We spend the worst of Ohio winter (January – March) in Port St Joe Florida in our favorite RV park. Each week those of us who are seasonal campers go through the regular exchange of neighbors who stay for a few days to a week, depending on their need to return home or move on to the next stop on a longer journey. We know when they are preparing to leave as people slowly start gathering their tablecloths and other outside decorations. When the doormats get pulled up we know we can expect them to pull out as early as first light. The vacant spots don’t stay that way for long; in a day or two a new neighbor arrives. We make acquaintances with these new people as they arrive, but the short-term people are on a mission. They don’t have the luxury of months of time off, so the length their stay is all premium time. They are rarely in the campground because they are not here to relax–they are here to have FUN.
One particular week a big motorhome pulled into the spot next to us. The driver hopped out—a lone woman with two dogs. That’s unusual; most single drivers regardless of gender drive smaller rigs. The big units are a lot of work for one person to set up and drive. Ben strolled over as he usually does to offer his help, but wasn’t needed. She set up with quick efficiency then took her dogs for a walk.
A bit later we introduced ourselves. Our new neighbor and her dogs Abby and Willie were in the middle of a month-long trip. She was traveling without a tow car so wherever she landed was where she stayed for the duration. There’s only so much to do in the immediate area of the RV park, so I saw quite a bit of her during her stay. We invited her to eat with us, pandemic style—each of us bringing our own food to the table. We talked about random stuff, had some beers and laughs, and called it a night. It became a regular thing for us to check in with each other and say hi every day.
One night after our meal we watched the sun go down. Ben busied himself elsewhere, so she and I began to talk. It was one of those conversations you occasionally have with someone you don’t know very well, a conversation that reinforces the idea that life is filled with moments of serendipity that bring some kind of enlightenment.
I can’t remember how it came up, but I mentioned that I had been married for many years before my first husband died. She said she’d been married for many years as well. She spoke about him with great regard, describing his gentle manner and the fun they had together. She also talked about years of his declining health, increasing disability and of being his caretaker. Because of his mobility issues, they had traveled in various kinds of campers. That explained her confidence around her motorhome. The big RV parked next to us had been purchased recently; she hoped with all its comforts and amenities it would keep him mobile a bit longer. They started planning a trip, but he died shortly before they were to leave. She decided to take the trip they planned together on her own a few short months after his passing. That is how she wound up parked next to us.
We talked until long after sunset that night. She was close to the same age I was when my husband died. I was the first person she met who shared the label she wore; “widow.” Losing a spouse to a long illness is more than the loss of a loved one; it’s also loss of the identity you’ve forged as a couple. From the time you are married, you become “Pat and Lee,” and as the years go by, it solidifies into “PatandLee.” You become an inseperable unit. My new friend was a lot like me; she was independent through her marriage, traveling to places and doing things when her husband could not. Still, when a spouse goes through a long illness, the world becomes a smaller space as your role shifts from partner to caretaker, then widow/widower. People on the outside of that experience assume that some youth and independence softens the blow of a loss; it wasn’t the case for me, and certainly not for her.
As we talked, it occurred to me that I had shared only a little with some very close friends about my experience. As I sat with her 17 years later it all came pouring out. As she told me about her experiences with her recent loss, I found myself saying ‘me too’ frequently. She said she found the similarities reassuring. We both agreed that our dogs saved us from self-pity. I told her at the time I had prepared myself for many years ahead on my own as a solo act, and I was OK with that. She told me it gave her a lift to know that it was possible to find renewal and happiness as I did, with my marriage to Ben–especially when you’re not expecting anything to happen. Perhaps that’s the lesson, to take life as it comes because anything can happen. To add a second old saying in the same post; “don’t push the river, it flows by itself.”
Later she told me that she thought about the old saying that people come into your life for a “reason, season or lifetime,” and that our encounter was definitely a reason/season event. Up until that moment she’d been on the road alone with her thoughts, the big RV and of course Abby and Willy. Her next stop was a meet up with women friends. She was very much looking forward to reconnecting with them. As the day for her departure approached, I saw all the telltale signs. The lights came down. The dog fence was stowed. The rug and chair were last to be packed. The big RV rumbled to life, and Willy and Abby peered out of the window. She came around for a hug and we said our goodbyes. A few moments later she was gone.
Most of you know I make photos of everything. I do have photos of her and of us, but this is the kind of story that doesn’t lend itself to that kind of disclosure. If she wants to share her experience of being a widow, she can do that on her own time. I have one snapshot of the three of us, me, Ben and her. We look carefree and happy, and at that particular moment we were.
She let us know she’d arrived safely at her destination. People who RV a lot will say “see you down the road” rather than goodbye. It does happen that we meet up with people from time to time, it happens more than you would think. North America is a big parcel of land and long-term travelers are a small group. That fact gives me hope that our paths will cross again. Wherever you are friend, see you down the road.