HE DIED. SUDDENLY. AN ACCIDENT.
THREE WEEKS LATER, THE WORST WINTER WEATHER IN THE STATE’S HISTORY BLEW IN.
SOMETIMES DISASTERS COLLIDE
SOMETIMES FRIENDS HOLD A PLACE FOR US WHEN WE CAN’T DO IT FOR OURSELVES.
It is easy, looking back on the aftermath of the catastrophic theft of normalcy that is widowhood, to recall the hurtful, bone-headed remarks and deeds of others, however unintentional they may have been. In the skinless days when grief has gutted us like a fish, we are so bewildered that tactlessness we’d usually brush off is acid splashed on an exposed organ.
But this is not the only story.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Fred Rogers, of the PBS children’s program Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, used to say, “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
This is almost always true in the grief journey, too. Along with the people who may be incapable of understanding are a few who do.
This is the first of several posts which explore this, but not, initially, in a how-to-ish, “Eight Ways to Help a Widow” way.
Instead, here’s what happened to me, and how others carried me over the abyss in the immediate aftermath of his unexpected death.
For now, please extrapolate from that.
To recap the story I have told in detail here many times: one unseasonably sunny Thursday a week after Thanksgiving, on November 30, 2000, Ned Shank, to whom I had been married for 23 years, went out on the same 24-mile on-road bicycle ride he’d taken three times a week for years. On his way back, he and a pick-up collided. He died in an emergency room in Rogers, Arkansas, a few hours later.
I — we — lived then in the small, tightly knit Ozark Mountain resort town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. We had lived there many years. We were active in community life. Ned was well-loved. The news of his death hit almost instantaneously. It shook the town hard.
I have little clarity about those first few days; I was dazed, and only a few fleeting moments stay with me.
BLANKETED IN SHOCK
The morning after the accident, people began arriving at the small, out-of-the-way studio that was my hideaway, the place I thought almost no one even knew was there (how, I wondered, did they even find it?).
I remember realizing, the Friday after the Thursday on which he had died, that the house was filled with people. Why?
I was surrounded by those who wished to offer sympathy or presence, some were even telling me to contact a wrongful death attorney, some I did not even know except as nodding acquaintances with whom I’d exchanged pleasantries at the supermarket. Yet there they were. Why?
It was late afternoon, I discovered, and I was still in a bathrobe, the old turquoise chenille one my mother had given me years earlier. Why?
And here I was sitting on the floor, on the pink and blue rug, in my bathrobe, and all these people… Why?
Ned died. Ned had died. Ned was dead.
And then I went back down into whatever the anesthetized state shock takes you to is, about which you later have amnesia.
I remember nothing else about that first day, and little of the next few.
Another couple of surfacings:
Somebody else, I can’t remember who, was answering the phone, which rang incessantly. They took messages, writing them down to give to me later. But there was a moment on Saturday when whoever it was, was in the other room.
I was near the ringing phone. I picked up.
“Crescent? This is Hillary Clinton. I just heard, and I had to call.” She and I and Ned had worked together on behalf of the Arkansas Literacy Council, but we had not spoken in years.She had just been elected senator of of New York. I was so surprised it took me out of myself for a moment. Why would Hillary be calling me?
Oh. Ned. Ned died.
“How did you hear? ” I asked her.
She said, “Someone put a piece of paper in front of me with what had happened, and it had your number on it. And I picked up the phone and called you. ”
I remember speaking to her almost cheerfully, as if Ned were still alive, talking about how he and I got through his extramarital affair, which was happening on a microcosmic level at the same time as the Lewinsky thing was taking place on the world stage. I told her about a therapist who helped us, named David Schnarch.
“Spell ‘Schnarch,'” she asked me. I did.
After I hung up, I felt — for a few brief seconds? moments? — recognizably myself. For on that call I had been my old self: rational, interactive, surprised, pleased to hear from an old friend.
Then it hit again: Ned was dead. That was why Hillary had called. Death was permanent. Ned would never be back.
Grief, in its phase of shock, again took me out to sea, back to where whatever may have taken place is forgotten, past retrieval.
One other call I remember: my insurance agent.
“State Farm counts bicycling as a pedestrian accident, ” she said. “Since Ned was hit when he was out bicycling, you get a death benefit.”
It was a sizable amount. $10,000, $25,000? I don’t remember. But I remember bursting into sobs. Handing the phone to someone, I don’t know who, to get the details.
Then back to the land of no recall.
Don’t remember much else from those first few days.
DECEMBER, THAT FIRST WEEK OR SO
For the seven or eight days which followed, there were fewer people but still many more than I was used to. In and out, bewilderingly.
Friends brought food. I wasn’t eating (see Table for One). But the instinct to bring food, which is among the most concrete elements of life’s contract, to the bereaved, is powerful. Food says to the grieving, on an almost atavistic level, “You are still here.” From the abstract, far-away place in which I then dwelt, wrapped in the protective cocoon of shock, I recognized this as kindness.
There were other assumed basics the community took over at this time as well.
For instance, someone, or a couple of people, I’m not sure who, decided Crescent-should-not-be-alone-at-present. (These decisions, in many cases following a sudden death, might have been made by family. But Ned and I had no children, my father was dead, my mother was 85 and lived far away, and my brother and I were not close. My friends became my relatives.)
So every evening someone would show up to stay over, a rota of friends sleeping downstairs on a foam pad that had appeared from somewhere, and a sleeping bag atop it, on the floor.
This meant, when I paced at night, unable to sleep any longer than a medication-induced hour or two, I paced upstairs, quietly, back and forth in the tiny loft.
I never woke any of the visiting sleepers in the middle of the night, as far as I know. Still, the faint noise of their presence, the breathing or light snoring of other living souls, right downstairs, was comforting. Though the sounds were also strange and part of the general surreality that cut in and out with agony, those first days.
This cannot have been easy for those people, but they did it.
I am sure I thanked them, but in case I didn’t, and because such generosity cannot be recognized enough in any case, if you were one of those people, thank you, again, all these years later.
KISSES AND PHARMACEUTICALS
Someone also set up a list of medications I was supposed to take, and how often. I remember looking at the list, push-pinned to the kitchen window-frame above a tray with a few pill bottles — where had they come from? who prescribed them? — and thinking, “But I’m not the kind of person who takes anti-anxiety medications.”
If somebody put a glass of water in my hand — and someone did, periodically — I had a few sips and put it down. Likewise, the bowl of oatmeal that I remember appearing in front of me one morning. From where? Made by whom? Donna, who goes by Bree now? I think she may have been the one who made it, or maybe Scott, her husband? I had a spoonful, then my throat closed over. The oatmeal went away. Who took it away? Who washed the dishes? Who was there that morning? I don’t know.
Since, other than when I was Ned, I usually spent a lot of time by myself and had always been very self-sufficient, all this arrangement-making, this company, being told what to do, was in itself disorienting. But I was so dazed — and, in the moments when awareness broke through more completely, so utterly despairing — that I was deeply grateful. Or at least, gratitude was swirled into everything else.
It wasn’t so much that anything could be done or that I “needed” anything (beyond a rewind button that could take me back to before that bike ride, back when there were still an us and a we and I didn’t have to keep saying, “We, I mean I —” and weeping).
It was, rather, seeing, in all these gestures, that everyone cared so much. Was so sad that Ned was gone, and so disturbed on my behalf, and so determined to cushion the fall. Even without quite grasping in full the nature of that fall, I could perceive their care.
A bowl of Hershey’s kisses, a chocolate I would be highly unlikely to ever eat, also appeared on the counter. Kindly set out by someone. I wasn’t eating in any case, so what difference did the variety of chocolate make, what did I care except to recognized the generosity in the gesture? Looking one afternoon at the foreign bowl of foil-covered candies with their little white tissue paper flags, I thought Kisses? I will never be kissed again! I remember musing on this to myself, in that arm’s length, distracted way, And then dissolving, again, into reality, the sight of Ned’s beautiful mouth, his broken teeth, his beard with its red glints, his broken body on the table in the emergency room).
Also, some really good Swedish almond cookies were set out, next to the Hershey’s Kisses. Very thin, and crisp. One day I bit into one, couldn’t finish it it, tossed the remainder into the trash, left the box for other visitors. Thought, and watched myself think, “Normally, this would taste good to me.”
Normal. Neither Hershey’s Kisses nor cookies, sitting there next to the strange tray of pill bottles on the counter under the window, were normal.
Normal had, of course, died with Ned.
It took me awhile to even edge up to recognizing this.
And still longer, much longer, years, for a new, reinvented normalcy to slowly begin emerging.
For awhile, if you are lucky, others — in my case friends — hold a place for you in the world until you are able to return, at least a little. And so it was for me.
But then the holidays rolled in.
And the storms.
“I’LL BE FINE”
Many in my circle already had plans to leave town. I certainly didn’t expect them to change those plans. In fact I had no expectations of any kind. I was living in surreality, edging up to and away from the abyss.
“Will you be all right?” I remember being asked, several times.
“Of course,” I said, on automatic.
The old me did not impose on others, did not know know herself as needy or distraught. Under no circumstances did she want to be taken care of, particularly if it disrupted the plans of others. The old me was accustomed to being either with Ned, or. much of the time, being alone, happily working.
But who was I in this present reality? I had no idea yet — I had not even begun to articulate this questions in my thoughts. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I might need or want under these peculiar, wholly unlooked-for circumstances.
I was something like a piece of kelp, rolling in the tides of grief.
So the automatic habits of response prevailed.
Would I be I “all right”? What could that even mean, now? I would never be all right again, Ned was dead! I would crash into this and then slide away.
But what had this to do with the holiday plans of my friends?
“I really don’t want to leave you, but we bought the tickets to Thailand months ago… ”
“… but Richard’s parents are very old and set in their ways…”
“… but I promised my mother that this year I would be home for Christmas no matter what.”
“I thought we weren’t leaving for another week so I could hang out with you more, but with the weather reports on what’s coming in, we have to go on Wednesday.”
“Of course,” I said, “I’ll be fine.”
That I wasn’t was no fault of anyone’s. It was, in those strange words that insurance companies and accident reconstructionists would later use to describe that bicycle-pick-up collision, “an act of God.”
So, with few exceptions, pretty much everyone left.
This happens to all widows. Because of course, people have to go back to their own lives.
But, like Ned’s death itself, in this case it was exceptionally abrupt.
Quite suddenly, I was alone with the cat, in a house that was shockingly quiet.
And then the first storm rolled in, on December 12. Snow, more snow. Which melted to become ice.
I don’t remember much of the hell that began at that point, but I do remember that filling the bird-feeder.
It seemed critically important to refill that feeder, no matter what. The sight of seeing it empty, clacking into the shiplap siding on the house when the wind blew,was unacceptable. It felt eviscerating,unbearably wrong. It was yet another not-normal thing.
The feeder was hung high up on the house, on a bracket outside my 1 1/2-stories-up office window, and it was on a pulley. In the summer months, I also placed a hummingbird feeder there, and oh how I loved to watch the ruby-throateds come and go from it, while the finches and chickadees visited the year-round feeder. Sometimes I added yet another feeder, with black-oil sunflower seed, specifically for cardinals. Every time I looked up from the desktop computer, there were birds, live and lively, in feathered, darting, ever-changing form, coming and going.
Of course, Ned had rigged the whole thing up.
So okay. It was snowing. The feeder was empty. Ned was dead. Ned was never coming back. There were no do-overs. I could not bring him back, nor could anyone else.
But by God, I could, fill the effing bird-feeder.
Once this occurred to me,the only thing I could think of to do, I became determined to do it. Was the fact that there was a storm, and that a human being had died. excuses for the birds not having seed? No.
I edged around the house, the ground covered in three- or four-inch thick ice. I kept one hand on the wall of the house for balance and support. But I still fell hard anyway: three times going down to the feeder, and twice more, coming up. But I would not, would not give up.
Then, when I finally returned to the kitchen after this mission, I lifted the bag of thistle seed to put it back under the sink. It broke, spilling all over the floor.
I sat down on the floor myself then, among the piles and drifts of scattered tiny black seeds. I sat and sobbed and wept in that quiet house, on that gray day. The cat gazed at me quizzically. My knees and one hand burned from the falls on the ice. Eventually I stood up, found the broom, found the dustpan, swept up the seeds.
Because, who else was going to do it?
Then the second storm came in, the one that made the record books. Here’s what one weather historian wrote:
A major long-term ice storm developed Christmas Day and continued through the early morning hours of December 27th. Warm, moist air from the southwest (ran) up and over a shallow layer of cold surface air, the classic setup for freezing rain … sections of the state were coated by a layer of ice up to 3 inches thick…
The effects were devastating. 300,000 Arkansans were without power for days. Many water systems were unable to operate. The Governor was forced to communicate with some parts of the state by HAM radio since communications… FEMA representatives coming to assess the December 12-13 winter storm were unable to fly in …
In my small studio, I lost power intermittently, so I mostly had heat and water, was better off than many. But I lost phone service, and Internet.
Later, I would read the New York Times headline from that day: “In Ice-Coated Arkansas and Oklahoma, Chaos Rules.”
But what ruled in my tiny home was this: desolation, isolation, surreality, aloneness.
Silence, other than the heater clicking on and off.
That Christmas Day snow came again. It came down fiercely, thickly, blindingly hard and dense, over the ice.
The silence was deep. I could not hear a single car from up on the highway, nor on Dairy Hollow Road. The phone could not ring. Email was not accessible. Facebook did not exist, but even if it had, it would not have been accessible.
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.
To be continued… part two, the next installment, was sent out to subscribers on Christmas Day. Non-subscribers, click here. (Want to subscribe? It’s free, and means you’ll never miss a post… click here.)
This post is part of Crescent’s Widowhood Wednesday series.
What isn’t helpful to a newly bereaved widow has already been touched on in Widowhood Wednesdays, in 50 Shades of Grief and in “You Were Lucky to Have Him”). This is one of several posts in a row exploring what is helpful, especially in the context of the holidays.