This is a story about Jeanne.
Jeanne’s story encompasses her whole life, really, but even she would acknowledge that her husband Bobby’s death was a turning point. Many things happened before and leading up to his death. Some of them were good, even great. Some of them were very romantic. And, some of them were proof that her life was not perfect.
Yet, it was her reaction to that event – Bobby’s death -, and the ripples her reaction created, that changed her life in ways she did not expect. When Bobby died, Jeanne was 43, and most certainly not ready to be a widow. She responded accordingly.
Jeanne is originally from St. Jerome, a small town an hour or so north of Montreal. When she met Bobby, she was 21, a bilingual legal secretary in a large Montreal law firm.
As Bobby described her later, she must have been the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. If you listen to her, however, she was a “horsey-looking” Quebec country girl who, like many French women, knew how to look her very best. Clothes, makeup, walk, gestures, all designed to enhance her attractiveness. Even thirty-nine years later, she is still striking, but in all probability her description was closer to the truth than his.
Bobby, on the other hand, was a salesman for IBM, back when (in the late 1970s) Big Blue still sold large computers to big companies. Her take on him at the time was that he was a successful, well-dressed, and urbane older man (33) who literally made her swoon when she talked to him. Despite being an Anglophone, he even spoke passable French, meaning that he would be able to talk to her unilingual parents. (Bobby would not have rejected her description, but he knew better. In his eyes, he was boring, his sales job essentially wasting a perfectly good degree in mathematics at a time when such a degree was not that common.)
The prosaic truth is that both Bobby and Jeanne wanted more than anything to have a family, and each saw in the other the perfect partner to succeed in that goal. Jeanne was an attractive and intelligent young woman, brought up in a large Quebec family. Bobby was an established and successful businessman whose dream was to coach his kids’ hockey teams. Both were ready – “right now” ready – and not interested in waiting.
Sometimes the right people meet each other at the right time.
I could go on, but sure enough they got married, within a year in fact, and over the next two years had first a boy, then a girl. They bought a house in Mississauga, and life was good. In the mid 1980s Bobby started to shift from hardware to software, and did a little less traveling as he moved up the ranks. Jeanne planned to work, but the house and the kids were a full-time job, so until the kids were both in school they agreed she would stay at home. She took night school courses toward a degree, but his income was enough for the family.
For the most part, it actually was all good. Bobby never stopped being in love with Jeanne, and even twenty years after they were married he was convinced that he had just lucked out in finding her. They fought sometimes, because she was not really the “little woman” type, and she was quick to speak her mind. And, he was not exactly Casper Milquetoast. However, their marriage was a good one, grounding a strong family life.
They had two setbacks. When the kids were teenagers, in the mid-1990s, Bobby took a lucrative offer to move from a weakened IBM to an apparently great software startup. He signed on to a compensation plan with a lot of performance bonuses built in, but the software didn’t sell well. He landed on his feet at another startup. Less money, but a job. Jeanne went back to work, and because she had been going to night school for years, she was able to score a pretty good government job that gave them more financial stability. They weren’t going to lose the house, and they probably could still keep saving for the kids’ university. Their financial dynamics changed, but they were fine.
It was the second setback that was the real problem. Bobby, at 52, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Their lives changed big time. While they never faltered in their commitment to their 17 year old son and 16 year old daughter, they also had to focus on chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Bobby’s ability to work rapidly dropped to almost nothing, and the small company’s long term disability plan was, shall we say, rudimentary. Jeanne could keep working, but her time spent with Bobby limited her ability to get promotions.
She told me later: “The funny thing was, our financial situation wasn’t really bad. Sure, we didn’t have a lot of money coming in, but we had some. We took out a mortgage on the house, which was almost fully paid for anyway. And, if I’m being honest, we both knew he was going to die. There was more than a million dollars in insurance on his life, between the company and our own policies. No-one had to worry about money. No matter what we did, that problem was eventually going to solve itself.”
Bobby fought the cancer for three years, with Jeanne’s determined support. I knew them both then. Neither was perfect. Bobby complained that his employer was not “in his corner”, but when he said it he sounded like he was whining. Jeanne told me, to Bobby’s face, that one of the biggest problems for her was that Bobby couldn’t have sex any more. She was intending to make a complimentary but perhaps inappropriate statement about Bobby’s sexual prowess. Sadly, it came across as a complaint. They tried really hard to be there for each other, but in fact their perfect family was being destroyed by cancer. They hated it, and that showed.
They spent their twenty-first wedding anniversary in the hospital, Bobby hooked up to an IV and waiting for some kind of last chance surgery. It never happened. He died that night. Jeanne was there, but she had stepped out to talk to the nurses when the moment came. It was all she could talk about for months. She wasn’t beside him when the time came. It was her failure.
So Bobby died.
They knew he was going to die. They tried to prepare for it. They made sure their wills were in order. They talked to the kids. They did everything they should do. But, as these things tend to be, it was inevitable. He died.
And there sits Jeanne. She has been married since before her 22nd birthday. Her adult life has revolved around her husband and her family. And her husband is now dead.
A few months after Bobby’s death, she described it to me this way: “You’re 43 years old. You have two kids still relying on you. Your husband has been sick for three years, and just died. You’ve had no sex – no real intimacy at all – since you were in your thirties, and you suddenly feel very old. How would you react? What I’ve decided is, I’m not ready to be old.”
Now, before you judge her, Jeanne was certainly devastated by the loss of Bobby from her life. It hurt her not just because she never stopped loving him, but also because he was the father her kids needed, and still needed. She was hurt, and lost, and scared. And, as she said, she was not old.
Bobby died in December 1999. In June 2000 a friend at work set Jeanne up on a blind date, and she agreed to go. It didn’t work out, but it was like that event flicked a switch in her life. She started dating, almost aggressively, agreeing to go out with anyone who showed interest. Her “beauty based on style” stood her in good stead. She elicited interest from a broad range of executives, professionals, and tech geeks. Married, divorced, separated, single, even marital status uncertain, many were interested.
Over the next three years, Jeanne jumped on the dating bandwagon, going out with probably twenty or thirty – or maybe even more – different men. Most were only good for dinner and (kind) rejection, but some lasted a few dates, and a couple even a few months. Socially, it was the most active Jeanne had ever been in her life.
Her kids did not see it as mom’s social life. While she rarely brought men back to her house, she did stay late or overnight at their houses, or in hotels. She didn’t hide it. Her kids were adults. They would understand.
To them, however, it was simple: “Mom’s a slut”. As she later understood, they had also lost Bobby, and her dating by itself appeared to be disloyalty. As her son said, bitterly: “Couldn’t you have waited a little longer?”
To which she replied: “I started grieving the loss of your dad when the doctor gave us the bad news. I waited four years before trying to find someone new. How much is enough?”
I witnessed this intense, biting exchange. Strong but fragile 45 year old mother, tall 22 year old son who looked like a football player. Both with flashing eyes, full of anger, but close to tears. Only love could make people that angry.
It all came to a head in 2003, one night that in the broader scheme of things was irrelevant, but ended up being a tipping point in Jeanne’s life.
Jeanne had met a 38-year-old accountant from Hamilton who was tall, and good-looking, and reminded her a little bit of Bobby when he was younger. They went out several times, and then on a weekend trip to Vermont for skiing. He was intelligent, good company, and made her feel good.
The incident that precipitated her crisis started as an early dinner in downtown Toronto, after which they were going to “go dancing” or something similar. He had booked a room at the Four Seasons, thinking correctly that after dinner with wine and liqueurs, it would be better not to try to drive home. She thought it was perfect. They could change to dancing clothes, even rest a bit before hitting the clubs.
Except, what happened was that they ended up in bed. Then they ordered a bottle of good Scotch from room service, then went back to bed… At 2:00 AM, drunk to the point of incoherence, Jeanne suddenly saw everything around her as … not what she wanted. She felt like a teenager, doing something naughty. But, she was not a teenager any more. Over her friend’s objections, she called a taxi and took the long ride home to Mississauga.
She never saw him again, and when he called she told him, quite simply, that she was changing her life. She wasn’t cold, but neither was he going to be in her new life. Thanks, but bye.
The next day was her 47th birthday.
Three years after Bobby died, Jeanne brought her frenzied dating period to an abrupt end. It wasn’t that she thought it was wrong. She just realized that her dating was about being young again. She was rejecting Bobby’s death, and her subconscious feeling that his death also meant she was too old to live. She was single, and she wanted to act like an attractive single woman.
What the incident brought home to her was that she was no longer that twenty-two year old girl. Her kids were older than that. She was a real person, but she was not that person. By riding the carousel, she was forgetting that she had grown, become a different person, over the years.
Jeanne later told me that when she sat down to talk to her kids about it, she spoke to them in French. “French is a better language to express that kind of emotions,” she said. “They understood what I was going through. It wasn’t as hard as I thought.”
There is perhaps some irony that, within six months, Jeanne was for the first time alone in her big suburban house. Her son went to do his MBA in Montreal, and her daughter moved to a condo in downtown Toronto with a roommate.
Her relationship with them was very good, though. Her “period of grief” (“en deuil” in French) became just a running joke between them. A good example was a couple of years later, when Jeanne’s daughter insisted on taking her into Aren’t We Naughty, an adult products store, because she “seemed sad”. The kids never stopped teasing Jeanne for having been a teenager in her forties, and she took it just fine. She put her en deuil period on the shelf, neatly packaged but decidedly part of the past.
Since then, there are more chapters to Jeanne’s story already, and undoubtedly more to come. In 2008, she became a grandmother when her daughter had a baby, and then again in 2012 when her son became a parent. (Her kids got her a coffee mug saying “World’s Youngest Grandmother”.) In 2010 she was promoted to a more responsible job, one that included extensive international travel.
Jeanne still met guys from time to time, but she wasn’t really “looking”. It just happened, and she took it in stride when it did.
Then, just after she became a grandmother for a second time, she met Marc – another accountant. Eighteen months later, Marc and Jeanne were married, both of them surrounded by their happy children and grandchildren. Jeanne was 57, not a teenager any more, but excited and positive about the future.
Why am I telling this story?
At Jeanne’s wedding in 2013, someone from my past, who knew Jeanne when Bobby was sick and afterwards, made an offhand comment to me: “This Jeanne is nothing like the woman we saw after Bobby died.” Implicit in his tone was some kind of criticism for her past excesses.
I thought about that, and told him I didn’t agree. This is exactly the same Jeanne. Back then she had some things to work out in her life. She did, but throughout even that difficult period she never lost any of the good things that made up her character.
This is a “walk a mile in her shoes” type of story. Jeanne has lived, and continues to live, a good life, her actions for the most part admirable. Her reaction to Bobby’s death was not Jeanne doing something wrong, nor does it warrant opprobrium. Something bad happened. She handled it the best way she could. And, in the process, she grew.
How would you have handled it? Any better?
– Jay Shepherd, March 8, 2017