I would like to tell you, dear fellow members of the Club No One Wants to Join, especially those younger to widowhood than I am, that it gets easier over time.
And I can. For it does. It gets easier over time.
I would also, so very much, like not to tell you that you never get over it. But unfortunately, because the only thing I try to do here is be truthful, I must tell you this, too.
It doesn’t end. You never get over it.
YOU THINK YOU’VE LEARNED, BUT…
Seventeen times I’ve followed the circle of the year since Ned’s death. Enough repetitions, you’d think, to get familiar with the path. A long enough period to have other markers added to it (thirteen years after Ned’s death, my mother died: same month, 11 days earlier). I know to expect the waves in grief’s tides to rise higher in fall, not only because it is the season of endings, but because, for me, it’s when the cortege of significant personal loss rolls by. November 19, my mother’s death. November 23, the birthday of my late father. November 25, my own birthday. Thanksgiving. November 30, the day Ned went on that bicycle ride , wheels spinning him right out of this life on Earth to whatever is next.
(Live long enough and you, too, will probably have such phases at some point each year; will learn to watch for higher-than-usual tides).
But somehow, I always forget, or half-forget, one earlier event, the passage of which could be said to presage all the others. October 20, Ned’s and my anniversary.
I’m not good with numbers. I don’t automatically or consciously think, ever, “Oh, it would have been our X-th anniversary.” When I do have that thought, I have to do the math, counting on my fingers.
And when it is a significant number, like the fives (25th, 30th, 35th), there is a jolt.
And it is always sudden, unexpected, cutting.
WHO’S GOT YOUR BACK?
Recently, my lower back has been in and out of spasm. It was more than a week before I was able to get in to see Beth, my esteemed chiropractor.
“Tell me what brought it on,” she said.
“I wish I could,” I said. “The only, and I mean the only, thing that was at all out of the ordinary was I wore heels for an hour or so at an event a few days earlier.”
“That wouldn’t have done it,” Beth said.
“Well, but the day of, I just woke up with it. I hadn’t pulled or lifted anything unusually heavy, I had gone to bed fine, I was happy, I was engaged with what I was doing, getting ready to teach, and — bam. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t think anything caused it, it just happened.”
Beth said, “It may be a mystery to you, but something caused it. It didn’t just happen.”
NOT GETTING IT
Was there a hint? There was, but I failed to get it in its entirety.
Before the back episode, before I saw Beth, I’d had a previously scheduled outpatient surgery appointment, for an orthopedic shoulder injection. By that time my lower back was going so crazy the shoulder almost didn’t hurt anymore, but I went anyway.
The doctor, making chitchat beforehand, asked me where I lived. I gave him the name of my little town.
“Oh, I bike up there a lot,” he said. Adding proudly, “On-road biking!”
I of course was unable to do the sensible thing and shut the eff up… no, I had to say, “Be careful. My husband lost his life in an on-road bicycle accident. ”
The doctor, noticeably shocked, recoiled, then soberly asked for details. Which I gave.
And yes, of course this stirred it all up. Which, also of course, was not a great state in which to go into a medical procedure.
And also of course, the last time I had such a shot was with Ned, long long ago and back in Arkansas, at Ozark Orthopedic, maybe 24 years ago.
And also of course, it was fall, my own harvest festival of loss.
So after the shot (not as bad as I anticipated) and the conversation, I went back down to the parking lot, got into the Subaru, sat, and had a good brief intense cry.
I thought, this is why you write the Widowhood Wednesdays… Because you just never know when the stuff is going to sneak up on you. You just have to tell people what you can about this.
And because even as I sat there sobbing, I also knew I had to feel what I was feeling, and that I could bear to do so. To once again feel how impossible, painful, unfair, and non-negotiable was the loss of that beautiful man, still in his mid-forties. And with his loss, the loss of the unlived life we would or could or might have had together.
But — and this is what seventeen years of widowhood gives you — I also knew I would come out the other side of the wave, as I have a thousand times before.
So wasn’t that enough, as far as insight? As far as understanding what grief is, and loving life, or at least allowing it to flow through me, on its own terms?
This morning, six days after the shot, is October 19, the 11th day my back has been coming in and out of spasm, though not always at hyper-intensity. I lay in bed after I woke, thinking about what I was going to do today, including finishing the Widowhood Wednesday post I had started here (not this one).
Then I got up and began my morning writing practice.
I wrote the date. My breath caught. I counted on my fingers.
This is what I wrote:
Tomorrow would have been
in three more years
I will have been
than I was
look, I get
that loss is life-inherent
is the coin
with which we pay
of what feelings
ask of us
is merely that
we feel them
I actually like
all that, plus
returning this morning
behind my eyelids
wouldn’t you think a person
would run out of them after a while?
I suppose as long
as that person
has memory, no
(of him, when he was here)
(for him, now that he is not)
grief is not always active,
more usually silent
of who we are
wisdom compassion humility
the letting go
of control we never had
but thought we did
of pernicious ideas
(how could you not be)
(like a beloved
present for a while
then that absolute vanishing)
than we are
no new pictures of him
can be taken
“he’s always with you” say people
who don’t know
they are not wrong
they are so wrong
I will use a picture
I have used
taken before I knew
(how could I have known)
by which I would pay
for that deep
AMBUSHED, BUT IN A DIFFERENT WAY
After writing, I got out of bed. My back felt noticeably better. Had all these spasms been about paying attention? Naming and feeling what I was to feel directly? This seemed far-fetched, but there was no doubt I hurt less.
It was chilly. I dug in my sweater drawer, chose the magenta cashmere tunic I bought at Experienced Goods, the hospice-run thrift store in Brattleboro. With it, black fleece leggings, and legwarmers, with magenta, wine red, and purple-fuschia stripes.
Now, I am attentive to color. As always, even on days when the only other living creature I’ll see will be the cat, I carefully chose what goes with what. I selected the bordeaux red garnet earrings, the ones that were once my Grandmother Ella’s. I changed out the watchband on my Fitbit to a deep purple.
Let’s see, what else?
And, I thought, oh… I’ll wear Grandpa Ivan’s ruby ring.
Now, Grandpa Ivan was not my Grandpa Ivan, but Ned’s. I don’t wear the ring that often; maybe twice a year. It’s masculine in size and cut, and a little big on me. I slipped it on the middle finger of my right hand, where it rested next to my wedding ring. The color was perfect with the outfit.
Good. I was spiffed up enough to pass muster in my own eyes.
Then I came downstairs to write this.
And, having started it with realizing what day tomorrow would be, I decided to Google “40th Anniversary.” I knew the 40th wasn’t a silver or golden anniversary, so what was it?
Ruby. The 40th anniversary, it turns out, is your ruby anniversary.
Explain that to me.
Let it be a mystery.
Let it be unexpected news, dateline filed from the realm of long-time widowhood, where, no matter how long you are resident, you are still learning, caught up by, surprised in this journey.
Where loving and being loved and loss are all, always, present and bound up in complicated ways you don’t and can’t ever understand, but which you experience.
Where you never get over it. But it does get easier.