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PUMPING IRONY: Life After Death

Why do widows thrive more than married women? Maybe it’s all about taking care of husbands.

Life After Death

It’s a well-established fact of life —or death, actually — that women tend to live longer than men. Why that is has always been kind of a mystery to me. That’s not because I assume guys are tougher than gals (childbirth, duh!); it’s just that the women I grew up with carried such an enlarged emotional burden: caring for kids and husbands and households while pretending not to be in charge of anything. It always seemed to me to be a prescription for ulcers — or worse.

And yet, in almost every case, the wives in the neighborhood where I grew up outlived their husbands. And in those rare cases where the wife exited early, the widower quickly nabbed another wife — as if he were running short of oxygen.

But I can’t remember a single neighborhood widow who remarried. It was as if they’d had enough of taking care of guys and just kind of welcomed the break. Of course, there was a sense of loss — my own mom lived 24 years after my dad died, and I knew she missed him deeply — but I think life got easier for her, just like I expect it gets easier for a lot of widows. At least those whose kids have left the nest (nothing’s easy for single moms).

It’s often been asserted that married people tend to live longer than single folks; there’s a certain level of emotional support that lifts husbands and wives over life’s many obstacles, especially as they get older. But a new study out of Italy’s University of Padua confirms my thinking about the way life changes for women who outlive their husbands. Researchers there found that widows tended to thrive more than women who still had their men in tow.

The study doesn’t go into much detail about why this might be, but it’s always been pretty clear to me. Say what you will about second-wave feminism and sensitive new-age guys, but men generally don’t take very good care of themselves; we generally believe we are immortal. And our life partners are generally left to deal with the consequences.

Just this past weekend, for instance, I stood on the backyard patio eyeing a gap in the wooden framing around an upstairs window 20-some feet above my head. We’d replaced the window earlier this spring and the contractor had neglected to complete the job. My Lovely Wife noticed my gaze and, knowing my inclination to venture impetuously into hazardous territory, promptly called from across the yard, “I’ll call the contractor.”

It was too late, of course. I was already on my way to fetch the wobbly aluminum extension ladder, which will theoretically offer a pathway to a point 20-some feet above your head if you’re willing to endure the elasticity of the upward journey. Up I went with my measuring tape to calculate the length and width of wood that would be required to fill the gap. Downward I wobbled with the information lodged in my risk-loving brain. Upward I traveled again with a strip of wood in one hand and a hammer in the other, and in no time at all I successfully breached the offending gap and returned triumphantly to earth.

I am fully aware of the risks involved in such adventures and do my best to be mindful as I travel upward and downward, but the fact that I am doing this at all is something of a puzzle to MLW, who can’t fathom why a rational human would put himself in such a position when more rational alternatives exist.

This is probably why women tend to outlive men. Young guys tend to do dumb stuff, and if they survive to become old guys they just figure whatever has worked for them in the past will work for them in the future. But it’s also probably why a widow thrives after her husband passes. She no longer has to worry about the repercussions of his determination to rewire the ceiling fan in the kitchen, or whether he’s getting enough fiber, or if it might be a good idea for him to get up off the couch once in a while and take the dog for a walk.

At some point in my teenage years, my mom taught me how to make a fried egg — over easy. At the time, it seemed an insignificant gesture, but I think maybe it was a sign that she wanted me to learn how to take care of myself. Maybe she thought I would never be able to snare a wife. In any case, I’ll always remember it as a kind of life lesson: Whether you find yourself on your own or in a life partnership, never assume there’s going to be someone there to take care of you.

I’m not much of a cook today, but I wouldn’t starve if left to my own devices. And, despite my infatuation with wobbly ladders and other impetuous home-improvement adventures, I’m generally pretty self-reliant. I think that has made life easier for MLW while I’m still taking up space around the house. I have no idea what it’ll be like for her after I’m gone, but I’m pretty sure of one thing: When some housing repair requires climbing up that wobbly ladder, she’s going to call a contractor.

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