You expect things like anniversaries.
Like birthdays. Like Father’s Day (if he was the father of your children). Mother’s Day (if she was the mother of your children).
Like “We would have been married 31 years today.”
Like, looking at your watch and seeing the exact dark beat of time, when according to the death certificate, he or she crossed over from life to death, leaving you stranded in the former.
Like your son’s wedding, daughter’s graduation, the birth of your first grandchild, when his or her presence is there only as absence, a cut-out filled with air in precisely his or her shape, down to that much-loved cowlick or noble nose in silhouette, but visible only as he, she should have been here.
You expect things like that to trigger grief. But, spring tree frogs? An election? An eclipse?
Seven months after Ned’s death, hearing the spring tree frogs known colloquially as peepers for the first time, I realized, “It’s spring. He will never experience another spring. I will never have another spring with him.”
By that time I had starting eating again, a little; I was out that night for pizza with friends, at that place by the lake.
When I heard the peepers, my throat suddenly, without warning, closed; tears leapt to my eyes. I was already so sick of being mugged by grief, but here it was again. I said, “Excuse me,” rose swiftly from the table, went outside. I heard someone’s chair push back; I heard another friend, who knew me (and grief itself) better, say, “Just leave her for a minute.”
I found a corner of the deck not visible from the restaurant. I leaned on the railing overlooking the water. The sky, and its reflection in the lake, were bruised with the last of the daylight; gold, purple, salmon. I put my face in my hands, shaking with those uncontrollable, hated, wretched grief-sobs. But I had learned a grim skill: how to sob quietly.
Eventually I stopped. I went back in, headed for the restroom, splashed cold water on my face over and over again. Rejoined my friends. Was hugged sympathetically; thanked them, sincerely. The evening went on, though I was done eating for the night.
I kept thinking, “Peepers? Effing peepers? When does this end? “
Four years after Ned’s death, I went to an election-watch party and potluck in 2004. It was held at the home of new friends in my new, post-Ned, Vermont life.
Although my existence without Ned still felt mostly surreal, there were occasional hours that seemed normal-ish. In those I would think, “Maybe I am finally getting a footing in this new life?”
This didn’t last, but certainly I was visibly high function; certainly I longed to be over the terrible monotony of grief.
I brought a flag-motif’d cheesecake to the election-watch party. It was baked in a rectangular pan, glazed with stripes of strawberries and a rectangle in the upper left corner glazed in blueberries. I set it down on an overflowing table in the large kitchen, the cabinets of which were painted an attractive, unusual aqua blue. I went to the adjacent living room and sat down to watch the returns on a large-screen TV, with a group of friendly, like-minded people.
At first we were cheerful. The exit polls showed our candidate ahead. But as I sat with my new friends, a grim sense of deja vu, a pall, began to descend on all of us.
And behind my political distress t I felt a further backbeat of anxiety cresting. Besides the to-me incomprehensible pulling ahead of a candidate who seemed to me demonstrably incompetent, something else was rising in me. What was it?
The previous election had taken place on November 7, 2000. I had been with Ned. We had watched the returns come in, back in Arkansas. sharing the distress of that terribly unsettled Election Day.
November 23, 2000: Thanksgiving.
November 25, 2000: my 48th birthday.
We celebrated both, but the days were overcast, gray with the unanswered question who would be president.
November 30, 2000. Ned went out for that same old bike ride I have mentioned over and over (the story I have had to tell, like all widows, a million-and-one times). But instead of going out to the Conoco by the lake (which he called the Canoe-Co, because they rented canoes out there) and turning home, he bicycled into eternity. The boatman on his odd River Styx being the 20-year-old driver of a Chevvy pick-up.
So, of course. Yet, it had never dawned on me to I expected it; to think, oh, my first election without Ned, I might be triggered.
I excused myself. Went home early from the election-watch party. All people; I liked them, but they had never known Ned. Why should I burden them with grief, the my parallel anxieties about the fate of my country and my own personal loss-colored anxiety?
Election Day? Is every effing presidential election going to take me out? When does this end?
It is now almost seventeen years since Ned’s death.
It has been some time since I have had a grief fit; a couple of years.
For the past three and a half of those 17 years, I have been passionately, happily involved with and devoted to a man of (among other things) agile curiosity. He could be described as a polymath; he is interested in almost everything (including, I am glad to say, me, and with passion and involvement equal to mine).
Some of my present day Alpha Dude’s interests include science, physics, and astronomy, so I had been hearing from him about the recent eclipse since last summer. As you no doubt know, it was the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in nearly a century, and my guy was mightily chuffed. Though we considered a trip to one of the totality zones (Nashville, where I have friends? Seattle, where his sister lives?), in the end sanity prevailed and we stayed more or less put.
The plan was, he would come up from his apartment in New York to my place in Vermont. The totality here would be 56% per cent. He would order eclipse glasses, making sure they were the real kind, not the rip-off kind that didn’t really work. He watched the weather forecasts with anxiety; would there be cloud cover? Yes, no, maybe. Then, on the day of, no! We’d have an excellent sighting! I learned about pin-hole cameras, including the one he had made. I heard about “those poor people” as he put it, who actually were terrified that the eclipse would make their pets go blind.
The eclipse glasses he had ordered arrived, about the time he did. He tested them. We talked about the eclipse a lot, or rather, mostly, he talked and I listened.He told me about other eclipses he had witnessed. He was beside himself with anticipatory happiness. This was infectious.
I could only remember one eclipse: back in the days when I co-owned an inn and restaurant, Dairy Hollow House, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, with Ned. I remembered that eclipse fondly: it was a pleasant, not-too-hot day, which meant it would have been spring or fall. Carolyn, a server at the restaurant, and Leslie, our “dairymaid” , and Ned and I, wandered about outside the inn’s front desk area, by the two little gardens and the wooden Holstein cow. We did not have special glasses, but we knew not to look at the sun. Ned was taking pictures: of us, of the gravel driveway and the walkway to the front door. Everything and everyone spangled with little crescent moons. All of us slightly giddy with wonder and surprise.
I’d told my present-time sweetheart about that day, before the recent eclipse, remembering it with pleasure, no grief. Just mild happiness at the memory.
Alpha Dude figured out that that eclipse, the one I’d seen with Ned and Carolyn and Leslie, had been a partial solar, probably the one that took place on May 10, 1994.
Monday, August 21, 2017, twenty-three years after that one, this recent one began. Alpha Dude and I went outside on the early afternoon. With our eclipse glasses, we looked at the sun, being eaten like a cookie by the dark moon. We looked at the crescent moons made on the road, and then he got a piece of paper and we could suddenly see the little crescent moons much more clearly. It was just the two of us, happy. His excitement palpable, mine more muted but pleased.
And he started taking pictures.
And then, suddenly, I was eclipsed. By the full emotional memory of that day long ago with Ned in front of the inn. And all that lay ahead of us, as it turned out, all we did not and could not have known. That he would die, six years later. That I would leave Eureka Springs. That I would be watching another eclipse, with a man who was wholly unknown to me then. That I would meet that man under circumstances wholly unimaginable to me.
That stab of grief, like a knife in the throat, exactly as it had always felt.
But, at last, I didn’t have to ask when it would end. At last I knew.
WHEN DOES GRIEF END
Every widow who suffers wants to know when grief will finish. When we will get our lives back. When we will be recognizable to ourselves, when life will be recognizable to us.
Here is one true answer: it never ends. If the two of you were together for a long time and loved each other deeply, you will never completely run out of associations which trigger fits of grief.
Here is another true answer: the intervals between those terrible paroxysms gradually get longer, by tiny increments.
This realization, too, carries its own kind of shock: you realize, when you sit down to have lunch (if you are eating by that point), that other then when you first woke up in tears that morning to the impossible realization that yes, he or she is dead, you have not had a grief attack all day. You have gone a whole morning!
And then a twinge: how could you have not? Does it mean you are forgetting her? Does it mean you are beginning to accept a life in which he is no longer present? Does it mean she is drifting farther and farther away into the universe? All this, very likely, brings on another wave of grief. Down and under, drowning uncontrollably again, away you go: until you come up again.
BSad though even not feeling grief is at times (for in a way, it’s another color of loss, a grayed-out shade rather than the vivid agonizing purity of grief), still, you take note: the intervals between episodes are lengthening.
And that is how it happens.
Whenever you do feel grief (like me at the eclipse, seventeen freaking years after his death), it will always have that same unbearable intensity. Which you somehow bear.
But this will happen less and less often, as the days, weeks, months, and years unspool.
And those intervals in between? At first they are dull, flat, unending sadness, but this will also change. Gradually they will take on color and shape, meaning and reality. The first time you notice how juicy that red-hearted August peach is, its sweetness and acidity, or the first time a joke about a camel walking into a bar makes you laugh, you will be shocked. You may feel guilt, or a twinge of disloyalty, or another wave of grief.
Eventually, unthinkably, you may kiss someone other than the person who was the sole recipient of your kisses, perhaps for decades.
And yet: this is the way it works.
On its own timetable, unpredictably, this is how, in tiny increments, you return to life as a reinvented person.
Alpha Dude knows about my first grief, that which followed Ned’s death. And also my second, when David, the man I lived with after Ned’s death, took his own life.
My guy is my age. He is not unacquainted with loss, or with wisdom.
Standing on the gravel road here, the crescent moons, the wonder of dark and light and change all around us, me crying, doubled over with sudden grief, he hugged me, hard, and said simply, “I’m here.”
And he was and is.
Because those are the terms on which life insists love is conducted. No exceptions. Somebody leaves first.
I will say it again, dear co-sojourner on this rough path called widowhood: when grief wants to be felt, it will find a way for you to feel it.
And: that the intervals between when you feel it will, for better and for worse, lengthen. That those intervals at first feel like “worse”, but eventually turn out to be “better.” And, after the first and largely uncontrollable phase of grief gradually comes to an end (it can take years; it is so individual): if you decide, after this, tht you want “better”, if you wish this and work for it, you can re-engage with life, and be surprised by it.
And — speaking as someone who has loved twice, been widowed twice, and had the effrontery to love and build a third time, even knowing the terms — there is something bigger than grief. Something “bright shining as the sun”, as the old hymn says.
Grief is one aspect of that something bigger. Though grief cannot be ducked, it is still partial. The whole, which cannot be eclipsed except temporarily, is love itself.