Recently the New York Times ran an essay in their “Modern Love” section with a title that seemed ubiquitous yet clever — at once unassuming yet intriguing. “You May Want to Marry It turned out to be anything but ordinary. The writer, a children’s book author named Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who passed away just Monday of ovarian cancer, but was in hospice when the essay was published, has made hundreds of readers ponder end-of-life scenarios and love lost and found — an unusual yet compelling combination.
A dating ad on a deathbed
Like many great writers, Rosenthal wastes no time in introducing her hook to hungry readers yearning for love. She knows her time on earth is limited — she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in September 2015 — and she wants to introduce the world to her husband, possibly even providing a unique segue to future companionship when she’s gone. The entire essay is composed as a bit of a dating profile: eHarmony meets the New York Times. What results isn’t butterflies but tears.
Still, I have to stick with it, because I’m facing a deadline, in this case, a pressing one. I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.
I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.
The column made readers catch their breath. Responses and similar, shorter essays poured in – about 1,300 according to the New York Times. Her obituary said the column had drawn over four million readers online.
In just a few short anecdotes we learn her husband is handsome, helpful, adventurous, kind and clearly the love of her shortened life. But like all good writers, she shows us this, instead of telling us:
Here is the kind of man Jason is: He showed up at our first pregnancy ultrasound with flowers. This is a man who, because he is always up early, surprises me every Sunday morning by making some kind of oddball smiley face out of items near the coffeepot: a spoon, a mug, a banana.
This is a man who emerges from the minimart or gas station and says, “Give me your palm.” And, voilà, a colorful gumball appears. (He knows I love all the flavors but white.)
After a few more illustrations like this, you can’t help but like Mr. Rosenthal a lot, and Mrs. Rosenthal even more for sharing her favorite things about him with us. Yet the frame of the piece — her impending death — makes this “dating ad” all the more bittersweet, yet illuminating.
The meaning of love and death, intertwined
I never had the pleasure of meeting Rosenthal, but based on her children’s books, her TED talks, and glimpses of videos she made on her web site, she seemed quirky, fun, and hard-working. A wife, mother, and writer who chose to see the brighter side of life and the good in people. (She produced one short film called “The Beckoning of Lovely.”)
Yet here she is, near her death at 51, penning these words to a mass of (presumably) single women looking for love.
If our home could speak, it would add that Jason is uncannily handy. On the subject of food — man, can he cook. After a long day, there is no sweeter joy than seeing him walk in the door, plop a grocery bag down on the counter, and woo me with olives and some yummy cheese he has procured before he gets to work on the evening’s meal.
Here the writer shows far more selflessness than I ever could. Instead of weighing in on the usual questions when faced with knowledge one’s death is imminent due to illness, What did my life mean? What have I contributed? She’s concerned with the emotional well-being and companionship needs of her “incredibly handsome” husband. Rosenthal’s barreling toward death yet there’s no self-pity, no outward flailing, no requiem on how the world has wronged her by cutting time with her husband short when they had just become empty nesters and planned to travel.
Rosenthal says this about her husband, “If you’re looking for a dreamy, let’s-go-for-it travel companion, Jason is your man. He also has an affinity for tiny things: taster spoons, little jars, a mini-sculpture of a couple sitting on a bench, which he presented to me as a reminder of how our family began.” These glimpses of Mr. Rosenthal show us what she deems important: Love and the people she has loved.
I can’t help but read that and contemplate the same things. My husband too knows exactly the kind of coffee I like (lots of flavored creamer, no sugar) and he too, picks up little gifts for the kids when he’s traveling (Nothing for me; he knows I hate trinkets). Deep down we all treasure these things about the people we love: Whether it’s the way a person cocks his head when he’s thinking or the way she says certain words (My daughter can’t say her “r” sound correctly right now, and I hope I never forget this temporary flaw.). We all cherish these types of things about the people we love and who love us but why does it take a woman’s essay penned at the end of her life to help me notice?
Rosenthal isn’t really talking about gumballs, travel, or live music. She’s really encouraging us to appreciate the time with the people we love and to live life fully in the moments we have.
Live like you’re dying
Rosenthal closes with these heart-wrenching words:
I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen. I probably have only a few days left being a person on this planet. So why I am doing this?
I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.
She concludes the essay — and indeed the entire point if taken literally — with what seems to be a quirky yet selfless gesture to ensure her husband finds a companion following her death. Although on the other hand perhaps it was just a clever, tear-jerking, emotional way of making the rest of us realize we don’t love the people in our lives enough.
Call me millennial or just much more selfish, but her essay forced me to contemplate what we tend to push under the rugs of our minds, even though the entire floorboard of our brains is hammered together with the nails of mortality: Do I love the people in my life, as Rosenthal clearly adores her husband? At my end, with just enough strength and clarity to pen one final essay in the New York Times, could I encapsulate my husband, a good friend, my parents, my children, with a few lines that make that person seem incredible and endearing, a marvel, yet real? Because that’s what the people we love with mortal bodies and immortal souls are: wonderfully-made, God-sewn delights. Yet so often I complain when a friend doesn’t check in on me, when my husband doesn’t respond to a text, or that I’m not immediately forgiven when I’ve wronged someone — or apologized to when I’ve been wronged.
Over five years ago I interviewed a young man, my age, who had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given less than five years to live. The tumor wrapped inside his brain like a wire mesh rather than a baseball and was likely to effective his ability to communicate as it grew. “How do you feel about your prognosis — that you may not live through this?” I asked. “We all have an expiration date,” he replied firmly. “Some of us just know when it is.” (He’s still alive.)
May we, when whether we know our “expiration” date or not, as one of Rosenthal’s favorite quotes reads, “[R]ealize life while they live it?” (For more from the author of “This Author’s Dying Wish Will Rip Your Heart Out” please click HERE)