Photos by Nathan Pace
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Photos by Nathan Pace
Light at the end of the tunnel
By Sherri Coner
Southsider Voice correspondent
On Dec. 20, 2008, Etheleen Coffman’s husband, Michael, was taken to surgery.
While waiting for her spouse of 35 years to go to recovery, the usual five-days-before-Christmas concerns floated around in her head. Things like whether the gifts were all wrapped and the grocery list was finished.
When she expected to hear that her husband would soon be moved to a room, doctors gently broke the news that Mike developed a blood clot and died in the operating room.
In shock, Coffman went home to the gifts, the tree and the grocery list she no longer found necessary. How could she ever again face a holiday dinner without looking up to smile at her husband, seated at the head of the table?
Quickly, this soft-spoken woman began to learn that sometimes, loneliness can be exhausting.
Without her husband and the life she loved so much, Coffman had no idea how to look ahead to the future.
“I would try to go out alone to eat,” she said. “But I would just sit there and bawl my eyes out. I just couldn’t do it.”
Though she struggled, Coffman mustered as much strength as she could muster, forced herself to drive from her Greenwood home to the florist she owned in Franklin and get busy with trying to create a new routine.
Daily she tried to find a new sense of normalcy in her empty home.
On the first anniversary of Mike’s death, family members gathered at his grave site with Chinese lanterns and balloons. This was a healing way to honor the man loved by so many.
In 2011, while Coffman innocently stood at the counter designing arrangements, a friend stopped in and asked the exact same question that Coffman heard more than a year earlier.
Would she be willing to meet a great guy who lost his spouse to breast cancer?
The first time, Coffman quickly refused. Her heart still wasn’t willing to do anything more than grieve.
However, the second time she was asked the same question, it caught her attention.
“I thought, ‘Well this might be a God thing,’ ” Coffman said. “I said yes, I would go out with him.”
After losing his first bride to breast cancer, Bill Harbert understood the love Coffman still felt for Mike. He understood all the other painful parts of being alone after the grandchildren are old enough not to visit much anymore.
They spoke openly about the loneliness attached to being alone in retirement.
After a five-year courtship, Coffman and Harbert began a new life chapter together.
“Bill is a good Christian man, and that means so much to me,” Coffman said happily. “He is just a jewel, just like Mike was.”
For the last three years Harbert has accompanied his new wife to the cemetery on Dec. 20.
Then they go home to their new life.
A couple of months ago the couple visited New York City. Coffman posted photos of herself with her husband resting on a park bench in Central Park and posing for a selfie with a “Today Show” host Hoda Kotb.
They also escape the Hoosier cold by enjoying the Florida sunshine.
“I’m not lonely anymore,” Coffman said. “I have someone to take care of me. And I do my best to be a good wife to Bill.”