The man to whom I was married for twenty-six years telephoned the other day. This is not a common occurrence; I hear from him only rarely. He told me his older brother, aged 93, had just died. He wanted me to hear first, he said, because I had known the brother longer than anyone still alive.
The brother’s wife, 87 or 88 herself, had called to tell him. The brother and his wife were childless, but she was Dutch and had a daughter by a previous marriage living in Holland; they had moved there two or three years ago to be near this daughter in their extreme old age.
My former husband said he knew it might be coming. His brother had been failing since early June and his sister-in-law had been keeping him posted. It was an infection of the kidneys that didn’t respond to antibiotics and couldn’t be scanned because of a prior hip replacement. The brother died at home, “full of tubes,” after several days of extreme stress. Per their prior agreement in America, his wife finally authorized termination of life support.
The brothers had shared a bedroom all the time they were growing up. Even as adults, the younger looked up to and admired the older one. But after the older brother married forty-six years ago, there was some alienation I won’t go into that didn’t resolve until relatively late in life. Only more recently, as they became the remaining two of their generation of a large family left alive, did they seem to have overlooked their differences, and began to stay in touch regularly.
The voice on the telephone was audibly shaky. “It’s so final,” I heard. I had come to dislike the older brother; he had treated us shabbily and then completely turned his back on us when we were going through hard times. But I was sorry all the same, and said so. Certainly sorry for my former husband’s loss, and also sorry to hear of anyone’s death.
Later, however, what struck me most about this relatively short telephone conversation was something else. Apparently when she called with the final news, the sister-in-law was so overcome she could hardly speak. “I hadn’t realized they were so close,” said the man I lived with so long about two very old people who had been together forty-six years. He said it three times before we hung up.
I’m not sure whether he may have not been somewhat envious of their feelings for one another. I am sure his inability to realize people married nearly half a century would feel so close to one another explains yet again, more than anything else that happened to us while we were a couple — why we no longer are.