I wrote, last Wednesday, about the awfulness of others saying “You were lucky to have him,” to us, the bereaved, often at a moment shockingly close to the beloved’s death.
But the more complicated truth is, not only do others say this to us, we say it to ourselves.
My friend, the writer Jane Yolen (who has been widowed for 11-plus years now, after a long and happy marriage to an adored, smart, funny, irreverent, brilliant man), noted in a recent Facebook post:
“… [O]ne thing I have really learned from this long walk: the better the marriage, the more it feels as if (in widowhood) you have been taken off to the side and cursed. I am trying to get to the place where I say, ‘You were blessed to have been in such a loving, supportive relationship for so long.’
“But all I do at the point is think of the guy who would have looked at me and said in his matter-of fact way, ‘Fuck that!'”
This is the thing: grief is the price-tag of love. The measure of how lucky we were is equal to the measure of how unlucky we are, or feel ourselves to be, now. The degree to which we we were fortunate in who we loved and were loved by is the precise degree to which we feel exiled from life.
And yet, in a weird non-linear way, even this brings back the presence of the now-vanished person, as in Jane knowing just what her smart-assed David would have said. This means, aggravatingly and heartbreakingly, that they, the ones we loved who’ve crossed into that addressless country, both have and haven’t vanished. They are always with us; they will never be with us again. “You were lucky to have him,” plants our feet unsteadily on the razor’s edge of mystery, the duality of life and love, love and death, death and life.
As for me, maybe 3 years after Ned’s death, I came upstairs on an early fall day in Vermont, on a bright afternoon, to take a nap. The air was the perfect temperature; sunlight poured in through the window onto the quilt-covered bed, on which Z-Cat, as if waiting for me, lay curled up. Dust motes spangled the crystalline air. Z-Cat looked up at me and I heard myself say out loud, “How did we get so lucky, Z-Cat?” And then, as the words emerged from my mouth, a moment as if punched in the solar plexus: I doubled over, weeping. How could I possibly, even for a moment, even in an instant that was temporarily perfection (but for the huge subtraction of it being a world that was now and forever absent Ned), how could I have thought of myself as lucky?
Z-Cat blinked up at me from the bed, seemingly wondering at the human balled up on the floor.
But then. Some ten years later, so about 13 years after Ned’s death, long after the daily immediate spates and torrents of grief had subsided, one day I was at an upscale gourmet shop. I was looking at a jar of apricot-orange jam bearing a gold sticker which said “Award-Winning.”
And I remembered the year, perhaps 20 years earlier, when I had heard that some jams of mine, which a friend entered in the Carroll County Fair, had won blue ribbons.
So Ned, then very much alive, and I drove out to check it out.
Only trouble was, that was a transitional year in Carroll County. They weren’t using the old fairgrounds, and the new one was still under construction.
So that year the fair was held way, way north of Berryville, Arkansas, out in a pasture somewhere. Ned and I drove north, took a left at the hand-lettered sign, bumped slowly through several pastures, across cattle-guards and dry washes. Finally we came came to a small bedraggled version of the usual fair.
We found our way to the forlorn home ec tent, and there were my jams. Sure enough, each had a blue ribbon. However, that year, given the out of the way location, there were only a couple of entries.
I said to Ned, “You know, the lack of competition kind of takes the thrill out of it.”
And he said, “Well — you could say you came in first in a very large field!”
So there I was, in that fancy food store, easily 25 years after that. There I was, looking at the stickered jars of jam, all those years later, hundreds of miles away from Carroll County, right in the middle of my new life, a life wholly unsuspected, and unimaginable, at the time I won the blue ribbons.
And I remembered that day out in the pasture, and what Ned, that funny, funny dear man, had said.
And I laughed out loud. And I thought, effortlessly, “Gee, I was lucky to have him for as long as I did.”
Then I heard myself. I stopped, and put down the jar of jam.
And I thought, “Lucky? You?”
And I thought, “Hunh. ”
And was able, finally, to think, “‘ Yes. I was lucky to have him.’
Lucky. That is something only widows gets to say. Only them. And only in their own time, which might be a year, or five years, or twenty, after the love of their life left the earth. Or never.
And only if she or he feels it. Not because she or he thinks s/he should feel it.
So, at least I know this much. Don’t ever say to a widow,”You were lucky to have him.”
But if a widow should ever say to you, “I was lucky to have him,” the right answer is , “Yes, you were.”