An Unexpected Gift

At home 1998

At home 1998

He was lucky to get a teaching job when few were available in 1973. I was lucky to have his financial and emotional support. We were both lucky because we were in love.

I was also pissed off. I didn’t want to move away from the home we’d bought the year before. I didn’t want to leave my community and friends. I didn’t want to be a Colgate faculty wife and nursery school mother.

Why did I decide to move? Because I loved him. Because I was pregnant with our second son. I wasn’t about to bust up my marriage. I was trapped.

Packing the car

Packing the car 1975

We rented a small place in Hamilton, NY. I packed, growled, and sputtered. My body developed angry red boils. Every Monday we drove to Colgate. Every Friday, we returned home to the place we loved.

Six years after Vic took that teaching job, with both kids in elementary school, we realized we couldn’t keep moving back and forth. Our sons needed one home, one community, and one school. We were forever loading the car with suitcases, laundry, kids, dogs, and soup and heading somewhere else. They needed stability. So did I.

Community party on lawn of our then red house 1974

Community party on lawn of our then red house

We decided I would live at our home in the Finger Lakes with our sons. Vic would commute to his teaching job every Monday and return home Thursday evening. Friday was a research day so he worked at home. I packed his clothes and food for the three nights he was away. It was only thirty-two weeks out of the year with fall, Christmas, and spring breaks. Maybe we could get used to this.

I did. He didn’t.

“I don’t even have a dog here,” he said.

By the time our kids graduated from high school, I had a job as a nutritionist. Vic continued to commute alone. We talked on the phone each night and accepted our compromise.

In 1995, three years after our youngest had left home, our vital friend Leslie was diagnosed with cancer. I visited every week. We talked about philosophy, beauty, and the inner life. My heart ached as Leslie became thinner and frailer.

Leslie (photo by Vic)

Leslie (photo by Vic)

Leslie’s illness proved again that organic food, clean air, meditation, and peaceful rural surroundings aren’t enough to save us. I realized my time with Vic was limited.

“We’re mortal. Our marriage won’t last forever,” I said.

Vic loved my way of thinking. What had taken me so long?

I quit my job as a nutritionist without complaints this time. Vic and I traveled back and forth between work camp during the week and home on weekends. I wrote, read, and searched for new work. Soon, I taught women’s health classes at Colgate. I’d made the right choice for me as well as for Vic.

Vic had ten more healthy years. We were together for all of them. We shared dreams in the morning, meditated before dinner,  and took long walks on spring evenings.

Leslie’s death opened my eyes to mortality. It was an unexpected gift.


How do you manage differing needs in your relationships? Do you fight for your position or surrender? For another post about managing differences, see Talking Back: Essential Marriage Skills 101. During her illness, Leslie and her husband Sam edited a book of Paul Brunton quotations called Meditations for People in Crisis.


  1. You learn, dear Elaine, because you are so open to the lessons life puts before you. Thank you for writing and sharing yet another wise and wonderful piece. ♥

    • Marty, you are so good at making me feel good. Thank you for your encouraging feedback. I have a quiet six weeks ahead of me in terms of book events with a plan to write and submit articles I’ve promised. Looking forward to submitting a piece to my favorite Grief Healing.

  2. What a great story!

  3. This backstory is fascinating to me because I can easily relate to it. One topic that has not come up in my posts is the travels of my artist husband, who gives cultural arts and character ed-type assembly programs in schools and other organizations. Shortly after Joel was born we took to the road all over the Southeast in a 24-foot travel trailer which kept our family unit together, but the isolation during the day nearly drove me crazy. (Yes, I have written about it.)

    When the children were in their mid-teens Cliff started traveling during the school year and was on the road a lot. One year I calculated that he was gone 67% of the time. In the last two years, however, he is home more and we have both had to adjust our daily rhythms.

    Your choices reflect priorities aligned with the needs of your heart. Poignant lines: “Vic had ten more healthy years. We were together for all of them.” No regrets there, I’m sure. Again, a lovely tribute.

    • Thank you, Marian. I remember that your husband was a traveler and educator. I bet there was no internet to keep you connected when you were with your family in that travel trailer. I’m glad Cliff is home more now–and, yes, that required daily adjustment. Marriage keeps us flexible.

      I wonder if Cliff’s long absences gave you unconflicted writing time.

      • Actually, I was teaching then and spent my writing time on academic papers. I’ve been at this gig (blog and book-in-progress) for about two years. Thanks for asking.

        • I knew what you were up to the last two years, Marian. Didn’t know what you were doing the years that you were traveling. We fill in the blanks, a little at a time.

  4. It’s a big question about needs differing at differing times and how one manages this … I suppose we firstly need to be aware of them, many of us aren’t as we keep them tamped down. Thank you, this helps me to be more alert of when needs of self and others are to be addressed and when they are to be surrendered or ‘fought’ for.

    • Susan, my marriage was full of compromises. I think that’s the usual situation. It began when I decided to return to Ithaca to be with Vic when I was 21 rather than go to Berkeley for graduate school. Each time, I held the tension of wanting it both ways until a solution or a decision arose and I knew what I needed to do. The waiting was the hard part. I could write another piece about needing those seventeen years of living on my own while Vic commuted and was gone four days a week. I learned to know myself and enjoy being alone.

  5. What a full life you have traveled my friend. Some just take things for granted and can’t imagine the things one will do to keep family and marriage united. Your relationship was so blessed. It gave you years of fulfillment together and now without your precious Vic it has given you so many memories and much to share with others. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. I’m so aware of the blessings. I’m also aware of the hole in my life that doesn’t disappear no matter how many other things come to fill the space.

  6. Wow. This was a rocket launch for me. It’s about the precious beauty and the blessing of time well spent and reflected on. These days I tend to follow the Native-American ritual of imagining death at my shoulder and making all actions or words with respect to that context. This for me was your best piece so far, but then again my memory is so terrifically bad. Just know that I loved it sister! How’s Jim?

    • Hi Dennis. I first learned about that exercise from Carlos Castenada. Around 1970, I’d guess. I never forgot it. Thanks for loving it. We both remember Leslie’s sunny smile.

  7. Very powerful, Elaine. I had no idea Vic commuted back and forth to Colgate while your boys were young. In hindsight, Leslie’s lesson was an incredible blessing, wasn’t it? Those 10 years you had together before cancer changed life forever…. When I get wrapped up in day to day stress over things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme, I try to remind myself that tomorrow isn’t promised. Today is all we have…. As I approach 50, it’s even more evident. In our 20’s and 30’s, we feel as though we’ll live forever. By 50, we realize we’ve likely lived over half of our lives. It’s a sobering thought. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

    • Thank you, Ann. I haven’t written much about the going back and forth time in our relationship. It’s a little dull and a little complicated–like so much about relationship.
      Yes, today is all we have. Such a hard thing to get our mind and heart around, but it’s the truth.
      Thanks for the incredible consistent good work you do to raise Alzheimer’s awareness. You’re a force for consciousness and the good.

  8. Nice read, as usual. What i have not adapted to is spending two months a year, away from the modern world in a lost French village. I’m still struggling and getting a little better. I’ve been married 42 years, and i’m your age Elaine. I get a lot of support from reading you and also your friends. On another line, are you planing an update about your brother? I’m in the same situation now and would like to read you. Thank you.

    • Hi Nati,
      Are you in the French village right now or another time of year? I’m trying to picture this and can’t. We never got over making the compromises of marriage. There was always something required on both sides.

      Ah, my brother had a cancer recurrence recently. Thanks for remembering. His situation is serious. I’m visiting him in four days and will know more after seeing him. I’ve written one piece about learning cancer had returned. I had him read it and asked for his permission to submit it. He liked the piece and was moved by it and gave me permission. That was just last week. I will write about my responses to his illness, but have to make sure my brother and his family don’t feel I’m invading their privacy. A delicate dance. I hope your situation is better.

      Thank you, Elaine

  9. Thanks a lot Elaine. You are so wise. It must have been so difficult during those years of commuting. We learn from hardship. Leslie opened your eyes, what a lovely gift.
    France is usually in warmer months. I don’t like cold weather. Marriage is compromising as you say. We’re in PR now.
    Tell your brother i think of him and wish him well. Through your writing he is helping others facing a similar situation. Waiting very patiently 🙂 for that article. Lots of love from me.

    • Nati, after Vic got sick, I scolded myself for thinking commuting was hard. It wasn’t as hard as commuting two hours in the other direction for cancer therapy. But even though he was sick, we were glad to live at home together in one spot with no commute for the last year and a half. You two travel!

      I’ll tell my brother that a friend thinks that my writing about him helps others. He likes being helpful. I want to be careful and not upset his family by making them feel exposed. Thank you for your encouraging words. Sending love back to you.

  10. Yes ♥

  11. Incredible. So much moving around and compromising. Nothing quite like a little cancer to slow the crazy flying through life down. This was really amazing to read and relate to. Cheers, Elaine.

    • Compromise. What a big word that is and how hard it is to pull off without resentment. Cancer did bring life to a focal point. At times in those last few years, all our energy was on standing up against the onslaught. You know. Wishing you well, Robin.

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