My Wife Of 26 Years Died. 6 Months Later, I Received A Call That Left Me Stunned.

"There is your life before the death of your beloved spouse and your life after. The pain never fully goes away."
"Undying love at our wedding," the author writes.
Courtesy of Jeffrey D. Boldt
"Undying love at our wedding," the author writes.

My wife Rebecca and I celebrated our 26th anniversary while she was getting in-patient care at a hospice centre for pain management for her colon cancer. Well, “celebrated” is not quite right, though we certainly tried.

That day I dressed up a bit and brought her an elegant blue dress, pictures from our funky wedding, and a bottle of her favourite Barbaresco. After checking in with her doctor, I took her in a wheelchair to the garden to drink it. It was the sunny Friday of a warm Labor Day weekend. The Prairie Memory Garden was full of late summer bloom, and a playful pair of blue butterflies joined our bittersweet party.

Rebecca was feeling slightly less miserable, so after we shared wedding memories, she reminded me of what she expected of me as she imagined my life without her. She told me she wanted me to help our girls as much as I could, emotionally and financially; to remember her with love but not morbidity; and not to fall apart or be afraid to love again — because despite the pain, it would be worth it.

“Please, not today,” I said as I took her hand and planted a kiss on her pale cheek. “It’s our anniversary!”

“I know, but you’ve had a rough couple of years, too.”

“Nothing compared to you, and you’ve said all of this!”

Rebecca had actually told me all of this dozens of times. She’d been staring down death for nearly three years — since we’d learned that the cancer had spread to her lungs and was almost certainly fatal.

We’d recently gone to MD Anderson in Houston for a second opinion. When asked about potential treatments, the experts there said there was “nothing on the horizon anytime soon.”

We’d been married in Houston at the Rothko Chapel, and we stopped there after the appointment. We sat silently together holding hands. The great artist’s haunting purple canvases had been part of the happiest and most difficult days of our lives.

Now, we both knew that this was our last anniversary together. Rebecca was just 53.

"In my cheap green suit at the Rothko Chapel," the author writes.
Courtesy of Jeffrey D. Boldt
"In my cheap green suit at the Rothko Chapel," the author writes.

“Sorry, but I feel guilty about putting all of you through this,” she said. She took a sip of her wine and put her arm around me.

“Guilty for being sick?” I asked.

“Yes. The last three years have been hardest on you, but the rest of it will be hardest on the girls,” she said. “You’ll find someone new, but they’re losing their mother.”

She had a determined look on her face and moved her arm away.

“Even if you meet someone here at the hospice, stay open to it! Just find someone the girls like.”

“Damn it, stop!” I said, raising my voice a bit. It was all too much. “Please!”

Her lungs were full of tumours, and she required oxygen to breathe; at home, she would accidentally pull the tubes out in the middle of the night, waking us both up in a nervous panic.

Rebecca had gotten so thin that her skin took on a white and shiny porcelain look. Still, she was so strong and beautiful — and she was still thinking of others before herself, as she always had since I’d known her.

Rebecca had done fieldwork for her economics Ph.D. in the highlands of Ecuador, trying to help the country’s indigenous people get titles to their lands for credit. Later, she worked for the U.N. in Rome and consulted in Africa and South America. Even now, in the past year, she’d done extensive training with the Red Cross to assist people put out of their homes after fires. And, with her dear friend Deb and me, she’d even picked out the spot for her memorial bench along a local creek conservancy.

A photo of Rebecca and the author's daughter in Rome, where Rebecca was working for the U.N.
Courtesy of Jeffrey D. Boldt
A photo of Rebecca and the author's daughter in Rome, where Rebecca was working for the U.N.

Earlier in the week, before our anniversary, she’d gotten delirious and thought she was going to act in a play later that night. Rebecca was determined to get up and get dressed for the evening, but she was far too weak to do so. She humoured me by letting me brush her hair, until, at last, she got up to do it herself, dragging her oxygen tank into our master bedroom bathroom. Then she saw her reflection in the mirror.

“Do you see how sick you are, honey?” I asked.

She nodded with sad recognition, and I helped her back into bed.

The next day, she agreed to be briefly admitted into the inpatient hospice centre for pain relief.

She was feeling a little better on our anniversary and had her wits back again, despite her battle with pain. Consciously calming myself, I told her that I loved her and thanked her for thinking of the girls and me. She smiled, and we got back to our wine. The cheerful, slightly sarcastic good humour that had taken us through all our years together (especially the last three) returned. She teased me about my red wine moustache and about the cheap green suit I’d worn to our wedding.

We toasted our years together.

Wheeling her back from the garden, I noticed a woman in her late 80′s, struggling with a walker, heading into the hospice centre.

“Oh, excuse me,” I said to Rebecca, pretending to recognise the woman. “That’s my new special friend, Bernice!”

Rebecca let out that honest, earthy laugh that I loved. It was the last time I heard it in all its glory.

The author's family on vacation in New Orleans
Courtesy of Jeffrey D. Boldt
The author's family on vacation in New Orleans

She struggled through one more month. The morning when her pain finally ended, I’d bathed her and even put on a perfume that she liked. After days of incoherence, she startled me by suddenly observing, “That’s not deodorant I smell!”

“You’re right, that’s the Vera Wang I got you for Christmas,” I told her.

“That was a winner!” she cried happily. Those were her last words to me.

Later that day, my last words to her were to tell her that she was the finest person I’d ever met.

That afternoon, I sat at the memorial bench Rebecca had picked out with our two daughters on either side of me. We briefly held hands and closed our eyes. It was a discordantly beautiful October afternoon. The bench was beside a briskly bubbling creek with stepping stones to cross above a manufactured rapid. Just then, a mom, dad, and two young girls came tiptoeing over the creek, as the four of us had done when our girls were little. We sat silently for a few more minutes, each lost in our thoughts and searing memories. The sun glowed through the fall leaves above the peaceful creek setting. Rebecca had picked the perfect spot for just this moment and many more in the future.

Condolences came in from people all over the world: old colleagues in Rome, Ecuador, and Tanzania; friends from four continents; an elderly couple she’d recently met at a fire; lives she’d touched. We pulled off the complex memorial service, which Rebecca had planned in considerable detail. The service turned out well, but then the crowd was gone, and I was back to sleeping in the same bed, in the exact spot where she’d struggled — and where she’d at last found peace.

The bright sunny days of October turned into the gloomy gray skies of November in Wisconsin. I was in our house alone, surrounded by Rebecca’s things and all of my memories. There were stacks of medical supplies, suddenly both conspicuous and useless; there was that tragically powerful hairbrush.

I learned a lot about grief. It was easier to deal with her things — to store or throw them away — in the mornings when I was fresh, and I learned that things, however charged, were just things. I tried to schedule evenings to cry so that I would do it less at work, and I managed this with mixed results. The tears seemed to come from some inexhaustible spring.

Rebecca in early 2013.
Courtesy of Jeffrey D. Boldt
Rebecca in early 2013.

Several sad months passed. I sometimes still cried at work, but I would turn my chair around to look out the window so that it was harder for others to see me. Those few who did see me were kind and supportive. I missed Rebecca terribly, but the girls and I made it through our longest winter.

In April, I received a call from Rebecca’s close friend Deb, who’d helped us pick out the spot for her bench. Deb told me that Rebecca had asked her to call me six months after her death to encourage me to get out and meet new people — including women.


Even after she was gone, she was still finding a way to show me how much she cared. She taught me so much about courage, compassion and love. For her, love was a form of generosity. It was a way of seeing and valuing the other person from beyond the moment — even from beyond the grave. She saw how hard my life would be without her, but her love was not about a jealous clinging — it was about helping to set me free. There’s a profound truth in that.

As my fellow widows know, there is your life before the death of your beloved spouse and your life after. The pain never fully goes away. I still miss Rebecca. For me, grief is like weather, and a storm can rise up suddenly on even the sunniest day. The storm clouds always have a name and face.

It’s been 10 years since Rebecca passed. I’ve been lucky to find another generous partner — and I haven’t felt a single second of guilt about going forward with my own life because of the gift that Rebecca gave me.

Jeffrey D. Boldt is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and its School of Law. After a career focusing on environmental law, Boldt received his MFA in Fiction from Augsburg University in 2019. Boldt’s short fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals. His first novel, “Blue Lake,” a literary thriller published by River Grove Books, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2022. His next novel, “Big Lake Troubles,” is a sequel forthcoming this fall. Learn more about Boldt here.