Three months and eighteen days after Ned’s death, I took his ashes, as per his written request, to India.
This was still relatively early days, so perhaps I can be forgiven for my persistent illusion: I still thought you could somehow outsmart grief.
I did not yet know that when grief wants to be felt, it will find a way to make you feel it.
Anyone who has been widowed after a good marriage discovers that almost anything associative brings on grief spasms. Not just obvious things, like anniversaries or photographs.
The stone bench across from the post-office, because suddenly his kissing you there rises in memory: it was raining lightly, you had just had that big fight about whether or not you should go to Ames for Christmas, then you had made up, then that walk, and the bench, and kissing.
The theatre where the two of you saw Jacques Brel, years ago. Both of you tearful during Ne Me Quitte Pas; both of you sheepish about the tears, relieved when the other confessed the same.
Washing the blue checked flannel sheets: you will never sleep between them with him again. (How dare they still be here when he is not?)
The bushels of Liberty apples at the farmer’s market, the first September after his death; you always made a pie together from first apples.
The August light coming in at a certain angle through the small pantry window; he once called you, urgently, to come look at it; you were miffed at being interrupted. But he wanted to show you the way that golden light poured in, illuminating the wandering jew plant, its leaves made a vivid purple by the light, edged in green flame.
Any of those. Anything, almost: that tedious agonizing melt-down, again and again.
So, I cleverly, foolishly decided that to avoid this, to deliver his ashes, I would travel to India via a route we had never taken.
I would not go New York and then via London, or Zurich, or Frankfort, to Bombay, as that city was then called.
I would not go Los Angeles, and then via Singapore or Seoul, to Bombay.
I would skip Bombay altogether.
Instead I would travel to San Francisco, and go from there to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka, and from Sri Lanka to Trivandrum, in southern India,
So there, grief, I remember vaguely thinking as I made these travel arrangements.
Thus I found myself weeping in a hotel room in Hong Kong, looking out the window across an expanse of water towards Kowloon, a beauty and terrain which seemed to me singular in both its loveliness and its Chinese-ness. Because had Ned himself been with me (instead of that improbable plastic bag of ash which I was supposed to believe was all that now remained physically of that big handsome fellow whom I had adored for 23 years), his watercolors, brushes, soft pencils and pad would already have been out, and he would have been sitting, riveted, beside that window, jet-lag be damned, his tall form curved over the pad, his attention absolute, painting or drawing for a couple of hours.
Thus, I discovered grief, far from being outsmarted, had outsmarted me. Since there were no memories to call, it grew speculative: “Why couldn’t Ned be here to see this? Why will he never get to experience this?”
And thus I found myself, on the way back from India, having completed the task the once-living, now-dead Ned had set out for his still-living widow, weeping at the Mount Lavinia Hotel in Sri Lanka.
“Be gentle with yourself,” people tell you, so I had allowed a few days at the Mount Lavinia to recover, before I flew back to the U.S. It’s a 4-star hotel, an over-the-top architectural artifact of the days when Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, was ruled by the British. The days when the sun never set on the British Empire and the underlying “nice country, we could use its resources, we’ll take it” ethos of colonialism ruled.
Built in 1806 as the country house of the second governor of that small island country, the Mount Lavinia is sited on a promontory above the Indian Ocean, which surrounds the mansion on three sides, an easy scramble down to an immaculate white-sand beach. It’s an elegant, beautiful, impressive pile, enormous, embodying everything one might think of as the romantic style of the colonial tropics. Tall ceilings, ever-circulating fans. White marble expanses indoors and out. Terraces with vintage rattan couches and tables. Enormous windows, open to the sounds and smells of air and surf. Giant potted palms. White walls, mahogany paneling. Polished brass. Views. Manicured gardens. Statuary.
And everywhere, brown-skinned servitors kept it all running smoothly. Some standing guard or offering assistance or leading guests to their table. Others mopping, sweeping, polishing, gardening, tucking in, folding down, endlessly unobtrusive.
What I did in those days I had allowed myself, or what I thought I would do with them, is still mysterious to me. And, how was staying there being kind, good, or gentle to myself, as I had been told to do and was trying to do, but about which I was as clueless and grief-befogged as I was about everything else?
I know I swam in the warm sea a few times, aware that the Lavinia’s lovely and near-deserted beach was bordered, on either side a half-mile down, with walls, on the other sides of which the same beach teemed with native Sri Lankans: messy, populous, loud.
I still wasn’t eating much, but I tried, a little, at its elegant dining room. There, I was the only table for one. There, one night, the music on the sound system inexplicably played James Taylor. Shower the People You Love with Love came on: it had been played at our wedding, I had reprised it at his memorial.
I slept and woke at odd hours.
I kept finding myself shaking my head, over and over, at the unreality of every single part of my present and presumably future life. Where I was and where I would remain, without Ned.
At one point I remember looking at the room service menu and seeing the snack items described, straight-faced, as “tit-bits.”
I burst into laughter — how Ned, who adored large breasts, screwy language and word-plays, would have roared and carried on at that! How instantly it would have become a riff between us!
One more reference in our ongoing private personal language. Now with just one speaker, it was a language as dead as he was, absent of life as the ashes I had scattered by the handful standing in the Pamba, as they swirled around me and then slowly floated away. Light gray ash, dark brown water.
Of course, my laughter at “tit-bits” almost instantly turning to those same old endless, exhausting sobs.
In my small room at the Mount Lavinia, facing the sea, I sat at the dark wooden desk trimmed in rattan. I spend hours writing, crying, thinking, or all three.
At one moment, without forethought, I took my wedding ring from my left ring-finger, where it had stayed for 23 years.
It was as if I had slammed into a wall of emotion as forceful as the physical tsunami that was to strike Sri Lanka years later. Before I could be sucked completely under, I immediately shoved, jammed, that ring back on my ring-finger.
Shortly after that, sitting at the dark wood desk on a tropical night, the surf audible from my room, I wrote the following poem:
How It’s Done
I don’t know how
to not be married to you
I guess like this
I wake up every morning
and you are still dead
This may not be the exact quote, but it’s more or less what I remember from May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. “… so perhaps the work is the arrow, flying from the writer towards what she will become…”
Though I was wrong about outsmarting grief, I was right about what I wrote in the poem. Ned was, of course, still dead, and was going to stay that way, except in memory and dreams. And that was how I had to learn how to not be married to him.
But that was a different task than discovering, or inventing, what my new, not-married-to-him life would be.
For this is the truth that every widow faces: the life we had is gone.
That is the essential fact of widowhood, especially early widowhood (and “early” is an individual time-frame, depending in part on how long you were married, how old you were at the time of your spouse’s death, and how good the marriage was; for me, and I hate to say this, “early” was at least three or four years; I only became fully recognizable to myself after seven years had passed).
But. This essential fact cannot be changed, no matter how much therapy or hospice work we do, no matter what funds or programs we create, or buildings we build, in his or her name. No matter how beautiful the memorial is.
Bumping up against our powerlessness to change this, time after time, reminder after reminder, is what makes early-stage widowhood so peculiarly excruciating. It’s not just the intensity of the pain, or the inability to create a different outcome; it’s the sheer monotony of coming up against this over and over again.
But knowing how to not be married is only the first part of our task. Next comes. gradually, finding, or discovering, or inventing, our new life. What are we, instead?
For awhile, of course, this is untenable. Of course the new life that we may have has not yet been revealed. When grief is in full spate, there is nothing we can do, seemingly, to speed that new life’s revelation. It feels as if we can neither go backwards or forwards.
Indeed, for awhile, many of us think that a new life in the future with any hint of happiness may not even exist for us. And even if it did, the disloyalty of such a thought! In early-stage grief, to imagine a happy life without the beloved, for whom we ache and long with every cell, is appalling. It repels us. Even if such a life was out there, we think (not that it is) — even if it was, we would not want it.
We want our old life back.
The one choice we cannot have.
In most of these Widowhood Wednesdays so far, I have been speaking about early-stage grief, for that, to anyone experiencing it, is an emergency hemorrhage, and I want so deeply to help other widows in this state, and those who are their friends, to stop the bleeding.
But that is only part of the widow’s journey.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to begin devoting some posts to addressing these later stages. More from David Richo, the Buddhist-Jungian therapist I quoted a few weeks back: “Saying yes to reality – to the things we cannot change – is like choosing to turn around and sit in the saddle in the direction the horse is going… We can craft a sane and authentic life by saying yes to life just as it is.”
Craft a sane and authentic life? When insanity and unreality rule the too-long days and nights? Please!
Yet: I want to hold up this hope to you if you are an early-stage widow, as others did for me.
But for now, I want to repeat some things I and many others have said:
There is no time-table for grief.
The only way through grief is to experience it. (“Mourning,” says Richo, “is what yes looks like when we face the conditions of existence with feeling.” Though who, in the throes of grief, would ever call it a “yes”!)
Grief cannot be outsmarted, for it possesses its own intelligence. Seemingly cruel, it is in some ways an honest friend, a terrible and loyal companion, certainly the price we are asked to pay for having loved, and pure in a manner which makes it unlike any other emotion.
And, when grief wants to be felt, it will find a way to make you feel it.