My usefulness as a counselor is pretty limited. I listen carefully and am a pretty good analyst, but when it comes to the part where you’re supposed to give advice, I never have any idea what they should do. At least no idea any better than their own notion of what action to take, if any. Actually, sometimes I do, but it’s usually pretty harsh. Most people are not looking for more pain. They just want to be heard.
But I do have a little niche, which is as a sort of confessor/ confidante for a certain kind of man. They never see me as sexy, which may be a qualification, and they don’t want me to tell them what to do. They just want me to listen carefully enough to understand. It has something to do with the fourteen-year-old boy in me, who really wants to know these things. Even in high school when I was actually fourteen, real fourteen-year-old boys wanted to tell me things about themselves. In college it was often via letters — one roommate had had a nerdy friend in high school who went to a different university and he and I wrote back and forth for a couple of years, mostly about sex — you might suspect we were both nerdy virgins.
After I became a minister, it was a vocational duty, but I soon learned to avoid women who came with bad motives, like trying to intimidate me with their pasts or to ferret out secrets about my own past. The men treated me like an equal. They just wanted to tell me things quietly. No brags, no anger, sometimes rueful regret.
Twice, men told me about finding their ex-wives dead, eerily echoing each other though they didn’t know each other. They had divorced late in life, after the kids were all raised and having their own kids. The wives had not asked for divorce but didn’t really fight it either. In fact, I had spent time with one couple, working out the reasons, the sensible way to separate, and a kind of description of the future. Both women accepted support and the men didn’t promise anything beyond the legal agreement, but in fact were pretty conscientious about stopping by now and then to make sure everything was all right. Often they left more money. They seemed to become something like siblings.
One couple had sons, who also stopped by, and the other had daughters, who did not. I think the difference was not in their personalities, but in the social gender roles in which the males were still made to feel responsible but the females thought women could cope on their own. They were not comfortable when their fathers found other women. Their mothers didn’t date. They were generous babysitters.
In the end, one woman’s friends from her church called the ex-husband one Sunday morning to say she hadn’t showed up, which was unlike her, esp. since there was a meeting she chaired. She wasn't answering the phone. They were thinking her car might have failed, so she would need a ride. The man went to her apartment where the super, who knew him, let him in — just unlocked the door but didn’t stay. The ex called out and got no answer. When he went to the bedroom, there she was, on her back, naked and wet, with a towel in her hand. He said she looked like the girl he had married, all lines erased, slightly smiling. She still had her figure. Her doctor said a heart attack when emerging from the shower, a sudden death that tipped her over onto the bed. The doc said she’d known it was possible but hadn’t told her ex-husband.
The other man wasn’t called close to the time of death. His wife lived in a trailer and the neighbors became concerned when they didn’t see her for a few days. She had begun to drink a few beers in the evening — actually, they had always been people who had a few drinks with dinner. He had to wrench and jimmy to get the door open. She was sitting in front of the television set, which buzzed away as though her eyes were still seeing the picture. He half thought that when he switched off the television, it would cause her to be living again. There was no real diagnosis.
Neither man wept as they spoke to me. Probably they shed more tears at the time of the divorce. The reactions of their children had been various, each according to his or her temperament, more about them than about the marriages of their parents, but neither set of sibs had really known much about the parental relationship. Didn’t know their fathers very well because of them working so much, and focused so much on escaping their mother’s expectations that they didn’t know them much either.
Which was a shame, because the two pairs were charming, intelligent people who had begun their families with real joy and competence. Somehow the world changed and that changed their relationships. Now the new sexual code would have allowed all of them to seek adventures. The men wanted to, but the women didn’t. The men had tried to be honorable, ending their marriage before looking around. They never did meet each other, though I was friends with both. Neither was in my congregation. One was a breakfast buddy. The other often volunteered to drive me when I went to a conference in another town so we’d have a chance to talk in the car. He’d explore that town and pick me up afterwards. No one ever suspected me of having affairs with these men and I didn’t.
One would think that there might be some difference between the two men. Maybe one was more inclined to use Viagra than the other, but both were genuinely looking for intimacy and personality — not just sex. We didn’t talk about sex. They didn’t seem to feel guilty, but rather groping for some understanding about what a human life really means in the end when we can die so suddenly — just be gone. They did feel a little relieved about no longer having a kind of undefined financial responsibility. One wife had asked to be cremated and scattered. The other had a proper funeral in her own church.
By the time these men died, I had moved to a different city half across the country. Someone sent me a clipping of the newspaper obituary for one. I didn’t know until years later that the other had died. The conversations I had with them — actually, me only listening — come back to me at unexpected times. The issues remain unresolved. Unresolvable. I've never talked about them until now.