Jan and Marsha are a featured couple in How Love Lasts – The Play. See their story live in Los Angeles this fall!

While scheduling our first round of interviews we received the following message:

From: Janet Harris
Subject: Interview

I work in Phoenix and would like to interview for your book. My stories revolve around loving someone after they have died. I am 54, graduated from Smith in 2013.

 

We didn’t know how to respond. We weren’t sure if her stories would serve our mission. What does grief have to do with making a relationship last? Doesn’t a partnership require both partners to be alive? Despite our doubts, we found ourselves intrigued. We shared our conundrum with a friend, who said, “do it!” and our instincts agreed. We spoke to Jan on January 11th, 2015.

Jan Harris, January 2015. Photo by Brooke Bishop.

Jan and Marsha (yes, these are their real names, and yes, they heard all the jokes) met 12 years ago while they were both in their forties. Marsha was working with children with special needs at the local elementary school. Jan was on a mission to avoid relationships, so she set up some ground rules: “I’m not going to meet anybody who’s gay – you’re off the list. I’m only going to meet straight people in very healthy happy relationships.” Marsha fit the bill – she was married to a man, and they had children – so the two women began walking their dogs together:

She has one of those elementary school voices that’s like [sing-songy] ‘doodeedeedoodeedoo’ – Oh my god. And we’d go walking and you know I’d ask her a question and it was always, “I don’t know I’ll have to ask my husband.” Finally one day I said, ‘if I want to know what your husband thinks, I’ll ask him, I really am interested in what you think.’ [and Marsha replied] ‘I, um, I guess, I’ll have to think about that – nobody really wants to know what I think’ and I was like ‘Oh my god, this woman!’

 

Over time, Jan says, Marsha began opening up, sharing her passion and her strength, and the two became close friends.  Jan recalls the moment when her feelings changed:

She loved to garden and so she came over to my house frequently – I kind of had an open door policy – I worked at home and people came and went all the time. I remember hearing something going on upstairs. My office was in the basement and I walk up to the top of the stairs and here’s this woman – it’s Marsha – like digging around under my sink trying to find a vase because she had brought all these fresh cut flowers and she had on this really cute baseball cap and I just stood there watching her and I remember just standing there with my arms folded just thinking, ‘She’d be perfect. Except she’s married. Shit.’ [laughs]

 

Jan tried to help Marsha see that she brought great value to those around her:

 When I would talk to her about ‘Look what you did with that kid today, I mean that was amazing!’ ‘Oh really? Why? That’s just what I do every day.’ ‘Yeah, well, nobody else can do that.’ It kind of opened her eyes to her being special – that’s what she told me.

 She was just wonderful – she had a gift working with those kids but she didn’t have a credential. I encouraged her through our relationship to get her credential because then the school would pay her more for doing the same thing – and she wanted to move on to do other things. This was not something that was on her radar – going back to school – but she did it and she graduated with honors. It was weeks after she graduated when she had her physical exam for her [new] job and that’s when she discovered she was so far advanced with colon cancer. She never actually practiced, but she finally got the credential for what she’d been doing her whole life.

 She had always said to me once I finish my degree then it’s your turn. because I’d been a sophomore for 25 years at that point. I’d been enrolled in some college class every decade since I graduated from High School trying to get my bachelors degree.

 

Marsha died in April, 2009, nine months after her diagnosis.

 She had said ‘You need to go get your degree’ and I was like, ‘There is no way.’ I was ridiculously in debt, my business was in the toilet, I don’t see a way out, I’m miserable, the world hates me. I was well into a bottle of good red wine and I googled ‘non-traditional bachelor’s degree female’ – something like that – and the Ada Comstock Scholars Program popped up.

 If I could pull my shit together to just fill out the application – at least you’re trying to do something. And it’s something that she wanted you to do. And it’s something that I would like to have happen. If my life is going to change it has to change drastically. This would be drastic [laughs] and it will never happen, so it’s kind of a safe bet. I applied, and then I got accepted, and then the shit hit the fan because I had to follow through to Northampton.

 I sold my business, rented my house, fit whatever I could in my car and drove off to Northampton and lived in the dorms for a year like an 18-year-old and [eventually] graduated. In March, before finals, the president of the company where we’re at, who knew me through my previous business – just a professional acquaintance – contacted me – and it’s a really good idea – it’s really good to offer a job to a senior in March before they graduate [laughs] because they’re just going to say ‘yes’.

 

Which brings us back around to Jan’s original email to us: “my stories revolve around loving someone after they have died.” Jan’s love story isn’t what we thought it would be. It’s not about the feelings and grief and longing and nostalgia – which are of course present; that’s just not the part that’s most important to her, or to us. Just as Jan and Marsha built a partnership based on growth and sanctuary, so Jan continues this in Marsha’s absence. “After [Marsha] died,” she said, “I am an extremely patient person. I’m much kinder. I feel like I absorbed her and became us instead of moving on and trying to let go.”

Jan’s stories have led us to hypothesize about the value of sustained partnership. By sharing our lives with someone we trust, respect, and admire, It seems Jan couldn’t help but grow. Partnership for her – and it seems for Marsha too – was an opportunity for self-actualization. So we leave you with a question that has and will be a part of every subsequent interview we conduct:

How has your relationship challenged you to grow? How are you better for knowing and loving your partner?

Share your thoughts with us in a comment below.

Daniel is a founding author of How Love Lasts. 

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