A love affair in life's last act

The odds are stacked against women in their 80s finding true love. Was it possible for me, I wondered?

Published February 4, 2023 7:30PM (EST)

Author Alice Bingham Gorman and her partner together for Christmas (Photo courtesy of author)
Author Alice Bingham Gorman and her partner together for Christmas (Photo courtesy of author)

What are the chances of a woman in her 80s finding a man to share her life — not just a companion, as pleasant as that would be, but real physical, mental and emotional love? Throughout the 16 years after my last husband died, I asked myself that question a thousand times. I knew the grim statistics. Harvard Health Publishing says that by age 85, 67% of the American population is female. Adding to the skewed odds, so few of the male population left standing are interested in women over a certain age. The likely ones, the men who have had good love relationships and desire another, do not seem to remain alone for more than a few months, if that long. A friend suggested to me that the best chance for a woman in her 70s or 80s to appeal to a good man would be through a meaningful friendship with a couple before his wife passes away. It never occurred to me that such a situation would ever happen to me.

In the summer of 2017, I went once a week to visit my lovely, long-time, friend Jen, who was enrolled in hospice with terminal pulmonary fibrosis. From our first marriages, we had shared so much in common. We raised our kids together throughout our many summer vacations in Maine. She was an accomplished artist. I owned an art gallery in New York. In mid-life, we had both gone through a divorce from our first husbands.

During those bittersweet visits with Jen during her last summer, I began to take notice of her husband David, his loving attention to her, his patient manner, and the way he kept what had to be deep suffering inside. I knew he had lost his first wife to cancer, and now he was living through losing Jen. How was he able to bear this painful situation? Who was he?

I had made peace with my aloneness after so many years, and I had even found pleasure in my independence.

David had always been a figure of mystery to me. His reputation was legendary: a prestigious, award-winning math genius, a distinguished professor. I admired his amazing career, but he seemed remote. I was not initially attracted to him. His gray goatee, ponytail and sailboat tattoo made him dramatically different from any of the men I had ever been attracted to. Watching him come and go during my visits with Jen, I silently wished him well in all that I knew was ahead of him.

Following my snowbird life, I left Maine in late October and was in Florida when Jen died the following February. I wrote David a note of condolence, but I did not hear back from him.

In the summer of 2018, after I returned to Maine, l invited David to dinner at my house. Having lived through the tragic loss of my second husband in 1985 and the loss of my third husband to COPD in 2002, I knew he was going through a time of painful loneliness. I made a conscious decision to have him without other guests, so we would have a chance to really talk. Talk we did, still at the table hours after the dinner was finished. Besides our obvious differences — his academic career and his self-confessed rejection of the social world and my art gallery career, literary life and social network — we discovered we had much in common. We related on a deep level to the love of family (his four children, my three, our numerous stepchildren and grandchildren) and friends, our committed passion for coastal Maine in the summer and our painful losses. Both of us had buried two spouses.

As part of our conversation, we decided that Shakespeare was right: "All the world's a stage" and we had both played many roles. David said at our age we were headed for the "Last Act" in this lifetime. I got it. All people in their 80s, whether single or with a spouse or partner, are automatically headed for their Last Act. The question for every individual is how to play it best. In the days that followed, I began to wonder how it might be for me to play it with David.

Throughout the busy summer, we only saw each other again twice, once for dinner at his house and once for a movie in Rockland. At the end of September, close to the time I was leaving Maine again for the winter, David invited me to a farewell dinner. Despite the big noisy crowd and live music in the restaurant in Rockland, I felt his attraction to me. There was no missing the intensity of his eyes, the warmth of his hand holding mine. I felt my own surprising attraction to him. At the same time, I was acutely aware he had only been alone for six months. I feared it was not long enough for him to be open to another love in his life. By contrast, I had made peace with my aloneness after so many years, and I had even found pleasure in my independence. In spite of my lifelong desire to share my life, I had taken Mark Twain's advice: "Happiness is a choice." Was it possible, I wondered, that I could find love and happiness with David in our Last Act?

There was no missing the intensity of his eyes, the warmth of his hand holding mine.

As the winter winds began to blow and the leaves were off the trees, I left Maine without any further meetings. Within days in Florida, I discovered I was continuing to think about David, wondering how he was handling his first winter alone, wishing we were not so many miles apart. As it turned out, he was thinking about me too. We began an email courtship. Then we talked on the phone. One night he suggested we try FaceTime. I had never used FaceTime. I was surprised at the level of intimacy. I felt as if we were together, as close as any two people can get without touching. For the next six weeks, we spoke on FaceTime for over an hour every night, often from our beds in our respective houses. We talked about books we had just read — we both loved "Educated" — and we both loved opera, particularly Verdi and Puccini, and certain country music. And, of course, we talked about our children and the different ages and stages of their lives. 

One night, somewhere along the way, I hung up the phone and knew without question that my life had changed. I went on YouTube and played the Michael Ball rendition of "Love Changes Everything," an Andrew Lloyd Webber song that spoke to all the feelings in my heart. I emailed David to tell him about it. He watched the video and wrote back immediately: Yes, he knew the words of the song were true. "Some people sadly have never known love," he said, "but I know it well." Both of his marriages were loving, good marriages. I had been fortunate to have known love and a good marriage, too. Slowly, at the end of our FaceTime sessions, we each began to say, "I love you."  Over time it became obvious that we needed to find a way to be together. The question was clear: Could our experience on FaceTime be real? We needed to find out.

We decided to meet in Key West where I had attended the Key West Literary Seminar for many years in January. We planned to have four days together with no agenda beyond getting to know each other. In the meantime, questions on FaceTime became more intimate. "Will you sleep with me?" he asked one night, his voice soft and tentative. After a moment's hesitation, I heard myself say "yes." I could not believe I said it, that I meant it. What was I thinking? It just seemed so natural.

On the day he was arriving in Key West, I was so anxious I never heard a word of the morning presentation at the Literary Seminar. Our plan was for David to rent a car at the airport and meet me in front of the library, an easy GPS landmark. Questions besieged me. Suppose David didn't appear in person as he had appeared to me on FaceTime? How did I really feel about his ponytail? Suppose I wasn't the person he expected? I could hardly breathe when I spotted his car coming around the corner. Once he stopped, I stood and walked with determination toward the car, blocking all thought of the risk I knew deep inside I was taking. He took his hands off the steering wheel and held my shoulders. I couldn't see the ponytail or the goatee. I saw the handsome, inviting face I had been seeing every night on FaceTime. We kissed in a way that felt urgent and magnetic. 

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There were awkward moments, of course. How do two people in their 80s take their clothes off in front of each other without awkward moments? Fortunately, we were able to break the tension with kind, supportive laughter. A sense of humor is imperative in any difficult life situation, but it certainly added lightness and fun to our beginning. At one point a thought occurred to me that Jen and my former husband Aubrey were cheering for us.

What we felt was a million miles beyond the green stage of a young couple in love, or even the coming together of two people in their 40s or 50s who have found each other after losing a spouse or a divorce. There we were, two twice-widowed grandparents embarking on a love affair, two people in their 80s, who were willing to step on the stage and take a role in the Last Act together. Four years later, the curtain has not come down.

By Alice Bingham Gorman

Alice Bingham Gorman’s poems, stories and essays have been published by Vogue; O, The Oprah Magazine; The Louisville Review; The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and others. Her first novel, "Valeria Vose," was published in 2018. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, she is a snowbird living in Maine and Florida.

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