In the little Arkansas town (population, then, just under 2000) in which Ned and I had lived, everybody did not exactly know each other. But we certainly knew about each other.
Maybe two years after Ned’s death, still deeply bereft, I ran into Freddy.
We were friends, though not close. He was someone I knew and liked, had worked with; he was kind-hearted, deeply original, and one of-a-kind in the way he thought and expressed himself. It was sometimes notoriously difficult to understand just what he was trying to get across, but I felt it was worth the trouble to suss it out. I had never held this against him; it made talking to him interesting. When we conversed, I usually poked around until I felt I understood what he meant.
But not that day. For suddenly, mid insignificant chit-chat, he looked at me very directly and said, “You’re better without him, you know.”
Immediately aghast, far too much so to wonder what on earth he actually meant, I immediately barked, “No. NO! You are wrong, Freddy! You are so wrong!” Angry tears — God, would the tears never stop? — immediately leaked out of my eyes, my throat tightened in pain.
For what I had heard, of course, was “You’re better off without him.” Not what he said, and not, it turned out, what he meant.
Freddy slapped himself on the forehead. He said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, forgive me, I didn’t mean it like that, forgive me. No. I meant… what I meant was, it made you better. You just are. I think… you’ll see someday. ”
I did not see then, not at all. The still-raw pain of my life without Ned was so large it blotted out everything else, including any invisible-to-me understanding I was gaining by the most infinitesimal of increments.
What I was conscious of at the time was a sense of having no skin or cage of bone over my heart; that it was visible to all, beating as if sheathed by a see-through material no more substantial than Saran Wrap. And I felt as if I could see others’ hearts that easily too: that was why, for instance, I could clearly tell when the constantly-stated words “How are you?” were sincere or phony, depending on who they came from.
Perhaps what Freddy saw was this transparency? And from it extrapolated that I might become a “better” version of what I already was?
Whatever caused his remark, I certainly could not see nor understand it then.
But I do remember that perplexing interaction, all these years later.
And though I wouldn’t exactly characterize myself as having become “better”, and though whatever insight I may have gained through this loss I would still trade in a half-heartbeat if I could have Ned back again — still, some understanding has occurred.
And (how I hate to admit it!)I do owe it to the deep psychological disruption and spiritual displacement, the insult of loss, the outrage that is widowhood.
I said, last week, I would talk about widow wisdom this week. I have to start, then, by repeating something I have said here and elsewhere, many times: this highly uncomfortable reality, one I think most widows recognize as indisputable:
But while I come back over and over to this — because it is true and because it needs to be said — it is not the whole story.
Being partial, while true, it is not capital-T Truth. It is mere knowledge, not wisdom. When we see this reality only through the screen of agony, bitterness, grief, disorientation and loss — and I think, for some time after bereavement, most of us cannot but see through this screen — we cannot yet receive its strange gifts.
Over time — I keep emphasizing this, because it can take a long, long time after the death of a partner — we can. Though not all of us do.
LIFE ON ITS OWN TERMS, & THE PEACE THAT CAN FOLLOW BRUTALITY
Yet. In my own case, widowhood gave me a great deal over time.
It started by Roto-Rootering out a great deal of arrogant know-it-all-ness, and the illusion of control.
It taught me to live actively with eyes open to reality. Until Ned’s sudden death, that absolutely non-negotiable fact with which I had no choice but to live, and about which I could do nothing, I, like most of us, dwelt in a kind of pseudo-reality. This was life not as it was but as I wished it to be or believed it should be or assumed it would be, or believed that, if I worked hard and was a good person, and, yes, “visualized” and “thought positively” I could make it be.
This, rather than actual life as it was and is: without guarantees, full of random events, uncertainties, surprises both glorious and horrific.
This meant that, as a happily married self-employed woman, who ran my own career and assumed “til death do us part” would be when Ned and I, were, oh, in our 90’s — I was, at my core, resisting life. Though I was mostly happy, I was often tense and aggravated; I was always getting tangled up in life’s failure to meet my expectations. No matter how good one’s life is, it is easy, in this state of resistance, to get perplexed, angry, frustrated, or restless.
But widowhood forced my eyes open. And over time, my reluctant heart followed.
Without my willing it, I became more compassionate: to myself, to others.
Not by choice, not because I was a good person, but because it became more and more evident to me that everyone was grappling, as I was, with the reality of life-as-it-is-instead-of-life-as-we-imagined-it-should-be. All of us, whether we knew it consciously yet or not.
And, even before I had come anything close to the end of grieving, a strange peace, at first a saddened, chastened one, began to dawn.
Because I was no longer resisting life as it is.
I was coming to understand that while many things might be changed (and some, one had a responsibility to change), some could not.
When I eventually started dating again, online, in the part where you described yourself, I said I was, among other things, a “recovering know-it-all.”
PERSPECTIVE, PROPORTION, FEARLESSNESS
And speaking of online dating: when I began to do this, four months or so after Ned’s death, in the early aughts, online dating was less common than it is now.
Well-meaning friends worried for me. Worried because, newly widowed, they felt I was extra-vulnerable. Worried because the then-unusual idea of meeting someone online seemed scary and unsafe.
But (to my own astonishment), I discovered that, even while still in grief, I had become completely fearless. This, like humility in the face of recognizing that life was so much bigger than I was, was another gift from widowhood. Living through the worst thing you can imagine does that for you. It was like I had the most giant, all-inclusive get-out-of-jail-free card imaginable.
How do you know you won’t get with a sociopath?
How does one ever know that, no matter how you meet someone with whom you go on a date? Heck, how do you know anything? Or… maybe you don’t know anything, you just think you do.
How will you be safe?
I’m not safe now… no one who is alive is safe. Life is not a safe condition.
Say you do get with someone: after all these years with Ned, won’t you be afraid to go on a date?
Hey, I stood next to Ned’s dead body on a stainless steel gurney in the emergency room in that hospital in Springdale; nurses were still mopping up his blood off the floor. After that, do you seriously imagine that going out for coffee with a stranger is going to make me afraid?
Well, but what about the first time take off your clothes in front of someone who isn’t Ned?
See: all failure, embarrassment, all minor stuff that had once fretted me came to seem inconsequential. Because, in proportion to his death, it was.
In the years after his death I contemplated taking fencing and trapeze, though I was 48, then 49. I wound up not doing either — my rotator cuff began acting up — but I did start singing out loud (including, once, performing a made-up song on a Southwest Airlines flight — the passengers, bored out of their gourds, gave me a standing ovation; and another time performing live, without rehearsal, a song called the Seventh Crumb, to the tune of The Seventh Son, about cornbread, on a live radio show — but these are both stories for another time).
And I started taking improv (in retrospect, this at least made sense; wasn’t I having to improvise my entire new life?)
And, while staying eyes-open, I slowly, slowly (we are talking years, not weeks or months) began noticing the generosity with which life also pours out the opposite of catastrophe.
For the “anythings” that can happen to anyone are not only tragedies.
My old focus on what life should be meant there was always something missing. When this gradually fell away, after having been battered by the humbling reality of widowhood and grief, I saw, rather, what was actually present (except, of course, Ned, who wasn’t). But small, easy things that I might have once appreciated but essentially overlooked began to come into focus.
I began to see what was there, as gifts, which might just as well have not been there. But there they were!
The scent of vanilla when I opened the bottle. The almost voluptuous pleasure 0f solitude (and feeling some wonder that there was such a thing, as opposed to loneliness, and that I could actually enjoy it).
A taxi appearing at just the right moment.
Cats, and the comforting wonder of their purrs.
Finding myself dry and warm indoors, whether in my home, the home of a friend, or even a restaurant; somewhere cozy, fragrant with simmering soup, when it is cold and wet outside, the rain hammering against but unable to enter the window.
A sublime night sky, Milky Way visible; a majestically cloud-filled daytime one.
A plane landing safely.
A blue heron lifting up off the lake.
A friend who picks up the tab for no reason, or allows you to do so.
These too, I came to see, are “anythings.” They, too, happen. Not just hurricanes, or bicycles running into Chevys.
And of course, the largest anything: loving, being loved and even having been loved.
(Though in the early years I missed the vanished Ned, so intensely — Ned, who had loved me so deeply and particularly — I could not feel the “having been loved” as anything but agony, something I wrote about in You Were Lucky to Have Him. So forgive me, please; if you are young in grief, I know these things may seem ridiculously trivial in the face of losing the one human you long for and cannot have back. I know you may be saying, “Yes, but I loved looking at the stars with John, and now he is gone, forever, and I don’t know how I will make it through the next hour, let alone the rest of my life!” Yes. I get it. But, just take a deep breath on this, feel what you feel, and trust someone who is seventeen years down the path, trust me just enough to sit with this for now, that on the other side of the agony this may wait for you… at least, some of you, some of the time.)
Do we deserve this abundance?
No more than we did the loss that befell us.
No more than we did when we heard the words, “inoperable” or “what we’re talking about is quality of life, not length of life” or “We lost him.”
“Deserving”, I came to feel, may just be a really unhelpful way of looking at life.
LIFE JUST HAPPENS
For so many things, easy and difficult, that happen, are undeserved (at least to any form of accounting understandable by humans). This is such a blow to our rarely conscious but clung-to delusional belief in our ability to control outcomes.
Here is one piece of what I have found over time in widowhood: to know that “beautiful” and “easy” are not and cannot be guaranteed actually enlarges them.
(I found tears springing to my eyes the other day, actual tears of joy, looking at the Fibonacci-spiraled center of a pale green zinnia, almost otherworldly in its color and detail. Even as I was laughing at myself — “Come on, Dragon, crying over the beauty of a zinnia?” the wonder of it just knocked me out).
The gratitude and wonder I sometimes feel, as someone who has lost a great deal, is much vaster than back in the days when I thought good things that automatically went according to plan, my plan, as long as I worked hard and kept my word and was a good person and so on, were more or less just how it was supposed to be.
Remembering that anything can happen to anyone at any time makes acting with compassion, for self and others, easier.
It also, when I really accept it, makes it possible to live in relative personal peace, to some extent regardless of circumstances; one is not resisting how it is all the time.
As my improv teacher, Pam Victor, likes to say, one can keep saying, neutrally, as life keeps on delivering stuff, “That just happened.”
REMEMBERING HOW IT IS
And, too, remembering allows me to see small perfections, like that zinnia.
Do moments of deep fear and resistance still come? Yes, of course. Yet now I think: these moments, isolated, doubt-filled, heartbreakingly alone and scared, may be the ones when we are perhaps more at one with every other person who has ever lived, lives now, and will live, on this planet.
And, because human beings consistently have managed to walk with fear, live through inconceivably hellish passages and seasons of loss, I am also reminded of our courage, and that the veil between us and possible joy is as thin and opaque as that between us and disaster.
Just as I said last week that the questions widowhood raises are, finally, human questions, so it is with the potential wisdom widowhood offers.
To become resilient enough to love life (and sometimes other people), eyes wide open, on life’s own unrelenting terms, even after we know how much can be lost: that is the offer widowhood extends. And it is offered, finally, not just to widows, but to all human beings.
We all face what psychotherapist David Richo calls “the givens”: that things do not always go according to plan, that everything changes, that all lives contain pain, that circumstances are sometimes grievously unfair. But, as Richo points out, “a given” is not only a prevailing and nonnegotiable condition; “a given” is also a gift.
Can we, over time, open to that gift? Doing so will not make us “better off.” Most of us will always wish we had our sweetheart back, whole, healthy, vital.
But as Freddy said, it might just make us — us, the widows we are now, living our lives as they are now — better.