Sunday, May 27, 2012

Counter Man

        Yes, the counter man knew me by sight at Lange's Deli, just two blocks away from my place on the main street of town. He knew my voice when I called early in the morning to have three fried egg sandwiches delivered for Bob, the nurse, and me. He saw me on my way home from work to pick up two chicken pot pies. He rescued Bob, stuck in the middle of the road in front of the deli, and brought him in, fed him, called me and never asked what happened to your husband. He knew. Other counter men had the same ethic as John. Lange's deli served more than food. 

        During the early months of widowhood I returned to the comforts of Lange's Deli. I wonder if Joan Didion, the author of the Year of Magical Thinking, and a a widow like me had a place of comfort as she started her new journey. I didn't read the book or see the play. You mentioned in our book Fresh Widows the book had affected you deeply.  Did Didion's community help rescue her husband or her?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eating Out Alone

Mary's post a couple of blogs back reminded me of  what I wrote in Fresh Widows about going out to restauarnts on my own. 
" An unscientific survey of my fellow widows pretty much comes down to a consensus about this: going to movies alone—yes! Going to restaurants alone—no!
 I’m the exception. I’ve always liked walking in by myself and ordering a table for one, insisting on something front and center.
I feel bold when I eat alone in public. I feel I’m the closest I’ll ever be to Katharine Hepburn, who commanded respect just by showing up, especially when I’m well dressed and have high heels on. I’ve gone to a neighborhood bistro so often now that the maitre d’ greets me with “Good evening. Your usual?”
But there are limits. I avoid the early bird special at the King China All-You-Can-Eat Buffet on Central Avenue. The food is okay, but at four in the afternoon there is no way to feel good about yourself with all those husbands and wives trying to get a head start on the shank of their evening. That would make me feel as ancient as the old Tom Paxton song about Victoria dining alone, skipping the potato.
Mary never eats out alone, but the counter man at the deli knows her on sight."

Taking the next step

Dear Mary,

Your memory about how we can only do one thing at a time and that Barbara hasn't
yet gone to a restauarnt alone reminds me of a touching evening a couple of weeks ago when
I reunited with an old, old friend whose husband passed away almost three years ago. Over the years we had drifted apart, but when I came across her husband's obituary online I called and asked her to go with me to a wonderful French restaurant in Hanstings-on-Hudson, Le Buffet de la Gare. I asked her to meet me there, but she suggested I come to her place first and we would go together. Pretty soon I understood had been "their" place, a routine of life they cherished as their weekly rendezvous.... and she had not been back as a widow. Couldn't do it. But when we walked in together and she was greeted like a long lost friend––which she truly was––the spell was broken and she knew that she could go again and again, with me or even on her own. It was a step forward and a way to bring some joy back in her life of a kind she had missed. 

Not Yet

          I started to think again about our first phase of widowhood. I guess the first few months after our husbands died we were "giving" as we met once a week and started writing about our feelings and uncertainties. Like Barbara we needed to be connected outside our family and friends. You and I were strangers. While you helped me adjust to living with a missing partner, maybe the stranger in Barbara's life is helping her accept her new life.  Maybe the will to help keeps us all from depression.  

        Depression keeps victims hostage, but not us. One of the big steps in widowhood is moving, connecting and  eating out alone. Barbara hasn't taken that last step, yet. She has started to accept being the extra person as couples invite her out to dinner.  It is an awkward situation but she has accepted the challenge. She might enjoy more eating alone, feeling close to Katherine Hepburn, like you mentioned in FRESH WIDOWS.

        For now she seems most enthusiastic about trading in her car, the car with the spotless trunk. I will have to ask her, Why?


Monday, May 21, 2012

Purpose Through Giving

Dear Mary,

When I read your post two things ran through my mind:  Barbara has found purpose through giving and  a life with purpose is one of life's values. It gives you reason to get up in the morning, and it affirms a sense of self at a time when that sense of self has been so shattered. I think feeling whole, even if lonely, is so much better than that awful experience of "going to pieces." 

You say you could only cope in those first months, but think again. When we met only days/weeks after our husbands left us, we were giving to one another right from the first moment. We were giving in understanding and companionship just as surely as we were taking from one another. To be sure, this took a different form than Barbara's...who is somehow "on call" to strangers.

But it bears out what you wrote in Fresh Widows: "Mother said, "Never talk to strangers." I loved Mom, but she was wrong on this....I think I'll tell my children, "Let a stranger in your (life) and your misery will disappear."
   I saw Barbara on Sunday. We walked and talked about being widows. After only a few months as a widow she seems to have moved past the state of surprise or shock. During the last month she was able to join her children at a meeting with the CEO of the hospital that poorly managed her husband's care. Even though they did not come forth with all the information Barbara needed, it did relieve some of the anger. Her children will continue to pursue the missing information (Why did the doctor disappear? Why is he not at the meeting?). But Barbara seems relieved that justice will be served.
     The big surprise for me yesterday was that Barbara's time was limited. I thought she would need lots of time. While we were walking around the town she received a call from a husband seeking help. Barbara replied, I will be there by 3. Little did I know, but Barbara is part of a social ministry. Through her Lutheran Church she is part of a network that has served strangers with kindness, coffee, and good humor.  Yesterday, she left early to spend time with a diabetic woman who had recently become an amputee. Her husband had kept watch, and now needed a break. 

        Giving, Barbara told me, is what has helped her most during the last two months since John died. Giving to strangers.

        All I can remember the first few months after Bob died was coping, not giving. Barbara deserves an A+. Before she left, she showed me the trunk of the beautiful car her husband bought two years ago. The trunk was empty. Tomorrow I am trading it in for a new car.  All  I could say was A+.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Loneliness Again

I wrote my last post on Loneliness taking my cue from Mary's thoughts about what to say to Barbara who is now widowed maybe only two or three months, and I remember what I wrote in Fresh Widows.

"After six months the shock is gone, the fear has lessened, the sorrow has changed, but the loneliness is worse. This means way more than just wishing for your husband to be there so you could tell him something he would love to hear. It means the sound of silence, as Simon and Garfunkel sang: Hello darkness my old friend; I've come to talk to you again."

I know widows who plan to be with someone every single day in order to break up the long silence, but loneliness always catches you somehow. 
As Mary and I write this blog for our friends who are newly widowed, the memories rush over us once again. Not raw and shocking as they once were, but vivid nevertheless. And loneliness as a reality is one of the first to be felt and one of the most lasting. Perhaps so few people write about loneliness because the misery is just more than language can capture. I think loneliness comes as a surprise because most of us spent hours, days, sometimes even weeks from time to time on our own and got along just fine when the other person was working, traveling, who knows what. Maybe we even welcomed those quiet times to watch our own TV, to eat the peanut butter out of the jar, to drink from the milk bottle, to stay up until two with a great book,  to go out of the room without someone asking, Where are you off to? 

So the surprise for the newly widowed is that silence is so heavy and so deafening? Especially when you come home from a trip or a great day or even a bad day, and there is no one to say, "How'd it go?"

What can we say?

Grief has no compass, but surprise seems to be what most of us experience first. It seems like stage one. The world as we knew  it changed.  The things we used to do now seem old. The people who cared for us seem not to know how grief holds us hostage. Death aged us. Having a vibrant partner kept us young, even when they were terminally ill. Just caring for them made us feel important, so important that we thought we could rescue them.  Now we are aimless. We kept our commitments to work and family, but we discovered loneliness. We seemed like drifters, not caring, just doing.  I am not sure what I will tell Barbara.

 I think I might tell my dear friend what we mentioned in our book FRESH WIDOWS:
     Give yourself an A+ if you can forgive jerks. stay solvent, and figure out what's next.

I wonder what a man, a recent widower, might mention to a fresh widow.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is surprise the first stage of grief?

Okay, Mary, this is my last post tonight, but sometimes when I get thinking about something I can't turn my mind off. What prompted all this reflection is your friend who so recently lost her husband after a couple of days in the hospital for a routine procedure, which should have meant that life would return to normal. (how sweet "normal" must sound to her now), and they would soon be talking about the surprise and inconvenience of it all. What can we say to her? I wish you would write something about Surprise being the first stage of grief. Do you think there is anything in Fresh Widows that be of comfort?

Sudden death

Mary, I can't get it off my mind how different the experience of loss is for those who get whacked by the surprise of sudden death of a spouse and those who get to say good-bye. My thoughts go back to what I wrote in our book about Joan Didion whose husband died right before her eyes while she was making dinner. Another story I recall is a neighbor whose husband had a heart attack while they were making the bed together. She thought he was joking. How does anyone survive that shock?

I remember when I was in my bereavement group. The people––men as well as women––fell into three different groups: those who had someone wiped out in a moment, those who had a tolerable time to say good-bye (like me)  and, finally, those who kept care of a spouse for years and years, and while they grieved as much as anyone, nevertheless, had reached a point of relief that had been a long time coming. Not surprising, we were often almost talking past each other, the experiences were so different. 

Preparation for widowhood?

Well, Mary, you say that no one is prepared to be a widow, but just think of all the life changing events for which there is no preparation. Almost all of them. I lived for nearly six decades without knowing anyone really close who died. In that I was unusual, perhaps even fortunate. I also think of you nursing your husband for over three years while he slowly left life as you two knew it together because of his
Alzheimer's. And yet, even you were not prepared for the finality. No one can be. I thought I was prepared in the sense that in my situation there was no hope in those final weeks in the hospice, but the difference between the body that breathes and the one who does not is beyond description. I feel so sorry for your friend whose husband went into the hospital  for "a routine procedure" and two days later was gone. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

You wonder what prepares you for life as a widow. Our mothers rarely mentioned a topic everyone avoided. Death happened in movies, on TV, or to someone else in the news.  It never seemed real to me until Bob died. As a dear friend said to me who lost her husband last week, I never thought it would happen to me. I never thought I would be a widow. I didn’t know what to say to her. We are all on unfamiliar territory.  Her grief is raw like ours was six years ago.  Each day is too long. The silence is deafening. Neighbors and friends try to comfort her but it doesn’t help. She misses what you mentioned in FRESH WIDOWS…the ordinary touching that I miss so much, the kind that happens in the kitchen when your husband needs you to move away from the sink so he can get in and fill the water glasses for dinner—just that little nudge on the hip that moves you over, that utter familiarity.