I Married my Anthropology Professor
As a sophomore at Ohio University in 1964, I fell in love with my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In the course of our 41-year marriage, we had three boys and made numerous trips to Liberia, living a year in his village upcountry. After he retired, we wrote a book together, Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, about the effect of racism in his country, comparing it with America’s racism in the 1950s, when he arrived here. I was devastated when he died in 2009. My life had always revolved around him. A year and a half later, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief. Below is an excerpt from that book in my words:
My Husband is Dying
In time, he became bedridden and could no longer eat. Ben Jr. and Joe arrived and stayed with us. Peter and his family visited often. We took turns sitting with him, reading the Bible or playing Christmas music. One afternoon, I played his favorite, Handel’s Messiah, and he was soon snoring. I was comforted knowing it brought peace to his soul.
One day when he was already blind, he thanked the hospice nurse for all her care. I said, “Do you know who this is?”
He said, “Yes, Pretty Girl.” Those were his last words to me.
My final statement to him was, “I love you. You opened a whole new world to me. I will never forget you.”
It was past midnight on December 17, 2009. Ben had been dying throughout the day and could no longer speak. His breathing was labored. I periodically squirted a dropper of pain medication into his mouth, placing it in his cheek so he wouldn’t choke. Sitting next to him, I felt his cold legs. Peter was standing beside me. Ben Jr. was resting on the couch nearby, and Joe was lying down in my office.
I said, “Peter, wait with your dad. I’m going to lie down for a minute. Call me if there’s any change.”
I no sooner felt my body touch the bed and start to relax in our bedroom next to the sun porch than Peter said, “Mom, I think Dad just took his last breath.”
I jumped up and ran to his side. Ben Jr. and Joe came in. We watched as the pulsing of the artery in his neck stopped. In that instant, my life as I knew it ended as well. The love of my life had just left this earth.
Ben Jr. closed his father’s eyes and then put his hand on my shoulder as I sat there sobbing. Joe stood watching. Peter walked over to the kitchen phone to call our pastor and the funeral home.
I asked the funeral home attendants to unzip the body bag so I could see Ben’s face one more time. As they wheeled him out of the house on a gurney, I said, “That’s the last time he’ll ever be in this house.”
The most painful thing was viewing his body at the funeral home before they cremated him. He looked wonderful, as if he could climb out of the coffin at any minute. I reached out and touched his cheek. It was ice cold.
The Memorial Service
The memorial service was held the night before Christmas Eve, but I was hardly present, feeling as if I were on a faraway cloud. The church was full with many friends from the past 17 years. Each of our children told special memories of him giving testimony to his faith, his pride in being an African, and his personal touch with students. Everyone walked out listening to a recording of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
I saved a few special mementos: his worn Bible, one of his favorite sociology books, his watch, his tuxedo bow tie, and The Prophet, by Kahlil Gilbran, which he had given me when we fell in love.
The Widow’s Club
One Sunday, as I walked out of church, a friend put her arm around me and said, “You’re now in the widows’ club. It’s not one you’d ever want to join, but it’s a good club!”
Although I had known for a year and a half that it would happen, nothing prepared me for the finality of death when it came. Nothing could alter it or lessen its pain. I would never again speak to him, hear him laugh, feel his embrace, or share my life with him. I knew that when we meet in heaven one day, we’d no longer share the human bond of marriage. My life with him was irrevocably over. I wished over and over that I had held his hand at the moment he died. In my mind, I told him, It’s true, my darling. I’ll never forget you. You’ll always be in my heart.
The Loneliness Afterwards
For months I felt utterly helpless and didn’t know how I could go on. I entered that long tunnel of grief, with vivid memories of his death playing over and over in my mind. When he was dying, my heart developed an abnormal rhythm called premature ventricle contractions (PVCs). When I first noticed them, I thought, Maybe I’ll die soon after him.
Each time I walked into my solitary house, I felt a stab of sorrow. There were good days and bad days. In the battles of the night hours—those dark moments of the soul that petty pursuits can’t dissolve—I was overwhelmed with loneliness, silence ringing in my ears. In the middle of the night, I listened to my Bible CDs or watched TV to get my mind off of things. I lived on the verge of fear, wondering what would happen next. I experienced my first birthday without Ben, and later our wedding anniversary, which had been so uniquely special to us. I sobbed those daily cleansing tears in the silence of my empty house, with God as my only comfort.
“The Way You Wear Your Hat, the Memory of all That. No, No, They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
I missed him—the familiar way he parted and brushed his hair, how he tucked his hankie into his back pocket, his charming smile, his infectious laugh. I loved the scent of his sport coat, which was permeated with cologne. I’d watched him scratch his head when he was relaxed or fidget with the back of his neck when trying to think of what to say. I remembered how he bit his tongue when he was concentrating and how he fluffed and positioned his pillow each time he got into bed.
Loneliness vs. Independence
After all those years of writing Ben’s book and caring for him, I suddenly had all the time and freedom in the world. My parents were gone, and the boys were grown, pursuing their own lives. The clock was my enemy, as I had time to reflect. Days moved slowly. I struggled to be present in the moment when I didn’t like the moment. I stopped wearing a watch for a year and a half because it didn’t matter what day or what time it was. For me, everything was measured by how long it had been since he was gone.
Loneliness was the downside of my new independence. I had the freedom to visit my sons and babysit my grandchildren. I could shop for hours for the latest fashions, but there was no one to notice. Without someone to share my day or make demands on me, I had time for lengthy individual devotions. I studied the Scriptures. I read Christian books. I meditated. Nothing taught me to surrender to God’s will more than Ben’s death.
In the end, nothing could replace the work of grief—that long process of simply coping until healing comes. I assumed getting my house in order meant I was going on with my life. Instead, in the quietness of time, I had to gradually go through the sadness of loss.
When people said, “I miss Ben,” I replied, “No one will ever miss him like I do.” No longer could I reach over in bed and feel him beside me or hear him softly snoring. Only I knew those deep intimate moments between us. It was like the song “They Can’t Take That away from You.”
Only God Could Comfort Me
In time, I realized that compulsive action couldn’t make the healing happen faster. While the passage of time helped, only God could comfort. Without Him, my suffering would have been unbearable.
Alone, I entered that arena of complete dependence on God. Sorrow and helplessness led me closer to Him than ever before. I prayed, “God, You are all I have, and yet You are everything.” I learned to be lonely, but never alone, since God was there. I prayed, “O Lord, my need drives me to my knees to You.”
Reflecting on my situation, I imagined him in heaven, but I didn’t know exactly what that was like. I felt as if I were missing out because I wasn’t sharing it with him. He had gone on, but I couldn’t join him yet. I feared going into my old age and death alone. I prayed, “What can I offer except my sorrowing spirit? I am bereft. I must wait upon You, Lord, to show me what’s next—what my life will be.”
Still, I was grateful for the comfort of my family.