The Man Who Lost His Wife

One of my assigned floors in the hospital was the MICU (the intensive care unit). As I passed through, looking in on the patients, I stopped at the room of a woman who was gravely ill and unconscious. I was told that there was no saving her; she was going to die momentarily. She looked peaceful and beautiful, lying there in her seventies, fair-skinned, with lovely white hair.

After praying at her bedside, I came out into the pod and was immediately approached by a lively man who identified himself as the patient’s husband, “for more than 50 years.” He said, in a loud strong voice, that he was Greek, and that I should call him Zeno.

Zeno was good looking and vital for his age, which he proudly told me was 70. He was about 5’ 10”, well-dressed, with a strong muscular build, and a thick head of grey and white hair that added a few inches to his height.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Zeno was making a pass at me. His intensity was slightly scary, because he made his interest in me so obvious. Here, his wife was breathing her last breath. I normally would welcome such attention, but not this time. I saw him not only as aggressive, but inappropriate-given that his wife was a feet from us, dying. Could she hear him?

I don’t recall the words of our small talk, but I do remember being backed up against the desk in the pod, with him in front of me in my face, asking if I would like to get a cup of coffee with him, “somewhere right now.”

His urgent invitation was easy enough to escape, this time. I simply replied that I had work to do. “Perhaps, another time…” I wished him and his wife well and high-tailed it off the floor. But the next day, when I returned for my routine visits, Zeno was there, waiting for me and reminding me that I said, “there might be another time…was this the time?”

I felt that he was pressuring me now. I didn’t know what to say or do, because I felt caught. Due to his situation, and the demands of my job as a pastoral care giver, I knew I should be polite and understanding, and caring. Instead, I was annoyed and disgusted.

I was hung up between my professional position and the view of men I had always held. That is, men were out for one thing. And, as an attractive young woman, I always saw myself as the mouse. Any man who showed me attention was a cat. From this, the chase ensued.

Zeno made me feel that I was in the middle of this familiar chase. Only this time, because my job was at stake, all I could think to do was run away as fast as I could – really run. On the other hand, wasn’t it my job to stay and provide him comfort? I ran.

I carried my dilemma to my supervisor. I said I was disgusted by the attention I was getting. I even defended myself. I didn’t encourage him! I described Zeno as an aggressive man who was, actually, quite attractive, and obviously out for one thing. What should I do?

Our exceptional, wise, caring, and experienced supervisor, Ron, always understand what was really going on. Moreover, he never judged a single soul. He simply smiled and informed me that some men, after losing a partner, don’t grieve; they substitute one woman for another.

After hearing this news, I understood exactly what I had to do. The next time I saw Zeno, I agreed to go with him downstairs to the coffee shop. In the elevator, close to him, I was no longer scared. This is so unlike my normal state, i.e., excited about being in the presence of a man who is attracted to me, and anticipating the next moves. Instead, I was able to compartmentalize the excitement about cat and mouse. For the first time, I thought about Zeno as a person; in fact, a person who was suffering. I focused on how I might be able to comfort him, to help him survive this inevitable, devastating loss.

Over coffee, I ignored his advances and asked how he was doing, showing him real concern. He responded right away and started to talk openly about his life, his wife, their kids, and so forth. I listened and empathized. In the face of true caring and understanding, his advances faded into the background. It was gratifying to see that he was benefitting from our time together.

I never saw Mr. Zeno after that. Or, if I did, he didn’t ask me to coffee. What I do remember was that I learned to think of men as human beings, and not just alley cats, “out for one thing.” I can honestly say, as a woman of 60-something years, this was the first time I had ever been comfortable being with an attractive man, and treating him with impartiality, equanimity, and genuine caring. I wasn’t just a mouse, after all. I was who I really am.

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