Newly Widowed: Instructions Not Included

When is the time right to tell the world my husband died? When do I announce to everyone that I am (as the “On Being Alone” booklet points out) “newly widowed?” He always said – and I never understood it or really agreed with him – that “dying is a private business,” that when the time came, he wanted to die alone, just to sleep on.

And so he did. It was last week, and it was the day before our 22nd wedding anniversary. And it was when our daughter and I were far away in rural Derry, in the heart of Seamus Heaney country.

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And it might even have been around the time I was talking to blacksmith Barney Devlin’s son in The Forge on the side of the road at Hillhead, hearing all about the great night’s craic behind Heaney‘s The Midnight Anvil when Barney struck the anvil twelve times to ring in the new millennium with another son listening in on his cell-phone in Canada. Posing for a photograph with Barry Devlin on the other side of The Door into The Dark I was happy to be back home and anxious to write about it, holding in my hands the anvil that made the sweeter sound.

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“All I know is a door into the dark.” HEANEY

Later (yet earlier in Arizona), I knew something was wrong when he didn’t answer the phone; when, troubled, I sent a troubling text to my best friend to ask her to please go check if he was home and alright; when, nervously, she told me that, yes, both our cars were in the driveway and that our little dog, Edgar, was sitting on the couch, silently staring back at her; when she found a key under the doormat; when she opened the front door and tentatively called my husband’s name once, twice, and then a third time to no response; and, finally when she crumpled.

“He’s passed away! He’s passed away!” she cried. “He’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”

Then our daughter’s primal scream, a horrible, harrowing sound from somewhere deep within her, a sound I will never forget as she heard me tell my friend on the other side of the Atlantic on the other side of America on the other end of the line to please call 911. Just. Call. 9-1-1.

Too quickly to be true or anything good, I heard the noise of our house filling up with strangers, kind and efficient, from the police and fire departments, the crisis management team, and finally the people from the one mortuary that agreed to take my husband’s body even though there was some as yet unresolved fuss over who would sign the death certificate.

If nobody would sign it, perhaps he wasn’t dead.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” I asked.

“Yes. He’s dead. Yes. I’m so sorry. He’s gone.”

Gone.

They pronounced my husband dead at 1:10pm not a full hour after I had called and left a message for him to please pick up the damn phone. Replaying my voicemails, back in America, my lovely loving parents with my daughter and me now, I can hear the irritation in my voice, and it reminds me that I find it easier to harbor annoyance than worry, and that anger is infinitely easier to bear than sorrow.

Blue morning over the LIffey

A week before, I had been so happy, wandering streets of Dublin still familiar to me, as though I had never left Ireland. I called my husband from Trinity College, where I’d happened upon a graduation, and when I told him how much fun I was having, he told me to have some more. And, I did. I was proud of myself, smug even, finding the perfect anniversary card for him in one of those bijou boutiques that have popped up on the south side of the Liffey and then breezily asking the concierge at The Brooks Hotel to mail it to America for me as though I were Meryl Streep‘s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.

For over two decades, we had an ongoing contest, my husband and I, over which of us would present the other with the best birthday, anniversary, Valentine, and Christmas cards. I won. Hands down. Every time. Even after he thought he was on to something when he discovered a Papyrus store at theBiltmore Fashion Park. Naturally, some of our years shone brighter than others – they sparkle still  – and browsing through dates and sentiments scrawled on cards saved in a drawer along with drawings by our girl, old polaroid pictures and postcards, business cards from my different jobs, I see our story unfold from beginning to end. Stranger than fiction, it shimmers with all you would expect from a page-turner. I’ll maybe write a story for you one day.

So when the anniversary card arrived from Ireland in my mailbox yesterday – too late in spite of my good intentions – I had to open it. Turning it over in my hands, the post-mark – 11.11.13 –  brought to mind  another anniversary – the second since my cancer diagnosis. There is no doubt that November is the cruelest month in this house.

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Had I remembered what it was I’d written to my husband a week before, I might have left the card sealed in its envelope and put it in the pocket of the shirt on his dead body. But I had forgotten. When I scanned my handwriting on the inside of the card, I knew that, yes, I would have won again. He would have smiled, deadpan, at the last words he never got to read from me:

See you 18th & I hope our next anniversary is without cancer, aneurysms, & dog shit.”

After our last dog, an over-anxious greyhound, Molly, my husband was adamant that we revert to being strictly “cat people,” but when our daughter rescued that tiny dog on a busy street a few weeks ago and immediately named him Edgar, he somehow relented.

Is it too soon to say that I am still alive, that life is for the living and for finding new rituals? Maybe. Then again nobody knows what to say or do. There are no rules. It is a complicated business, and it is neither private nor simple. It is painful.

Not long ago, I read a review of Bridget Jones: Mad About a Boy in which there was some hand-wringing about why Helen Felding chose to make a widow out of Bridget. The Telegraph columnist, William Langley, wonders if Fielding has made a leap too far, opining that the new book “ raises the awkward question of how far a character can reasonably be stretched.”  Why is it an awkward question? Having joined Ms. Jones on this new path, I feel myself stretching more with every minute that passes, and there doesn’t appear to be any sign of a limit.  I think I might be grateful to Helen Fielding for taking Bridget into widowhood, for going there. It somehow helps to know that Bridget probably doesn’t know how to back-flush the pool or when to rotate tires and change the oil or the ratio of sugar to water for the hummingbird feeder.

A good night’s sleep eludes me, and it feels a bit like I swallowed a sharp stone that has lodged in my very center. How I wish it would go away. But it’s early days. They tell me I am in a state of shock and to take one day at a time. They tell me he is in a far better place now. Really? How could any place be better than in our dining room next month to light sixteen candles on my daughter’s birthday cake or in the audience to cheer our girl as she walks across the stage to receive her high school diploma less than two years from now? How could any place be better than a ring-side seat at all those milestones that bring pure and simple pleasure?

I remember some years ago, I had one of those very lucid and realistic dreams in which I had misplaced a book and was frantically searching for it, high up and low down, in a dark and unfamiliar house. When I awoke, I was frantic and unsure if it had all just been a dream. Perturbed to have lost “the big book of simple pleasures,” I asked my husband if this book had ever occupied our bookshelves. It seems plausible, even tonight, that such a book could have existed in reality; it brings to mind a compendium of Martha Stewart’s good things or better yet, well-worn wit and homespun advice from Irish mammies – “sure who’ll be looking at you anyway?”

The very notion of a big book of simple pleasures appeals to me as does an ordinary day filled to the brim with them and time enough to fully savor them – I think it is in the mundanity of life, within commonplace conversations and overlooked ordinary spots of time, that we find the stories of ourselves, maybe even our best selves. Consider the ordinary things scratched and scribbled onpost-it notes and paper napkins, the reminders to do or acquire the stuff we need to keep us on solid ground, the grand ideas hastily captured on a napkin over a glass of wine with a friend, our lists of instructions on what to do and what not to do, and then the extraordinary things on bucket lists of dreams yet to come true.

In the book of simple pleasures, there is no place for a message received too late, a fence never mended, undeniable evidence of a loved one’s descent into memory loss, or a last goodbye from someone who loves you. Between the covers of such a book, one would find only those ordinary certainties like the kind that used to make a Sunday morning around here.

I have always been slow to stir on Sundays, in spite of the predictable sunshine breaking and entering through slats of closed window blinds and the sounds of my husband making a pot of coffee.  He always tried to do it quietly, but I was always awake and listening, enjoying the distinct sounds of newspaper pages turning, tiny showers of cereal falling in a bowl, slices of bread popping from the toaster, and tell-tale stifled chuckles from our daughter if she had successfully snagged the Sunday comics from the newspaper her dad had strategically arranged for reading.

Propped up against my pillows, I liked the outside interference too – the random arpeggios up and down, ringing gently from California wind-chimes that hang heavy and lower today from a Chilean mesquite tree that dominates our backyard; the distant rumble of a truck on an otherwise abandoned freeway; the plaintive coo of mourning doves, and the soft woof of a neighbor’s dog. Altogether it is a Sunday morning spell, cast just for me, selfish me, so I have to let it linger into the afternoon.

Workday mornings are different and will be different still when they resume. A little more hurried and harried by stupid thoughts of what and what not to wear, what needs to be turned in, last minute signatures on a permission slip, money for lunch, reminders to take vitamins and cancer medicine and maybe something to take the edge off and to have a great day. Just one more cup of coffee, a goodbye hug, a kiss, and a rushed and perhaps perfunctory “I-love-you-I-love-you-too-see-you-tonight-call-me.”

Before going to work for the past twenty-two years, I have counted on three things: 1. My husband blows me a kiss. 2. He flashes a peace sign. 3. He watches from the window until I disappear from view. These tiny, ordinary rituals made the perfect farewell. Fare well. Every day. So at the mortuary yesterday, my daughter and I gently unfolded his cold hands and created a  sort of ‘V’ with two elegant fingers of his right hand.

Peace. Out. Baby.

Peace signs and hundreds of visits to Dairy Queen on the way home from school on Friday afternoons; feeding the hummingbirds, recycling the junk mail, and putting things in the tumble dryer when their labels clearly say “Dry Clean Only.”  Thus we marked time.

Is it simpler to live life in these quotidian moments that can so easily saturate the space that stretches from sunrise to sunset? No subtext, no surprises, the secrets suppressed, each of us on solid ground – home and easy and boring?

Being Boring by Wendy Cope

“‘May you live in interesting times,’ Chinese curse

If you ask me ‘What’s new?’, I have nothing to say
Except that the garden is growing.
I had a slight cold but it’s better today.
I’m content with the way things are going.
Yes, he is the same as he usually is,
Still eating and sleeping and snoring.
I get on with my work. He gets on with his.
I know this is all very boring.

There was drama enough in my turbulent past:
Tears of passion-I’ve used up a tankful.
No news is good news, and long may it last.
If nothing much happens, I’m thankful.
A happier cabbage you never did see,
My vegetable spirits are soaring.
If you’re after excitement, steer well clear of me.
I want to go on being boring.

I don’t go to parties. Well, what are they for,
If you don’t need to find a new lover?
You drink and you listen and drink a bit more
And you take the next day to recover.
Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I’ve found a safe mooring,
I’ve just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on being boring.”