Right Opinion

Terry Teachout's Gallant Gal

Jeff Jacoby · Jul. 2, 2020

Like countless readers, I have long been a Terry Teachout fan. I’ve never met him in person; I know him only through his writing as the Wall Street Journal’s theater critic and Commentary magazine’s critic-at-large. (I have also read parts of his book on H.L. Mencken, one of several biographies he has written.) He is a truly gifted writer; his essays, whatever the subject, are invariably graceful, humane, thoughtful, and informed. I wish I could write so well so consistently.

In the June issue of Commentary, Teachout eulogizes his wife Hilary , who died on March 31 of complications from a double lung transplant. It is a beautiful essay, affecting in its description of the Teachouts’ profound love, suffused with Terry’s gratitude for having awakened to such an intense devotion in middle age “after having been unlucky in love for most of my life,” and filled with admiration for the partner with whom he was so happy, and without whom he now aches, his wounds, as he says, “open, red and raw.”

From the very start, illness cast a shadow over their life together:

When I met Hilary, my wife-to-be, we were of mature age — we both turned 50 three months later — and she was living under sentence of premature death. I found out within days of meeting her that she had only recently been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a rare, slow-developing disease of the lungs and heart, and that she could expect to live for no more than two or three years. This was all the more shocking because I had fallen in love with her at first sight — and she, I later learned, with me as well. As if that weren’t fraught enough, I was myself seriously ill at the time, though I didn’t realize it, having been too willful, as so many men are, to go to a doctor. Yet all that mattered to me was that after having been unlucky in love for most of my life, I had met, purely by chance, a woman with whom I found myself to be suddenly and overwhelmingly in love, but whom I could not hope to have in my life for more than an agonizingly brief time.

I assume there are men who would approach such a dilemma by running the romantic equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis. I am not one of them. I knew at once that if I could get Hilary to go out with me, I would then do everything in my power to persuade her to marry me, no matter how long she had left. That was what happened, albeit after a certain amount of intervening slapstick. My own as-yet-undiscovered illness landed me in the hospital a month after our first meeting and three days before what was to have been our first date. Instead of going to see Waiting for Godot with me — a too-good-to-be-true detail I would never have dared to make up — she visited me in my hospital room, bringing a fat deli sandwich for me to eat in place of the hospital food she loathed. Two nights after that, a nurse came into the room and caught us kissing ardently, unfazed by the oxygen cannula in my nose.

He recovered but her sickness was incurable, and they married knowing that they might have only a very few years together. In the end, they were blessed with 15 years — a short marriage for a happy couple, but enough time for Teachout to figure out what it was about his wife that so captivated and uplifted him.

I knew myself to be in the presence of a woman who was smart, funny, generous, and, I soon discovered, gallant. Her devastating illness frightened her — she eventually admitted to me that she had at one point considered suicide — but it did not stop her from finding joy in the moment. As newly developed palliative measures slowed the inexorable course of the disease, she leaped headfirst into every fresh experience I offered her, some of them imprudent to the point of lunacy (we actually went on an overnight windjammer cruise in Maine one summer weekend, even though she could no longer swim) but all made wondrous by her enthusiasm. Unable to work, she traveled throughout the country with me to the regional-theater productions that I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, refusing to let her fragility stop her from living as intensely as she could.

Like many (most?) happily married couples, the Teachouts were entirely “capable of exasperating each other almost without limit.” Both of them, he writes, were stubborn and set in their ways, and she had a “sharp and clever tongue and unhesitatingly used it to prick my pomposities.” But quarrels never detracted from love, and the Teachouts never lacked for shared interests — old movies, music, the art they collected.

And — above all — we talked. In the end, a happy marriage is more talk than anything else, and Hilary and I never ran out of things to talk about. Her joint pain forced her to take daily doses of opiates, but her mind stayed agile and unpredictable, and I never spoke with her, no matter how brief the conversation, without smiling at her wit.

Some people are blessed with great good fortune and are too dense or foolish to appreciate what they have. Others suffer great pain, whether physical or emotional, and in its shadow lose sight of the blessings they were formerly graced with. No one can say those things about Terry Teachout, whose loss is great, but whose thankfulness for what he had seems even greater.

It is a mystery to me how people carry on after the death of a beloved spouse, though I know they do so. I suppose it is a mystery to everyone — until it happens, and they force themselves, as they must, to figure it out. On the night Hilary died, Teachout wrote a few lines on his blog, quoting the French philosopher Raymond Aron: “There is no apprenticeship to misfortune. When it strikes us, we still have everything to learn.” In his Commentary article, he writes:

Now I am alone again, far more so than when Hilary and I first met. Her final illness coincided with the arrival in New York of the coronavirus pandemic, and when I went back to our apartment after she died, I returned to a lockdown that has yet to be lifted as I write these words. I have not touched a human being since I kissed Hilary for the last time.

“I will turn their sorrow into joy, and will comfort them,” said the prophet Jeremiah. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. May it be so for Terry Teachout and for all who must, after years of happiness, face life without their cherished soulmate. And may the memory of those they have lost be a bright and unwavering blessing to all who knew them.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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