Death is, in general, a bummer, and there’s nothing really “sexy” about it. Yet some percentage of people find themselves improbably motivated to fuck as they mourn the loss of a loved one. It turns out that grief, the emotion that should be the least horny, is actually…quite horny.
This is kind of an uncomfortable premise, which could perhaps explain the (very disappointing!!!) lack of substantial, peer-reviewed research on this topic. (One of the only studies in the horny grief vein focuses on “sexual bereavement,” and basically just establishes that people who lose their long-term sexual partners will miss the feeling of sex, and not just the person they shared it with.) Therapists and sex researchers, though, say it’s a normal and fine thing to feel inexplicably horned up after someone close dies. “It’s really about filling the void — literally and figuratively,” Patti Britton, a clinical sexologist and sexuality educator, told Mel Magazine in 2018. “The grief trajectory is about a loss of closeness — a loss of intimacy. That’s why our libido kicks in: To fill that void.”
This makes sense. Living through the death of a loved one can put people in a very YOLO state of mind; faced with the fleetingness of life, you may as well bone while you can. It’s like humping away as the world burns around you (which is…kinda what we are already doing right now). Life will end, and so perhaps the way to feel most alive (at least for some people) is to smoosh your parts against another warm-blooded person.
But beyond filling a void, grief sex is also a pretty solid distraction from the pain and/or numbness that death brings. “The body becomes quite broken [after a death], and having sex— decent sex—drives the dopamine system,” Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, told VICE. “Any stimulation of the genitals drives the dopamine system in the brain, which gives feelings of optimism, energy, focus, and motivation.” The flood of dopamine can, at least for a little while, calm you down, Fisher explained.
Writer Anjali Pinto echoes this theory in an April 2018 essay she wrote in the Washington Post. Writing about the string of sexual encounters she started five months after the sudden death of her husband, Pinto describes a “rush of feel-good chemicals [that] created an overwhelming sense of happiness, even amid my loneliness.”
But more than the biological thrill of the dopamine hit that comes from good, consensual sex, Pinto wrote that seeking out casual flings with strangers gave her a sense of control in an otherwise bleak time. “Having sex with strangers healed me in ways that therapy, friendship, travel, writing and photography could not,” she writes. “These encounters made me feel empowered, desirable and more in tune with my body. They gave me agency when my life felt out of my control.”
Of course some people in “””polite society””” are going to poo-poo the banging of strangers (or banging anyone, TBH) in the aftermath of a major traumatic event, Pinto noted. Sex, especially when a woman is doing it, is still just taboo enough to feel like a manic response to a bad thing. But, I don’t know, man… losing a spouse is like a top-five bad thing that can happen to a person. Losing any loved one is. Barring legitimately destructive or dangerous behavior, it sort of seems like someone going through that hell of an experience should be able to do whatever it takes to feel better. As the saying goes, ‘Everyone grieves differently.” And experts say that some people grieve by boinking. That seems, in the grand scheme of things, very fine.
Though your body might be ready to return to sex after a miscarriage, are you?
By Jessica Zucker
How soon can you have sex after experiencing a pregnancy loss? It’s a common question among women of childbearing age, considering that up to 20 percent of pregnancies result in miscarriage and approximately 1 in 100 in stillbirth. There’s not a standard — or straightforward — answer. Generally, physicians counsel patients to wait until they feel ready. But readiness for a woman and her partner can depend on a number of physical, and emotional, factors.
“From a medical and practical perspective, the primary thing is to ensure that the pregnancy has passed completely, the cervix has closed, and that there isn’t an increased risk of causing infection in the uterus,” explained Zev Williams, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “The timing for this depends on how far along the pregnancy was at the time of the loss and how quickly the woman’s body recovers.”
A couple’s romantic readiness is another question altogether.
Emotional roadblocks are a big factor: Women may feel reluctant to engage in sexual intimacy while still grieving their loss. Miscarriage can also change a woman’s relationship with her body, and what sex represents to a couple might shift. If this seems hard to understand, it is: I am a psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health, and I didn’t fully comprehend how complex returning to sex could be until I experienced a second trimester miscarriage firsthand. Then I understood all too well: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
“There are no guidelines with regard to telling patients what to expect about returning to sex after miscarriage. Routinely, we don’t discuss sex after loss unless patients bring it up,” said Jessica Schneider, M.D., an ob-gyn at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “There’s research about how safe it is to get pregnant again after a loss, but not about sexual function or satisfaction.” And the fact is, sexual function and satisfaction can, and do, change.
I talked to several women about their experiences around sex after pregnancy loss to find out how they approached returning to intimacy. (The women preferred their last names not be used due to privacy concerns.)
Some women, like Ash, 36, felt ready to have sex right away. After experiencing a stillbirth, she turned to sex for healing. “It was a way to feel powerful in my body,” she said. “I felt like my body had failed me, and sex was a way to get that back.” There was one caveat though: She didn’t want to risk another pregnancy. “It felt better to engage in sexual acts that couldn’t result in one.”
Trying to get pregnant again is a sensitive topic medically and emotionally. The World Health Organization’s official stance is to wait six months before attempting another pregnancy. Recent research, however, suggests that having sex sooner doesn’t have a negative effect on future pregnancies and could actually help success rates.
“The doctor told us to wait until we were comfortable,” said Maria, 26, who has had four miscarriages. “It was nerve-wracking to return to sex. I think because I was terrified of getting pregnant again and losing it or not getting pregnant again. It was challenging mentally.”
Shame and self-blame can enter the bedroom after pregnancy loss and create trouble where there previously was none. Hanan, 27, thought she was ready to have sex again immediately after a stillbirth, though her doctor told her to wait six weeks. She said she felt arousal and the desire to have sex, and engaged with her husband in everything other than penetrative sex, while waiting for medical clearance. But the first time they had intercourse, she wasn’t prepared for her emotional reaction. “I cried so much after the first time. I felt very guilty,” she said. “My body wanted to, but my brain didn’t. It felt selfish and immoral — like I should have been celibate while grieving.”
These thoughts are especially challenging for women who are actively trying to conceive again. “I did not want to initiate sex after my loss, but at the same time, I did want to get pregnant again,” said Maggie, 32. “My vagina became a constant reminder of the loss.”
Some women said they resented their bodies for a perceived failure. “After my miscarriage, I couldn’t be with anyone for over a year,” Zachi, 27, told me. “The fact that my body failed impacted the way I felt sexually afterward. I carried the baby emotionally, long after physically.”
While a 2015 survey found that 47 percent of respondents who had experienced a miscarriage reported feeling guilty about it — and nearly three-quarters thought their actions may have caused it — the reality is that chromosomal abnormalities are the explanation in about 60 percent of miscarriages. Pregnancy loss cannot be prevented.
If you’ve been trying to conceive for a long time, sex following a pregnancy loss can become especially fraught — even unappealing.
“After my first miscarriage, we only had sex to conceive. It started to feel like a task,” said Gina, 30, who has experienced infant loss and two miscarriages. “That mentality compounded after my second miscarriage and killed all sexual desire for me.”
Sonali, 33, who has lost four pregnancies, had difficulty returning to the very place she got pregnant. “Sex with your other half in the bed where you conceived the babies you lost is so triggering,” she said.
“Sometimes, I’m thinking about where I’d be in my pregnancy now; how I wouldn’t be able to have sex in this position,” Maria said. “It makes me feel guilty to feel great, when I should be seven months pregnant and uncomfortable.”
Pregnancy loss can have unintended positive impacts on a woman’s sexuality, too. Zachi said that she is more assertive in her sex life because of her miscarriage. “I have to listen to my body now,” she said. “It becomes painful not to. I am a lot more sure in what I want.” A miscarriage ultimately brought Maggie and her husband closer together, she said. “During the loss, I felt like I was on an island,” she remembered. “The first time my husband and I had penetrative sex, I cried from relief, because I felt so re-connected to him.”
Having and enjoying sex again is really about one thing — personal readiness — which is what I tell my patients. It’s O.K. to feel grief and sexual desire simultaneously. “Moving on” is not a prerequisite for pleasure.
I found myself terminally ill and unexpectedly single at 40. I didn’t know which was more terrifying.
By Josie Rubio
One night, as a friend and I were headed to a bar to see someone I had met on a dating app, she asked, “What do you tell these guys?” I pulled up my profile and handed her my phone.
“I have cancer so if you want to hang out, act now!” reads the first line.
“This is great,” she said with a laugh.
A year ago, when my treatment was going poorly and I was getting sicker, my boyfriend of 12 years took a business trip to London, where he “reconnected” with an old friend, a recently separated Pilates instructor. After he booked himself a solo trip to Europe, I overheard him talk about how much fun he had riding around on the back of her motorcycle, holding her hips. He also said he enjoyed walking around by himself without thinking about cancer. And me, apparently.
And that was it. Our relationship was over. I found myself dying and unexpectedly single at 40. I didn’t know which was more terrifying.
My cancer isn’t going away. It’s being treated as a chronic disease. I’m definitely going to die from it, if I don’t get hit by a bus. (Why do people always offer that as an alternative to dying of cancer? “You never know!” they say cheerfully. “You could get hit by a bus tomorrow!”) Doctors buy me time and wellness with treatments, injections and transfusions. I have months of wellness, if I’m lucky. But over all, probably not much time.
The truth is, I was prepared to die instead of date again. From what some people told me, I might as well already be dead as a single woman over 40.
Right after the breakup, I resisted dating. I knew I’d have limited time to spend with people I care about before I got sick again. Why would I want to meet strangers? Still, friends pushed me into it. Sometimes literally. At Octoberfest in Copenhagen, the friend I was visiting declared, “You can’t let your last experience be so awful,” as he steered me into a crowd of Danish men in lederhosen drunkenly dancing and singing to “Time of My Life.”
Back home, my resolve weakened. One night I saw my ex at a concert with the woman he left me for. I didn’t feel sad or jealous, just relieved it was her and not me putting down a credit card at the bar to buy his drinks. It was time to move on.
One friend helped me sign up on a dating app. Another — the person who would become my dating app Sherpa — helped me with my profile and photos. “This guy has a picture of himself with Bill Murray,” I noted as I started swiping for the very first time. “Tinder is full of pictures of Bill Murray,” my friend said sagely.
Since my cancer diagnosis six years ago, I’ve had poison pumped into my veins, tubes threaded into my neck, organs removed, radiation tattoos applied. I’ve shaved my head multiple times. I’ve coughed up pieces of my esophagus. Doctors have given me a spinal tap and rooted around my bone marrow with a needle. But meeting a stranger for a date filled me with dread. “I’d rather be getting a bone marrow biopsy,” I texted my friends before marching out to meet my first date in more than a decade.
But I went. And it was fine. Fun, actually. So I stuck with it and dated some more.
After one great date, I had a crushing realization: I have only the present to offer, not a hopeful future. “You don’t know that,” a friend told me.
“Because I could get hit by a bus tomorrow?” I replied with a weak smile. Within a month I had given myself a black eye, chipped a tooth and skinned my knee. That morning, I had almost stepped off a curb into the path of an oncoming van. The likelihood of meeting my end slipping in the shower actually seemed to be edging out the cancer.
“No,” she replied. “Because you could still be complaining to me about dating when you’re 90.”
As I went, I made dating rules, then broke them. I pay for myself, because letting someone else pay feels too transactional. Plus, after years of paying for myself and my ex, it still seems like a good deal. I don’t eat on first dates, because it’s an ugly scene.
Then, after a meet-up drink, someone asked me to have dinner with him and insisted on paying. I told him, as I devoured a duck breast like I was a medieval king, that I don’t eat lambs because they’re cute, and I don’t eat octopus because they’re smart, but it’s O.K. to eat ducks because I read that they can be necrophiliacs. “If you think about it,” I said, motioning with my fork to my smoked duck in soy-honey jus, “being eaten is really the second worst thing that can happen to them after they die.”
I am great at date conversations. Cancer? Necrophilia? Pick a topic.
What is someone with terminal cancer doing on a dating app? I want what we all want, I guess. I want someone to enjoy spending time with. To tell me I look nice. Only it’s all for a much shorter time. I don’t expect someone to stay with me once I get really sick again. My last relationship made me feel like a burden. In actuality, he was lucky to be with me. I know that now.
I was (and still am) also afraid of something working out and hurting someone else. It feels selfish. But when I like someone, I’m all in. People probably think it’s because of the cancer, but I’ve always been like this, since my very first date at 14 on July 4, 1992, when I sat in a wooded clearing on my first boyfriend’s four-wheeler watching fireworks from nearby SeaWorld.
I had to get home but didn’t want to leave without my first kiss. When we wished on a shooting star, I had the opening I needed. “Do you know what I’ve wanted to do all year?” I said, referring to the crush I’d had on him ever since he entered my freshman English class the first day of ninth grade wearing a Guns ’n’ Roses T-shirt.
“What?” he asked.
“Kiss you,” I said. Then we kissed under the fireworks.
When someone recently texted to see what I wanted to do on our next date, I replied, “I hope this isn’t too forward, but one thing I would like to do is kiss you someplace that isn’t a rainy street corner.” Apparently, I am still the same person I was when I was 14.
Cancer left me with scars, radiation tattoos and a Mediport, but the bad relationship left me with scars I sometimes fail to see. I apologize too profusely, like when I knocked a date’s napkin off the table. “It’s O.K.,” he said, looking at me quizzically. “I’m not going to yell at you.” I realized I had been waiting for him to scold me, like my ex would have.
The guy who made me break some of my rules made me shatter more. I found myself, at his insistence, reluctantly and badly dancing, but laughing the entire time. I’ve held his hand across restaurant tables. I steal kisses from him in public. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself anymore.
I’m so happy and so sad at the same time.
Death isn’t an abstract concept. I live week to week, moment to moment. I live fully, but I have always done that. Since the new treatment, I can even walk around sometimes not thinking about cancer. I agree with my ex: It’s nice. Since that first 1992 date, I just wanted to find someone and feel like that part of my life was settled. But from ages 28 to 40, I just settled. Period.
When my ex kissed me goodbye on the day we broke up, I thought, “This will be the last time a man kisses me.”
It finally feels good to be wrong about something.
After Michael Draper was diagnosed with a rare brain disease, his husband retired to take care of him full-time
By DAVID TAFFET
Michael Draper describes the condition he’s been dealing with for seven years as a “designer disease.” His husband, Terry Wicks, said that when they finally received a diagnoses, “the bottom dropped out of our world.”
Draper went almost two years before receiving a diagnosis of MSA — multiple system atrophy — a progressive neurodegenerative brain disorder that results in death.
Wicks has become his full-time caregiver.
MSA is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease, but it seems to be more related to other diseases like PSP and Alzheimer’s characterized by a build up of certain proteins in the brain. Wicks explained that with MSA, the proteins needed to transmit signals from one cell to another seem to crumple and block transmission. As that happens, brain cells die.
Functions that are automatic — maintaining body temperature, swallowing, breathing, eliminating waste — stop working. Speech is affected. Muscle coordination deteriorates. The person with MSA becomes unable to take care of himself.
In 2013, the couple was living in California. Draper was an executive with Yahoo. Wicks was an MRI technician.
Wicks remembers asking his husband one day, “Why are you so clumsy lately?”
After a year of a variety of symptoms presenting themselves and several doctors unable to diagnose what was wrong, they went to Stanford for a diagnosis. After almost a year of visits, their doctor told them that she was waiting for one more symptom to appear. When it did, she confirmed MSA.
Symptoms appear when a person is in his or her 50s. Draper was 52 when they first recognized something was wrong. Those manifestations progress for five to 10 years.
New drugs are being tried to halt progression, but Wicks said his husband’s condition was too advanced for the medications to work. And because it takes so long to diagnose, most people have progressed beyond the point where these medications will help.
Four years ago, both men had to stop working. Draper was unable to work any longer so Wicks, who’s seven years older, retired to take care of him.
They decided to move back to Dallas to be closer to family. Their doctor at Stanford told them Dallas was a perfect choice because a colleague of hers had recently opened an MSA clinic at UT Southwestern, so Draper would receive top medical care.
Wicks made a trip by himself and purchased a house in Garland. He said it was the only time in their 29 years together that he had bought a house without his husband.
Wicks describes himself as a planner. So before leaving, he had planned what they needed in a house. He found one in Garland that fit his needs — a 1980s one-story ranch without any stairs or steep inclines that could be outfitted for their needs.
Among the work needed on the house was a complete bathroom redo. They replaced the tub with a walk-in shower fitted with a large tiled seat and an entrance without a step so that a wheelchair can roll in.
Because someone with MSA eventually has trouble turning around, Wicks found something he calls a pivot disk, sort of a lazy susan for people. From his wheelchair, Draper can stand and Wicks rotates him 180 degrees so he can sit in the shower or on the toilet.
Wicks said a person who needs this level of care loses all personal dignity and they’ve worked to keep Draper as independent as possible as long as possible. When he couldn’t brush his own teeth with a regular brush, they got an electric toothbrush.
Draper joked that he could still use a razor as long as his husband didn’t mind seeing him with slash marks all over his face. An electric razor allows him to continue shaving himself for now.
While they still are able to make a trip to the hair salon to get his hair cut, their hairdresser said he’d come to house once he can’t get out any longer.
Until recently, Draper had been using mostly a walker. Lately, he’s less able to make it around the house that way, and he’s begun relying more on his wheelchair.
Over the last few weeks, Wicks said he’s also begun having to use a catheter in order to urinate.
Draper said he feels guilty that he’s putting his husband through this, but Wicks wouldn’t have it any other way.
To help them deal with their situation, they go to support groups. Spouses taking care of their spouses compare, commiserate and share. That’s how he learned about the pivot disk. Those with the rare disorder that may affect only about 15,000 Americans don’t feel as alone when they get together.
Wicks is also careful about caregiver fatigue. Draper’s parents will take care of him for a week while Wicks takes a trip to the Seattle area where the couple lived for a number of years to help decide if after his husband’s death, he wants to move back there.
Draper encouraged his husband to take the trip. This way, he can participate in making future plans even if he won’t share them himself. He wants to know his husband will be all right and will return to having a life beyond caregiving.
Wicks said he still is able to leave Draper alone for an hour to run out to the store for groceries. As Draper’s condition deteriorates, Wicks said he’ll have to hire someone to come into the house to relieve him so he can do errands.
Caregiving that includes everything from personal care to doing all of the housework is a full-time job, Wicks explained.
“Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea how much it entails,” he said.
In addition to the physical labor, caregiving involves stress. Wicks described what he’s going through as anticipatory grief. Most people don’t grieve until their spouse is gone, and Draper has already outlived original projections for his life expectancy with MSA.
Wicks doesn’t know if the grieving he’s going through now — imagining what life will be like without his husband — will facilitate the grief he’ll feel after his husband’s death or if he’ll experience the loss he’s expecting all over again.
But that anticipatory grief also propels him to make the best life he can for both of them. Draper still has his sense of humor even as communicating grows more difficult. But as they look at each other and tell their story wishing it was headed toward a different ending, there’s a contentment and bliss in their just being together.
Baby boomer LGBTQI people in care homes are “de-gaying” themselves to hide their sexual or gender identity for fear of bullying and discrimination from staff and other residents, a film maker has said.
Glenda Rome’s film, Return To The Closet?, featuring Scots who lived in some of the toughest times to be gay, will be premiered at the CCA in Glasgow on 1 May, 2019, at the launch of the month-long 2019 Luminate festival for older citizens.
The documentary is released in the same year as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in New York, which saw a week of rioting breaking out after police raided the Stonewall Inn gay club in the early hours of 28 June, 1969.
The event was hailed as being a catalyst for the modern fight for the gay rights movement in the US and around the world.
Older LGBT people in care or who have carers visiting their homes have spoken of “de-gaying” their living space by removing photographs of themselves with a same-sex partner and mementoes of their past.
Others say they are afraid of how other residents will treat them if they reveal their sexuality.
However, Rome, commissioned by Luminate and LGBT Age, to make the film, said one of the most shocking things uncovered during research and extensive interviews was that many care homes report they have no LGBTQI residents.
“The idea of older people feeling they have to ‘go back into the closet’ is terrible. It’s something people are just starting to think about now and the last thing we need is for the progress that has been made, which was hard-won for a generation who lived through the criminalisation of their sexuality, to be undermined.
“The real value of this film is not about creating answers but about inspiring an important conversation.”
Homosexuality among men was illegal in Scotland until 1980 – lagging 13 years behind the law in England and Wales.
This was a factor behind former lecturer Alan Johnson, 77 – who lives in Largs, and appears in the documentary – leaving Scotland in the mid-60s, after graduating from the University of St Andrews to move to London.
“My decision to move to London was in large measure related to escaping from then Presbyterian, and distinctly homophobic, Scotland to a more liberal and welcoming environment where gay venues (bars, clubs and other meeting places) were already more established and accepted.
“Many of my friends did likewise around the same time, and for the same reasons.
“When I was a teenager in Scotland in the mid-1950s same-sex relationships were illegal, criminalised, condemned and pathologised; the word ‘gay’ was not in use; religious intolerance was widespread; and ‘coming out’ (least of all to my churchgoing parents) was quite impossible.
“Fortunately, so much has changed for the better in recent years – but this repression has left a near indelible mark on many older LGBT people, particularly so in Scotland. Many of us speak about this in the film.”
Johnson added: “The whole point in making this film was to influence carers, particularly in care homes.
“There are people who have had all sorts of bad experiences in care homes or when receiving care at home because of their sexuality.
“In general, before you need help, it can be quite common to be ‘out’ to some people but not all. But once you are in residential care that living space becomes your home and you should feel safe and have freedom to be honest about how you live your life.”
Liz Haggart, in her late-60s, from Edinburgh, who also appears in the documentary, said she and her LGBT friends had been speaking about their fears if they need care in the future.
“We’ve spoken about this a few times. We’re really worried about it.
“But the thing is, there’s probably a lots of gay people in the care sector, scared to come out, wondering how the rest of the staff would treat it.”
Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, who will take part in a Q and A session following the screening, said: “In order to become a carer staff must have a qualification, usually a SVQ3 covering equality and diversity. So in terms of the workforce I’m sure there will only be a tiny minority who may not choose to address the issue sensitively.
“Another factor to bear in mind is that any residents in a care home living with dementia may be less inhibited about expressing opinions which they held years ago, sometimes giving offence to others.”
Few people have enchanted the popular imagination with science more powerfully and lastingly than physicist Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) — the “Great Explainer” with the uncommon gift for bridging the essence of science with the most human and humane dimensions of life.
“My heart stopped,” Gleick tells me. “I have never had an experience like that as a biographer, before or since.”
In a mass of unread papers sent to him by Feynman’s widow, Gweneth, Gleick found a letter that discomposed his most central understanding of Feynman’s character. A generation after computing pioneer Alan Turing tussled with the binary code of body and spirit in the wake of loss, Feynman — a scientist perhaps uncommonly romantic yet resolutely rational and unsentimental in his reverence for the indomitable laws of physics that tend toward decay — penned a remarkable letter to a physical nonentity that was, for the future Nobel-winning physicist, the locus of an irrepressible metaphysical reality.
In high school, the teenage Richard spent summers at the beach in his native Far Rockaway. There, he grew besotted with a striking girl named Arline — a girl he knew he would marry. Both complement and counterpoint to his own nature, Arline met Richard’s inclination for science with ardor for philosophy and art. (The art class he took just to be near her would lay the foundation for his little-known, lifelong passion for drawing.) By his junior year, Richard proposed. Arline accepted. With the eyes of young love, they peered into a shared future of infinite possibility for bliss.
But they were abruptly grounded when a mysterious malady began afflicting Arline with inexplicable symptoms — a lump would appear and disappear on her neck, fevers would roil over her with no apparent cause. Eventually, she was hospitalized for what was believed to be typhoid.
Feynman began to glimpse the special powerlessness that medical uncertainty can inflict on a scientific person. He had come to believe that the scientific way of thinking brought a measure of calmness and control in difficult situations — but not now.
Just as Feynman began bombarding the doctors with questions that steered them toward a closer approximation of the scientific method, Arline began to recover just as mysteriously and unpredictably as she had fallen ill. But the respite was only temporary. The symptoms returned, still shorn of a concrete explanation but now unambiguously pointing toward the terminal — a prognosis Arline’s doctors kept from her. Richard refused to go along with the deception — he and Arline had promised each other to face life with unremitting truthfulness — but he was forced to calibrate his commitment to circumstance.
His parents, Arline’s parents, and the doctors all urged him not to be so cruel as to tell a young woman she was dying. His sister, Joan, sobbing, told him he was stubborn and heartless. He broke down and bowed to tradition. In her room at Farmingdale Hospital, with her parents at her side, he confirmed that she had glandular fever. Meanwhile, he started carrying around a letter — a “goodbye love letter,” as he called it — that he planned to give her when she discovered the truth. He was sure she would never forgive the unforgivable lie.
He did not have long to wait. Soon after Arline returned home from the hospital she crept to the top of the stairs and overheard her mother weeping with a neighbor down in the kitchen. When she confronted Richard — his letter snug in his pocket — he told her the truth, handed her the letter, and asked her to marry him.
Marriage, however, proved to be a towering practical problem — Princeton, where Feynman was now pursuing a Ph.D., threatened to withdraw the fellowships funding his graduate studies if he were to wed, for the university considered the emotional and pragmatic responsibilities of marriage a grave threat to academic discipline.
Just as Feynman began considering leaving Princeton, a diagnosis detonated the situation — Arline had contracted a rare form of tuberculosis, most likely from unpasteurized milk.
At first, Feynman was relieved that the grim alternative options of Hodgkin’s disease and incurable cancers like lymphoma had been ruled out. But he was underestimating, or perhaps misunderstanding, the gravity of tuberculosis — the very disease which had taken the love of Alan Turing’s life and which, during its two-century heyday, had claimed more lives around the globe than any other malady and all wars combined. At the time of Arline’s diagnosis in 1941, immunology was in its infancy, the antibiotic treatment of bacterial infections practically nonexistent, and the first successful medical application of penicillin a year away. Tuberculosis was a death sentence, even if it was a slow death with intervals of remission — a fact Richard and Arline faced with an ambivalent mix of brave lucidity and hope against hope.
Meanwhile, Richard’s parents met the prospect of his marriage with bristling dread. His mother, who believed he was marrying Arline out of pity rather than love, admonished him that he would be putting his health and his very life in danger, and coldly worried about how the stigma attached to tuberculosis would impact her brilliant young son’s reputation. “I was surprised to learn such a marriage is not unlawful,” she scoffed unfeelingly. “It ought to be.”
But Richard was buoyed by love — a love so large and luminous that he found himself singing aloud one day as he was arranging Arline’s transfer to a sanatorium. Determined to go through with the wedding, he wrote to his beloved:
I guess maybe it is like rolling off of a log — my heart is filled again & I’m choked with emotions — and love is so good & powerful — it’s worth preserving — I know nothing can separate us — we’ve stood the tests of time and our love is as glorious now as the day it was born — dearest riches have never made people great but love does it every day — we’re not little people — we’re giants … I know we both have a future ahead of us — with a world of happiness — now & forever.
On June 29, 1942, they promised each other eternity.
He borrowed a station wagon from a Princeton friend, outfitted it with mattresses for the journey, and picked up Arline in Cedarhurst. She walked down her father’s hand-poured concrete driveway wearing a white dress. They crossed New York Harbor on the Staten Island ferry — their honeymoon ship. They married in a city office on Staten Island, in the presence of neither family nor friends, their only witnesses two strangers called in from the next room. Fearful of contagion, Richard did not kiss her on the lips. After the ceremony he helped her slowly down the stairs, and onward they drove to Arline’s new home, a charity hospital in Browns Mills, New Jersey.
Meanwhile, WWII was reaching its crescendo of destruction, dragging America into the belly of death with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now one of the nation’s most promising physicists, Feynman was recruited to work on what would become the Manhattan Project and soon joined the secret laboratory in Los Alamos.
Arline entered the nearby Albuquerque sanatorium, from where she wrote him letters in code — for the sheer fun of it, because she knew how he cherished puzzles, but the correspondence alarmed the military censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office. Tasked with abating any breaches to the secrecy of the operation, they cautioned Feynman that coded messages were against the rules and demanded that his wife include a key in each letter to help them decipher it. This only amplified Arline’s sense of fun — she began cutting holes into her letters, covering passages with ink, and even mail-ordered a jigsaw puzzle kit with which to cut up the pages and completely confound the agents.
But the levity masked the underlying darkness which Richard and Arline tried so desperately to evade — Arline was dying. As her body failed, he steadied himself to her spirit:
You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as other times but it rises & falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength — without you I would be empty and weak… I find it much harder these days to write these things to you.
In every single letter, he told her that he loved her. “I have a serious affliction: loving you forever,” he wrote.
In early 1945, two and a half years into their marriage, Richard and Arline made love for the first time. He had been too afraid of harming her frail health somehow, she too afraid of infecting him with the deadly bacterium consuming her. But Arline insisted that this pent up desire could no longer be contained and assured Richard that this would only bring them closer — to each other, and to the life they had so lovingly dreamt up for themselves:
I’ll always be your sweetheart & first love — besides a devoted wife — we’ll be proud parents too… I am proud of you always Richard –[you are] a good husband, and lover, & well, coach, I’ll show you what I mean Sunday.
But heightened as their hopes were by this new dimension of shared experience, Arline’s health continued to plummet. Her weight dropped to eighty-four pounds. Exasperated by the helplessness of medicine, which Feynman had come to see not as a manifestation but as a mutilation of the scientific method, he invested all hope in an experimental drug made of mold growths. “Keep hanging on,” he exhorted Arline. “Nothing is certain. We lead a charmed life.” She began spitting blood.
At twenty-seven, on the precipice of a brilliant scientific career, he was terminally in love.
On June 16, 1945, while working at the computing room at Los Alamos, Feynman received a call from the sanatorium that Arline was dying. He borrowed a colleague’s car and sped to the hospital, where he found her immobile, her eyes barely tracing his movement. Early in his scientific career, he had been animated by the nature of time. Now, hours stretched and contracted as he sat at her deathbed, until one last small breath tolled the end at 9:21PM.
The wake of loss has a way of tranquilizing grief with the pressing demands of practical arrangements — a tranquilizer we take willingly, almost gratefully. The following morning, Feynman arranged for his beloved’s cremation, methodically collected her personal belongings, and on the final page of the small spiral notebook in which she recorded her symptoms he wrote with scientific remove: “June 16 — Death.”
And so we arrive at Gleick’s improbable discovery in that box of letters — improbable because of the extreme rationality with which Feynman hedged against even the slightest intimation of metaphysical conjectures untestable by science and unprovable by reason. During his courtship of Arline, he had been vexed by her enthusiasm for Descartes, whose “proof” of God’s perfection he found intellectually lazy and unbefitting of Descartes’s reputation as a champion of reason. He had impishly countered Arline’s insistence that there are two sides to everything by cutting a piece of paper and half-twisting it into a Möbius strip, the ends pasted together to render a surface with just one side.
Everything that appeared mystical, Feynman believed, was simply an insufficiently explained mystery with a physical answer not yet found. Even Arline’s dying hour had offered testing ground for conviction. Puzzlingly, the clock in the room had stopped at exactly 9:21PM — the time of death. Aware of how this bizarre occurrence could foment the mystical imagination in unscientific minds, Feynman reasoned for an explanation. Remembering that he had repaired the clock multiple times over the course of Arline’s stay at the sanatorium, he realized that the instrument’s unwieldy mechanism must have choked when the nurse picked it up in the low evening light to see and record the time.
How astonishing and how touchingly human, then, that Feynman penned the letter Gleick found in the box forty-two years later — a letter he wrote to Arline in October of 1946, 488 days after her death:
I adore you, sweetheart.
I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.
It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.
But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.
I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.
When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.
My darling wife, I do adore you.
I love my wife. My wife is dead.
And then, with the sole defibrillator for heartache we have — humor — Feynman adds:
PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.