Adaptability Key When Life Brings Loss
Jane King was beaming when she opened the door to her apartment. She’d been eager for me to see her new retirement home, and to share a recent purchase—a piece of art, freshly hung in her small sitting room.
Across from the entry the framed portrait of a pensive woman gazed with calm eyes and openness at all who entered. Not a large piece, but strong. An image of graceful, quiet reflection. The portrait, Jane explained, is part of a series known as “Georgie’s Girls,” by Portland artist George Hamilton. This one is titled “Soulful.”
For years, Jane and her late husband admired Hamilton’s portraits, but never made a purchase. Then, just a month ago she found this piece and knew it belonged with her—a loving echo of interests shared with the man who shared her life for 69 years.
Don King’s death two years ago, at age 90, came as a jolt to his wife. She had chosen to dismiss the signs of decline and dementia that forewarned of coming events.
“When the end came, it was such a surprise to me,” says Jane, 91, when I ask about this journey she is making—this wrenching transition from wife to widow that looms as likely for many of us who have accumulated a wealth of years in committed partnerships.
Every year 800,000 Americans are widowed
“Don and I had no thought of the future,” she reflects. “We just thought we’d be like we were forever. I don’t think you can make plans.” I understand this resistance. Fifty-plus years of coupled life have left me ill-prepared to imagine an existence dependent on myself alone for motivation, security, or identity. Wouldn’t I, too, long to push aside data that injects my dreams with dread?
The US Census Bureau estimates that 800,000 Americans lose a spouse every year. Eighty percent of them are women who face, on average, 14 years of single life. I find the figures unsettling, disarming. Still, some well of determination prompted me to face my discomfort and seek reassurance from a woman still negotiating the transitions from wife to widow and from private home to senior living apartment.
Jane King, mother of my friend Jennifer King, has been an acquaintance for 30 years. Though that period, we’ve bumped into one another at movies from time to time. Said ‘hello’ at fund-raisers or Hult Center events. Don was always at her side, the two of them active in community life. So I wasn’t surprised to encounter her not long ago at a luncheon group called “The Third Act,” a senior fellowship at Eugene’s First Congregational Church.
There, our hellos led to this visit in her Eugene Hotel Retirement Community apartment and to a probe into the challenges of redefining life at the end of a long partnership. Looking back, she can see that the process began perhaps ten years ago when Don began to exhibit physical and mental difficulties. But the changes were slow and subtle.
“Don started having problems but it was so gradual I didn’t realize what was happening. He still played golf when he could hardly get in and out of the cart,” she says. Nothing suggested to Jane that she should curtail the social and community activities that had been normal for the couple since their 1984 move from the East Coast to Eugene following Don’s retirement from a career with PPG Industries.
“Then, he had a couple of falls and they told me at the hospital that it wasn’t safe for him to come home again. That was so hard,” she says.
Don’s move into assisted living in 2011 split the couple but offered a new focus of social involvement. Daily visits and Friday wine tastings forged new friendships with Don’s companions at the center.
“How my mother treated my father, once he was in assisted living, is huge,” says daughter Jennifer, now of Portland. “She went every day after lunch and she created a social life for them there, the way they had a social life their whole marriage. They had fun together. They were still a couple, even just sitting in his room as Mom read the paper and Dad watched golf. They really enjoyed each other’s company.”
When death wrenched the couple apart eighteen months later, Jane nestled for more than a year in the home at the base of Hendricks Park that she and Don had shared for 30 years. Then, she woke with a start one morning and knew it was time for a change. All she wanted was out. She settled on a 900-square-foot apartment in a downtown location with access to educational opportunities, entertainment, and restaurants
She felt optimistic as she and Jennifer evaluated contents of her house and decided what could transition to a smaller space. They shared the excitement of shopping for new items.
The mood changed when they turned to confront what remained after the move had been made. When son Rob and his wife Jane arrived from Minnesota to help prepare the house for sale, the task seemed monumental. Years of half-hearted paring down seemed to have barely scratched the surface.
“It wasn’t planned well,” Jane acknowledges. “That was one thing we could have done that better.” When, at last, the house was cleared, the deed transferred to a new owner, Jane King tucked herself in for a season of healing in her cozy apartment.
“I have just slept a lot,” she says. “Maybe it’s years of keeping up the pace we had. Don and I went to everything. It was fun. But now, I don’t feel like I want to do that. I am surprised at how much I love the space where I am now, this apartment. And I am surprised that I am content to just be for a while, and sort of wait to discover what I want to become now—to have an opportunity to do that without a lot of distractions.”
Adaptability top attribute of resiliency in age and grief
Author Jane Sheehy, writing in “New Passages” her second book on the transitions of a lifetime, calls this stage of life the “Noble Nineties.” Those who reach this level Sheehy hails as “the new aristocracy of successful aging.” When people over 90 look back on their lives, it’s not success or failures they remember first, Sheehy says, citing sociological studies. They remember the times they took risks. They describe lives of adaptability.
‘Adaptable’ sounds like an appropriate word for Jane King. She was a college senior when she and Don married in 1944. Adaptability powered her through moves to half a dozen homes in different east coast cities as his career brought relocations. It guided her through college completion, graduate studies and teaching roles in assorted locations as their two children grew. It sustained her when retirement brought the couple to Eugene where she fed an appetite for learning by chalking up more than 100 credit hours at Lane Community College.
Adaptability is evidenced, too, in the warmth with which she talks now about her new home. No looking back to the house below the park. No talk of things left behind as she points out the pleasures she is finding in a different setting. The lively dinners at a table of eight that bring social contact and intellectual stimulation daily. Exercise classes three mornings a week. A dinner-for-eight group formed with an old friend who’s now a neighbor in the same building.
“My mother is interested in a lot of things in the world,” her daughter says. “Her brain and her health are very good. I’m so admiring of her mental acuity.”
Years ago, when I worked at The Register-Guard and Jennifer worked at the University of Oregon School of Journalism, we met for weekly walks in which we aired professional and personal challenges. I wondered how this process of losing a father and supporting a mother has been for her, a daughter, mother and grandmother now navigating her own passage of years.
“It’s a really interesting time,” says Jennifer, 68, when we talk by telephone. “Maybe it’s kind of a special time for mother-daughter connection. “I always had fun with her and my dad but the last years of his life were challenging. I’m really grateful for this time I am having alone with her. She is trying to find her way in socially and intellectually in a new place as a single woman now. She hasn’t done that for 69 years. I’m getting to see her become another woman—a new version of Jane,” she says. “I’m glad I get to see that.”
Adaptability re-emerges in this image of a determined woman finding the will to redefine herself after a death and change of home bring upheaval to the life she had known. I recognize this process. I’ve learned to mine the gold from misfortune. Learned to count my blessings and plunge into the fissure.
Resilience comes on the heels of surrender. Never an easy step. I suppose I could do it again, if I have to. But Jane King has it right—you can’t make plans for that.
Carolyn Scott Kortge, of Eugene, is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of “The Spirited Walker.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.