“For months after Ned’s death I barely ate. (How could I taste, let alone digest, when my sweet partner had suddenly, absolutely vanished from the earth, could never close his eyes again in ecstasy at something so simple as a perfect baked red yam or a plate of pancakes?)”
I wrote most of Passionate Vegetarian when Ned was alive. It was dedicated to him, but published after his sudden death.
But there was one piece I wrote after his death: the introduction, from which I just quoted.
Today it’s Wednesday, the day each week when I write about widowhood. And because, I was about to do so, and was preparing lunch, I was remembering that period when I stopped eating.
It is fifteen years now since I wrote Passionate V’s introduction, seventeen years since that time I grew so thin, effortlessly. Because “thin” equals “attractive” in our culture, I was often, inexplicably, paid compliments, sometimes in the same breath with condolences. I learned to say, “Thank you.” Sometimes I’d add, “It’s the grief diet.”
Now, as I write, it is August. Local vegetables are in full spate. I’ve been mostly eating the same lunch the last few weeks: a big pile of fresh vegetables with two poached eggs on top of them. Different vegetables, cooked and seasoned differently, daily. Today: onion sauteed in olive oil, with diced carrot, green chile, diced broccoli stems and flowerets. Garlic. Spaghetti-cut zucchini, a diced tomato: one of those gorgeous dense yellow meaty heirloom tomatoes, which look like the beating heart of life itself.
Of course I was unable to eat after Ned’s death. I did not want to be in life, and I wasn’t, entirely. I was in no-person’s land. Everything in me in rebelled against the normalizing actions of life.
That may be why friends and neighbors feel called on to bring over food immediately after a death; to instinctively root the widowed in normalcy, to take care of him or her when s/he cannot do it for him- or herself. I recognized and appreciated the lovingkindness in the flood of food. It was also disorienting.
One night, two or three weeks after Ned’s death, at perhaps three in the morning, I realized it had been awhile since I had eaten anything.
I thought, with detached, looking-down-on-myself logic, ‘Perhaps you should eat something, Crescent.’ I opened the refrigerator. People had been delivering food non-stop; I wasn’t eating. The packed fridge was unfamiliar, one more strangeness. A mason jar, politely labeled, contained homemade turkey-sausage gumbo, from someone who obviously cared for me but didn’t actually know me well enough to realize I had not eaten either turkey or sausage in thirty-some years. I removed the gumbo, closed the refrigerator door, carried the gumbo to the blue compost bucket by the sink, poured it in.
‘You really should eat something, Crescent,’ I thought to myself again. I opened the fridge a second time, looking.
I opened the vegetable bin. And there was a… what was it? An object the size and shape of a large egg, leathery, black.
I took it out and gazed at it, resting it in my palm. Really, what was it? I looked at it for a long time, standing in the kitchen in the middle of the night. Finally I realized it was a very, very old avocado. I had no idea when it had been placed in my fridge, or by whom. I walked over to the compost bucket again and dropped it in.
And heard myself think: “Boy, I sure will be glad when all this is over and things get back to normal.”
And then realized: Things will never be normal again.. He is dead.
That shocking re-realization, for perhaps the 900th of what would be thousands of times. The dark house, the quiet night so still, except for howling, there on the checkerboard kitchen floor.
The woman — call her Wendy — had been away from the town where Ned and I had lived at the time of his death. I knew her slightly; a fitness class, the Preservation Society. She came walking towards me. It was early spring, maybe five or six months after he died, the first time I’d seen her since it happened.
By then I was very thin. I don’t own a scale, so I can’t tell you in pounds, but my jeans were slipping from my hips. I had notable cheekbones.
Wendy said, “Oh, Crescent, when I heard… I am so, so sorry.”
I said, “Thank you.”
And she said, “But you look great!”
And, because it was not the first time I had heard this peculiar construction, had already come to grips with its strangeness, I said, again, “Thank you.”
And then she said the following. Said it thoughtfully, speculatively.
She said, “But… I guess you’d rather have Ned back and the extra weight, right?”
Here is one thing I sometimes ate, in the months between his cremation and when I took his ashes to be placed as he had specified.
I would walk over to the vessel in which his ashes resided. At first, this was a red Japanese urn with a lid, loaned to me by friends; later, a beautiful box made by another friend, a fine arts woodworker.
I would lick the tip of my right forefinger.
I would dip my fingertip in his ashes.
I would lick my finger.
At the first International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference I attended after Ned’s death, one of many generous women I know slightly in that congenial organization came up to me.
She was aware, as most there were, that Ned had died. It had been in the newsletter, and he was a well-liked member. She re-introduced herself, rested her hand on my shoulder.
“Oh, Crescent,” she said. ” I was widowed about ten years ago. I got so thin too.” She shook her head. Squeezed my shoulder, looked me directly in the eye. “I am so sorry,” she said. Those same words everyone says — how sincere they are from some, how perfunctory and fake from others. From her, solacing.
“You will get through this,” she said. I didn’t believe it, because what was “through this” when he would still be dead? But I accepted that she believed it.
I know some widows who couldn’t stop eating after their spouse’s death. And eating, of course, is a familiar gesture of self-comfort. (It turns out there is even a word for this, in German; kummerspeck, or “grief bacon.”) I know of a very few who gained a lot of weight after their spouses died. I can easily see how this, too, might be the case: another instance of the non-normality, the out-of-control-ness of that state; the reverse of my response but wholly understandable.
I had self-comforted myself in the past with many a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch in lesser moments of torment, sadness or frustration. But with Ned’s death, that method flew away.
I mention this in case you are a widow who is coping with loss by eating. For you, that’s what you need to do. You can tell that it is because it is what you are doing.
We do what we have to do to get through it, wondering every moment if “through it” exists. There is no right way to grieve. The very act of having to grieve is egregious, unthinkable insult. If ice cream soothes you even a bit, or if not eating allows you to get by, or if putting his ashes on your tongue gives comfort… then that, evidently, is what you need to do.
You are here, after all. That’s asking more than enough of you under the circumstances, isn’t it?
Shopping in the co-op in Fayetteville for the first time after Ned’s death, maybe four months later. I still wasn’t eating much, but I had to get something.
Ned was a big guy; 6 feet 4 inches tall, maybe 225 pounds. He loved to eat. No matter how much food I bought it wasn’t enough.
That day, the day of the first shopping, I put a small handful of green beans into a plastic bag. There, standing in the produce aisle, looking at the uncharacteristically small, ridiculously tiny quantity I had selected, perhaps a sixth of what I’d typically have purchased in previous decades of sometimes buying green beans for our dinners, I burst into tears again.
God, how I hated this, the way grief mugged you, over and over again, the absurdity of crying over green beans. Get over it, Crescent, I told myself furiously, get over it!
I wiped away tears, continued shopping; what else was I to do?
On the other side of the market, near the dairy products, I ran into a jazz musician with whom I’d had a brief, amicable fling back when I was maybe 21, years before I met Ned. Occasionally we’d run into each other, like we did that day; it was easy and friendly. He and his group had played a few times at the restaurant Ned and I had owned.
Artie gave me big a smile. He said, “How are you, Crescent?”
I said, “Well, you know. I’m here. I mean, given…”
Artie, puzzled, picked up that something was wrong. His expression altered. He said, carefully, “Given what?”
I said, “Ned’s death.”
His face crunched up, he pressed one hand to it, lowered his head, sobbed — loudly enough so people turned. When he straightened back up, he grabbed me fiercely, said, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know!” He continued crying, hugging me hard. Then he asked how it happened. I repeated the terrible, unbelievable facts.
There was nothing about grief I didn’t hate.
” In a large, observational study of 20,000+ adults over age 50, being single, widowed, or having less frequent contact with friends was associated with less variety of fruit and vegetable intake, and it got worse for people who lived alone and also had less frequent contact with friends—they had even less variety than in those who were just single.” — article put out by the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Study, Cornell University.
As I sauteed the vegetables this morning, I thought about all this.
I thought, what can I tell my fellow members of the Club No One Wants to Join about returning to eating well as soon as they can, but accepting the way they are eating or not eating when in the intense throes of grief?
I thought, yes, cooking good healthy food for yourself and taking the time to do it is self-care 101 for you, CD, but what about those who were married to someone else who did all the cooking… how would they get by in widowhood?
I thought, I have no good answer to these questions.
I had not considered that long-ago Passionate Vegetarian intro, until it came to mind as I sat down to write this. As I reread the introduction, I realized I did have an answer, though not a complete one:
“… (E)ventually I began to eat again, and sometimes take a little pleasure in it. Of course, this marked my slow, reluctant return to life, a life utterly not what I had planned. To eat, despite this, became a series of yesses. Yes to the work of learning to live almost despite myself, even when faced with irreconcilable loss. Yes to food that nourishes and delights body and soul, honors the fragile planet from which it comes…Yes, to life on its own inherent high-risk terms, which offers no guarantees.
“What we eat is part of the way we are rooted to our very temporary home in this world. Eating well honors life.”
My dear fellow widow. Life, though you may not hear it yet, is calling you. You may eventually be able to hear it, and if you wish, to answer. You have a future, and almost certainly it is not what you are feeling in this present moment, especially if you are in the torment of early-stage grief.
Please eat, as soon as you are able. Eat well. Eat with friends. Eat in solitude. Eat your vegetables!
I did, this morning. Lots of vegetables. With two poached eggs.