I’ve not focused much on being a widow over the time that I have been writing; yet, that is really the entire back-story of this blog, documenting my life after widowhood – the thoughts, struggles, effects and the imprint that difficult things leave upon a person. I’ve never told here the story of how I became a widow, or the fact of how being a widow colors nearly everything that happens after that defining moment in time, when everything you ever thought of, dreamed of and lived takes a huge tilt, like suddenly awakening at a 45 degree angle and struggling not to be ill from vertigo and learning to adapt your vision on the world from this new perspective suddenly thrust upon you that is outside of your control. Today would be our anniversary, if my late husband were still alive. In a kind of cruel irony, it is also the last day that the first person I allowed into my heart after widowhood stopped communicating with me. Endings come, often totally unexpected. You live. Sometimes you live well, sometimes you just really still have your heart pumping and your limbs moving in a kind of automatic way. This is a window though, into one person’s experience of sudden death – of life interruptus. I have never before put these words down, articulated them in their fullness. Bits and pieces of them have made it out, sometimes verbally, other times in written communications with others. If it helps even one person in the aftermath of grief, I will have done something valid for someone else. And if it gives anyone insight to enable them to help another experiencing grief, then that too, will be valid.
That Friday began like most days at that time, with me wrapping up a twelve-hour night shift at 8 a.m as my husband came out of the shower to begin his day. But this day is special, as I am flying down to Florida to be the labor coach for my daughter as she brings forth the very first grandchild into the family. I am worn out, knowing I can only grab a few hours sleep before having to get up and get dressed for the trip to the airport, make sure I have everything for both work and becoming a grandmother, and lists are everywhere. At the time, my husband and I both work remotely for different IT companies from our home. He worked days, I work nights. I wrap up my shift, and over the next hour I unplugged the gazillion cords, the mouse, other work-related hardware, notebooks and folders and put it all together beside my suitcase laying open on the living room floor and head in to sleep for a bit. Hubby smiles at me uneasily from behind his computer where he is already at work. He always fears me flying, and he doesn’t like the times when we are apart. We are also having some real difficulties in our marriage, related to his alcoholism and he voices his fears about whether I am actually coming back. I am. I just didn’t know how long my daughter will need me, so I did not book a return flight, opting to drive back via rental car after she was settled in with the baby. After a few hours of sleep, I jump up, shower and get ready for the trip to Nashville and the airport. When I awaken, all needed laundry is done and neatly stacked by my suitcase by my husband. We worked well like that, balancing each other out, knowing what the other would need.
We are in the process of house shopping at the time, and during the drive the Realtor called to tell me an offer made was countered, and I have to make the decision not to counter back while standing outside the car at Checker’s where we grab a quick and unusual fast-food bite ahead of the flight. During my check-in, my husband finds a newsstand and purchases the local paper. As we sit and wait for my time to go engage in the lovely TSA process, he separates the Real Estate section and hands it to me with a smile, knowing the recent phone call will prompt yet more hours poring over small homesteads for sale. He keeps the Comics, and reads “The Far Side” to me. I hold his hand and thank him for everything he did to make today’s send-off successful and relatively stress free, especially tackling the laundry. That he balances his fears with his love of me makes a big imprint on me and I do not want it to go unacknowledged. It is one time I am glad that I speak my emotions, and in a small side story, I’ll tell you why.
When I was very young I worked with an older lady accountant. Anna was so smart, funny with a wry, dry wit, but always tinged with a melancholy I did not understand, although I could see it. One day on a break, she related that she was a widow. Her husband was a UPS driver, and they were fighting before he left for work one day. Their last words were angry, hurting and loud. He died that same day in an automobile wreck. Years after his death, tears welled up in her eyes as she explained that she never got to tell him that she loved him and that the guilt of their last words rings continually in her ears. That made a huge impression on me even then, as a rather scattered, single, free-wheeling young woman. Our words often may not be able to be undone, smoothed over, forgiveness sought. I had never loved anyone at that time, so I did not really understand it. But I remember it.
That’s not to say those words are on my mind this day because they are not. What is on my mind this day is the effort put forth by my husband. A small, but very thoughtful gesture. Love echoes in a hundred thousand small gestures that unfold over the days and years. Sure, some people make the news by their one hugely visible loving and grand gesture. But most relationships are made up of the quiet, unseen, often unacknowledged acts that make up the foundation of actively loving another person. These are the things that should be shouted from the rooftops, given the weight that they truly have. Most often they are not, and sometimes even the recipient doesn’t always value these small things. This day, for at least once that I know of, I did. In doing so, my mind does not bear the grief that I witnessed in Anna. It is one less burden to bear in an already overwhelming crush of feelings that follow the death of someone you love. We hugged, the tightest hug I can ever remember receiving, and he told me “I love you so much.” Believe me when I tell you that when someone is there, and then they are not, you revisit those last moments again, and again and again, aiming to set in concrete the last moments you look into someones face, the feel of their arms around you, the particular crookedness of their smile, the warmth in their eyes, the timbre and tone of their voice. They are the emotional shroud that you bury that person in.
I board the plane and settle in for the quick flight where my oldest daughter is to pick me up. I call my husband when I land to let him know I am safely out of the air, and our conversation is quick, hurried, as I am in the luggage carousel line. I hear windedness in his voice and assume he ran for the cell phone. Being the usual disorganized person I am when out of my element, I drop the phone while grabbing my suitcase and we end the call quickly, agreeing to catch up later. That never happens though. My daughter is excitedly talking about college, we stop to see some friends of hers that want to see her while she is in town with me, and then head to my Mom’s where I am spending the first night. During the transit to there, I have a strong urge to call my husband, hearing him say my voice in my head, but the windows are down, we’re driving 70 miles an hour, and my daughter is chattering away. I don’t call. After unloading what I need for the overnight stay, my mother and her husband have a lot of catch up talking to do, and again, I put off calling home rather absently, caught up in the reuniting with my family that I’ve not seen in a few years. I fall sleepily into bed that night and think nothing of the fact I did not call, or receive a call. What’s one night? The next morning I call home and get no answer. He’s not an early riser like me, and so I figure the cell phone is on the charger and out of hearing range for a heavily sleeping, possibly intoxicated person. I try again in a few hours, and again no answer. I am irritated. I am annoyed. I express these things to my two best friends that I catch up with, let know I am safe, and still have no worries. If you have never experienced living with an alcoholic, you may not understand why I am not alarmed, not thinking that something is awry, not more…concerned. Many times when alone, alcoholics will go on a bender, unfettered by that person who sometimes tries to stand in the gap between their first love, alcohol, and the relationship. It’s a free time to indulge past the point they normally would. It’s usually followed by shame, or a hangover, or both. Either one will sometimes cause them to sleep the day away in recovery, or to avoid the one that shares the knowledge of their behavior. Yet concern for his physical well-being in any manner of safety never crosses my mind. I catch up with my pregnant daughter, get the address of the hospital, make arrangements for meeting with her the following Tuesday and leave my Mom’s for my oldest daughter’s house. Shabbat has come and gone, and my husband and I have not spoken, and still, I do not worry. I sleep a lot on Sunday, knowing that I have to work my regular overnight shift before having a couple of days off for the birth. I call intermittently, both the house phone, and the cell, when I am back up. Still no answer. I figure he’s mowing, or out with the dogs, or worse, still drinking his free time away. Never once does it cross my mind, not ONCE, that he could be dead. Forty-year old men just don’t die, you know? He doesn’t normally go out driving, so an accident doesn’t cross my mind. He’s never been suicidal, so that doesn’t bubble up either. I just figure our timing is off, or he is, well, drunk. The regular chores of life have to be tended to, and it is time to work. During the middle of my shift, around three a.m., I call both phones again. Still no answer. Finally, I am concerned. Did he fall perhaps? Why isn’t he answering the damn phone? And here is another thing you may not know if you’ve not shared life with an alcoholic. Getting other people involved in an alcoholic’s life, and yours, is always a gamble. You don’t wish to embarrass your partner. You don’t want to shame them, or by association, yourself. You have no idea what the other party will find if you bring them into the mix. This is called co-dependency, and it is wrong thinking. It is however, quite common in such pairings. One will be the alcoholic, and the other will be the gatekeeper, the insurer that all things are taken care of. My husband was a fully-functioning alcoholic. He worked and did a fantastic job at his employment. In all of our years together, my children never, ever saw him drunk. No one, other than family and a very close friend or two, knew. Even I did not know the extent of his drinking until our last year together, when we worked and lived side-by-side nearly 24/7. Calling our landlord to ask them to check on him filled me with trepidation. What would they find? Would he be angry? Would I embarrass him by having someone look in on him? Again, no thought that he could be dead. But I finally made that call, round about asking if the truck was in the drive, were the dogs okay, and finally admitting I’d not been able to reach him for a few days. My landlord, not stuck in a co-dependent frame of mind, immediately called the Sheriff for a wellness check. I in the interim, completed my shift, showered, and went to bed. I was awakened by a phone call from our local Sheriff department within the first hour of deep sleep.
This conversation is a little sketchy in my head, both from being asleep, and from the shock. I remember being asked for identifying scars or marks, any jewelry that he wears, what my husband was wearing when I last saw him. They ask me if he does drugs. It doesn’t sink in. Why are they asking these questions? I do remember, upon being told that my husband is dead, asking the officer if he is sure that he is not just sleeping really hard. It is an inane question. It simply does not compute in my mind, that word D-E-A-D. They need me to come home and identify the body, but I tell them I have no flight and have to be at the hospital to labor coach my daughter in a few hours. I find a notebook and write down where they are taking the body. And then I go numb, listening to information and responding perfunctorily. The officer asks if I am alone, and I say yes. He asks where I am, and I cannot tell him because I do not know the address. He asks if I have anyone that I can call, and I tell him yes, but cannot remember my daughter or my mother’s phone numbers. He suggests I call someone, and hangs up the phone. I am alone, alone with this monstrous knowledge.
I never understood the term ‘keening’, until I go through it. The mental and physical crush of grief. My entire body shakes like I am afflicted with the St. Vitus dance. I cannot even hold the phone any longer and remember laying down on the floor and just shrieking. It is like you leave your body and you see what is happening, at the same time it is happening. And somewhere, somehow, the rational mind kicks in. I have to call someone. Unluckily for her, it is my oldest daughter that I call, as I know that she knows where I am. I can’t direct anyone else to the place, as I am not familiar with it. That makes me panicky, that I do not know where I am. Nothing, not anything, is in its correct place. I am not at home. My husband is not at the house. I can barely hold the phone still to punch the little picture by my daughter’s number. I cannot remember what I said to her, but I remember the sound of her voice, the incredulity echoing my own. She is en route to class and turns around to come back to me. And there, everything gets blurry for a while. I don’t know who calls whom, but I think my daughter calls my mom, my best friends and my job. I am numb. I cannot think. I feel like I am babbling and incoherent both internally and externally. I know my daughter arrives and takes me to my Mom’s house. And then I realize that I am the one that has to call my husband’s family.
I can craft words on paper sometimes with impact, or with care, with a gentle touch. I can sometimes offer succor and advice to others verbally and provide the comfort that they need. But I have no preparation for telling a mother that another one of her sons is dead. And my mind isn’t working on all cylinders. The Sheriff’s office never calls back to see if I am okay or not. They have delivered their information and dealt with the dead. Now that burden, that responsibility has shifted to me. In addition to having to spread this ghastly news, there is no visible cause of death, and no one was present to know what happened. We will have to wait for an autopsy, required because the death occurred with no witnesses.
I would like to tell you that my family provide a soft landing place for me. But they do not. The actual words spoken by my mother are a slash at an already gushing wound. I realize now that they too, are ill-equipped to deal with this large abyss that is open in front of them, and that they, also, have nothing in their emotional arsenal to draw from. It isn’t anything you can practice for in advance, or even think that you should ponder it, to prepare for it. At the time though, the emptiness only deepened, and the feeling of aloneness nearly smothered me. Tasks, they give the illusion of control. So I turn to the tasks. I make the call to his mother. That relationship is not a good one to begin with. She does not answer her phone. Neither do either of her two daughters. I turn to the local police department to help me to locate her, and for the first time I have to tell a stranger what is going on. They quickly tell me they do not deliver the news of death, but will locate his mother and tell her to call me. The waiting begins for a phone call I am loathe to take. When the call finally comes, I am blamed. It is a response from pain, from loss, from anger which has no place to land. Yet again, the wound is deepened. It takes me a long time to recover from the concrete blocks piled on me from his death. The sense of isolation is huge – like a wall has formed between me and everyone that I know, for I am the first person to experience the death of a spouse, the death of someone so young.
I am due at the hospital, and I swear my oldest daughter to secrecy. This is a birth, death cannot overshadow it. It is a tough enough time for a first-time mother, I will not have her burdened with such an awful thing while bringing life into the world. Time enough for that later, afterwards. And we gather, me, and my three daughters, in a birthing room, with me trying to act like everything is normal. I cannot imagine what face was plastered over the top of my real pain and emptiness. I do not know where I drew from the lie that I could do this, and it not show. But I tried. The labor was lengthy, and we each took turns sleeping on the little fold-out hospital chaise. I took scads of phone calls, from the morgue, from the police, from the funeral home, always stepping outside and into the fresh air to breathe my way through the details, handle macabre things, and to re-arrange the mask I am wearing in front of my child. At some point in the overnight hours, a nurse asks if I am okay, and I realize that the strain is visible to a stranger. I never think how much more palpable it must be to those I’ve nurtured from birth, still fooling myself that I am sparing my children. I allow a small amount of the grief out in front of this perfect stranger, and she hugs me. It is a thing that I needed so badly at that moment, that I will never forget it. I find a bathroom, splash water on my face, give thanks that it is dark and my laboring child is sleeping, so that I can gather myself up from the scattered pieces and return to focus on her. Her labor is entering the final stage just a little later, and I have no time to think of me, of this new thing that is my life. Instead, I am encouraging her, massaging her back, and helping her to overcome the pain. She does incredibly well for such a young and unprepared mother. Five pushes and my grandson is here. The staff, knowing the tender balance beam I am walking, allows me to hold him while still attached to her, and to cut the cord. I am the first to touch him and he is lively and healthy. I cry, in joy and in grief, knowing that this grandchild that my husband wanted to be a part of life with, will never know him, probably not even much of him.
To say that my experience of becoming a widow and a grandmother within the space of about thirty-six hours is surreal, is an understatement. To deal with the ending of life, and the beginning of life, can be no greater juxtaposition. It teaches me that strength is something you have so much of that you only know it when you have to draw from it. It’s not apparent at any other time, really. But when one needs it, it lies somewhere between your heart and your guts, at the base of your spine perhaps – a reservoir that maybe you will never need; indeed, I hope very few need this kind of strength. I will assure you though, that it is there if you only draw from it.
So today, on my would-be anniversary, I am thinking of life, not death. Since that time, I have welcomed three more grandsons into the world, although none so intimately as my first. The girls drew that circle closer as they matured, sharing it with their partners, as it should be.
There are people who only know me since widowhood, who find my impossibly positive outlook on life somewhat annoying, and grouse that no one is of such a mindset naturally. They find my hunger for experience and depth a bit overwhelming and wonder why I do not immerse myself in television, or films, or shopping at the mall, but rather spend my time with a camera, writing, reading good books, and a few close friends. They think I am silly when I stop to point out a flower blooming in the middle of a parking lot, or that I can stare at a stream and have a smile split my face. I have lived the lesson that we do not know how much time we have. We do not know when will be the last thing we say to someone. We do not know the last hug. So yes, I live intensely, because my own time stamp I do not know. I gather up joy and beauty with gusto, because I want to savor it, to see it. I am often impetuous and rash, making quick decisions, because I wish to grab an opportunity before it passes me by. Sometimes I am like a tsunami, with words tumbling out in a rush, drowning the listener. Other times, I am a quiet, burbling brook, offering running commentary in the background. But what I try never to be is false – in friendship, in relationships, in loving. The memory of me is all that people will ever have when I am gone. What do I want to be remembered for? Negativity? Judgmentalism? Intolerance? Anger? Self-pity? Heavens no! Since I do not believe in an afterlife, this is it. I want to be remembered for being authentic and real. Humble. Often fearful. Strong. True. Having depth. Honest. Loving. Open.
If you are a new widow, I will tell you that it gets easier as time passes. If you are a widow of someone with an addiction, please feel free to contact me privately and I will put you in touch with an amazing place that assists those of us who go through conflicted grief. If you are currently in a relationship with someone with an addiction, please get support and strength for you. If you are near to someone experiencing grief, please know that touch, not words, that acts, not platitudes, do so much more than you know. And sometimes, just sitting in silence and letting us vomit up all of the cornucopia of emotions that our hearts run the gamut of, is the best, most supportive thing that you can do. To the two women who were my absolute backbone through the first year of my widowhood, the words ‘thank you’ seem impossibly small to capture what you did for me. But thank you.
So when I sign off and tell you to be yourself, to be content, to look for satisfaction, to seek beauty, those are not platitudes. Those are lessons hard won in my own life that I want to shake everyone with, to make you think, to have you not take today for granted, to not take important people for granted, to not take the words you speak for granted.
You, nor I, are guaranteed a tomorrow, so make today a good one. It is your choice, even when confronted with things beyond your control, you control your reaction.
And I leave you with a piece of music that just has my ear for the last week. It is aptly titled ‘The Drift’ by Blackmill. It is a reflection of my own feelings in the first year of widowhood some near five years ago. It takes a while to find your moorings again. Be patient with yourself, it will come.
Be well. Live authentically. Love hard. Choose life.