being a widow, compass, Duke of Edinburgh awards, Funeral Blues, guilt, Mourning, mundane tasks, orienteering, sense of direction, single parenting, the powerful play goes on, Victorian etiquette, W.H.Auden, Walt Whitman
Cleaning the leaves from the pool is now part of my Saturday morning routine. An exercise in futility, because as soon as I think I’m finished, a warm breeze rustles through the trees and Mexican honeysuckle petals and leaves cascade into the water like confetti. I “shock” the pool too, with a powder of chemicals, and for good measure, I add a capful of something blue. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m sure the pool isn’t shocked at all.
Sometimes I wish my husband had left behind a list of all the household chores he did, so I would know all the things that still need to be done after I do what used to be my share. I never bothered to take stock of his share which included pool maintenance and going to the grocery store to pick up those items I invariably forgot. He always took a list, from which he never strayed. I, on the other hand, just took my phone, knowing I would call and ask him to peek in the fridge and let me know if we needed more eggs or milk or tomatoes. Naturally, he’d always ask why I hadn’t brought a list with me, and I would remind him, “Because I have you!”
I know I need to back-flush the pool pump (whatever that means). I remember him doing so with some regularity, but I never took the time to find out why or how or when. I know I need to change the air-filters but I don’t know how often or where to buy them. Knowing my luck, it will necessitate an outing to Home Depot or the mom and pop hardware store up the street, places I avoid like the plague.
To familiar faces at the grocery store or the gas station, I look the same as I always did. They just don’t know that the rings sparkling on the fourth finger of my left hand no longer mean that I’m married. Nor do they signify that I’m a widow. Ostensibly, nothing’s changed. If you were to ask the people who know me as the woman who drops her daughter off at school every morning, everything is as it has always been. I leave the trashcan and the recycling bin out on a Monday night, so the man who drives the City of Phoenix garbage truck would have no reason to believe anything has changed in my house. I wonder if the mailman knows – surely he must – but still he delivers letters addressed to both my dead husband and me.
I have to hand it to the Victorians with their explicit rules and regulations for mourning so that everyone knew, based on outward appearances, the extent of one’s grief over the loss of a loved one. Were I one of the ladies of Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess might give me permission to go “into half mourning next month and back to colours by September.” Except doing so would confuse even more all those people who already struggle over what to say to me.
At the grocery store last Sunday, I managed to annoy the woman behind me in the checkout lane. There I was, in all my glory, in the 15 items-only lane with an overflowing grocery cart. I was oblivious to my mistake, perhaps because I had been so distracted by the realization that I would no longer need to buy men’s deodorant or razor blades or V8 vegetable juice. Of the three of us, only Ken had liked V8.
Unloading the more than fifteen items from my grocery cart, I was interrupted by a loud sigh from the inconvenienced woman behind me. “You do realize, don’t you, that this is the fifteen items only lane?” Well, no, actually. Had I realized the error of my ways, I would have been in a different lane. I apologized profusely for delaying her check-out, even as my mind raced with thoughts of all the things they don’t tell you about becoming a widow.
They don’t tell you how guilty you’ll feel when you tell the bank to go ahead and erase his name from the checking account or when you strike certain items of the grocery list because only he needed them. I wanted to scream at her that my husband was dead, that he was much better at doing the grocery shopping because he didn’t stray from the list like I do, that if he had been with me, we would have been in the appropriate check-out lane, that she was lucky to have her husband with her and less than 15 items in her grocery cart. I could have been petty and asked her if the six-pack of beer counted as one item or six, but I didn’t. They were in the right lane. I was not. But had we been going about our business in the Victorian era, with me in “full mourning attire,” I bet she would have given me a break. She would have somehow known that my heart was breaking over the fact that I had almost put the V8 juice in the cart but then realized I wouldn’t be needing it. Ever again.
There is no manual for this. There is no way of predicting when the grief will take your breath away and send you scurrying behind dark glasses or to the bathroom at work so nobody sees you crying. There are no rules about when or if you should stop wearing your wedding ring. My husband and I didn’t have a wedding with the exchanging of rings. We just got up one November morning in 1991 and decided to get married. We didn’t even tell anyone. It was just something we wanted to do for us. On a Christmas morning, twelve years later, my husband gave me wedding and engagement rings that I have worn every day since. I wear only a little jewelry, so I cannot imagine looking down at my left hand and not seeing those rings sparkle. Since there don’t appear to be any rules – although I’m sure someone has an opinion on this – I think I’ll just keep wearing them.
The ring question, however, is the least of my worries. I’m more concerned about what happens next. Obviously, there will be no resumption of normal activity because whatever normal was, it isn’t that anymore. There was the way I was before my husband died. I was on solid ground. One day stretched into the next with predictable routines and rituals that appeal to a creature of habit like me. Now there is an uncertainty, a kind of dread, about tomorrow and the next day.
Until I had to do them myself, I underestimated the number of mundane yet essential tasks my husband performed just to keep the house functioning. For someone with a lousy memory, he still remembered to take the garbage cans out; to open the gate for the lads who take care of the yard and to lock it again; to water the flowers that bloom madly in mild winters; and, when to shock the damn pool. He knew when to change the air-filters and the oil and when to renew the registration of our vehicles. He always fed the hummingbirds and checked the mail and did the laundry, and reminded himself to do so on post-it notes that accumulated in the basket where he kept his keys. He picked our daughter up from school every single day, and he was obsessive about being on time. He never wanted her to come out of school and not see him waiting for her.
Unlike me, he was punctual and practical and always put things back where they belong. He had a good sense of direction and, not to belabor the point, but he was always on time. My mother always said you could set your watch by him. Before you think he was a saint, he wasn’t. There were things he didn’t do and wouldn’t do and things he wasn’t good at, but that’s where I came in. Between us and for us, we made it all work. I can’t make it work the way it used to, because “it” is finished. A new and different stage of life – without him here – has begun. I have no idea where it will take me. If he were here, he would tell me not to worry, that I will do what’s best for me personally and professionally. He loved me and believed in me and even when I made mistakes – and I have made many – he remained in my corner. He had a way of turning my tribulations upside down to expose the humor in them, and he was quick to point out when I was making a shit-storm out of nothing. If he can see me now, he might be laughing at some of my recent exploits.
There was the night last week when my daughter wanted a tuna sandwich. Simple, right? It would have been except the can opener broke. Naturally, I immediately told her to Google “what-to-do-when-the-can-opener-breaks,” which led her to ask if by any chance we had a Swiss army knife. No. We don’t. Then she found a Youtube video on how to open a can without a can opener and, somehow, between us, with an ice-pick and a bread knife, we opened that can and scraped out every morsel of tuna. The good news is that I had the wherewithal to add “can opener” to the grocery list and for good measure threw in a new corkscrew as well.
Then, there was the evening when I decided to water the plants in the back yard before having dinner on the patio with my daughter. I had bought a new five pattern spray nozzle for the garden hose and was doing a fabulous job soaking and spraying and misting, until I needed to turn it off. Simple. Except the nozzle would not cooperate. When I tried to turn the faucet off, the hose began to leak, sending water shooting into the sky, soaking me and everything else on the patio. My daughter came out to save me from myself, and tried to help, only to get soaked and somehow to make the water come out even more furiously. In the middle of this mini-fiasco, each of us drenched, she asked – and I am not making this up – if we should call an electrician. An electrician?? I would love to have been on the other end of that phone-call. Now, I realize this is one of those stories that loses a great deal in the telling, but suffice to say, we eventually turned off the water and had dinner, without the intervention of a plumber – or an electrician.
It’s not all slapstick. In exchange for pasta and wine, my friend Rhonda came over and taught me how to use an electric drill. I’m always hanging things on the wall and destroying the plaster, but hanging things on the external brick walls requires more than a hammer and nail; it requires a drill and a masonry bit (which I had referred to as a masonry bite giving everyone in the hardware store a good laugh). My first project was to hang funky junky letters that spell p-a-t-i-o – on the patio. I know. I didn’t need them – I know where the patio is – but I like them. And that would be my stock answer to the question Ken always asked about why I keep bringing junk home.
In all, I am just very busy. I’m preoccupied too, with thoughts of how I can mother my daughter in ways that make her feel as though has more than one parent. How can I be more dad-like when she misses fatherly advice not to mention his unique brand of humor. I can’t. I can only re-tell all the stories that prove how much he loved her and hope that something therein will lift her up.
If it’s hard for me to know what to say to my daughter, I can only imagine how tough it is for other people. They don’t know what to say, worried that whatever it is will be the wrong thing. I never knew about Being. A. Widow. until it happened to me. I don’t even know what to say to myself about it. It is the subject some people do not bring up; the massive elephant in the room. I want to tell them that saying the wrong thing is better than saying nothing at all, that ignoring the chapter of my life that just ended makes me feel a bit like the way I felt when the bank removed his name from the checking account. I just wish they would say his name every once in a while and ask me if I miss him. Do you miss Ken? What do you miss most? How long has it been now? It would be easy and less sad for me if I could just talk about him without making people feel awkward. Asking me about him would allow me to tell a story about him, something funny perhaps, like the time he drove to work with no pants on, because the dryer was broken and all his jeans were still in the washer. It was before 5AM on a hot Phoenix morning, still dark outside, so he drove down the freeway with his Levis hanging out the car window to dry. Yes he did. Thinking about it makes me laugh, and laughter is great medicine; it’s a gift.
One of the first gifts my husband ever gave me was a silver pocket compass. Having noted very early in our relationship my stellar capacity for getting lost – and notwithstanding the fact that I was then a novice driving on the American side of the road – my man intervened as he knew best. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I was never one for “orienteering” or map-reading; I was more of a free-spirited “let’s-just-see-where-the-road-takes-us” kind of gal, a far cry from those students back home who earned Duke of Edinburgh Awards. WIth that kind of attitude, I got lost all the time. Devil-may-care on the open road frequently gave way to panic. I would fret over whether to turn left or right, then commit to turning right only to look over my shoulder and realize I should have turned left. And then I would call to report that I was lost. Again. Invariably, he would ask me if the sun was behind me or in front of me, somehow believing that if he helped me establish North, I would be just fine. Naturally, that never worked, and he always had to stay on the phone with me until I found a recognizable landmark. So for our first Christmas together, he gave me the lovely compass which is still in the blue velvet lined box it came in. I always thought it was too much like a piece of jewelry to be practical and, anyway, I didn’t really need it to help me find my way home. I relied on him for that.
With factory-installed GPS navigation systems de rigeur and knowing there is most certainly “an App for that,” I am much better at finding my way around the greater Phoenix metropolitan area these days. It should be noted that if I have been somewhere at least eight times, I can get there without assistance. But until such times, I must count on either Google maps, Siri, my daughter reading directions from the phone that is smarter than us or those friends and colleagues who consistently “bring me in” by phone from my destination, where they are already waiting.
My daughter had never seen the compass. It was safe in a box with old birthday cards and Valentines from my husband. For her 16th birthday, I wondered what I could possibly give her to mark the occasion. What do you give to a teenager whose father died just three weeks earlier? For her birthday, there was not one thing I could go out and buy that would make her day any brighter or better. I don’t know why I thought of the compass, but it seemed perfect. In a rush – last minute, as usual – I had a local jeweler engrave the front of its case with her beautiful name, Sophie, and on the back, a perfect sentiment from W. H. Auden:
“He was my North, my South, my East and West My working week and my Sunday rest.” He was my daddy for 5,809 days.
Yes. He was. He made a mark. He contributed a verse.
I will too.
. . . The powerful play goes on.