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Detail from illustration by Genevieve Simms

We all know the life of a single mother is full of challenges and disappointments. As the self-employed mother of a lively six-year-old, I'd had enough. It was the endless winter of 1993 and I'd been fighting fatigue, bill collectors, my ex-husband and the clock - for years. I needed some goodness in my life.

Actually, I needed a miracle and I arrived at my home office late one afternoon after an especially tough day to find it: My high-school sweetheart had left a message on my voice mail wanting "to shoot the breeze," as he put it.

I felt a shock of delight.

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I had last bumped into Steve by chance some years earlier when both of us were married to our first spouses. The puppy love that had marked our year of high-school hand-holding (before my father made me break up with him) had become a distant memory. We had said hello, exchanged our news and gone on with our lives.

As time passed, we both started our families and ended our marriages. We were light years removed from the turbulence of high-school life. But thinking back to the romance of young love, and hoping the girl he had so ardently cared about might still be hiding in the woman I had become, Steve tracked down my phone number and gave me a call.

We set a date for dinner. The evening could not arrive soon enough and I was lighthearted and cheerful when he arrived with flowers and a shy smile.

We had the worst date ever.

The playful and unconventional high-school troublemaker I had fallen in love with at 15 had become stiff and starchy, highly educated and a little bit dull.

From Steve's perspective, I was no prize either. The high-achieving sprite he'd once known was now awash in struggle, submerged in doubt and caution.

But we agreed to go out again. And again. And one more time. I decided our next date would be our last.

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Steve arrived promptly and I walked resolutely out my front door to his waiting car. I was planning to develop a bad headache, then go home early to watch Little House on the Prairie reruns in my fuzzy slippers and sweat suit.

But fate had other plans.

We headed off to a noisy roadhouse restaurant for a last meal of beer, wings, nachos and endurance. Several hours went by before I realized I was supposed to be home on my couch with an imaginary migraine. Steve and I talked and joked, and even held hands for a brief moment. He kissed me on the cheek.

Many more wonderful times followed and eventually we married, uniting our three children in the artistic bond of a stepfamily. We created two more little lives together and bought a dog. Two dogs. We laughed and loved, dreamed and planned. There was struggle and persistence in our fairy-tale romance but we moved forward together. We often joked about how lucky we were that our "last date" had turned out so well.

After 14 dynamic years of life together, Steve was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. Treatment was pointless; he was given mere months to live. At first I sobbed uncontrollably. Then as the rigours of providing at-home care for a terminally ill spouse grew, there was no time for self-pity or reflection. His pain was unrelenting. We suffered and endured. Our children did not dare cry.

Days before Steve passed away, he was admitted into the compassionate kindness of a palliative-care centre. His pain was finally put to rest and we faced the end of his life and all that might come thereafter for each of us. The night before he fell into a coma, I boosted his frail body into a wheelchair and pushed him down the hall to the calm little dining room kept for the centre's residents and their families. Staff lit candles for our table and we held hands, allowing our grief to accompany the last meal I would ever attempt to eat at my husband's side.

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"I guess there really is a last date," Steve said.

I nodded my head and looked lovingly through endless tears at the perfect green eyes that had steadied me so often over the past 14 years. Although we'd passed thousands of hours in comfortable conversation, there was still so much I wanted to tell him, so much I wanted to explore at his side.

"Our last date was perfect," he said. I kissed him on the cheek.

The next day, he slipped into a coma and the day after that he slipped into whatever world waits beyond the veil of this life. He was a 49-year-old father of five children aged 7 to 20, and he had been sick for only three months. Oceans of grief pummelled my heart.

The experience of my husband's passing has given me surprising gifts, however. Although there is much to regret in the early death of someone who is loved, there is grace as well, and it peeks out occasionally between the tears and sorrow to give a hint of comfort. Throughout our journey together, Steve and I had the blessing of knowing we had come dangerously close to missing the chance to become partners in the astonishing adventure of life.

I'm awfully glad our first "last date" worked out. And I'm grateful that our last "last date" brought us full circle, to an end that was also a beginning, painful though it has been. There are no promises in life. But hidden among the thorns of unexpected misery, there are compensations. I think Steve would have liked that idea.

Susan Crossman lives in Oakville, Ont.

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