‘It Is Reassuring to Be Loved Again:’ The Joy of Finding Love After 70
The book Gray Love: Stories About Dating and New Relationships After 60 is a collection of stories on looking for love later in life. In an essay called “Love After Seventy and Eighty,” excerpted here, cellist Susan O’Malley shares how she discovered a new kind of intimacy with a fellow widow.
When Will, my partner/lover of 30 years, died suddenly in October 2017 of a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurred the same day that the cardiologist told him he could resume normal activities after a stent operation, I was bereft. First, I thought I was going to fall into a hole and die; then I couldn’t be in groups of people without feeling claustrophobic; then I was angry that he had died and hadn’t seen his cardiologist sooner; and then I missed both physical affection and sex. Will and I had had a very pleasurable love life. What to do?
My friend Margaret, who had been recently widowed after her husband’s death from serious dementia, told me to look for widowers; they were the best. Stay away from divorced men. They are too difficult. She had found an excellent way to find a possible partner. Her current writing project involved interviewing leftists who had been involved in the movement. By this method she had found a very suitable, wonderful man with whom she now lives.
I was not ready for any of this. Will’s family would question what I was doing, and I was sure my daughter and grandchildren would too. I just wanted to be hugged and comforted. I play cello in the UN Symphony Orchestra, and when the young conductor consoled me about Will’s death, I impulsively hugged him, much to his surprise. Masturbation just didn’t satisfy the need to be hugged.
I had known Sebastian O’Toole since moving to Brooklyn from New Orleans when I was 32. In 1975 we were part of the group that started a magazine that is still going strong today. After Will’s death, Sebastian asked me to have dinner with him or to go to the movies. He was a widower and had been married to Betsy, who did artwork for our magazine. She had died 11 years ago and had been my friend. Both Sebastian and I had had unhappy first marriages and happy second marriages. I had also always found him attractive, although we would often argue about politics.
Although being with Sebastian was fun, it did not solve the hugging problem. At six foot four, he is just too tall for me to hug standing up. I had to stand on my tiptoes, and he had to bend down. I longed to hug lying down. And so, I got up my courage and sent him an email about the need for cuddling and snuggling, particularly in my lonely grieving state. Of course, being a man, he interpreted cuddling and snuggling differently from me. His return email was lovely. He said that after Betsy died, he thought having a love life was over for him, that he was too old (he was 87), and did not know how to tell me this, but then he thought about my offer and discovered that he felt very good about it. And so, he invited me to his apartment, made a tasty dinner, and asked me if cuddling and snuggling came before or after dinner. I assured him after dinner. And that he wasn’t too old.
Sexuality is very different from when my partner and I were younger. With Sebastian, I feel very comfortable, safe, with a sense of completion and joy, erotic but in a different way. When men are not so focused on their orgasm, which may or may not happen, there is more time for eroticism and pleasure together and for the woman to get what she needs. There is more stroking and touching, and lovemaking lasts longer. Sebastian’s comment that I have taught him so much about sexuality amuses me—me, a good Catholic virgin when I got married at 22.
When I was younger, I would not have chosen to be with Sebastian. He was too professionally successful. Previously, I had always been with men who were very smart but not that successful, because I wanted space for myself. I still do need space for myself, but Sebastian’s success is not an issue.
My daughter Ragan’s reaction to my relationship with Sebastian was confusing. I don’t think children can imagine their mother having aromantic love relationship, particularly in her seventies (I was 76). Months later she told me that it was her children, my grandchildren, who did not want to meet Sebastian. Will had been their grandfather, and they did not want a substitute grandfather. She had been covering for her children. Ragan said she just wanted me to be happy. She had nothing against seeing Sebastian—she had known Sebastian since she was a little girl attending editorial magazine meetings at the nearby college, where he was a professor, and she remembered him from summer retreats at his farm in the country.
About six months later Ragan did ask Sebastian to dinner. About a week before that, Ragan, my granddaughter, Grace, and I watched the movie To Kill a Mockingbird in preparation to see the play. When Atticus (Gregory Peck) appeared, Ragan said to Grace, “That is what Sebastian looks like.” I giggled and said, “Well he is a bit older, Grace, but he does look like an academic.” The morning after we all had dinner together, Ragan texted me: “Sebastian O’Toole is a lovely man, and he always has been.”
Another concern in older people’s relationships is aging, sickness, and accidents. The December before COVID-19 struck, Sebastian fell down the 19 steps in my Brooklyn brownstone. It had been a wonderful evening: he had attended a UN symphony concert that I had played cello in at the New School. Afterward, we had taken a cab to Brooklyn in a stormy rain, drank wine, talked, and laughed. I don’t know when I had been so happy. In the middle of the night, when he got up to go to the bathroom, Sebastian fell down the 19 steps. I let out a bloodcurdling scream that caused my tenant and her boyfriend to come running up from their apartment to discover Sebastian lying bloodied at the bottom of the stairs and both of us stark naked! Amazingly, Sebastian got up, blood dripping from his head, and walked back up those steps. I think his height and slightly inebriated state may have saved his life. I agonized about calling an ambulance—it was 3:00 a.m. and raining—which made thoughts of the ER less than reassuring. Not to mention that Sebastian refused to go and said he wanted to stay in bed with his arms around me. So, I kept him awake and talking to make sure he didn’t have a concussion and watched as the blood from his head wound finally stopped. Then I waited until morning to call a doctor friend who had admitting privileges at Methodist Hospital. Dr. Fein said I should call an ambulance immediately. He would call the hospital to alert them. Watching the paramedics carry Sebastian back down those 19 steps, strapped securely to a chair, was certainly a relief. Sebastian had two tiny neck fractures and a small brain bleed as a result of his fall and spent a week in the hospital. In addition to Sebastian’s fall, he’s had a heart valve operation and pneumonia during our two years together, and I developed breast cancer, so gray love comes with many bumps and detours. I must say, though, I liked it when Sebastian introduced me to his nurse practitioner as “his sweetie.”
And then there was COVID-19. I probably quarantined more days before I saw Sebastian than I spent with him. If I had never left his apartment in Manhattan, I would not have had to quarantine, but I live in Brooklyn and have family, friends, and a pianist with whom I play my cello. Also, Sebastian could not stay at my house because of the stairs.
The rule for quarantining his daughter rightly insisted upon was 10 days of quarantine followed by a gold-standard COVID test, including quarantining until I got the test results—or 14 days of quarantine with no test. This was because of Sebastian’s precarious health. The first summer of COVID we spent a month together at his farm in western Massachusetts. I quarantined alone for 14 days there. We met only for meals outside. Then we spent the final two weeks physically together. In the fall, we got together in Riverside Park, masked, and bundled up against the cold wind because I hadn’t done my quarantine. After Thanksgiving I quarantined again for only 10 days, but unexpectedly tested positive for COVID with the most reliable test. Although I had no symptoms, I quarantined for another 10 days. I developed no symptoms and was deemed COVID-free by a doctor. Then I spent five days with Sebastian. Thank goodness his daughter insisted on my being tested. My asymptomatic COVID-19 could have infected him. That might have been the end of our relationship.
For months our relationship consisted of emails and phone calls. Every evening we would say we loved each other. Sebastian wished me sweet dreams, and we would send one another music and photos. Sebastian writes funny and very literate emails; they sustained me. Last week we spent five days together after a four-month separation because I had been diagnosed with breast cancer resulting in a lumpectomy and three weeks of radiation. We were both two weeks beyond our second vaccine. Recently, we invited similarly vaccinated friends for dinner and feasted, talked, and all hugged each other. I had been apprehensive, but it felt good. It is reassuring to love and be loved again—unexpected at our ages—but so pleasing.