If three words could describe Phyllis Lee, they would be faith, hope and love. These words describe a woman of strength and substance and a journey that few of us might embrace. And yet she is as optimistic and faith filled as ever, believing in the kindness of strangers, the grace of a God she knows all too well, and the possibility of an endless love.
It was “plain old chemistry” that brought Phyllis and Donald Lee together as high school students back in the early 1960’s. Don went off to college and Phyllis went to work as a secretary at age 17. Despite excellent grades in school, she wasn’t encouraged to go to college. Don however, flunked out of college and returned home, his parents insisting that he attend community college and get a job. He and Phyllis reconnected, their “chemistry” still alive and well.
“Besides being cute with an amazing smile, he was very clean-cut...like Richie Cunningham on Happy Days,” says Phyllis. And she really liked that about him. He ended up finishing his degree, but not before they wed in 1967. She worked for IBM and he took a job with Radio Shack, and the talented salesperson moved up in the company. They had their daughter Cari in 1971, bought a home and did the things most young couples would do. They eventually moved to the Boston area in 1979.
“It was exciting,” she says. “We had snow for the first time, I heard new accents, the people were conservative and it was all very fast paced, but this is where we put down our roots.”
As a stay at home Mom, Phyllis volunteered in the community with the perspective that, “no one is going to beat a path to your door, you have to put yourself out there.” And she did just that, becoming active members of the First Congregational Church of Hanover. After 10 years in Hanover, Don left the company. They bought a furniture store and sold it 14 years later. During that time, Cari finished college, got married and later moved to Connecticut in 1998.
In 2004 Phyllis expected a good year. They traveled a bit, enjoyed a new grandchild and family was close by. In 2005 a routine eye exam revealed a tear in Don’s retina which resulted in several surgeries. While doing some heavy lifting at church he felt something in his back which brought him to the doctor and alternative therapies to deal with the pain. He was in a wheelchair all the time at that point. An MRI revealed esophageal cancer that had traveled to his back destroying several vertebrae, causing so much pain. Additional surgery resulted in a titanium rod in his back which enabled him to walk.
“He was still my guy with that beautiful smile but he looked frail to me,” says Phyllis. “One day Don said to me, “I think we need to move. I feel a sense of urgency.” And they did, quickly finding a new home in Niantic, Connecticut to be closer to Cari and their three grandchildren in June of 2006. “He was determined and optimistic. He took the train to Mass General for chemo once a week, and often wouldn’t let Phyllis accompany him. “He was always thinking of the other person.’’ One day he had trouble breathing and went to Lawrence and Memorial Hospital. Family and friends came but he hung on. One day in late October, four days before his 60th birthday, Phyllis stood alone in the room looking out the window. “The sky opened up and the sun broke through like a spotlight, a portal, and it was shining on him,” recalls Phyllis. “I knew he had gone while I was looking out the window. If you choose to believe as I do, perhaps that was the moment the angels came for him.”
When he was diagnosed, Phyllis did not feel bitter or angry. She accepted what was happening, and she thinks this was why she was able to more fully appreciate the blessings that happened along the way, instead of being bitter. She focused on all that was good and right rather than what was wrong. They were married almost 40 years.
A short time following Don’s memorial service, Phyllis attended a bereavement support group specifically for the loss of a spouse and how to get through the holidays. It was a six week program and there were seven in the group. “It was heart-wrenching to hear about the different circumstances of loss. You form a bond because of the commonality of that loss,” she says.
Marty Huysman was in that group and on the last day of the program, people made a plan to meet for coffee, and three of the group showed up, Phyllis, Marty and one other. During that meeting Phyllis recommended a book of daily meditations called Healing After Loss by Martha Whitmore Hickman. Marty called to thank her after finding it useful himself. His wife Meg had also died of cancer and they were also married about 40 years, just like Don and Phyllis. They agreed to meet for the first walk of many at a park.
“I saw him from a different perspective. He was tall, and wore a camera around his neck. I never saw this side of him in the grief group. And he really listened to me.” He shared his journey of his wife’s death all along the Niantic boardwalk and she shared her story all the way back. They talked a couple more hours, emotions pouring out of them both as they shared childhood wishes and dreams and so much more. They both enjoyed being out where they could appreciate nature and he loved being in the moment, with his camera and a big smile.
“I know God’s hand was in that,” said Phyllis. “We shared so much on such an intimate level in such a short time, with nothing in common but loss. We weren’t looking for someone or a relationship. We just knew each other was someone we wanted to know better. So we took lots of walks, always finding something to talk about. We connected on a level that enabled us to enjoy each other even more. Every walk the subject of faith always came up. ” He was Catholic, she was Protestant, and most Sundays they went to two churches.
Within a couple of months they knew that they had more than a friendship but Phyllis was scared, hesitant. What would people think? How can all this happen so quickly? What will the kids think? “Despite the trepidation we knew we were falling in love. It was as simple and as complicated as that. We fell in love. New love can be very exciting.”
While they were trying to figure out how to move forward, after being together only three months, Marty was diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma. His prognosis was not good. Several surgeries and procedures followed. “I never ever thought about walking away,” says Phyllis. “We were in too deep. We were committed. We chose to leave it in God’s hands. Whatever was coming we were going to meet it together. We talked about wedding plans and looked at rings.”
He talked her into a two week vacation at a boyhood camp he had gone to in the Adirondacks, that was only accessible by canoe. She took her makeup, her poised posture and well-coiffed hair, always looking just so, and decided to embrace the adventure. The two week camping plan became three weeks and it was one of the best times in her whole life.
“I had a talk with God and thanked him for the opportunity. Help me to let go, I prayed. What’s the worse that could happen?” A thunderstorm greeted them the first night and she just prayed that if a big tree would fall on them to “make it quick.”
At Christmas, Marty gave her a scarf with an engagement ring tied to the end. It had four diamonds representing Phyllis and Marty and their previous spouses. She said, “Yes,” without hesitation.
In August, they took a two week trip to attend a wedding and see family. Marty returned tired, and just before Thanksgiving he was admitted to Yale New Haven Hospital. “Melanoma is really sneaky,” said Phyllis. “The cells can be anywhere in your body and you wouldn’t know. He had a problem with his lungs. She stayed most nights and he was there 17 days as they began chemo. Phyllis went home to change clothes one night, when she got a call that he had stopped breathing. He was on a respirator when she returned and he died the next day, on her birthday, December 10th.
“Still in my heart as I stood over him on the respirator, I had to thank God for the gift of Marty, for the time we had.”
Despite losing two loves, her hope in what might be never dies. She returned to the grief support group. She continues to be open to God’s plan, spending time and traveling with a longtime friend who is a widower.
“I feel like God had a hand in this. I know there’s a plan. It may shift from time to time. My relationship with Marty told me I could know love again. The idea of having a male friend or dating was not so scary this time around, because of my relationship with Marty. I try to be open to the plan regardless of what it is. I’m not always sure if it’s God’s plan or my plan. I’ve loved two men. I’ve watched them die. I’ve lost them. But I’m still here and don’t want to waste this time that God has given me.”
Journal entry 2007 following Don’s passing:
“It was worth it. I will endure this pain and emptiness because I have such wonderful memories seared into my mind that I will never forget what we shared. I would not trade those years, regardless of the uncertainty of duration, for anything.”