Norm Sussman, 69, and Alyce Heman, 62, met in the corridors of Evanston Hospital in Evanston, Illinois, while each of their spouses was terminally ill. The two had a nodding acquaintance with one another from years of a mutual friend’s Yom Kippur break-the-fasts, but they had never actually spoken. Over the course of two years on hospital watch, however, Norm established a routine that included Alyce’s husband, Bob. If Arline (Norm’s wife) was asleep or away from her room for medical tests, Norm would pad down the hall and sit with Bob. And if Alyce arrived while Norm was in Bob’s room (Alyce is a grade-school teacher and would come to the hospital after her school day, at 3:30), Norm would excuse himself and loll back up the hall to Arline. In this way, time passed.
Bob and Arline died within days of each other, and though Norm was unable to attend Bob’s shiva (Airline’s condition was rapidly going downhill), Alyce did manage to attend Arline’s. As the month of mourning (shloshim) progressed, the new widow and widower phoned each other once or twice to see how the other was faring: poorly. During one lugubrious conversation, Alyce invited Norm over for a small lunch of shiva leftovers. The two picked at their food and cried.
After Arline’s funeral, with the months privately drizzling by, Norm realized he had a problem: He had only written a small handful of thank-you notes in response to the many condolence gifts and letters that he had received. Each time he tried to pen a note, Norm recalls, “It was like Arline’s funeral all over again,” and he couldn’t do it. Disconsolate, he called Alyce one day to see how she had managed it…but she hadn’t. The two decided to team up, spending three or four long, tearful afternoons together, writing thank-yous in a blitz. So much time had passed, remembers Norm, that each note required a little explanation. “I evolved a phrase that went something like, ‘Don’t let the tardiness of this note detract from my appreciation,’ and Alyce seemed to find that helpful for her thank-yous, too.” As Norm affixed the last postage stamp to his final thank-you, he turned to Alyce and announced triumphantly, “Finished.”
Alyce seemed shocked by what came out of her mouth next. “Does that mean, then,” she said, with great, unexpected feeling, “that you’re not coming back?”
Two years later, Norm Sussman and Alyce Heman became husband and wife, an event that both knew in advance would not be greeted with simple equanimity by everyone, including their four grown children. Indeed, Norm and Alyce themselves still sometimes felt a bit awkward about their early relationship. (“At the beginning,” Norm remembers, “we were both shocked, surprised by what we were doing. We kept it from each other, because it didn’t seem appropriate.”) At times, the serendipitous unfolding of their lives continued to feel a touch unreal.
As Norm and Alyce’s wedding day approached, they therefore wrestled with the best way to do something fairly complicated: honor the sanctity of their previous long, happy marriages and the families they begat, and, at the same time, sacralize life moving forward into new loves and new, unrehearsed blessings. Their solution was to compose a beautiful statement that would be read between the ketubah signing and the seasoned procession down the aisle [see box].
Recently, Norm realized—once again—that months were passing after a life-cycle ceremony and he was not writing thank-yous. The excuses, as before, are compelling: the fracas around selling his home of 32 years, of moving into Alyce’s house and then selling that, and of buying a new home together and preparing to move yet again. But Norm also acknowledges that life’s unexpected twists and turns can still be vaguely disorienting. The other day, for example, as the couple tried to compel one another to get going with the thank-yous, Norm remarked to Alyce quizzically, “I have this feeling like I’m rewinding the film and I walk out of your house backwards and that’s the end of it.”
Alyce chuckled appreciatively. “With you,” she told Norm, “I have my laugh back.”
Adult Children of Newlyweds: A New Video, Daughter of the Bride
by Susan Schnur
Here we have a true, 30-minute love story (which was nominated this year for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Short Subject) about two Jewish senior citizens on Long Island, Pearl and Seymour, who, in a support group for new widows and widowers, end up falling in love with one another and getting married. Written, produced and directed by Pearl’s 43-year-old daughter, Terri Randall, the film takes an honest look at how emotionally complicated such re-marriages are for all: for Pearl, the new bride, who has to decide what to do with all the hagiographic photos of her first husband, Max, that adorn the family room; for Pearl’s grown children, who suddenly find that a horde of nameless strangers (that is, Seymour’s children and grandchildren) have invaded the family swimming pool; and for Seymour, who chokes up with emotion under the chuppah.
A loving portrait of an increasingly common phenomenon: re-marriage in our later years. Daughter of the Bride is available from Direct Cinema Limited, (800) 525-0000, fax (301) 636-8228.
The Sexagenarian Wedding
Alyce read the following (while holding hands with Norm) after the ketubah was signed and immediately preceding the wedding ceremony.
Even though we’re not married yet, I’ve been empowered to speak for both of us.
Norm and I are still marveling at the fact that we are standing here, that we’ve come to this point in our lives and that we’re both so sure of how right this step is for us.
One of the continuing wonders for us is how much a part of it are Bob and Arline. In a peculiar way, they led us to each other. It was their illnesses and deaths that brought us together It was grief and mourning that we originally had in common. Most of our conversations centered on them.
As time did its wonderful work in healing and as we moved on and found that a casual friendship had grown to love, we found that Arline and Bob were still very much a part of us. They enter our daily conversation; their habits and jokes are part of the fabric of our everyday lives. In a sense, we are who we are because we shared most of a lifetime with them. Sometimes it still hurts to remember what we’ve lost and the years they’ve been denied. Many times, though, the memories are good and we try to remember them, in their healthy years, with the special zest for living that they both had.
We especially want our children to know how much a part of us Arline and Bob still are. We’re not exactly four people, but we’re certainly more than two. As long as we live, they live inside of us.