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Long Day's Gurney Into Night

After eight years of marriage, my wife and I have decided to split up. The deaths of several close relatives changed us both in radically different ways. She grew cautious and careful, and I started living as if there were no tomorrow. A close female friend warned me that I would die a lonely old man with no wife to take me to chemo when I got cancer. I get the impression from a number of people that I should aspire to have a wife and children at my side as I make my final exit. The prospect of dying surrounded by loving family is obviously preferable to dying alone. But, is it really worth it to stay in a relationship with little life left in it simply so you’ll have company at the end?

--Wife And Death Issues

Some people are looking for love; others are more concerned with lining up discount hospice care. If they were clever, they’d troll bars around hospitals, where they’d have their best shot at landing a partner who’s good in deathbed: “Hey, baby, you look like a woman who’s got a way with a bedpan.”

With the exception of Dick Clark, we’re all going to die sometime. The problem is predicting how and when. Imagine putting decades into a relationship with some dreary but reliable caregiver candidate, only to get run over by a truck long before your body becomes a flophouse for tumors. Even if you die surrounded by family, there’s no way to guarantee they’ll be loving minions, not just one or two of your kids who’ve popped by to let you know you failed them as a parent, and to ask for dibs on the couch. And, what if the wife goes first? Then you’ll end up being the one giving all the cancer care, and you’ll be left hitchhiking to chemo in return.

Of course, you could live your life instead of spending it micromanaging how you’ll die. Now, maybe living like there’s no tomorrow whatsoever -- jumping out of a plane with a backpack filled with good novels instead of a parachute -- is a mite shortsighted. Well, so is living like there’s no today. Should today be the day you’re pecked to death by a psychotic crow, let’s just hope you ate something you really, really liked for lunch, and that you’re in a relationship with a woman you love, not some death-care bartering system -- which is about as romantic as trading a donkey for six sacks of corn and a goat with a slight limp.

Even if you don’t opt for a “hedge-your-bets-at-the-end” arrangement, don’t be too quick to assume you’ll have ample room to stretch your legs at chemo. Although some people define family rather narrowly -- people they married, gave birth to, or whose hair they pulled when they were 8 -- maybe family is people in your life who act like family. When a friend of mine, a single mother, went through chemo, the nurses were forever lecturing her that she wasn’t allowed more than two friends with her at a time. (Oh, and please keep the laughter down, and no, your friends cannot bring in a live band.) It got to the point where she practically needed a publicist to schedule shifts of friends clamoring to keep her company while she got her anti-cancer drip.

People inspire other people to feel this way about them because they know how to live, not because they’ve made a pact, “You watch my IV bags, and I’ll watch yours.” Live hard, and you still might luck out and end up with a loved one in a nurse’s uniform by your side. (If you really luck out, she’ll only be wearing it because her French maid outfit is still at the cleaner’s.)

Copyright ©2003, Amy Alkon, from her syndicated column, "The Advice Goddess," which appears in over 100 papers across the U.S. and Canada. All rights reserved.