All in the Game, Bob Seger, Castledawson, Cheers, Christmas, cultural identity, First Thanksgiving without Husband, Firsts, Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden, Grief, Irish in America, jukebox, Patsy Cline, Physical pain of grief, Thanksgiving Dinner, widowed
A friend, one who knows, told me the other day that it will take at least a year before the sharp stone of grief will shift from the very center of my being. She told me not to make any big decisions until I make it through all the “firsts” – the first Thanksgiving without him, Sophie’s first birthday without her dad, Christmas and decorating the tree, New Year’s Eve and not-quite-legal fireworks at the end of our street, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, my birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the Fourth of July and fireworks over Morro Bay, summer vacation (will I ever be able to face Morro Bay again?), his birthday, Halloween and pumpkin carving, our Wedding Anniversary, and finally, the first anniversary of his death. His death.
My. Husband. Is. Dead.
And then she said, well, she texted me, which is a good thing because I would hate to have forgotten it:
. . . after a while that pain will feel like a friend. And you will be afraid to lose it because that will mean you are better and over it and not missing Ken any more.
~ just one of the mind games that Grief plays.
This grieving business has brought out the best in people who care about me, beautiful expressions of sheer humanity. It has also brought out the worst – albeit unintentional – in people who don’t know me and don’t love me but who are paid to deal with me, to deal with death for a living, to know what to say to new widows, to know not to say stupid things. (Recent days have brought me back to when I first landed in cancer country, but if you’ve visited this blog before, you know I have beaten that horse to death).
From the people at the mortuary, those with years of experience in the funeral industry, who called me with the first-time-I’d-ever-heard-it-details of Kenneth H‘s last wishes as opposed to Kenneth M’s which I knew like the back of my hand, to the automated email telling me about the online obituary and memorial page even though my husband, a very private man, had been adamant about no obituary and no fuss; to the doctor whose office assistant left a voice-mail telling me that there was nothing else she could do for me because I take four medications already; and then, my husband’s primary care doctor who wanted me to place myself in his position, to take a minute and see where he was coming from, regarding the whole debacle over who should sign the death certificate – his position, if you don’t mind – and then my oncologist (whose assistant didn’t return my call for help until after it was too late to call my primary care physician) who wouldn’t prescribe anything for me because, you know, the physical pain of grief has nothing to do with cancer, now does it?
I wanted to scream that if we were still in South Derry, there would be a very nice doctor on the other end of the line, telling my mother he was sorry for my trouble and that he would sort us all out with enough Diazepam to help cope with the shock, the journey back to America, the jet lag, the grief, the pain, the immeasurable sadness. The same doctor didn’t know my mother or me; he was merely the doctor on call, a kind stranger, and he had a heart of gold.
In the twelve days since my husband died – my husband died – can you hear me now? – I have cried and cursed and ranted and raged. I have been irreverent and exhausted and delirious and despondent. I have even laughed about things that should make me cry. I went out today and bought lipstick. Honest to God. I actually got up, showered, put make-up on a haggard face and drove to a store the way I have done thousands of times before, and I bought a cheery lipstick called ninety-nine red balloons. Just like the song.
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by
I also bought a too-expensive-even-though-I-should-be-watching-my-finances-now-that-I’m-a-widow autumnal centerpiece for a Thanksgiving table that will be missing a place-setting. At some point, I noticed I had already changed my Facebook status to “widowed.” I don’t like the ring of it one bit.
Some of these trifling things are great distractions – wondering who will show me how to back-flush the swimming pool or tell me what that even means, or set the timer on the sprinklers or develop that intuition my husband seemed to have about knowing when to change the oil, or rotate tires, or change air filters, or get gas (I always forget to get gas, usually I’m on “E” with the light on. I used to joke about how running on empty is my last stab at living dangerously). It may actually not be that funny.
In the past twelve days, I have learned how to comfort people whose husbands are still alive. I held in my arms the neighbor I don’t know but who brought cheery chrysanthemums to my door. She couldn’t stop crying about the tragedy that has befallen my daughter and me, and I had to get some Kleenex for her and nod that time will ease the pain. Hell, I even consoled the discomfited doctor after she realized that my situation was sort of “urgent” and that, yes, Xanax might help.
Of course Xanax helps. Just ask any of my family members back home, who have endured incredible pain and loss in recent years. At every wake, there’s always some kindly soul passing around the Diazepam the way we used to pass around a pack of cigarettes at the pub. No. I’m not saying that Xanax, Diazepam, or Ativan numbs the grief or takes it away or helps me avoid the reality of loss. It just dulls – briefly – the excruciating physical pain of the sharp stone of grief that’s stuck somewhere in the vicinity of my heart.
Here’s the thing. I was Ken’s wife for one day shy of twenty-two years. That’s a lifetime. When we met, we both knew something special was happening. I used to think we would have fit in rather handily on the cast of Cheers. Ken wasn’t Norm or Cliff, but he was a regular. When he came in to the bar where I was a bartender, I always had a beer ready for him. I would position myself behind the bar, right across from him and nonchalantly wrap silver-ware in paper napkins, exchanging quips and innuendoes with him without making eye-contact, because when I did, I blushed.
A bit of a cliché I was a twenty-something Irish immigrant who had over-stayed her welcome in America and still had a broad Antrim accent. As such, I was the main source of entertainment for the men who had just come off the day-shift; they were easily enchanted by what they considered an Irish brogue, and the more alcohol I served up, the more they wanted to tell me all about their Irish roots. I often dismissed them as “Plastic Paddys,” which they considered a compliment. Now, this was before microbreweries were de rigueur, but I was still overwhelmed by the variety of beer in variously colored cans – yellow for Coors, the Silver Bullet Lite version, blue and white Miller Lite etc The regulars indulged me, “Hey Irish,” they’d beckon and to help me out, they ordered rounds of beer by color: “Gimme three silver bullets, one red and blue, two white and blue, and two yellow.” Ken said I always charged $11.50 a round, but none of them minded.
Ken wasn’t fictional Sam Malone, Cheers owner erstwhile recovering alcoholic and former Red Sox player with a little black book full of women’s names and numbers. Ken didn’t need a team of writers, and I never met a woman who didn’t love him; and, I wasn’t Diane Chambers (well, maybe just a little) but the chemistry between us was undeniable and made up for the lack of compatibility. For almost two years, we denied what was so obvious to everyone else. He loved that I loved music and that I could give as good as I got. I remember he was very impressed when I sneaked some of his favorite tunes on to the bar’s jukebox, a contraption that could be described as country thunder. When the bar-owner wasn’t paying attention, I added Neil Young’s “Ohio,” and The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil,” Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Admittedly, I was a bit thrown when Ken told me one of his favorite songs was “All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards. He didn’t think I’d remember, so it pleased me no end when I went with the other bartender to a wonderful warehouse packed with 45-inch singles. It was our job to replace some of the records in the jukebox. To stay on the owner’s good side, I’d throw in some Hank Williams, and I never interfered with Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” – nobody in their right mind would get rid of “Crazy” – but every new record I added was for Ken. And he knew it. Bob Seger’s “Sunspot Baby” would start, he’d wink at me and then complain to the owner about how the new Irish waitress was ruining the jukebox.
The banter and badinage flew like electrical sparks between us, and we made those around us laugh and wink knowingly. We were the entertainment, and everybody knew we belonged together. Even before we did. I imagine had Dr. Frasier Crane been a regular, he would have had this to say about our performance:
“I know, I know. Now you’re going to deny it. Even though it’s ludicrously obvious to everyone around you, you two will go on pretending it’s not true because you’re EMOTIONAL INFANTS. You’re in a living HELL. You love each other, and you hate each other, and you hate yourselves for loving each other. Well, my dear friends, I want no part of it. It’s time I just picked up where I left off. It’s time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. So I’ll get out of here so you can just get on with your denial fest.”
And then one day, Ken confessed. I always loved that he broke first. It was January 13, 1990, which I always consider our official anniversary. I ran outside to give him his change. After all, $11.50 for one beer was a bit much, even by my standards. When he had me outside and alone, he looked right at me, told me he was crazy about me, that he always knew I had been out there, and that he had almost given up waiting for me. Quite a pick-up line, but it worked. Then he asked me to plant a kiss on his lips, and I reverted to being coy and strategic. But that didn’t last.
Within a matter of months we had moved in together. He brought nothing from his previous life, just a lot of love for me, and I dragged the collected Shakespeare, my Seamus Heaney poetry books, my collection of Life and Rolling Stone magazines, and a lot of crazy love for him. Crazy love – like the kind Van Morrison sings about, especially with Ray Charles:
Yes it makes me feel righteous, makes me feel whole
Makes me feel mellow down into my soul
While I never convinced him that Van Morrison was, in fact, God, I managed to turn Ken on to tennis, and we watched Wimbledon and the US Open on a tiny black and white TV-radio-alarm clock combo in a tiny apartment that amounted to a shack in the back of an old ranch house in central Phoenix. Then one day when we were watching TV, I said, “Let’s go get married.”
I got out the phone book (remember those?) and found a wedding chapel in an old neighborhood in west Phoenix. The preacher reminded me of one of those old men talking to Ray Kinsella about Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, looking at us out of the bluest eyes. We asked a stranger to witness the ceremony, and we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health. Health is easy, but sickness is a bitch. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that breast cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our own bodies. Thus, we filled up that ordinary November morning with a time-honored succession of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling. We didn’t even tell anyone. Young and wild, it was as though we had eloped to Gretna Green. I think we probably even went to work afterwards. Along with all the other rituals we performed every day, the getting married was just something we could have done any day, at any time. No fanfare. No hoopla. Completely ours. Private.
We loved being answerable to only one another, doing whatever we wanted to without having to worry too much about other people. I remember one night when I was homesick for the smell of the sea. I just wanted to stare out at the ocean which seemed another world away from the desert southwest. It was a Friday afternoon, and we had nothing else to do. Still years before Sophie was born, we got in the car and started driving. No map. No GPS. No specific destination. Just ocean. That night, we were in Los Angeles, and I was inhaling the sea air. The next evening, we were in Pismo Beach, strolling along the pier. As if to put America’s vastness to the test, I asked him to keep driving. Eventually, we stopped by a lighthouse where we balanced the camera on the car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand once again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by our little girl. Then, for a decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – became our family’s vacation spot.
We created hundreds of lovely little rituals and routines over the years. My mother always said I could set my watch by Ken. True. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how proud he was of things I had done professionally. He was my greatest cheerleader and the person who once told the young me who used to get her feelings hurt easily and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some hard bark, because she would need it. Well, Ken, I need it now. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you wanted me to be tough. But, it is just so hard to be tough enough to fully absorb the blow of your death, to look up and expect you to walk in with another cup of coffee for me and ask what I’m blogging about and then wonder aloud – with a wry smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon. Each of us wrestled with the truth that cancer changed me, as a brush with mortality would. It wasn’t bad or good. It just was.
One of our first arguments was over what it was he was thinking about. We never argued about that again. It went something like this:
Are you sure?
So what are you thinking about?
Well, it must be something. I can tell. Are you mad at me? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?) Well, can you at least tell me what it begins with?
No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, my honey.
Private thoughts. Well, you can imagine how well that went over with someone who has to know the inner details, the finer points, the “how are you really feeling” details about everything. But he never told me. And the strangest thing happened. I realized over the years that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us – not bad, necessarily, just private thoughts. Most people just wouldn’t say that out loud. But Ken did. He said it the same way he once told the cashier at a Pep Boys, after he’d paid in cash for new windshield wipers, that she couldn’t have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist; he just hated his name and address being placed on some list only for it to be sold to someone who would profit from it. Annoyed because he was just not cooperating the way most customers did, the young cashier’s jaw dropped when Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, said quietly, “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live. The cops are after me.” And I had to walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.
Then I learned to cook. It was before Food TV Network, and I relied on an eclectic group of chefs on PBS so there was lots of Cajun cooking going on in the early years. Our first Thanksgiving Dinner together was a foreign affair as far as I was concerned. Never mind the Food TV Network, this was before the Internet and Google, so I had to go out and buy a holiday cookbook from Williams and Sonoma to learn exactly what went into a Thanksgiving Dinner and what this quintessential American tradition was all about. I’m sure like most Northern Irish folk, I would have the natural tendency to ask, with just a touch of martyrdom “Sure what would we have to be thankful for?” And then there would be some hand-wringing and worst-case scenarios about what happened to your man whose wife took up with somebody else, or the state of unemployment or Maggie Thatcher and terrorists, or The Troubles in general, and the brain-drain with all our young people like me leaving for America, Australia, New Zealand – following the sun.
A quick study, I was soon fixing turkey and all the trimmings like a pro. I even made pumpkin pie and candied yams (nothing from a can), and amber colored side-dishes and butternut squash soup, fare that would never have shown up at a fork supper or tea after a Harvest Home service at a country church in Northern Ireland. As if there wasn’t enough food to feed a small country, I was compelled to assert my Irishness with Brussel sprouts which Ken hated and roast potatoes and, for good measure, a Pavlova or a sherry trifle for desert – I could only make sense of Thanksgiving Dinner if I considered it an early Christmas Dinner. As if I’m not confused enough about my cultural identity.
For tomorrow, I have ordered a turkey breast dinner. Just the breast, because that means there will be nothing to carve and no carcass for soup. Ken always carved the turkey, and he loved my turkey-noodle soup. Oh, how could I possibly brine and roast a turkey without Ken here to do the basting and the carving and telling me not to put apples or anything sweet in the stuffing? I always put apples in the stuffing. Why not? And when he wasn’t looking, I basted the turkey with maple syrup. I always add marmalade to the yams too and slices of clementines or even the syrup from cans of mandarin oranges. If it’s not sweet, what’s the point?
My parents are here, and already I am dreading the day they tell me it’s time for them to go back home to Castledawson and for me to resume living again. I hope they will stay for Christmas. My lovely irreverent friend in Tempe who hails from Ballynahinch and who knows about grief (as she will tell you herself, she is hands-down the winner in “The Sad Contest”) is going to bring a Pavlova and maybe even some currant squares and custard. And my mother will put the kettle on for us and make tea with Barry’s teabags and bring out a plate of Hobnob biscuits. I will complain if she puts too much milk in it, because I like a good County Derry cup of tea the way my Granda did, so strong “you could dance on it.’ Our meal tomorrow might feel a bit like a Northern Ireland Christmas dinner from days gone by. I just hope I remember to eat.
We have lots of food in the fridge – baskets of sympathy from near and far from heartsome people who ache for us. I don’t know what to say to them, other than thank you. And, my gratitude is heart-felt and genuine. But if I’m honest, I hate that it is these strange new gestures I am thankful for this year. It would be so much easier to give thanks that the turkey’s not dry.
Oh, Ken. Why did you have to die? There was something I wanted to tell you. It was important.
It doesn’t matter. By now, I have to believe you have run into Lou Reed, that the two of you have scored some really good weed from J.J. Cale, and you are feeling no pain. And maybe Seamus Heaney will raise a glass to you.
Fly, fly away my love. I’ll see you on the other side.