not have the time to tell him is that I knew that he only wanted her suffering to end, that no one holds him accountable for that, and that the best of us struggle to know what it is we have, while we are having it. There is no doubt that he loved her deeply, and cared for her in sickness in a way most men could not.
Grab the moment, and squeeze it like it might be your last. Work hard at knowing what you have, and prepare for a loss that will leave you crying to a stranger during a three minute conversation in a stairwell.