Memories of Love Make a Spouse's Death Both More Heartbreaking And, in the End, More Bearable
For more than 30 years, Dr. Joyce Brothers has expertly dispensed advice about love, marriage, work and motherhood to millions of listeners and readers. The model she used in formulating her theories was her own life. For 39 years, America's best-known media psychologist came home nearly every night to another Dr. Brothers—her husband, Milton, an endocrinologist who practiced in New York City. "We have had our ups and downs, "she wrote in her most recent book, The Successful Woman. "Our marriage, like most marriages, has been a constant series of negotiations and compromises between Milt's career and mine, between our differing theories of child-rearing, between our completely different ideas of what constitutes a good time, and a thousand other issues. "Still, Brothers's marriage was the bedrock of her life. "Knowing that you are the most important person in someone else's life is the source of happiness and security and just plain well-being, "she wrote. "There is nothing like it."
Suddenly, in July 1987, Brothers's world began to disintegrate. Ironically, as she was putting the finishing touches on her book (subtitled How You Can Have a Career, a Husband and a Family—and Not Feel Guilty About It), Milton was diagnosed with cancer. Eighteen months later he was dead. The 60-year-old psychologist now needed to find answers of her own. At her home in Fort Lee, N.J., Brothers talked to correspondent Angela Blessing about her struggle to deal with Milton's loss.
Our daughter, Lisa, an ophthalmologist, discovered Milton's high blood pressure while giving him a routine eye exam. He was on medication for the high blood pressure when he discovered that he also had a heart rhythm problem. The medication for that often causes bleeding, but he found blood in his urine earlier than it would ordinarily occur. It was cancer of the bladder. He had the polyp removed, but at the three-month checkup, he found the cancer had spread. The whole bladder had to be removed. Eventually it spread to his liver and his bones.
During that year and a half, we went through wild swings of hope and despair. When you lose somebody suddenly, to a heart attack, for instance, often all kinds of things are left unresolved. Things you wish you had said. Things you wish you had done. The only good thing that can be said about cancer is that you have a chance to say goodbye. You have a chance to say everything in your heart, to leave nothing unresolved.
I met Milton Brothers 43 years ago at a farm in upstate New York. It was near Kenoza Lake in the Catskills, where our families used to vacation. One day I had a bad cold and I was sitting in bed reading, with a very red nose. My sister ran upstairs and said, "I've met the man you are going to marry." I told her, "Buzz off, kid." She insisted, "No, you've got to believe me." She bullied me into coming downstairs to meet this young man. I knew in an instant that she was right.
Milton had been away in the Marines during the war, and he was just about to return to Cornell for his sophomore year. I was going back for my junior year, and of course I lorded it over him. I don't know how he loved me, I was so insufferable. Then we got pinned, and engaged, and we were married in 1949. He was 23, and I was 20.
Milton was 6'2" and handsome but not cute. There was never anything cute about my husband except for his sense of humor. He was always dignified. Always fun. Always resistant to change. It was important to me that he had status. I don't think I could have been happy with a man whose life was dependent upon my life. I needed someone whom I could bounce off of, someone whose ability I respected.
I made one terrible mistake in my life. Milton was starting medical school. I wanted to go into psychiatry, but I felt if I went to medical school, I would be too competitive with my husband. This was a time when a woman wasn't supposed to do that. I'm a very good student, and I knew that I would do better academically than Milton. I was afraid that would be bad for our marriage, so I chose to get a Ph.D. in psychology instead. If I could live my life over, I wouldn't do the same thing.
The core problem women face in combining career and marriage is, quite simply, their husbands. Their husbands' attitudes. Expectations. Fears. Insecurities. Milton's willingness for me to pursue a career that sent me back and forth across the country every week and entailed crazy hours meant more to me than any bit of housework that he could ever do. Our marriage was hardly egalitarian on the housework front, but it was absolutely egalitarian in support and love.
My marriage always came first. I travel a lot, but I never spent more than a night away. I feel so strongly about the perils of even a semicommuter marriage that if I had to be in Los Angeles on Tuesday and Thursday, I would fly back in between. One of the lovely things Milton used to say to me was, "Whenever you return, the fun begins."
Milton was also a male chauvinist pig. He truly believed that I was an exception to all the things he believed about women—that they are lacking in their ability to appreciate abstract concepts and generally rank several cuts below their male counterparts in intelligence. But he believed in me and in our marriage. He explained his position in an introduction he wrote for one of my books. It reads: "I suppose Joyce and I were both way ahead of our time: I have always been a male chauvinist pig and Joyce has always been a liberated woman.... In our marriage, however, our paths have been parallel.... She's allowed my desire for male dominance to express itself constructively. She's remained her liberated self and yet has made me happy."
The illness never made Milton nasty or difficult. One of the things I could do for him was to massage his stomach and keep him comfortable with hypnotism, which I'd learned in a course I took years ago. It was helpful for me because medically I could do nothing. I bought him a little hairbrush, a baby brush, because during the chemotherapy he lost a lot of hair. He got it back, but his scalp was sore afterwards. I would brush his hair. I was very grateful I could help.
I did set my career aside during his illness, but not completely, because we felt that my career would give me the reason to go on after his death. But during that time, I reacted rather than acted. That was interesting to me. I discovered that when you're reluctant, people pursue you more. I was never as busy in terms of TV. I had a little cameo in the movie The Naked Gun. We read the script out loud to one another. It was the funniest script we had ever read. We laughed a lot.
Even during the worst times, Milton's sense of humor was healthy. We had a very bad time last Thanksgiving. He was beside himself with pain on Friday, and nothing helped. By Monday morning we were frantic. I called the head of the pain clinic at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. We went in, and the doctor came into the office. She asked him a question, and Milton said to her, "You know, that's a very astute question, for a woman." We all laughed. It was a funny moment in a very terrible time. But that's so typical of him.
I think for all widows, the main thing they miss is the laughter and the giggling. You miss that more than anything else. Sex is not something you miss. What you miss is the person who, with all his problems, warts and difficulties, thinks you're the greatest person in the world.
We had a farm in upstate New York, and about a month before he died we went up there for a ritual meal. Our breakfasts were rituals. He had a frying pan which was only used for eggs. He made the eggs and great coffee. We used to agree that if he were ever to leave me and marry a younger woman, I could still come for coffee. That day we made the most wonderful breakfast we could have. He looked around the farm, and he said, "Oh, how beautiful it is up here."
The day before Milton died, I went to see our daughter, Lisa, in Davenport, Iowa, and her new baby. I had wanted so badly for Milton, who was in the hospital, to come with me, but he said, "I just can't do it. You do it for me." So I went to see the baby. I held her, and I said to her, "You've come to heal a hole in my heart." I kissed her for me and I kissed her for him. I kissed my daughter and her three other children, and I came home that very night.
When I got off the plane, I was very tempted to go home because I was very tired. Instead I went to the hospital, even though it was past visiting hours. I called upstairs to the nurse and got a special pass. I went into his room and stood there by the bed. He had had a lot of morphine, but he opened his eyes and said, "Sit down." I said, "No, dear, I want to stand." I don't know what prompted me, something in my heart. I caressed his hand and said, "I don't know whether you can hear me or not, but I want to talk to you and tell you the highlights of our marriage." I talked with him a long time about the silly things and the good things and the important things and the unimportant things. Then I went home and I set my alarm for 7 A.M. SO I could go back to him. At 6, I got a call from his doctor, who told me he'd had a pulmonary embolism. They had tried to resuscitate him, but it wasn't possible.
So I got dressed and went over to say goodbye to him, although he was already dead. I thought it would disturb me, but when you love somebody, it doesn't disturb you at all. He was just as dear. When you hug and you touch, even though he's gone, he's as he was before.
For Milton's birthday in 1983 I bought him a bright red Porsche. I was never allowed to drive it because I'm a lousy driver. So I drove his Porsche for the first time after he died. I came down a hill, and I thought about continuing to drive right into the embankment. If I had known for sure that I would have killed myself, I might have done it, but I wasn't sure I wouldn't spend the rest of my life maimed. So instead of going straight I turned right. I've spoken to hundreds of people who have contemplated suicide. At that moment, I understood what it meant to feel like nothing made a difference anymore. I didn't break down at the funeral. But at home, I cry. I open my husband's closet; his smell is everywhere.
The point of love must be loss, but the point of love must also be joy. That time between us was very close. I was torn between wanting it to end so he could be relieved of pain and wanting it to stay forever so I could enjoy having him. There's a phrase—I don't know where it comes from—"God makes sure that no tree reaches the sky." I realize that no one can live a life without pain. My life has been an easy one; my pain just came a little farther down the pike than a lot of people's. It's one thing to read research and discuss the findings. It's another thing to be able to understand another person's pain emotionally. I'm a changed person; I'm much more sensitive toothers.
On Newsstands Now
- The Little Couple: A New Mom's Fight to Live
- Remembering Nelson Mandela
- Princess Kate's Style Secret!
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine