A YEAR OF GOODBYES
~ Chapter 1 ~
Where It All Began
I married my husband in September of 1980. It was two days after my twenty-sixth birthday. It would be Herb’s second time around and I was about to become the step-mother to his three half-grown children. Although we met and married in New Jersey, my husband’s roots were in Westerly, Rhode Island. His entire family drove in for the wedding, minus Herb’s mother who was ill at the time. “Margaret” died of cancer within a month after we married; my would-be father-in-law had met with the same fate only the year before.
During our engagement I didn’t see the grief that my husband’s mother must have been feeling. Her marriage was longer by far than mine would turn out to be. As a new widow she was ever the stoic. She didn’t pass on any insights or lessons, no heart-on the sleeve messages. She only offered her welcoming nature and sweet disposition whenever Herb and I would come to stay. Most times there was a pan of bread pudding sitting toward the back of her stove. “What a horrible concoction,” I remember thinking at the time. “Must be something they eat here in New England…”
Rhode Island, it turns out, proved to be a worthy place to sort through my own eventual grief, even though I could never have envisioned it back in those early days. Westerly in 1980 was a place caught in time. White picket fences and a small row of shops made the perfect backdrop for our quiet weekends. The ocean air and starry nights could make anyone forget their worries in the space of a sigh. There was a movie theater on Granite Street and the town’s first fast-food place opened nearby around that same time. We visited Westerly often through the years, bringing one or more of Herb’s children with us, and in a moment we’d had two more young ones of our own.
It took a long time for me to “get” my husband and his New England upbringing. Some of who he was would have been part of him no matter where he grew up, but other parts of him were firmly rooted in his Rhode Island home. The first thing he ever asked me was whether or not I liked lobster. “Who is this fatherly guy who’s hitting on me?” I thought. (Herb was a full seventeen years my senior.) “Thanks, but no thanks,” would be my reply.
I had seen him plenty of times after that at our local ski club meetings, but never really spent any time getting to know him. In 1977 the ski club elected Herb to the board as ski vice president. Part of his duties involved organizing weekend carpools to the club’s lodge in Londonderry, Vermont and car-pooling was the most popular way to travel among the members. I had a car, but knew I could never make the long trek alone over unfamiliar roads. Getting from New Jersey to Vermont on those sleepy Friday nights in the middle of winter was daunting even in groups, so I approached this Herb Smith who was in charge of organizing rides. We had joked earlier that night at the club’s Valentine’s Day western-themed party. “You’re not wearing anything red tonight,” I chided him. In an instant he pulled out the waistband of his boxer shorts and they were decorated all over with crazy red hearts and cartoon lions.
“Okay, you win,” I told him as I blushed profusely.
So there I was about an hour later giving this person my name and phone number so that I could get a ride to Vermont. “I’ll call you by Thursday,” he promised. I think he knew that I would be his passenger from the minute I asked for a ride. My phone number went nowhere except straight into his pocket. Years later I found that same scrap of paper in his wallet. He had written on it, “Slim blonde - needs ride.”
By Friday night of that same week Herb had managed to line up another female passenger to come along for the ride. He drove the whole way while “Cathy” and I did our best to keep our driver alert with idle chatter. As the three of us became friends, Cathy and I roomed together and we all had a perfect weekend of skiing and eating, skiing and drinking, and skiing and laughing in front of the fire. Herb and I took more than a few trails together, riding the chairlifts and talking about everything and nothing.
Arriving back in New Jersey that Sunday, he kissed me as we said goodbye. Cathy had just driven off and I thought, “This guy is really sweet and smart – and he likes me!” That is where it all began.
Between the time we were married and the birth of our first son, we stayed very active in the ski club. As time passed I was elected treasurer and later president. Herb became a board delegate-at-large and ceased to sit at the dais during meetings. We enjoyed many more weekends of skiing and camaraderie but running an organization with over 200 members was often hard work. There came a time when the club entertained the notion of buying a ski lodge rather than renting one and it seemed as if there were as many opinions in the matter as there were members. One winter’s night a motion was passed that all the members be informed in writing of the business at hand before any final vote was taken. So the secretary and I sent out postcards to every ski club member on the roster.
Two weeks later, the big meeting was upon us. Instead of the usual sixty attendees, there were over one hundred and fifty. Bodies lined the rear wall and the room buzzed with anticipation. As I grasped my gavel I laid down the rules for the open discussion. No one was to speak without being called upon and comments made out of order would not be tolerated. One after the other the members offered their opinions. At some point my husband stood up without being called upon and began to speak. He did this just as I was about to recognize another member who would offer their remarks. “I don’t recognize YOU!” I shouted to my husband in reprimand.
“I slept with you last night!” he replied.
As the room fell apart, I sat down and laughed with the crowd, totally lifted out of my stiff presidential demeanor. I don’t remember much else of that evening, only that this moment was to be the first of many like it, and a lifetime of precious moments between us.
~ Chapter Two ~
A New Year
The History Channel was playing softly from a TV near the ceiling. I was sitting at my husband’s hospital bedside reading stories out loud from the newspaper. We were both quite comfortable despite the fact that my husband was hooked up to various pieces of equipment and intravenous everything. His speech was quite nasal due to a stomach tube that ran through his nose. The only thing Herb really wanted was a vanilla shake, which, sadly was out of the question.
The sun was hanging low in the sky. Bright streaming rays of light poked through the frosty January clouds and lit up the hospital room where we contentedly sat. It was New Year’s Day.
Around 4:30 I decided to gather up my things and leave to make the roast I had promised our two sons. I gave Herb a kiss and told him to be nice to the nurses. Little did I know that this would be the last conversation we would ever have.
Herb had gone to the hospital for a complete knee replacement four months earlier. At that time he had been suffering from some intestinal bacteria since the month before, and it never really left his system. His kidneys had failed the previous February, but Herb’s dialysis treatments at the local clinic allowed for a normal life in most respects. What none of us realized is that kidney patients do not fight infection the way the same as everyone else, and they are vulnerable to bacterial attacks of the gastrointestinal system.
My husband was hale and hearty man, and had a quirky, silly sense of humor. There were seventeen years in age between us, but he was the younger at heart. No one saw a man who would die soon, even though he was very ill. Herb had been so resilient through all of his illnesses that we just assumed we would get him well and bring him home eventually.
On January 2nd Herb’s doctor called me at work. Herb needed to be put on a ventilator and sedated. The lungs had filled with fluid and had to be drained. We had been through this routine several times in the last several months with good results, but it was never an easy thing to anticipate. By this time I was used to my one-way conversations with my husband. Herb’s sister Una and many of his other bothers and sisters were frequent visitors to the intensive care unit were Herb spent most of his days. His brother Dick brought a rosary and we kept it on the bedrail all the time. Hope was very much alive.
The days plodded on and some fevers erupted. Herb’s bowel situation was difficult. Multiple infections were taking over. When the first week of January had ended, another mid-morning call from our doctor took me away from my work. I heard the words that no one wants to hear. “There is no more hope,” the doctor said. Shaken, I gathered myself up and quietly cleaned off my desk. Fighting tears I needed to tell my boss that I wouldn’t be in for the rest of the day, nor the day after that, or the day after that…
To say that the next five days were difficult would be an understatement. I called the lawyer, called our families and bought black clothes. We were allowed to use a hospice room on the last day which provided a few small comforts. I worked on my husband’s obituary at a hospital computer and kept the bedside vigil with Una all day and all night. By early evening Herb’s daughter Jil and his sister Susan stayed for a while. They were there when the nurses took away the oxygen. The inevitable chest rattle erupted and continued into the night. Exhausted from her flight from Seattle, Jil said goodbye for the last time and Susan took Jil home with her.
Una and I pulled out the sofa-bed in the hospice room into a bed and we lay down in our clothes. Dozing, I kept checking every half hour or so. Una stayed awake. Somehow I knew I would miss the final moment. It seems as though dying people have the need to slip away when we’re not looking. And so my husband waited until I couldn’t fight sleep any longer. As I opened my eyes around 2:30 AM a nurse was standing in the doorway talking to Una. “It’s over,” she said, and they both left the room. I sat at the foot of our pull-out bed which was like a bench at the side of Herb’s bed. I slowly gathered my husband to me, my arm around his side and my head on his chest. It was as if I really needed to hear the silence of a heart that wouldn’t beat again. I gave him one last hug and whispered one final “I love you.”
~ Chapter Three~
When a loved one dies you numbly go about the business of setting up the funeral, arranging a repast and getting your funeral clothes together. The constant activity keeps you from crumbling somehow. In large families the sheer numbers of people can keep you focused.
At home, plants were arriving hourly. Our sons Rob and Adam were on door duty while I tried to find room for everything. Rob, the older of the two, was twenty-six; Adam, just fifteen. Simple things like cooking dinner were nearly impossible to do, and Rob would hold me while I cried in front of the stove. “I hate everyone and everything right now,” I would say.
Adam, for the most part, sat in stunned silence. This was all too much to take in at once, no doubt. What was happening to his world?
The funeral was beautiful, busy and big. Flowers and memorabilia were everywhere, and somehow we endured the day. When the viewing was over and only his closest family was left, I wept to know that we would never see him again. His son Todd gave me his shoulder to cry on and all the while I just sobbed and sobbed. Looking back, it was a good thing the others had gone.
At the church the limos waited. The day was sunny but well below freezing. As we pulled away at the end of the services, I watched the hearse with my husband’s flag-draped casket turn out to the left while our car turned to the right. “’Bye, Herbie,” I whispered. There would be no burial on this sub-freezing day. There in the driveway of my husband’s boyhood church, we literally parted ways. His body was being driven off in one direction and the rest of went the opposite way as we headed for our meal.
The funeral repast was crowded but the tone was warm and friendly. Herb’s sons from New Jersey said goodbye to their extended family about six times. It was the kind of day that was hard to say goodbye to. It was a day when it was better to not be alone.
As the gathering dwindled down, I knew I would have to leave soon too. Driving back home was like driving into a new life. The reality of widowhood began to settle in as I turned the corner to our street, and knew that I would be on my own from then on. Our family circle had just gotten smaller, and I was petrified and detesting every minute of it.
~ Chapter Four ~
The End of the Beginning
I sometimes wished someone would tell me how much grief is enough. You can pick up a memento from the shelf and all of a sudden life just gets sad. In a heartbeat you are back in time to another place that you both enjoyed. At what point are we comforted by these memories?
No one can prepare you for the stark reality of widowhood. It is something like getting off a boat in a foreign land, or being dropped off on a cold planet with no way home. Nothing is familiar except for the ubiquitous ache of grief.
In the days that followed the funeral I cleaned out our closet and packed up my husband’s many books. I cleaned out the kitchen cabinets where he kept all of his weird and off-beat food. I was sure that the rest of us would ever eat it. None of these things really bothered me, but as I climbed down from the kitchen chair with the last jar of wheat grass for the garbage, I turned and caught sight of a small bag of nails in the corner under our kitchen window. It was as if Herb would be coming right back to use them any time now; as if he had just gone to the store for a moment. Cleaning out the closets was easy, but those nails…
Reclaiming all of my spaces was a mixed blessing, I suppose. Of course, you get to have all of your things the way you want them, but there are still all of those little things that gnaw at your mind. Getting into bed is one of them.
All through Herb’s illness I slept on “my” side of the bed. To get there I went around to the far side, and continued this ritual every night. Call it habit or hope, but that’s just what I had been doing, even after I knew I didn’t have to. A day or so after the funeral I knew I had to admit that the bed was all mine, and that I could get into it any way I wanted to. Breaking my old habit was hard. I stood in the bedroom doorway and stared at the bed for a long time. I forced myself to climb in from the near side. Getting into bed the “new” way was an admission that my married life was over. It would be the first of many things that had to change.
~ ~ ~
The air was cold, even for January. I bundled up and went downtown to see our lawyer. Nothing really important there. Some papers to sign, a discussion about probate. My husband left me two pieces of land, $834 in our checking account, two mortgages, and thirteen credit cards with balances totaling over $150,000.
After signing some papers I made my way across the street to the jewelry store. My wedding and engagement rings needed to come off. After 28 years of marriage and 40 extra pounds, these rings would have to be removed by extraordinary means. I made small talk with the jeweler while he “operated” on my hand. The nice lady behind the counter said she was sorry when she heard I had been widowed. All the time I was straining not to cry.
Taking your rings off is a hard kind of letting go. When you do it, it means it’s really over. You are not married any more. In some traditions custom dictates that the widow remove her wedding ring at her husband’s wake. This simple act for me was an event, a milestone, and a transition. It was a true rite of passage and a tough one, at that.
The wedding band was eventually repaired and resized, and I wore it for a time on my other hand. There was a groove on my left hand for several months where the wedding ring used to be after having removed it. I supposed at the time that it would fade away, and like my grief, it slowly did. I sent the diamond engagement ring to Seattle for Herb’s daughter to keep.
~ ~ ~
In February we buried my husband’s ashes. I had promised our families that we would wait until spring, but I needed to be done with this protracted funeral. Herb’s birthday was coming up and I was feeling like another whole year would have passed without being finished with his dying.
The day of the burial was cold and the ground was snow-covered. Father Tom, a family friend from Enders Island, was ready to deliver the short service. Two bagpipers with very cold knees played at a small distance. (These were well-appreciated by Herb’s two older sons who were “on the job” in New Jersey since the time they were barely of age.) Herb’s older brother Bob carved a beautiful box for the “cremains” and it fit nicely into the small opening that the cemetery had dug. A grave blanket made of orchids and palm leaves sat next to the pit. A tall copper vase of fresh carnations stood at the foot of the grave.
Once everyone had arrived Father Tom said some short prayers and blessed us all at the end. The bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.” No one got sprinkled with any holy water because it had frozen overnight in Father Tom’s car. We accepted the purely spiritual blessing that was offered, and I gave the folded flag to Dean, Herb’s oldest son. It was my hope that someday he would give it to Devin, our oldest grandchild so that Devin might never forget his “Grandpa Herb.” I took a carnation and placed it in the open grave. Everyone else followed. There were hugs all around, and one by one we took our leave.
In a while we were all gathered at Guytano’s Restaurant, a favorite lunch spot of my husband’s and mine. There were thirteen of us at the table which my family always believed to be bad luck. I kept thinking about the last time that I had eaten with twelve other people. I was sixteen and it was Christmastime. My mother and my Grandmother set an extra place for Christmas dinner as they warned me of the old superstition. As the story goes, if you put thirteen at table, one of you will be dead within a year. So to defeat fate we set fourteen places. Naturally everyone asked who the empty place was for and my Grandmother, my mother, and I kept repeating that it was for “The wayfaring traveler who might need a meal,” or “It was for a stranger coming in from the cold,” etc. In the end, our ruse did not work. Old Mr. Sandmeyer was dead by spring. Granted, he was 88, but I had always thought that it was Christmas dinner that killed him.
At Guytano’s our waiter came over to the table and soon there was soup and calamari and burgers and sandwiches of every description. It was the best any of us had felt in a very long time. We relaxed and ate and all told old stories. We shared cakes and drank coffee but finally had to say goodbye. I couldn’t have known then that another one of our loved ones would be called home to heaven the following year.
After that I brought up the fact that we had thirteen people at Herb’s second repast. “Mom, you’re just being ridiculous,” my younger one would say. “Saying that someone is going to die just because you have thirteen people to dinner is absurd. That’s like saying someone is going to fart in the next half hour!”
He was right, of course. (Years later my catechism studies would show me just how wrong and dangerous superstition is for the soul.) The real message in having dinner with a large group is that we need to make the most of these kinds of meals, because you never know when or if you will ever get the chance to do it again. And that is true whether there are thirteen, fourteen, or twenty-four people gathered around your table. Cherish your moments. Give thanks. Be happy.
~ ~ ~
After the burial repast I headed back to my office by way of the cemetery. I had been back to work for about a week at that point and needed to finish my work-day. But first, I wanted to make sure that the grave had been closed and that everything had been put in its proper place. The orchids and palms looked beautiful in the snow. Alone, I cried and hoped that my husband could see how we had celebrated his life. I had wanted this goodbye to be beautiful and I think it was in a lot of ways. No amount of orchids or “I love you’s” can ever bring someone back once they’ve died, but these things were the right things at that time.
I’ve had to follow my grief to wherever it leads sometimes, to the point of “talking” to Herb while I continue to clean out his old stuff. He gets yelled at sometimes for hoarding so much junk. (And sometimes it’s as if he yells back, “That thing is still good!”) By the end of February our trash man had carted away at least one ton of junk. One dumpster and two pick-ups full of debris were only the beginning of the things I threw out. Cleaning is therapeutic when you lose someone. It forces you to look to the future and figure out how you will redo your life. This is your space now, and the rearranging must be done. For me, I won’t miss the clutter, but I will always miss my clutter-er.