We lost Arden Grace Stephens Schilb this week. For sixty-five years, the wife of Bill’s older brother, John.
When Bill and I met at a widowed retreat in 1985 and became serious in what seemed to some to be an inordinate hurry, there was a bit of grumbling amongst people who had been friends with Bill and his first wife, Lynn, to the effect that I was claiming to be a widow, but that I was really a divorcée with a couple of kids “looking for a free ride.” It’s true that I had been divorced from my husband for eighteen months before his death, but having spent eighteen years with the man, the feelings of loss I felt were intense.
In a chance meeting, Bill and I discovered that we had lost our previous spouses two years apart. Lynn Schilb lost her seven year battle with breast cancer on New Year’s Eve of 1984/85. My former husband succumbed to kidney and liver failure on New Year’s Eve 1982-83. They both died a few minutes before midnight.
At the time we met, I was a newly published author. Bill’’s and my first date was the grand opening party for the first Beaumont book, Until Proven Guilty. When we first married, his earnings vastly outpaced mine, and for the first few years he was the primary breadwinner for our blended families. As Bill likes to say, however, he knew how to back a winning horse. Ten years later our situations reversed. He was able to retire from what they call “working outside the home.” Since then he has handled the business part of our business. In other words, “I write the books; he writes the checks.”
With few exceptions, the people who had been friends with Bill and Lynn dropped by the wayside. That was not the case with his family, however. They realized at once that we were in love and that we were good for each other. As a consequence, they welcomed me with open arms—and that included John and Arden.
From the 1970s on, they lived in Aiken, South Carolina, where Arden was a teacher and John sold real estate. At one point, John told Bill that “Arden could teach a fence post to read.” They lived a continent away. Through the years, we didn’t see all that much of them, but when we did—at weddings, vacations, anniversaries, and funerals—they were always accepting of Bill’s and my relationship, including my new-to-the-family insistence on keeping my own name.
On Christmas Eve last year, they were both felled by cases of the flu that landed them them in the ICU. After three weeks in the ICU, John recovered enough to be released. Arden’s flu morphed into pneumonia that put her on a ventilator for a while. She stayed on in the ICU where they discovered a previously undiagnosed heart-valve complication. Surgeons needed her to recover her lung function before attempting a surgical solution the the heart problem. Two months after being admitted to the hospital, she was transferred to a rehab facility.
In February I had speaking events in Palm Beach, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia. Since those were both in the near neighborhood of Aiken, we decided to go there to visit. We stopped by the house for a quick lunch and then went to Arden’s rehab place. She was up, dressed, and eating lunch—and in far better shape than I had expected.
It happened that our visit occurred on Valentine’s Day. Before we left the house, John made sure that he had his bouquet of flowers and a collection of Valentines well in hand. While we visited, Arden opened her Valentines and examined every word of every verse contained there in. It was clear that the Valentines John had chosen spoke to her, and that reading them meant something—something important. That will be my last memory of Arden, sitting there reading those Valentine’s greetings and savoring every word.
Shortly after we left for Georgia, John and Arden’s kids moved them into an assisted living facility in Huntsville, Alabama, where they could be closer to their daughter, Susan, and where Arden could receive comprehensive round-the-clock nursing care. Shortly after that move, the pneumonia returned, and she passed away earlier this week.
The memorial service will be in Alabama this weekend. We’re not going. We were there while she was still alive, and that’s more important than being faces in the crowd at a funeral. Bill has been in touch with John several times. Bill was widowed thirty plus years ago, and he knows what John is going through. He’s anxious to return home. He checked into assisted living because it was what Arden needed. But he wants to be in familiar places. He wants to do his own cooking. He wants his independence back.
Up until last Christmas, John and Arden had managed on their own fairly well, assisted by an aide who came in a few hours each day. Now John is eighty-nine years old, and his loving mate of more than sixty years is gone, leaving him to continue the journey on his own. I’m sure it’ll be tough, but I’m also pretty sure he’ll be able to carry on.
When I married into this family some thirty years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that Schilbs tend to be a pretty stubborn lot. Its an integral part of their DNA. That can be a bit frustrating at times, but when times are tough, a pocketful of stubborn can be a very good thing.