A YEAR OF GOODBYES
~ Chapter Five ~
Every Page is Blank
When you become a widow you are like a book whose every page is blank. You have no identity and no idea what the future holds. People would always ask me how I was doing. I knew somehow that I needed re-create myself, so I would tell them, “Well, you take your lemons and you make some lemonade,” or “I’ll just go on and write the pages of my book.” It was never the book you are holding that I was speaking of. It is the book of who you are and what you are yet to be.
As a widow, somewhere along the line you have to figure out your identity. You need to look at what remains of you without your husband. You need to go all the way back to the time before you ever met him and resurrect the person of who you were alone.
Even though you feel like nothing and nobody without him, there is a “you” that you must become. The next time you walk past a new construction site, try going up to the edge of the hole and look across to the other side. This huge pit is as big as the emptiness and devastation in your life. Somehow you must find a way to build your mountain of strength over this gaping wound.
Ask any clergyperson about death and they will likely tell you that God knows what he is doing. We are supposed to accept “His” will and not question why people die. Still, I keep asking myself if there wasn’t something more that the doctors might have done to save my husband. “Why couldn’t we have saved him?” is really my way of asking God, “Why couldn’t you have let him stay?”
If you believe in God you cannot question Him. The same goes for being mad at God. God is perfect, and He is never wrong. Who are we to disagree? The theory is simple, but the reality of grief is much more complex. Does missing your husband mean you are going against God? Is giving into grief the same as acting like a spoiled child? From an intellectual standpoint, it is easy to say that you shouldn’t argue with God. But it is this same God who created our human condition, who gave us hearts that ache when we lose someone we love. It is this same God who cares if we get better.
Some days I would tell myself I need to grow up and stop whining. “Stop being a baby,” I would tell myself. My husband would not want me to cry. Wherever he was I knew he would want me to be strong. I knew he wished he never had to die. I knew he missed me just as I missed him. But because we are human, getting over grief takes time. That big gaping hole in your heart takes time to heal. A new person will emerge when all is said and done.
But where do you start? Who is this new person you are attempting to build? Think of it as a renovation of sorts. No longer are you half of a twosome. You are a onesome. It will do you no good to keep living in the past. Couples seem to be much more fun when both of the people are alive. So the first thing you must learn to do is to start concentrating on the moment at hand. There is a time and a place for memories. Your day-to-day life cannot be consumed with who you were before.
So you are a book whose every page is blank. You must begin to write the pages of your story. You need to figure out who you were before you ever met your husband and create the “you” with a history of your own. Look around you at the family you still have. With any luck they will continue to be there for you if you let them. If you still have any of the people around you who knew you before you met your husband, look into their eyes and you may find the beginning of who you are. Gather up those old pieces of you from years ago and see what there is that is worthy material on which to build your new life.
Your husband and you built a life together. Now it is your turn to build a life alone. Starting over seems immense, impossible, and unimaginable, but if you are to have a life worth living, it must be done. Starting today, pick your head up and take stock of what must be done. You have a project that you must begin. Do not be afraid. Have courage and start.
~ Chapter Six ~
Death Just Is
By March of 2009 I decided that we all needed to take a break and get some sun. I took our sons Rob and Adam along with Herb’s sister Una and her husband to Florida for three days. It was Una’s birthday and I owed her a debt of gratitude for all the days and nights she stayed by our sides. She kept the vigil on the days when I worked; she wiped her brother’s brow and would put lotion on his feet. She sponged water on his lips and held him by the hand. In the end, no amount of love could have saved him, even though we thought it could.
In Rhode Island the March days were still dark and cold and rainy most of the time. I thought a change in scenery would help us to let go of our grief. The trip accomplished that somewhat and we started to re-knit our family circle with just the three of us in it. The first thing I learned is that I had no one to dote on and “baby” any more. Herb enjoyed my fawning, but I made the mistake of trying to do that to Rob. I had the need to spoil someone the way I did Herb, and Rob was my closest target. Unlike his father though, Rob was not about to be told to wear sunscreen or put on a hat or anything else I thought he should do. I had to face the stark reality that that part of my life over.
And so we ate and played and all tried to figure out whom we would become without Herb. The answer would remain out of reach for a long time.
Back at home I decided to start volunteering at the many functions sponsored by the company I work for. The bank for which I work has always been a partner to the community and the company employees continually donate their time at various events. My first assignment was to join the judging staff at the state Academic Decathlon. It was the first of many assignments I was to have had that year and I enjoyed getting outside of myself for a change. I was hoping to find an outlet for my grief, and helping other people when you are grieving is good therapy. You find yourself reconnecting with the world in many small ways. You come away with the affirmation that the world still turns no matter what has happened in your life. You get a better perspective of your own needs. Volunteering helps you center yourself.
As spring unfolded, I also resumed my graduate studies. Una had gone off to Forest Hills, New York to be with her sister Deede. Deede’s husband Bob had been sick since the fall and he was struggling with the aftermath of cancer surgery on his back. The doctors had taken a tumor off of his spine and several more surgeries ensued. As with Herb, Bob contracted several infections which he and the doctors could not conquer. We lost Bob the week after Easter.
Bob’s passing was a painful loss for our family. From Una’s standpoint, I’m sure that she had hoped to be able to save Bob. After all, if we couldn’t have saved Herb, at least we might have succeeded with Bob. All was for naught and we had lost two beloved family members within three month’s time.
By summer Una landed a job as a nanny caring for newborn twin girls and two little boys. Caring for people is what Una does best, and it was nice to see her taking care of little ones for a change. When people die, we always seem to keep our youngest ones a little closer. Children are an affirmation that life goes on. As for Una, her little charges assuaged the pain of the sickness and grief that she had dealt with for half a year.
Una and I are close in age, and Herb was some seventeen years older than us. After his passing Una confided in me that Herb was really more like a father to her than a brother, having lost her own parents years earlier. As for me, I’m just a widow at an early age. My mother, ever the fatalist, once told me, “Oh, Babe,” (my nickname) “Don’t get involved with an older man. You’ll be a widow at an early age.” Still, it was better to have loved and lost…
I knew what I was getting into from the start with Herb. Still, I suppose I felt secure that life for us would last much longer than it actually did. All around us people were living into their eighties and nineties. And my husband was so young at heart that it seemed impossible to think of him as ever getting old. In the end, he died at about the same age as his own father did when he passed on.
In some feeble attempt at getting some perspective on my life, I could only look at my own marriage as a lucky union of two people who shared some time along the path of life. In our similar journeys from the cradle to the grave, our paths had crossed for a time, and we shared a ride together for some thirty years.
Still, the “why”s keep coming. “Why did I choose him?” and “Why did he die?” and “Why…” and “Why…” and “Why?” “Why” was around here a lot in those days. “Because” never visited.
In the movie Forrest Gump one of the best lines is spoken by Sally Field as her character lays dying. Forrest, in his childlike way, asks, “Why are you dying Momma?”
“Because it’s my time, Forrest,” she answers.
“It’s my time…”
“It’s my time…”
“It’s my time...”
There is no real answer to the “why”s. Death just is.
Forrest Gump took to the highways and ran across the country to deal with his grief. He ran until he just had had enough and then stopped. As a widow, you feel like you want to run away somewhere where grief can’t follow you, but no matter how far you run or how fast you go, you can’t get away. Grief keeps up with you until you just accept it. Grief is your new partner, at least for a time.
~ Chapter Seven ~
Searching for Peace
In the springtime Herb’s headstone came. His sons and I wanted to put something unique at the grave, to show how different Herb was from everyone else. In the end, we conformed. His marker looks like the rest on the family plot, and he’s next to his cousin Penny, who left us only a year or so before.
I go there once in a while with flowers. In the beginning it has never helped to do it though. I had been angry all summer. Many days I would just sit on his grave with my knees up to my chest and whisper, “Death sucks,” as I cried and raged at the world.
~ ~ ~
Outside in our back yard is a rosebush near the neighbor’s fence. The first owners of our house planted it there, and this spring it was all but dead. Our area had been the victim of a plant fungus that attached itself to trees had destroyed some of our foliage around the yard. At the beginning of June I noticed a small thorny shoot poking up through the tall grass. Finding a small amount of fungicide I sprayed the green stem without much hope of getting any roses. My thought was that at least I could keep the fungus from spreading.
One night in late July I went out to check on our pool before dark. A little dot of pink color was sticking up near the neighbor’s fence. As I approached my sickly rosebush I saw what it had become. There, next to an old dead thorny stick was one perfect pink rose at the end of the slenderest of stems. “I’m here and I survived,” it seemed to be saying.
“You go girl,” I thought. “Be just as beautiful as you were ever meant to be.”
By August I was starting to feel a kind of centering, like I was settling back into my life. It was a small relief to wake up one morning and suddenly know that my pain was lifting a by degrees. At the same time I was a little scared that I would forget the man I loved so much and for so long. I suddenly realized that accepting my life as it is would mean that I would be letting go of the “us.” This is a new kind of goodbye that still hurts like the first, but in the end, you have to give yourself permission to be okay. Know that your loved one is no less in your heart just because you are moving ahead. You will never forget him no matter where you go or what you become. He will not cease to be part of who you are, he is just taking shape as something other than what he used to be.
On those warm summer days I would go outside and pull weeds to get my mind straight. Any kind of chores that I would do alone would give me time to think. At the same time, I was sad to know that I couldn’t enjoy the freshly painted fences or the newly weeded garden with “him.” I would ask myself, “Who am I cleaning this for?” I was sure the kids care whether the driveway was edged, or if the pool was vacuumed. That nurturing person in me still needed validation from someone besides myself. So I would go about my chores with a few tears in my eyes, feeling like I was doing my work all for nothing and for nobody.
When you are part of a couple you can fall into a pattern of deriving your self-worth from the validation of your partner. It goes both ways. He does things for you; you do things for him. That’s what love is all about. But that “us-ness,” as wonderful and beautiful as it is, makes it easy to lose your “me-ness.” You become a person whose identity is made up of what you do and not who you are. But how do you think all the other people who live alone get by? They clean their houses and their yards because they want to. It makes them comfortable and it pleases them. Welcome to the real world.
You will have to get used to living for yourself sooner or later. Learn to be a fair judge of who you are and start patting yourself on the back once in a while. Be satisfied with a job well done when you know you’ve put forth a good effort. Things may not always turn out perfectly with the jobs you do, but you will find that it does not take a genius to spackle a wall or mow the lawn. At the end of the day, just be happy with yourself. Your husband would have wanted it that way.
~ Chapter Eight ~
Christmas Past; Christmas Present
Somewhere along the road from grief you get caught in a place where you want to be whole again but you don’t want to shut off the memories. It’s a tough place where giving yourself permission to be you again is caught in a goodbye that you just can’t say. When you start thinking of yourself as successful without old “what’s his name” is as if you are admitting that you never needed him. It’s like getting stuck in a doorway with one foot inside and the other half of you on the outside. It seems impossible to be in both places at once.
All in all, most people reach a certain age where they can look back on their lives as a book divided in chapters. A Year of Goodbyes is but one chapter of my whole life. When you get old you compartmentalize the different times you had according to where you lived, who you knew, or your roles as a daughter, wife, or mother. The chapters of our lives are as varied as those in a book; some happy, some wearisome, some triumphant and some sad. So often the transitions are the toughest. Think about how you felt when you first left home, got married, sold your house or had a baby. Life is a never-ending series of adjustments, and some are easier than others.
As summer turned to autumn I found myself back is school. My online courses were tougher than ever. There were days when I was sure I would never pass some course or another. Statistics, corporate finance, and operations management were all major headaches. School was something that I just kept doing because I had been doing since before I lost Herb. He would sit in the recliner and silently cheer me on as I typed away at my homework. The History Channel always played and, while later I worked in silence, I would sometimes feel him sitting in that chair watching me as I worked. He always encouraged me and somehow he knew that I would need a good income someday. Wherever he was I knew he still believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. School at least gave me a sense of continuity. It was one of the few things in my life that hadn’t changed.
At Thanksgiving I headed west to Pennsylvania to see my mother, my stepfather, and my niece Susan. Rob stayed behind because of work, but Adam kept me company along the way. Going “home” meant more to me than just a holiday visit. It was a way of retreating back into the person I was before I was married. Knowing that my mother and step-dad are always there for me gives me something to hold onto. Having them in my life reminds me that losing my husband doesn’t completely undo me as a person. I still have “roles” in life as a daughter and an aunt as well as a mom. I still have people who understand me.
Pulling up to the door, I thought I would be a little more emotional than I was. After all, my stepfather, Dana, had been a rock for me this year. Even though I insisted they not make the trip for the funeral, we exchanged emails from time to time during that initial shock. His unwavering reassurance that I would always matter to them gave me strength during the deepest parts of my grief. After the hugging and the kissing inside the front door, he simply said to me, “I miss Herb.”
“We all do,” I replied.
And so the weekend passed without much fanfare. We ate a lot of good food and caught up on life. My final project for one of my courses was breathing down my neck so I divided my time between the term paper and family. Adam got some presents in celebration of his sixteenth birthday, and for a couple of short days, all was right with the world.
Back in Rhode Island I spent the following week taking a much-needed vacation. I started poking around in the Christmas things and found a nice poinsettia wreath for the door and some garland for the mailbox. Then there it was. A little gift bag stuffed with a paper chain. This childish little decoration was something I started on my birthday the year before Herb died. I wanted to decorate my bulletin board at work where my collection of birthday cards had been hung, so I pasted together a dozen or so links of various colored paper. Then I thought how nice it would be to count the days since Herb had been away from home in the hospital. The knee surgery had taken place on September 4th, so I decided to simply add a link for every day we spent apart.
People sometimes make these chains to count the days until they retire, or to count their remaining days in the military, days until they marry, or whatever. For those folks the chains get shorter until the happy day arrives. Passers-by can keep count with the lucky person without having to ask, “How soon ‘til you’re out of here?”
By Christmas of 2008 we had a chain that was over one hundred links in length. I had mentioned it to Herb several times. “We’re counting the days until you get back,” I would say. Naturally the Christmas tree was a perfect place for our bright little chain. On Christmas morning it was our symbol of hope that “Daddy” would soon be back in our midst.
I don’t know when I had stopped adding paper to the chain. With my time divided between work and the hospital, it just got left on the tree the way it was. Several times the doctors wanted to have “the talk” with me and I just wasn’t ready to listen.
Eventually the Christmas tree came down and the paper chain was put away. I was sure that the following year we would hang it up and look back on it as a symbol of our faithfulness during that trying and stressful time. All the craziness and sickness would be behind us and we would be a family again. How wrong I was. The fact is, Herb himself knew he might not ever get home. Rob would catch that look of fear in his father’s eye more than once. As for me, I never saw it. My husband played along with my optimistic ways. I’m sure he felt I was better off being the last to know what God was planning for our lives.
So there it was almost Christmas again. I remember well how busy I was at this time last year making sure we had everything Herb needed. My husband was actually allowed to come home from the nursing home about a week before the holiday. The doctors felt that he was well enough to recuperate at home surrounded by his family. There was plenty of baggage, of course, and we still had to “gown and glove” whenever we took care of his personal needs. The medical supply company delivered oxygen and the visiting nurses made lots of lists. There was very little that Herb wanted to eat and I was preoccupied with making sure that he had enough of his special protein drink on hand. All this flurry of activity lasted for three days. On the 23rd of December, Herb went to see his kidney doctor for a checkup. He arrived as his appointment dizzy and weak. He had a blood pressure of about fifty over something and could hardly stand up. Within about fifteen minutes our physician had and ambulance on site that took Herb directly to the hospital.
On Christmas Eve that year I decided to put up a little tree in Herb’s hospital room. He seemed to be in good spirits even though he weak and not eating. Of course we all visited but we were sad to have to spend Christmas this way. There was little to be cheerful about with my husband so sick. No one even asked how long it would take to get Herb better. By then we were all accustomed to the wait-and-see routine. In the back of my mind I felt as if all of our troubles would blow over by the new year, and that everything would be back to normal in a month, maybe two. Christmas itself was a bust. The boys and I opened our few gifts with none of the merriment that should have surrounded us. I left Herb’s gifts at home. There would be time later on, I thought, to celebrate the new shirts and framed pictures of the grandkids. In his condition he had little interest or strength to enjoy such things. So the kids and I sat in awkward silence in their father’s hospital room while the TV played whatever. We brought him ice chips and tried to have him eat. Sooner or later my husband grew too tired even for us, so we left to let him sleep. Still I hoped...
Imagine my surprise when I showed up at the hospital the next day and there was no trace of my husband or his Christmas tree in the room. “He’s been moved to ICU,” they told me. “His tree is in the nurse’s station.” More bad news, I thought. I was sick at the idea that I was getting used to taking bad news. I gathered up the little pathetic tree and stuck it in the trunk of my car. Upstairs I found Herb as weak as he was the day before. His infections were troublesome and his throat still sore. I still didn’t know that he would never come home.
Fast forward one year. As we prepared for our first Christmas without “Daddy,” I decided to make up so new routines in an effort to redefine who were as a family. Holding on to old traditions only makes you sad. Trying to keep everything the same is a pointless attempt to relive something that can never be the same again. So the week before Christmas I told Rob that I wanted a fresh tree as my present, a nice one that goes up to the ceiling. After all, I was too broke to buy one myself, and there wasn’t anything that I wanted as much. So on Rob’s day off he went with Adam after school to visit their cousin Mitch who runs a garden nursery. They came back with a gorgeous fat fir tree and set everything up in the dining room before dinner was even on the table. Their father would have been proud at the way they filled his shoes, and I told them so.
The tree was probably a little extravagant especially since we would be spending Christmas at my mother’s, but some things you do as a way to bring comfort. My year had been going well lately and I was sure that Christmas would be all right in light of things. The Christmas carols on the radio were soothing and I was feeling inspired. At work we exchanged little cards, some with candies taped to them. The company gave us a pizza party and more carols were piping in from the ceilings. But as the days wore down I had to face the obvious. My husband wasn’t here and at times I couldn’t stop the tears. In some ways I would have given anything to have the nurses and the gowns and the oxygen back, but I know now that you can’t stop time.
So there I was, about to decorate my beautiful tall fir tree. I had a box full of memories and about a pint of courage as I stood alone in the dining room. “This is like getting back on a horse,” I thought. They say that when you fall off a horse, the first thing you have to do is get back on, otherwise you might lose your nerve for good. I knew I had to force myself to decorate that tree, like it or not, because if didn’t, Christmas would be gone forever. It’s just that I didn’t know what to do with my little bag that held my paper chain of hope.
One by one I picked up ornaments. Nearly every one of them had some meaning tied to it. Most were gifts or heirlooms. So many memories! The things that used to make me glow inside at Christmastime were melancholy reminders of days gone by. Many of the decorations had years painted on them; They were favors from our family reunions over the years. The oldest was from 1979, the year before Herb’s mother died. Newly widowed, she had everyone to Christmas dinner. At each place setting were little white felt stockings stuffed with padding and carefully stitched with the year in red: ’79. None of us knew that that Christmas would be her last. She died of cancer the following October and Herb and I had just been married the month before. That little stocking is a reminder for me of how she loved us all!
Over the years we collected little sleds, teddy bears, apples and angels, many with our names on them. I put Herb’s ornaments near the angel on the top, since I wanted to believe that he is living with God’s angels in heaven. Herb’s sister Deede had surprised him one year with some unusual and comical Santa Claus ornaments. Our favorite was the Santa fishing from a rowboat. One push of his head and he springs back all the while moving the oars. Beneath the boat is a little fish dangling from a metal spoke. He too swims when the oars move. All in all, the tree was beautiful. I finished it with some glass icicles and gold wired ribbon. The white lights stayed lit well past New Years that year and I loved my pretty tree like none other.
When Christmas Eve fell upon us, Rob and I were both at work. I was off first, so Adam and I packed up the car and set off for my mother’s house in Pennsylvania. We picked up Rob on the way and arrived by 9:00 PM. Being with my mother, stepfather, and my niece Susan was good for all of us. For me, it took me back to the place where I was before I was married. Not in the literal sense, of course, but in a figurative way. I was back in the circle of my original family who I knew would always look out for me. With my mother, certain things just never change. We always have a splendid dinner and the flaming plum pudding is a requirement. And even though we only spent one night, it was good to not be in my own home at Christmas.
While taking down the tree on the last day of Adam’s school break, I found my paper chain among some ornaments I hadn’t used. A fire was softly burning in the fireplace. I paused just long enough to hate the thing and tossed it into the embers. I needed it to be gone along with the hope it stood for. And so it burned up into ashes with a fast flicker of light.
Somehow I wished I could get more perspective. Herb’s passing couldn’t be always about me. I kept thinking that once my year of mourning was over things would be better. I liked to think of it as a jail sentence where I would get sprung from my grief on the last day. And yet, I was stuck in a dry, desert-kind of place, wandering around alone. On the one-year anniversary of my husband’s passing there would be a mass in his memory at Ender’s Island. It seemed like he died only a moment before.
I knew in my heart of hearts that you can’t set a limit on your grief. Coming out of my grief would be a slow process that would just take time. Still, once you are a widow, you will always be a widow. Your history cannot be undone. You are like a war veteran whose experiences and scars stay with you for life.