When We Had Plans

Vic & Elaine 1981

Vic & Elaine 1981

When our two-hundred-year-old barn was in danger of falling down in 2005, we built a new one. We put large windows in the southwest corner and added pipes for plumbing. We imagined Vic would have cabin fever if he worked from home after he retired from teaching. I’d likely feel closed in, too. An office space outside the house was a solution—a light-filled room with sunset views. Vic died before he retired. Dump that plan.

Southwest corner of barn

Southwest corner of barn

We thought we’d travel. Hike from inn to inn in the mountains of Catalonia or take a long off-season trip to the museums of Italy. Time to write and walk in the woods. More time to support the environment, read, meditate, and visit our sons. More sunsets. We were strong and fit. We took care of ourselves and would surely thrive into our nineties. You know what cancer did to those plans.

Family a few weeks before Vic's death

Family a few weeks before Vic’s death

Our marriage provided a social comfort I took for granted. We were family, just the two of us. Then we had sons to make it four. With Vic, I had a dancing partner and a dinner partner. He was interested in my life and my dreams just as I was interested in his. We listened to each other’s woes, created solutions together, and gave long hugs when all else failed. We shared every small success and failure and argued without drawing blood. We made short-term and long-range plans.

When one of us traveled, we checked in each day. I loved time alone, but looked forward to phone calls and love notes that came by email.

On his last teaching trip away from home, too sick to travel six weeks before his death but traveling anyway, he sent this note from Columbia, Missouri:

Traveling in AZ

Traveling in AZ

Dear Love,

I feel my love going out over the land, past Sandalia, the Little Dixie Game Reserve, on east to the Finger Lakes, and into Hector. Everywhere I look, I see the care and precision of your packing. Each little item thought out and put in the right place. It just shouts love at me. Deep thanks to you.

It was a lot of work getting here, but it gives me a chance to spread a little good around rather than just wait at home for the Grim Reaper. I continue to beam my love your way.


DSC07315Now, I’m a woman alone. I have sons, family, friends, and a dog, but they don’t fill the hole. Coming home at night, I drive alone over dark country roads. No one waits to make sure I made it up the icy hill. I walk the trails of my forest, but no one knows if I’m lost. It’s hard to remember the comfort of watching a sunset together, of a shared life and shared plans.

I still make plans. I’m human after all. But I hold them loosely and don’t count on them as I once did.

I learned that everything changes with one diagnosis, one accident, or one phone call in the night.


When Vic died, I lost shared plans and fantasies about the future as well as him. Has your life been derailed a few times, too? How did that change your view of “being in control” of your destiny? I hope you enjoy these favorite blogs about the sweetness of marriage: Gratitude and Grief and Our First Home: Cayuga Lake 1968.

  1. Oh Elaine, this is so true. I did loose all control after Jim died. I still dislike doing things alone.
    Your article touched my heart and I do understand about those lost shared plans.

    • Hi Anne, I knew I wasn’t in charge of this life–theoretically. Going through those years of cancer therapy and grief made me know it in a much deeper way. As my brother likes to say, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans.”

    • I have never had the pleasure of such a relationship and I am alone. I know the feeling of driving home alone. I too still dream but…

      • Jackie, I know I am very fortunate to have had a deep and lasting love. I hope you find one, too, and I’m sorry you are also alone. I’m OK with alone now, but I had to get used to it.

        And Valentine’s Day? It always felt like a commercial holiday to me, so I never thought much about it after exchanging those little cards and hearts as a kid. I’ll do my best to ignore it again this year.

  2. Dear Elaine,
    Real. Sensitive. And I have and do live your words.
    Thank you

    • Thank you, Mary. I’m grateful we had deep and loving relationships–but, oh, how painful it is to lose them. Sending you love.

  3. Elaine, such beautiful words…I loved and could so relate with “It’s hard to remember the comfort of watching a sunset together, of a shared life and shared plans.”

    I like you, still make plans, with no expectations of life, for I know how things can change in an instant and take you down a different path. Perhaps that is the way it is suppose to be, after all we are really not in charge, we just think we are…. thank you so much for this…. 😉

    • Thanks for you comment, Jean. As I watched my father’s deadly illness as a child, I learned early on that the grown-ups weren’t in charge. If you’d asked me ten years ago if I thought I was in charge of my life and plans, I’d say, “Of course not.” But it’s surprising how we forget and cruise along as though we can count on things. A friend and I stood in the parking lot at Hospice a few years ago. His wife was dying, and it was his second experience of losing a wife to cancer. We looked at each other and laughed. “How could we be so dumb as to forget? How could we be surprised?” We can only laugh at the audacity of the ego.

  4. Your beautiful post brought a quote to mind. When my husband died 16 months ago, I watched a lot of movies as my dinner companions, as I could not sit at my table to eat alone, still can’t. One of the films was, Shall We Dance and the following quote sent me reeling because I realized that is exactly how I felt, what I had lost. “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” from the film, Shall We Dance(2005)

    I so miss my witness, dance partner, sparing partner( 😉 ), and lover…all of him, all of us, the good and the bad. One of the hardest things to deal with was realizing he was not home waiting for me. I have and still have the same feelings that you shared, that no one would know if I ever made it home…thank you for writing and sharing your love and grief for your husband. It helps…

    • I loved that movie, Carol, and remembered the quote vaguely. Thank you so much for sharing it. It says so much about marriage and what it means to lose our witness. Vic was interested in the trivia of my life–every opinion and stubbed toe–and we celebrated each other’s success and empathized with every failure. I knew, and he knew, that no fight or no failure would shake our strong foundation. It sounds like you had a similar strong marriage. We can celebrate that, but I know how jarring it is to lose that partner. I’m sorry this happened to you. It does help to know we aren’t alone in our loss. Thank you so much for reaching out.

  5. What a beautiful, poignant post. It’s scary to contemplate how vulnerable love makes us. But we continue to love anyway.

    I mentioned you and this post in my own year-review post, Elaine. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Opera taught me that love makes us so vulnerable–but that was about theatrical archetypal characters, not me. It’s true for all of us, but hard to accept. And I’m a fan of love always and a big fan of a good partnership. I look forward to reading your blog. You inspire me all the time. Warmly, E

  6. Ah, Elaine. Your beautiful writing continues to touch my soul. And the responses you offer to each of your readers are equally wonderful. You just amaze me, and I so admire you . . .

    • Thank you, Marty. Grief Healing inspired me when I first did a google search for “ritual and grief.” I found a piece you’d written about Valentine’s Day, not for Grief Healing, but it had a link to Grief Healing. I’ve been a fan since then of you and all your work.

      I hope you are somewhere warm right now. It’s brutal up here in the north country. Sending love and gratitude and wishes for a peaceful and joyful 2015.

  7. Your article touched me so deeply as always Elaine. How blessed you were to have such a loving bond with Vic and such excellent communication between the two of you. Yours is such a sad story and although your hurt will never really go away, your strength has brought you so far in the life you are living now. I truly commend you. I always try to live by the adage, ‘Don’t put off for tomorrow’ as we all find that tomorrow doesn’t always come for some. Peace to you my friend. 🙂

    • Thank you, D.G. I see my story as fortunate and ordinary. So fortunate to have such a good marriage and ordinary to be separated from the person we love. We worked hard at communicating early on and then it wasn’t work. It was natural. And, yes, I think of times I was too busy to go down to the lake for a picnic. And now no more picnics. I hope your move is complete or nearly complete.

  8. Sometimes I think it would be wonderful to have a special relationship with someone. But then I remember how much it hurts to lose such a relationship. I know you will say that the love was worth the pain. You are so brave. Thank you for reminding me of what it’s like to love and be loved. Hugs!

    • I’ll take a love relationship and run with it, Robin. I think it’s our human nature to love and to grieve–and then we go out seeking love again (or else we write a book). I hope you find a big big love.

  9. Dear Elaine,
    Your story from life explains the empty feeling that happens when you loos the one you love. As you write, children, family and friends can’t take the place of your love one. And as you wrote the words from John Lennons song “Beautiful Boy” “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans”‘ that is really true.
    Thank you for sharing your story, I can recognise the feeling you transmitting.
    My love one died from a brain tumour three years ago. We had just meet, only been together for four years when he got sick. He was my life and I was his and we had so many plans….we lived in diffrent countries and was traveling all the time to be together……and then the bomb was droped….he only lived for five and a half month with the disease. To experience so much beautiful love together and then from one day to another be the one who will tend, it is surreal.
    I miss him every day and my life will never be the same without him.

    • Dear Margareta,
      I’m sorry you lost your dear love and soul friend. What a hard experience you’ve had and still have. Your life together was yet to come and then never to be. I hope you were able to spend time together in those last months and that you can still feel his love and your mutual love supporting and holding you in life.
      I agree that life won’t be the same without him, but still there is life. I wish I could have my old life, but since I can’t, I notice that the old life gave I have new courage to take risks and try things I never would have done before. And at the same time, I miss Vic every day and know that my grief is just another chapter of love.
      Sending you love and peace,

  10. I’ve made a zillion plans over my lifetime, Elaine, and had to learn the lesson that I’m not in control over and over again. Now I think I’m able to hold things a little lighter.

    Like you, I still find a hole where my partner used to be. Being alone at night is the hardest.

    Thank you so much for expressing your experience so beautifully.

    • Thank you, Lynne. I’m sorry about that hole. Mine feels a little bit smaller and less central to my heart now, but it’s still there as a reminder every day. And with the grief of that hole, I also get a huge reminder of love. It helps me when I remember they come together. I imagine you painting hot colors.

  11. This post was very beautiful. I just want to make one bid out for Valentines Day! My warm, funny, deeply entwined with my Soul husband died last Valentines Day. He loved that day and looked forward to it more than my birthday, eyes sparkling with love and delight at what he had planned. We woke up that morning, made love, I went out for coffee and came back an hour later to find him dying on the floor. After 12 hours in emergency care, he left. As we all know, loss cuts deep and far and wide and changes everything. But, ironically, Valentines Day has now become a sacred day. A day where I will celebrate and mourn the loss of my witness, but one in which I will be close to him, inside of him even in yearning and longing and loss. Maybe Valentines Day can be a way to love even more. Forget about what we don’t have and honor what we do.

    • Dear Alice,
      I’m deeply moved by your experience and so very sorry you lost your love less than a year ago. His love shines through your words, and your love does, too. You put the sacred back into this holiday, and I imagine Saint Valentine’s Day will always be your sacred day to remember that love is eternal and remains to sustain us. In my TEDx talk, I shared the importance of personal ritual in my life. Certain days and seasons are sacred to me, and I honor them every year. You have this Valentine’s experience of love and loss to honor your love. Thank you so very much for telling me your story. I’ll think about Valentine’s Day a little differently this year. Blessings to you. Elaine

  12. Dearest Elaine,

    Your posts always strike the right note between loss and hope for the future. Yes, as the saying goes: Trust in God, but be sure to tie your camel! 🙂

    A few years bfore my first husband Gene died, we had planned to sell our business and move to Belize for a few years – Placencia, a beautiful town along the coast. He died before we could do that. I did sell the business, but I never made it to Belize. I have friends who vacation there each winter… Maybe someday.

    Much love,


    • Thank you, Jenna,
      I double-checked and my camel is secure and well fed. Now to your next paragraph. Ah, Belize, and the unfinished plans. I wonder if you’ll visit there someday–or maybe you need to do other things now. I haven’t felt a desire to take the trips Vic and I planned together, but slowly my own plans take shape. One reader/writer whose husband died when she was in her 30s said she thinks of “plans” as “hopes” now. This is a better word for our need and desire to plan. Set it up and hope for the best.

      Sending you love and hopes for continuing frolics with your Muse,

  13. Elaine, I really love this post. I shared it broadly:-)

    • Thank you, Cheryl. Makes me feel like I’m on the right trail. It’s one of my most popular posts ever. People also like “Love Note from Beyond” and “My Lover’s Secret.”

  14. As usual your beautiful words brought me to tears. The vow for sickness and in health take on a whole new meaning when dealing with cancer. My granddaughter’s research project this year is on finding information that will lead to a cancer cure. I so hope the findings will bring the cure soon.

    • I miss those days, but they’re gone forever. Cancer is nasty, but I was glad to support Vic in every way. Lots of the petty stuff fell away. Speaking of those vows, I didn’t know “’til death do us part” included his mother or that she would live to be 101. I’ve had more than my share of care giving with no end in sight. I hope your stay in FL nurtures you and your marriage.

  15. Dear Elaine, just to let you know that I love reading ALL your posts! Love, Karen

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