FORTY YEARS

By Susan Surman

The Meeting: At the Larnaca Airport in Cyprus, Greece, I never heard the call to board. Some instinct made me ask the lady sitting next to me if she was waiting for the flight to London. “No,” she said in broken English, but how you can break up a one syllable word has always baffled me. Anyway, I made a dash for it. In a fraught and harried state, I was the last one to board. The plane was only about a quarter full. Who was going to England in July? My seat was in the non-smoking section – 17A. No one in front of me or next to me. Lucky me. A quick assessment of my surrounding fellow passengers: Couples, families, and across the aisle, a young man not dressed like a tourist or holiday maker got my attention. Smoking section – 17F. No one in front of him or next to him. he appeared to be self-contained. I decided he was a journalist or maybe a photographer. What a solid looking chap. How do you get to meet them like that?

Suddenly, the plane lurched – it always happens right after you have eaten. Turbulence! The seat belt sign went on. I looked across at the young man. I was scared and needed reassurance. He was calm and must have sensed me looking over at him because he turned his head and our eyes met. “Is it going to be alright?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. We chatted. He invited me over to his section where we talked and never noticed the turbulence had subsided. I learned he was Scottish and had been to Cyprus to visit the places where he spent his childhood. His father had been an officer in the British Army.

We didn’t exchange names; yet I felt I’d known him when I was seven years old, lost him, and found him again. In the middle of one of my monologues, he said, “You’re delightful company.” I could feel myself blushing as I said, “I know.” The age thing came up. I have no idea why. But I learned he was 27. He was surprised to learn I was 39 as I looked 29. I liked him. When wewere about to land, he said simply and directly: “You have two choices when we leave this plane. You can consider this a pleasant airplane conversation or we can see each other again.” He didn’t ask for my phone number; instead, he gave me his. It took me two weeks before I rang him. 

The Marriage: Back home we continued the ‘meet cute’, the expression they use in the movieswhen the two love interests first meet. He would visit me in my flat in London; I would visit him in his house in the country. Two years later we were married at Chelsea Town Hall in London. I was 41 and wore high heels. He was 29 and wore boots. The age difference was never an issue. There is an old Nepalese saying: A woman of 30 at 40 will be a woman of 60 at 80 will be a woman of 75 at 100. I think it loses something in the translation, but I like it.

The Divorce: And then somehow the marriage came to an end. Divorce is not the end of the relationship – it’s only the end of the marriage. It was a piece of paper that had brought us together; it was a piece of paper that separated us – physically only – not emotionally. There had been homes in London, Sydney and Winston-Salem. It had to mean something. World-wide traveling together had to mean something. The person I laughed with, went to for advice, shared mutual friends with, the person who was there when I played the Sydney Opera House, the Ensemble Theatre, when I played Jean MacArthur to Robert Vaughn’s Douglas MacArthur in an Australian movie, the supporter of my acting career, my writing career, my life. It had to mean something. Talking on the phone became our mode of communication with an occasional e-mail. People we knew together would appear on TV in a movie – we would call each other. People we knew together died – we would call each other. His mother died – he called me. My aunt died – I called him. It had to mean something.

The Finale: Fairly recently, early in March, he called to say his shoulder was hurting badly.“Which side?” I asked. “Left,” he said. “I’ve got the same thing on my right shoulder,” I replied. We decided it was all the time spent at the computer. As two writers, we spent most of each day at the computer. Sometime in April I sent something funny to him in the mail and called to see what he thought. He was out of breath and said it hurt to move – he couldn’t go to the mailbox – hadn’t been for a week. Early May he rang to say he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I started to cry. “You’re not crying,” the Scot said in his upper crust British accent. In my best British accent, this American replied, “Of course not.” He said he wasn’t going to have any treatment – no chemotherapy, no radiation, no medication. “I’ve been everywhere, I’ve written 25 books, there’s nothing more I want to do.”

Pieces of my heart were being shredded. He lived about 90 miles away. I wanted to see him. “I’ll be in your area this weekend,” I said. “Still selling those vacuum cleaners?” he asked. “I got fired from that job. I’m selling insurance door to door,” I said.

“I don’t want you to see me like this.” That voice – that marvelous voice – once so deep and melodious like honey dripping over pebbles was breathless. “I want you to remember the way it was,” he managed to say. 

“The good and the bad,” I said.

“There was only the good,” he said. 

He died that June. 

Grief takes many forms. Mine was a voice box that absolutely failed to work. I literally could not talk for two months. Later, I realized it was because I didn’t want to talk. There just wasn’t anyone interesting to talk to. When I took my daily walk, I carried a little sign in my pocket that I pulled out in case I met anyone I knew: ‘Can’t talk. Inflamed vocal chords.’

With his passing at 67, half my life is gone. Forty years gone. If we had stayed married, I’d be a widow. I’ve always wondered which is worse – or better – divorce or death. One is final; the other presents the possibility of running into them with someone draped on their arm.

All I know is no matter how much you love someone, no one jumps into the grave after them.