Just Another Widow
This afternoon, Mt. Carmel Hospice called for my six-month "checkup." How am I doing? they wanted to know. "Well," I said. "I am doing well." Am I telling the truth, I wondered; what is "well"? What sorrowing widow can ever really do well, I think. What standard does hospice use? With all their experience, they must have some definition of good and bad, well and unwell, heartsick and heartbroken. Of one thing I am sure: What is well one day is sick at heart the next, what is laughter one hour may be tears the next. In an effort to chart my own road to acceptance (I think it is there, somewhere ahead), I began to keep a journal on December 31, three weeks after my husband's death. Now as I look back, I wonder if I have walked a mile or one hundred, if I am out in front or lagging way behind, is there a "norm," and might it help me, and others who may read this, to share my journey as I go? I would welcome the company.Circles on the Third Floor
I avoided widowhood for fifty-six years. Bob and I tried really hard to make it longer than that, and he could have given up or given out any of the last ten, but he didn't. When he finally couldn't walk, or even move by himself; when I had to feed him and clean him; when he half-dreamed his own funeral and the "plaque" they would read, and the "people from Cleveland" who would come; when we could assure him that all the circles on the third floor were clean (although we have no third floor), then he and I and our internist knew it was finally time. The death certificate says the causes were cardiac arrest, arteriosclerotic heart disease, diabetes mellitus Type I. What it was was that everything just deteriorated, ravaged by diabetes and age and the fact that his father, too, had died at eighty-three. So, in December 1998, I joined that unhappy band of women that has been growing like a geriatric sorority, and I became just another widow.
Looking back, all the way back to my teen years, I find so many different Phyllises as the years passed. I can see her, and almost feel her, but it is hard to get the true picture of what she was like as she moved forward (she hopes forward) through the physical changes and the cultural changes and the scientific and medical changes, through the feminist movement and the political upheavals. The one constant: for the last fifty-six years she has been Bob's wife.
All marriages have moments of great joy and great pain, the relationship changes over every decade, every day, and who I am now, who any of us are at the end of a marriage compared to who we were at the beginning is hard, even impossible, to get a handle on. I was a war bride, and while my husband was overseas I worked at a good and stimulating job as a fashion advertising copywriter for a department store. It was all new for me. I think there was a career, out in that exciting world, that we now call PR or media relations or marketing. But in 1945 I wanted none of that. I wanted a home in the suburbs and I wanted a baby. And then another and then another. We fit the statistical pattern perfectly: the house, the mortgage, the backyard barbecue, and my Major home from the war. A normal life, a conventional storybook, until suddenly it's time to write the last chapter.
What we always said to one another, especially as we came down the final stretch, was that we had had a helluva ride. This memory of our life that we ran over and over in our minds and conversations in the last year or two was the nourishment that gave us the strength to accept that it couldn't go on forever.His Tan Poplin Suit and Red Stripe Tie
It is Paul Harvey who says "And now for the rest of the story," which is a good lead for breaking news. My story, actually, has no "rest," it just goes on and on. The rest of the story will evolve day by day, as long as I live.
I go through the necessary motions. I laugh some. I do shed some tears. I am learning to accept that this is the way it is, that there is almost nothing I can do except keep the faith, and walk through the storm with my head held high, and whistle while I work, and speak only soft answers to turn away wrath-and check my Bartlett's Book of Quotations for more clichés. For every widow there is a timetable, and "recovery" comes to each one on a different schedule and in a different way.
Just as recovering alcoholics are never free from the desire for a drink, so, too, am I, a recovering griever, never free of my desire for the life I had before. There just aren't any twelve steps that help. Nevertheless, with determination and reliance on the love and goodwill of friends and family, there are tolerable days and a window still on life's joys.
It seems incredible that months have passed and it is the bad memories of the last year of my marriage that are still so much clearer in my mind than the good memories of those many years that came before.
When I can reclaim those years, when the children were young and we lived in our lovely, traditional home, where we ate breakfast in a sunny breakfast room and ate dinner together every night, when Bob came home from work each evening to find his family awaiting his arrival, then I will know I am at least moving down that recovery road.
There is one picture in my mind of Bob that I return to over and over again. We are going out to dinner; his mother is here visiting us. We have driven to the top of the little hill and out of the driveway. Bob notices that he has forgotten to turn the pool sweep off, and so he goes down to turn the switch. As he comes back up the hill, in his tan poplin suit and his repp stripe tie and his blue button-down shirt, tan and healthy, with his great smile, I know that once and forever God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, my never-changing mantra.
When I say "Bob," and that is the picture that flashes into my mind and heart, then, perhaps, I can say that I am recovered.
For me, the written word is the quintessential medium. From grocery lists to condolence messages to letters to friends or to the children at camp or for birthdays, it's the most effective way to express myself. Over the years, each time that Bob got sick, I would write a few words in the evening to remind me of how the day had gone. Each time he was in the hospital, I would come home and write. What was for me a tension release became, also, my medical log. By the time I had a computer, I had actual files of illnesses and operations, even one called Hive History, reporting when and how that chronic itch kept recurring. Bob got sick-really sick-the day after Labor Day, went to the hospital for tests and came home a bedridden, kidney-failing, medically complex, probably incurable, accepting good sport of a man. He died on December 12 after three horrible months that left us all heartbroken and devastated.
In the days after Bob's death, I gave no thought to writing anything other than thank-you notes for condolences. I was so busy, greeting visitors and talking to lawyers, talking to accountants, talking to the VA, being sure that we had someone to shovel snow. The mundane things were taking a lot of time.
As much as I enjoy writing, I would never have kept a daily journal after Bob died if I hadn't received my granddaughter Maggie's beautiful Christmas gift, a hardbacked journal, spiral-wire bound so that the lined pages lie flat for writing. On the cover there is the title One Day at a Time and a drawing of a lovely-looking older woman, in a big black hat, kneeling in her garden, tenderly holding a small plant in her hand, a not-so-subtle suggestion that she is probably a widow. The hat is the giveaway, that and the unmistakable sad expression. I got the message: Plant your small thoughts and they might help you heal and grow.
At first I thought it was a unique experience for me to find solace in writing my nightly entries. Once the tips-for-healing began arriving in the hospice mailings, it dawned on me that these journal jottings might be a comfort for others. Most of the published books I found about widowhood did not really speak to me; there were not many from a purely personal perspective. Thus, this book is just the journal, magnified. It is helping me even as I hope it helps those who might read it. We tackle our sorrow alone, but if we open ourselves with sympathy and empathy, it is a much less lonely road.
What started as a very private project began to take shape in my mind as something I could share, something for many of us, paddling away in the same small, sad boat.Merchandise on State Street
Not that long ago, we, a couple, did what the funeral industry calls "preplanning." It required a weird combination of realism and common sense with a kind of denial that what we were doing was ever really going to be of any use. Die? Us? Of course we would-someday, someday-just not in our foreseeable future.
In November and December 1997 there was a promotion to plan and prepay your funeral, advertised by the Schoedinger Funeral organization, which has, for the last hundred years, buried almost everyone we know. If it didn't seem exactly a lark to go ahead and make these arrangements, it was not a depressing thing to do. In fact, everyone seemed to be doing it, saying at dinner get-togethers that they had been downtown to the State Street chapel to talk to Dave or Jay, the Schoedingers currently in charge. I had served on boards and committees with both of them, and Bob was a good friend and fellow Rotarian of the retired senior Schoedinger, John.
The rationale for doing this was to save our children some onerous decision making when they would be grieving. So down to State Street we went, and we filled out all the forms and even chose the "merchandise" (merchandise!): the casket, the urn, the cremation box. As we wandered around the second floor of the chapel, we thought it best not even to think of the implications, but just to get it done. And we did.
We chose a cemetery plot, too, and ordered headstones. And then it was all put in a file for what we hoped would be a long, long time. One year later, I pulled out the file for Bob, and his plan became operational.
We had assumed, I think, that there was a tax, as well as an emotional, advantage to all of this. There was, of course, neither. When it came time to list funeral expenses to be paid by the estate, we couldn't include the prepayment because it would have to be offset by the asset of owning the plan! If the prepayment was supposed to be a hedge against inflation, that didn't work for Bob, although it may for me. It came to be something that just was. Like the death itself.
I go to the cemetery now and am not sure I like the plot we chose, one of many that have belonged to my family for years. I know I do not like the headstone that bears both of our names. Somehow that macabre fact escaped me in the planning, but we have one grave, therefore one stone. At least my death date hasn't the inscription "19-," because 2001 is already here and, all things being equal, to have inscribed the wrong century for my death would have been bad planning indeed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from It Must Have Been Moonglow by Phyllis Greene. Copyright © 2001 by Phyllis Greene. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.