A question in a long marriage
December 8, 2022
I recently learned a newspaperman, who I knew while he worked for The Associated Press in Olympia, died several years ago. He was 38, had a wife and two kids, ages 3 and 6, so Jonathan Kaminsky’s death met the full measure for being really sad news.
A news obituary that ran in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in December 2016 described Jonathan’s end. Here are the opening paragraphs of the story:
“At the end of his life, as Jonathan Kaminsky lay in hospice care, he called to his brother, David.
“Jonathan could hardly speak, so David knelt by his side to better hear his brother’s words.
“ ‘Just kidding,’ whispered Jonathan.”
So, I have a new hero, and it made me wonder, again, whether I’ll be brave enough to joke when the skeletal fingers of death squeeze my larynx. And I thought, again, about the two columnists for the Shelton-Mason County Journal who died this year, Mark Woytowich and Alex Fethiere.
Then I went and had yet another birthday.
I’m healthy, as far as I know, but death has been on my mind more lately, which is likely what made me think of starting a topic with Mrs. Ericson at my birthday dinner. We went to an Italian restaurant. Our oldest son, Alex, ordered a glass of wine — he knew what was coming.
“Do you ever think about which one of us will die first?” I asked my wife of 31 years.
Mrs. Ericson immediately reached over to Alex’s wine glass and took a drink, something between a sip and a gulp. After swallowing, she smiled, which still gets me every time.
“Which one of us do you think will die first?” I asked.
She brought up genetics on the female side of her family. Her mother is 95, and her maternal grandmother, Elsie, lived to age 98. I asked Elsie about her remarkable age near her end, and she replied, “Maybe the good Lord forgot I’m still here.”
My father and paternal grandfather both died at age 84 years, three weeks. So, she’s got me on that score, and women, on average, outlive men.
I was recently playing bingo at an old folks’ home where I was the only man among the 11 players. I asked Jackie, the woman sitting next to me who is in her mid-80s, why women live longer than men.
“Our brains last longer,” she said. “We have better brains.”
Back to Mrs. Ericson.
“If I do die first, what will you do with your life?” I asked.
“Lots of wine will be involved,” she said.
I scribbled in my notebook.
“Don’t write that down,” she said.
“How about I write, ‘Lots of wine will be involved, she joked?’ ” I asked.
She smiled again.
“Do you think you’ll remarry?” I asked.
“It’s hard to think about marriage. What would you want me to do?”
“I’d want you to do what you want to do.”
“How about if you die first?” I asked her.
“You’d be a mess,” Alex said.
“You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself,” she said.
My paternal grandfather did OK after his wife, Mareta, died first. My grandmother was chatty, and my grandfather was not, but after Mareta died, my grandfather was unmuzzled.
“You never talked this much when Mareta was alive,” someone in the family once told him.
“When Mareta was alive,” my grandfather replied, “nothing was ever left unsaid.”
When I was a kid, I read Ann Landers’ advice column in Spokane’s daily newspaper — adults’ problems fascinated me. I remember a particular letter. It was from a woman whose husband had died, and she was inconsolable. She wanted advice on how to cope with grief.
Ann Landers told the widow to be grateful her husband escaped the grief that she was now suffering. She told the widow to consider her pain a gift that she gave her husband.
One terminal thought: I could have done a lot more with this life, but I certainly could have done a lot less, so if existence is graded pass/fail — and on a curve — I’d give myself a pass.