SOMETIMES THE PEOPLE WHO ARE MOST PRESENT FOR YOU AFTER YOU ARE WIDOWED ARE NOT WHO YOU’D EXPECT.
SOMETIMES THEY BEAR UNLIKELY GIFTS.
SOMETIMES THEY BRING SOMETHING THEY DIDN’T KNOW THEY WERE BRINGING, WHICH
YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU NEEDED.
UNTIL THEY GAVE IT. THEN, YOU KNEW.
Note: this post is Part 2, a special edition being sent not on Wednesday but on Christmas Day. It is the conclusion of The Holidays, after a Sudden Death: Look for the Helpers . If you haven’t, please go read that first, otherwise you’ll be coming in in the middle.
WHERE WE WERE
Me and the cat, alone in the white swirling world, a frozen hell. Then, early on that gray Christmas afternoon, there was a knock on the door.
Improbably, it was Charlisa Cato.
HELPERS: NOT ALWAYS WHERE YOU’D EXPECT
True and strange: often, those who are most able to come through for widows in the aftermath of bereavement are not their closest inner-circle friends, but friends who are one or two circles out.
I’ve noticed this so often, starting with my own case, that I’ve puzzled over it for years.
What I think is, first of all, the people who are the widow’s closest friends were also, often, close to the partner or spouse who has died. Thus, they may be struggling with their own overwhelming grief at the loss.
Even if the widow’s best friends were not that attached to the deceased spouse, they may still be stunned with grief for what the widow is enduring and at their own inability to mitigate it. And they may even, in the case especially of sudden death, or the deaths of those who are relatively young, be coping at the absolute nature of death itself, not abstracted but close up.
These are almost existentially difficult, awkward feelings.
The grieving best friends of the widow recognize that the widow her- or himself has the higher “right” to grief. And, friends doesn’t want to add to her/his grief by bringing in their own sorrows. And who is going to comfort them? Certainly not the widow.
And so, if they are at all developed in compassionate maturity, they usually try to hide their sorrow in an attempt to spare their widowed friend, and not over-dramatize their secondary loss.
But of course, when people hide something, even for the best of reasons, there is always a slight barrier, a reticence.
This is all so understandable, even kind, and I believe in no way indicates inadequacy on the part of the widow’s best friends. For when, as the intimate of someone who has just been dealt a catastrophic loss, you are also deeply feeling grief which you are trying not to burden your friend with, you just don’t and can’t think straight. That’s what grief does.
That little bit of necessary distance, the calmness needed to walk with the widow as she or he goes through those tumultuous waves, to not try to fix her/him, while doing whatever may be needed practically — this is often not something the very closest friends can do, especially in the immediate aftermath.
(Though some do manage it, especially on big, one-time tasks. One of my five best friends took off work, drove up four hours to be with me a day or two afterwards, went with me for the first time to the bend in the road where Ned had been struck, stood with me as we looked at that dark stain-shadow where his body had lain on the road until the medi-vac helicopter arrived. And two other best friends stood beside me as we escorted Ned’s box into the flames at the crematory, two days later. All three bore the unbearable with me, and of course, then had to pull back a little to bear their own grief.)
But, on smaller things, secondary friends come in, or did for me. Those who played this role in my own widowhood were all people I truly liked, in some cases loved. People I enjoyed seeing and talking to and catching up with whenever I ran into them in our small town: at parties, at meetings, at classes, at events, in professional associations.
But we weren’t so close that we automatically made an effort to see each other. I wouldn’t have poured my heart out to them, or they to me, under ordinary circumstances. We didn’t think to call each other up just to talk or to ask advice or go on a walk, though this might happen in passing; we didn’t eat dinner together in each other’s homes on a regular basis, though we might occasionally be at a potluck together. There was affection, warmth, respect, but not deep intimacy.
Several of those who turned out to be this kind of secondary friend to me after Ned’s death were fellow bed-and-breakfast inn owners (Ned and I had owned and run an inn for 18 years, though we were not doing this at the time of his death). The sweet, funny, intelligent couple who then owned an art gallery, another who owned an holistic healing center. An older couple, the husband of whom served on the city council and knew Ned from Rotary. Several people who had served on various non-profit boards, either with me or Ned. A lovely woman who had long ago dated my (male) best friend. Some people we knew through the Unitarian Church.
All of them, in turn, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively, kept me tethered to the earth in small and large ways. I mentioned some in part 1 of this story. But there was also Dave, who insisted he drive me to the market in his four-wheel drive truck, between the storms. And Suzanne and her then-husband, who got me and Ned’s old, sick cat to the vet to be put to sleep, and pick-axed out a path down the hill through the ice. There was Grace, who supplied rose petals for the memorial.
And Charlisa Cato, that Christmas Day.
Charlisa Cato. We were good friends, long-time friends, always happy to see each other and catch up, but, in just this way, not close-close.
A petite woman who grew up in Memphis, I knew her in the days when she would get on stage and sing “Honky-Tonk Women” at the Quiet Night in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I knew she had been a dancer when young, had had a scholarship at the New York Ballet Theater and then been cut when an accident — a broken foot? a leg? — had ended that path for her. I knew her before and after a benign tumor had slightly altered one side of her dear face.
I knew her when she became a Buddhist, a quiet doer of good. I knew her as the person to whom, when I complained that no cardinals were coming to my birdfeeder, said, “Black-oil sunflower seeds. You won’t be disappointed. ” I knew her as one of our front desk people back when we had Dairy Hollow House, the inn; she would take 10 chocolate chips from the kitchen each day, and stash them to nibble on, in a dish by the cash register, a chip at a time. Her laugh had a light quick effervescent bubbling sound, like a fountain. She had a number of cats. She had formerly worked at a local coffee house, and, after Dairy Hollow, went on to become a chiropractor’s receptionist.
But did we go out to dinner once a week? Do I see her every time I return to Eureka? Are we in regular contact? Have I ever been to her home? No, no, no, and no.
But that Christmas Day, when nothing and no one was moving, in dense snow that was falling over ice so thick that every step was a risk, Charlisa hiked in the back road to Dairy Hollow from her home up on Emporia, maybe 3/4 of a mile downhill and then uphill from where I was.
I opened the door to her, and wept.
WHAT SHE BROUGHT
She handed me a canvas bag, and began to peel off wet layers, including a pair of gigantic wool socks which she had worn over her boots, for traction. We put them over the heat vent to dry. We hung up her coat, scarf, hat, mittens, placed the boots by the door.
Here is what she brought, in the bag.
A loaf of wholewheat bread. A jar of peanut butter. A jar of apple butter.
Here is what I remember.
We toasted several slices, ate them open-faced, with a smear of peanut butter topped with apple butter. I had not eaten in quite awhile, but I managed most of one of those pieces of toast.
We ate them seated at the old battered maple kitchen table, which sat in the main room of the studio (that table… it’s one of the few things I wish I had not sold when I moved away from Arkansas a few years later).
We talked, though I do not remember about what.
What I do remember is this, because it was so surpassingly strange to me, then and now.
Suddenly, sitting there with her, I was overcome with sleepiness. Irresistible, intense sleepiness.
“Charlisa,” I asked her. “I don’t mean to be rude, but could I, would you mind if I… could I just go upstairs and nap for a few minutes while you’re here?”
She said, graciously, “Of course.”
I climbed the ladder to the loft, lay down on the bed, and fell into a deep sleep, more narcotic than any the sleeping medications had given me. I awoke perhaps 20 minutes later.
Had I, perhaps, been sleeping as little as I had been eating?
Had it felt too unsafe to sleep, in that unsafe world, not only Ned-less but white and frozen and icy and silent, until someone I trusted was present, standing guard like a carved temple dog, fending off all demons?
I do not know. I do know that, when I was widowed a second time more than a decade later, something similar — suddenly being striken by that deep, irresistible, need to sleep — happened in the presence of another dear friend.
And I know that while I hold in one hand the absolute and surpassing strangeness of that experience, I hold in the other a gratitude as deep and hot as the earth’s molten core, far below its sometimes frozen, bare surface.
I woke, came downstairs, to where Charlisa, so loyal, so deeply kind, sat at the maple table. We talked a little more; again, I do not remember about what.
Eventually she said, “I have to get back, before it gets much darker.” She rebundled herself. The wool oversocks that had been on the heat vent had just about dried out. I turned on the porch lights, and watched her cross the porch, go down the steps, and, moving carefully, begin the long trudge back down and then up to Emporia, in the swirling snow, which soon obscured her.
I write these words seventeen years after that Christmas. After all this time, it is still almost impossible to recall those days, dark as they were in almost every sense. But it is even harder to describe the excruciating and undeserved kindness I received from Charlisa on that day. I have told her several times over the years since then, and she always professes surprise. “I can’t believe you even remember that,” she says.
I am not a Christian, but I know and have long loved this line from Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. ”
Grief and bereavement make us strangers to ourselves and others; makes living itself unrecognizable. But I am not the angel in this story; the angel was Charlisa, who knocked on my door that impossible day, and gave me enough, just enough, to continue.
If we live long enough, we will all be strangers, outcasts, bereft and bewildered, betrayed by life, which is so often not what we thought it might be.
But we will also, each of us, have the chance to be an angel, perhaps bundled up and wearing oversocks, bearing peanut butter.
Here is what I wish for you, no matter where you are in the grief journey, which is what I wish for all of us, including myself: the courage to give and receive, to live with compassion and love, whatever the circumstances. To knock on the door, or to open it, when it is your turn.
This post is part of Crescent’s Widowhood Wednesday series. It is the fifth and last of offered around on the November-December holidays.
Charlisa, uncharacteristically, is in the center of the photograph in the middle of this post. It was taken in the late summer of 2002, on the porch of my old writing studio in Eureka Springs, Moonshine Cottage… the same porch Charlisa crossed in the snow on Christmas Day, 2000. I’m in the white sweater, and part of this ring of solid friends. They were helping me pack the moving truck that would carry my possesions (those I hadn’t sold at what called the mother of all yard sales) from Arkansas to Vermont. From left to right: Cheri White, Starr Mitchell, George West (I think he took the picture, using a timer) , and me — with Charlisa in the middle. Oh friends oh friends. How hard this period, and the second period of repeating losses about a decade later, were. Yet how held I was by my friends. Still overwhelmed with gratitude.
And the lovely peanut butter heart? It is from River Rock Vapes.