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A new box on the tax form

As April 15 draws near, I find myself remembering the year my friend, Lisa, had a new box to check on her tax returns — the one that reads “qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.” She was 46.

Through the years we shared mud pies, Maybelline mascara and maid of honor duties. Two months after the funeral, we were sharing a plate of Memphis barbeque. I noticed her eyes looked a little less bright. Watching your husband die can affect your vision that way. 

As the waitress filled our water glasses, we talked of 401Ks and how her mother called three times a day. There were new responsibilities.

“I almost forgot the flute payment,” she admitted. Her daughter was second chair at the second largest high school in Mississippi. The daughter’s grades, however, were slipping. She had a good excuse, but the new Mom/Dad combo sitting across from me wasn’t sympathetic. My friend was thinking about college and college costs. I could tell she was going to be tough.

There were moments that made her that way, like when she got the pain patches at Target and the pharmacist mentioned hospice. Before he was on hospice.

Then there was the appointment at M. D. Anderson and the long trip back.

After he died, it was the restaurant epiphany.

“I saw the empty chair across from me and tried to remember what he looked like when was eating. I couldn’t conjure up anything,” she shook her head. “I mean, did we really rush through 23 years of meals, and I never even took the time to look at him while he ate?”

Her less-bright eyes gazed long at the lunch-hour traffic outside. I scrambled for right words. We moved on to in-laws.

She got it that she and the granddaughter were their only connection to their son. Well, them and his truck. Her father-in-law couldn’t help himself when she put the “for sale” sign in the window.

More than once she insisted there was nothing to complain about. She’d be able keep the house. Friends were keeping her busy. Her rock-solid faith in the truth of Romans 8:28 — that because she is His, God is working all things together for good — was keeping her sane.

And she was insistent about something else, too.

“I really want to get the message out that more research is needed. Right now, to sit in a doctor’s office and hear the words ‘pancreatic cancer,’ it’s just a death sentence.” 

True. The 5-year survival rate after such a diagnosis is a single-digit percent, and pancreatic cancer is predicted to become the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the country next year. The good news is more scientists than ever before are working to improve patient outcomes. That’s bittersweet for Lisa and all the others who have lost their loved ones to the disease.

But in her case, the “new normal” kept her mind pretty occupied. Right off the bat she had to deal with a roof leak and an AC problem. It took forever to get the death certificate. Locking up at night — he always took care of that. And what about the attic full of computer parts?

“I think that’s why having his phone turned off was the hardest thing so far,” she told me, recalling his penchant for the latest technology. “I tortured myself by listening to his voice mail greeting.”

We sat silent a while. The waitress returned — again — so we left a tip and a few bites of barbeque behind. I watched Lisa drive away in the car she was learning to monitor for oil changes. Mine, with gauges I never look at, cranked as always. There were miles to go between there and home, and I had something to do that night.

I planned to watch my husband eat.

Contact Kim Henderson at kimhenderson319@gmail.com or follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.