Woman takes risk: marries terminally ill man

A stranger took my breath away last week.

What would you do if a woman you just met told you, “I’m really not a risk taker,” followed by, “I married a man who told me on our first date that he only had 18 months to live.”

“How’d that work out for you?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“He lived 18 more years past that first date. We were married for 15 of those,” Brenda Zimmer Gibson told me. “They were the most amazing years of my entire life.”

Brenda had reached out after she read my column a couple weeks ago about finding a husband. “It wasn’t about finding him,” I wrote. “It was about settling into the woman I wanted to be.”

“You have it so right,” she said. “I spent several years single finding out who I was supposed to be and when I did, he found me.”

Brenda was sweet enough to share stories from her marriage to Gene. “We danced, we laughed, we traveled,” she said. And along the way they fought cancer — together. “I focused on seeing him well and he chose to do the same.”

That spirit bought them 15 more years than doctors told Gene he would have when he was first diagnosed in the early nineties.

He died just over a year ago. “Last year when you were marrying the love of your life, I was losing mine,” Brenda wrote in that first email to me referring to my recent marriage and the loss of her husband.

To hear her talk about her beloved today, I can tell he is still very much alive in her heart. I suspect he always will be.

“What did you learn about love?” I asked her.

“It sounds cliche,” Brenda replied, “but cancer was our greatest gift and teacher. It made us savor every minute and not waste time. I’m not saying that we didn’t get annoyed with each other, but we got over it quickly because we didn’t want to waste time.”

“And what are you learning about loss?” I tread lightly.

“That I was one of the luckiest people ever. I had for 15 years what some people don’t have for 15 minutes.”

“Some people might wonder if it was worth the risk, now that you’re alone,” I said.

“I wouldn’t trade a day of it, even Gene’s final days in the hospital,” she said.

And then Brenda Gibson said something I think I will remember the rest of my life.

“The truth is, when you love someone, there never is enough time.”

She did it again.

I had to catch my breath, thinking of my husband, my kids, of one of my best friends having breast cancer surgery this week. There will never be enough time with any of them.

By the time we hung up, I realized Brenda was right. She and Gene didn’t take a risk. They had a safety net. A daily reminder of what is true for all of us — our time is limited.

How would you be different with your love if you knew tomorrow wasn’t promised?

I do believe Brenda Gibson just gave me a lesson in being a better wife.

She found me just in time.

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