“Part of Living is Dying”: Interviewing My Sick Husband for StoryCorps


Vic & Steve Smolen, March 2008

Vic and I waited in a quiet room in our friend Steve’s house while the sound engineer set up his recording equipment. Vic wore thick layers of bulky clothing over his cancer swollen body. Four months before, after a severe drug reaction, he’d survived a dozen cardiac arrests. He had been on life support for thirty-six hours with repeated bolts of electricity to his heart. Vic’s mind recovered. His body didn’t.

That cold January day in 2008, Vic struggled to climb Steve’s stairs. He’d been fit, lean, and unusually healthy before the lymphoma diagnosis. He regained his strength after chemo and a stem cell transplant. His oncologist called him “a poster boy for chemotherapy,” but he was no longer a miracle man and model patient. Cancer was winning.

Vic 1-2008After Vic settled in a soft chair, the producer from StoryCorps signaled me to begin.

I asked Vic questions only a partner would know. I led him through his life, beginning with his hard childhood as a housing project kid of a single mother. I wanted that part of his story preserved, too. Soon, he skipped to the incredible opening that came when he got a scholarship to Dartmouth. I asked questions about his time at Cornell and the wild ride of the sixties.

He spoke about meeting me and then meeting spiritual teachers. I circled back to our sons David and Anthony. He spoke about the privilege and joy of being a father and his love, our love, for the land where we raised our family and where I still live.

The room vibrated with his love and vulnerability. We both wept as he spoke. He was a man facing death straight on with tenderness, gratitude, and a touch of fear.

Our family in 1985

Our family in 1985

Party invitation photo to celebrate the conservation easement

Party invitation photo to celebrate our Finger Lakes Land Trust Conservation Easement









Dalai Lama in 1977 when we first met him

Dalai Lama in 1977 when we first met him

Vic ended by speaking of his spiritual life, especially his teachers Anthony Damiani and the Dalai Lama. He had just received the Dalai Lama’s introduction to his last book. His face grew pink and animated when he said how much that meant to him. He looked forward to teaching a science and Buddhism symposium with the Dalai Lama in a few months. I wasn’t sure he’d be alive then, but he had no doubt.

I asked what he expected after death.

“I have an anchor outside this body-mind complex,” he said. “There must be something that transcends the temporary individual.” He left the details to Mystery.

Our teacher Anthony Damiani

Anthony Damiani

“Do you have anything more you’d like to say?” I asked at the end.

“I never thought I could love anyone, anything, as deeply as I love you,” he said as he looked into my eyes. “You are my Guru of Love.”

The StoryCorp engineer switched off the sound equipment. We sat quietly for a few minutes, under a spell.

Then I turned to Vic and grinned. “Way to go,” I said. “You finally got what you’ve always wanted. I asked you questions and you got to give all the answers without me interrupting.”

He laughed and nodded. We held each other close.


Vic and Janet Wylde

Vic and Janet Wylde

Follow the link to hear the interview we did five months before Vic’s death. I’m grateful to our friends Janet Wylde and Steve Smolen who suggested a StoryCorps interview and made it happen. Web designer Chad Lieberman and I recently created a new and beautiful website for Vic. I shed many tears as I picked out articles, photographs, and a media page that includes the StoryCorps interview and a video of Vic teaching with the Dalai Lama. Vic made it to that day!

In the interview, Vic spoke about the privilege of teaching. Teaching Tibet is a post about the last class he taught at Colgate University, before and after the cardiac arrests. By the end of the semester, I co-taught while he openly spoke to his students about facing death. They said it was the most important and life-changing class they’d ever taken.

  1. Elaine, my dear, I simply cannot imagine how precious this intimate and informative interview must be to you and your sons. What an amazing treasure this is ~ a review of Vic’s entire life with you, along with his explicitly expressing his love for you, in his own beautiful voice: “You are my guru of love.” I can hear the tears in your voice. I don’t know how difficult it was for you to decide to share this so publicly, but I thank you for doing so. What an amazing man. What an amazing couple you are. I am speechless . . . ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. When we said yes to a StoryCorps interview, that meant our conversation would be archived and public. I thought others would want to know about StoryCorps. Here is the their mission: “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. …we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”

      Until now, the interview had only been heard by my sons and a few friends. When I created Vic’s website, I wanted to add the inner man and not just the outer academic one, so I thought of this interview. Vic had always been heroic, but after those cardiac arrests, he became more open and vulnerable than ever. He was an amazing man but also an ordinary man who dealt with cancer by taking on the practice of kindness.

  2. Elaine-
    I love your and Vic’s love story. Thank you for sharing these tender times.

    • They were tender times–and also exhausting times. I create my new life while keeping myself deeply grounded in the old one. There’s no reason to leave behind all that love, since I don’t have to. It travels with me no matter where I am or what I choose to do.

  3. What a beautiful husband-wife verbal duet. Now I think I know Vic even better. Reading this post and listening to the video felt like reading memoir. In fact, it dovetails nicely with Donald Hall’s memoir The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. I just read about the rigorous bone marrow transplant. Now I read here about Vic’s stem cell transplant; you have been through SO much. The spouse is also a patient, another takeaway.

    The happy “American Gothic” commemorating the Finger Lakes Land Trust Conservation Easement made me smile. Next I’ll click in your website for VIc – he’d be so proud of you!

    • Vic would love his website. He would have included more of his own photos, and I’m working on that. I have notebooks full of his slides that have not been digitalized. They aren’t going anywhere until I get to them. There are always more projects, aren’t there?

      I don’t know Donald Hall’s memoir, but will look into it. I did lots of caretaking in those years and holding down the fort. I spent long periods of time staying at the American Cancer Society Lodge in Rochester, NY two hours from home, because that’s where Vic was being treated. This was the hardest part for me. The stem cell transplant was grueling and Vic got through it more easily than most–although it didn’t stop the lymphoma. It was an experimental treatment.

      Vic had a great time setting up that photo. He took it remotely with camera on a tripod. Get out the overhauls, pull on the rubber boots (even though it was a sunny day), go get a few tools, especially the pitchfork. Yes, we were thinking “American Gothic.” The party invitation photo was wonderful, and so was the party. We had a ritual at the place where Vic’s ashes are buried now, including harp music, singing, and each person saying a prayer for the earth.

  4. Where to begin? That was simply incredible Elaine! Beautiful beyond words. Thank you so much for sharing what I can only imagine, must be one of Vic’s most sacred and divine offerings to you and your family, and friends. I can fully resonate with Marty’s response, for this is deeply profound, and so very moving. When you speak with Vic next please let him know that the very act of listening to this (your) conversation, “has made the world a little bit better for me.” I am deeply, deeply moved. His love, and gratitude for you, “especially you,” his sons, and his teachers is exceptionally clear. I wept with joy to hear him call you, his “Guru of Love.”

    Such is the extraordinary impression, and atmosphere left by this recording, and article that I feel I will have to return again and again for many rereads, and to listen once again with love … for one cannot begin to digest such richness in one sitting alone. When opening the door, I always wonder who it is that Fate has sent, what our connection will be, what will we learn from each other? And so it is with you. I hope the day finds you well. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • Deborah, you are so kind. It’s hard to explain this core of continuing love mixed with Vic’s death and outer absence. I listened to this interview for the first time in many years this past week. I remembered his human struggles and flaws–just as he would have remembered mine–but the wisdom and love were so much bigger. It reminds me of Rilke’s thoughts about ideal love (I wish I could find the quote) which is fully realized only after the death of the beloved person. While Vic was here, there were worries, occasional defensive clashes, irritation with his habit of being late or the way he sometimes got careless and mowed a flower or two, dirty dishes in the sink. And this was mixed with deep human love at the time, but it all became so precious when it was threatened by cancer. And since his death, the irritants feel irrelevant and even endearing. Love remains.

      I do speak with Vic, but I think of this as contact with my positive inner masculine. This my Jungian perspective showing and you know it well. I’m not interested in trying to contact Vic, the individual person, where he is now, if he is now. He was deeply involved with Tibetan Buddhism during his last years, and in that system, there is no remaining individual entity but a fast flow forward into a new life. I don’t try to figure out the Mystery. Vic lives in me, in my sons, on this land, in my dreams. It’s essential to remember that I was loved and am loved. Sending love and blessings back to you.

  5. What a noble enterprise, Elaine. All of it. You are honoring Vic’s memory and providing such a legacy for your boys with ripples to all your readers here, there and everywhere.

    Donald Hall was Poet Laureate from 2006-2007, which you may know. He had cancer and his wife Jane Kenyon contracted leukemia later. Her famous poem “Otherwise” was written because she thought he would die when he fact she died at age 47 when he was in his sixties, I believe. They fed each other’s poetry gift and later supported each other through profound suffering.

    When you have time ( ! ), you would find his books and their poetry enriching.

  6. Elaine, Thank you so much for sharing. I was moved to tears by the reading… the listening had me undone. What an interesting man, and beautiful soul, your Vic was (is). What a beautiful pair you are. Such insite. Such tenderness. Such love!

    • Thank you, Kimmie. I was fortunate in love and I still am. He was an interesting man, a beautiful soul, and an ordinary guy who handled dying in an extraordinarily way. I hadn’t listened to this CD for years, so it has me a little undone, too.

  7. Oh Elaine,

    I’ve just finished listening to Vic’s and your interview for Story Corps. Everything I can think to say about it sounds trite to my ears, yet I want to say something….. “Thank you” is not enough. “Deeply moving” doesn’t begin to say it.

    So maybe telling you how I feel right now would work…. I feel like for the last 45 minutes or so I was immersed in a different place, a place not quite of this earth, a place where spirit and matter meet, where love, trust, hope, integrity, beauty, gratitude, courage, kindness and enlightenment are not just ideals, but realities. A place which, as you and Vic so clearly demonstrate, is available to all of us when we dedicate our lives to spirit- and soul-making.

    Your lives together, and what you are going on to do with your life now that his physical presence is no longer with you, are deeply inspiring. I am so grateful for the gifts you both continue to give humanity. Love, Jeanie

    • Oh Jeanie. I love hearing how you feel after listening. You met Vic before he got sick and knew the heroic side and the good teacher side. After the cancer diagnosis, his conscious decision to take on the practice of kindness transformed him and everyone around him. For a man who valued being fit, he did a good job of dealing with increasing limitation and frailness. The StoryCorps experience was in a different world. a magical space in close quarters with the sound engineer as a witness.

      Vic knew the recording would be publicly shared, but he didn’t seem to have a public/private split at the end of his life. All defenses gone and open sharing of the heart. I’m so grateful we did the interview. Anyone can do a StoryCorps interview, I believe. We were lucky that StoryCorps came to us–not because of Vic or me, but because the sound engineer had come to Ithaca to visit our friends. Another blessing during a hard time.

  8. Yow, Elaine. This is simply stunning. There’s so much here. Enough to keep you wrapped in love and purpose. I am in awe.

    • It’s been an emotional ride to listen to this again and share it, Robin. I hadn’t thought of it for years, but it belonged on Vic’s website. Lots of tears around here.

  9. What beautiful voices you both have Elaine; I’m listening to Vic as I write. His strength lives on as strength and courage of the truest kind always does. ‘Drink deeply from the different wells’ – I love that statement of his!

    I’ll have to listen to the whole of it later – thank you for sharing this with us. It is deeply moving and speaks to all of us.

    • Thank you, Susan. We had soft teary voices in that close space. We hadn’t prepared in advance. I read about StoryCorps interviews and listened to a few so I got an idea of what might happen. I knew what was important to Vic so could guide the questions to make sure these things were included. He went deeper and deeper until his heart was completely open at the end.

  10. Elaine,

    Thank you for sharing that beautiful glimpse into yours and Vic’s life and love. I’m a long-time reader, but first-time commenter. I’ve grown to admire Vic and all he stood for. Your sharing his legacy and his stories allow me to see how I can, by learning from him, become a stronger man — spiritually and emotionally — for my family.

    Thank you, Elaine, for being such a strong voice in the grief recovery community.

    • Thanks for introducing yourself, Jonathan. You do such important work. I’m honored to know you read my blog.

      This interview article feels important for families who are supporting someone who is dying. I wouldn’t have thought of interviewing Vic, so I’m grateful my friends arranged this. It could be done on a home recorder, a cell phone, anything at all since the quality of the sound wasn’t the essential issue. It was a poignant moment of love and gratitude in the midst of eight tough months. I’m grateful our conversation was preserved for my family and for anyone else who gets something from it.

      Vic was magnificent in his dying process–and he was very human, too, with fears and concerns. Facing the experience together made our marriage even closer than it had been before. As you likely know, I believe if we open to mortality and grief, we’ll find great wisdom there.

  11. Susan drew attention to your voices. They bring the listener to the depth of your emotional bond, allowing tough questions. A celebration of your intimate love and tolerance flows through the sound of your words. Thank you for sharing what is possible in a relationship, especially when it embraces the ultimate loss, death. A freeing we can’t fathom.

    I like to think that everything freed of its form is a tremendous release, a force of individuating potential, and that all our experience in form lives on, is accessible to us through the psyche.

    • Thank you for hearing that, Ashen and Susan. We were in a place that felt dream-like and full of love and a keen sense of our coming separation. Vic had barely survived a few times but wanted to make it to teach with the Dalai Lama. His will to continue on until that time was strong and I committed to helping him make it. I was helping him live while I was helping him die–and he was teaching me how to face death with open-hearted honesty, including the fears. We were willing to have disagreements, too, right to the end. The relationship continued evolving.

      As he was dying I felt surrounded by Wordless Mystery. I’m grateful and I miss him.

  12. Beautiful, inspiring. Today the girlfriend of my oldest son will come around for the first time. Such precious delicate first love. The love between you and Vic reminds me of the love I see between them. so much joy, so much wondering. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Susanne. We did share a wonderful and delicate young love along with many years of jobs and raising kids, working on our home and our inner life together. We always had an excellent marriage, but the delicacy and preciousness was in the foreground in his last months when we knew he wouldn’t be around for long. I love thinking of your son and his girlfriend. It makes us happy when our children love and are loved.

  13. When and if I stop crying I might leave a more eloquent comment. Meanwhile, this is it: How I love your love! Thank you, Elaine.

    • Oh, Julie. Your tears are plenty eloquent for me. Like any couple, Vic and I had rough spots in our long marriage, but when he got sick, our love was solid and supportive for both of us. I’m grateful we didn’t try to pretend everything was all right or would be all right in the end. Instead, we shared everything with each other and in opening to each other’s grief, worries, anxieties, and even resentments, we opened fully to love.

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