Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I walked out of my house yesterday morning to see a truck from a company with the same name as A's company.  It's named after what I presume is not an uncommon term in businesses that build things, but nonetheless, of all the companies in town, and all the houses it could've parked in front of (they were actually working at my neighbor's house), there it was, in front of mine.  And again today, too.  And it heartened me.  A always claimed he was a nudger, and it's little nudges like this that give me hope, hope enough to believe there's a point to all this, and that some day we'll laugh about it together.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tempus fidgets

Yesterday was A's granddaughter's 6th birthday, and while I knew it was coming, I hadn't given it much thought.  A's daughter chose to have no contact with me beyond the initial phone call confirming what I already feared was true.  I haven't been in contact with the rest of the family for probably two years now, maybe more, and I don't expect that to change.  I've become an expert at not thinking about things that I know are going to hurt.

I was out shopping with a friend that day, when my cellphone rang.  It was A, telling me that he was speeding south for his daughter's induction to hang out with the waiting room with other family, and that he'd washed his truck for the occasion.  A and I had known each other just a few months at that point, but our friendship had recently turned into something more.  I felt special at the time that I was the one he wanted to call and tell his good news.  I still feel special that he did.

He was smitten with his new granddaughter, and delighted to be grandpa.  He sent me all the new pictures of the baby that he got from his daughter.  Some of my favorite ones of him are pictures of him and her playing, including the one on my desk at work; his face, and hers, are pure joy.  I was used to getting frequent grandfatherly updates, but that all stopped once he died.  And a little girl I had come to love through him just disappeared from my life.  And the grandson that was on the way when A passed never was a part of my life; I was lucky to find out from A's friend when the boy was born.

Each year, I acknowledge her birthday, sending out love and a silent "happy birthday" to her.  She was almost 2 when he died, a happy toddler.  He had spent the weekend before he died with her and her folks; they'd gone to the zoo and had a great time, and he regaled me with stories of monkey imitations, as well as Elmo video marathons and tea parties, when he returned.  She had a grandpa who loved her fiercely; I wonder if she even remembers him.  I sure hope so, but I have to wonder.

And now she's 6, and probably started 1st grade this year, and it blows my mind.  While I've changed a lot on the inside in the last 4 years, my life as it appears on the outside is much the same at 38 as it was at 32.  We just don't change that much when we get older.  But the life changes between 2 and 6 are vast; A's granddaughter has gone from toddler to schoolgirl, a baby to a real person.  And that growth seems to underline just how long he's been gone in a way that numbers cannot. 

I imagine that's an additional pain that widows with children deal with all the time.  Their kids change so much, doing so many new things, that it can only emphasize the passage of time.  It's easy enough to see the subtle signs of the years in your own face in the mirror—the new lines, the new grays, the new aches and pains—but they are not as drastic, not as surprising, I would guess, as seeing that your child has grown up by a quantum leap every time you turn around.

I suppose this is the nature of things.  Grandfathers die and little girls grow up.  But sometimes you live enough, and long enough, that academic truths like these become achingly poignant realities.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"To some I'm worse than an embarrassment, I am a death's head."--C.S. Lewis

E and I were talking the other night, discussing the future, finances, and what the possibilities might be.  I suggested to him that if we really wanted to cut costs, we could sell the house down the road and live in a tiny apartment.  He responded that that would be impossible with 4 dogs, and I commented that 6 years from now, we'd have 3 dogs at most, because our eldest is very ill.  He's been dealing with diabetes for almost 2 years now, and despite our vigilant treatment, the complications are getting worse.  Beyond that, he has 2 likely malignant tumors, one of which would be inoperable and largely untreatable.  We've decided on palliative care and enjoying what time we have with him.  It is highly unlikely he will make it another 2 years, let alone 6.

But it started a bit of a fight. 

"Why do you have to say that to me?" E asked.  He is upset by any commentary indicating that our dogs will not live forever.

"Well, it's not like you don't know, right?"

"Yes, I know, but I don't want to hear it.  Not everyone lives under a spectre of death, you know."

It came across as criticism to me, the "like you do" implied, which is how I believe it was intended.

"Yes, everyone does, because everyone and everything will die.  What varies is people's willingness to acknowledge that reality."

"I know that everything does.  It doesn't bother me; I don't think about it; I don't want to think about it; I can't do anything about it anyway, so I see no point in thinking about it.  And you don't have to say it."

I thought to point out that if it didn't bother him, talking about it shouldn't bother him, either, but I didn't want to continue the argument, and my feelings were a little hurt.  Hurt enough that I'm still thinking about it 2 days later, and writing it out.

Do live under a spectre of death?  I didn't think so, but honestly, I don't know.  And if I do, doesn't he have any sympathy for the circumstances that made that so?

To me, "living under the spectre of death" implies that I live in constant fear of death, see danger around every corner, and worry about dying.  I don't think that's true.  I don't fear death, but I do recognize that it is everywhere, that it is inevitable, and there's no sense running from it, in life or in conversation.  I live in resolute acceptance that death will touch me again and again, as long as live.  I never wanted to talk about death with A; turns out, avoidance of the topic provides no prophylactic benefit whatsoever.

It's funny, really; so many people will tell a widow that s/he needs to accept the death of her/his beloved.  What they don't recognize (and what the griever may not either, for awhile,) is that to accept the death of your beloved is to accept death, period.  Once you've reckoned with a very painful personal death, the mortality of every living thing becomes a matter of fact, and can and will be talked about like the weather.  At least, that's how it's been for me, but the widdas I know seem to be equally matter-of-fact; when life rips the blinders off, you can't really put them back on.  I suppose you could, but the force of will that kind of long-term denial would require is not something I'm willing to invest in.  I left my sense of death being a taboo subject in the smoking rubble of my pre-widowhood beliefs in a sensible, just world, like the belief that physically active men of 55 don't just drop dead without warning one day, and the one where good people in love are immune to all manner of badness and sadness, and the belief that all the people who love you will totally be there for you in your darkest hour and the many that follow it.
My acceptance of death isn't at issue here, in my opinion; it's theirs.

I didn't have any choice in the matter; Death visited me in a personally devastating way when A died.  Death could no longer be something that happened to other people.  Of course, E didn't have the relationship with A that I did, and therefore, while he was sorry for me, he didn't grieve; he didn't have to.  And he didn't embark upon the intimate relationship with the concept of death and the reality of being a survivor and a universe that cracked open when A left that I did.  To him, I live under the spectre of death.  To me, he is an innocent, and lacking in empathy and patience with my perspective, as innocents often are.

It is true that death is on my mind a lot.  (They say that's true of Scorpios, but I honestly cannot remember how often death figured into my thoughts before A died; I have no basis for comparison anymore, it's been so long.)  A's death, still, certainly.  The possibility of death among the ill and aged people I love.  Death in the world.  The seeming randomness of it all.  Sometimes it's my own, in those moments when I just feel so tired out by and bored with this life.  Lately I keep thinking that it was the worst thing possible for me to discover that I was an eternal being; when I was an atheist with no expectation of continuing beyond my three score and ten, every moment mattered.  No moments here matter all that much if life is infinite and ongoing, especially when the bad or neutral moments vastly outweigh the great ones.  There's no rush when eternity is yours.  My ability to appreciate the mundane (in all senses of the word) waxes and wanes, and although I am thoroughly delighted to sniff the roses in the pots in front of my house, somehow, that moment of delight is no match for the drudgery of the rest of the day.  If that's a sample of life, you can do the emotional math.

In any case, if death is merely a doorway (and even if it isn't), if it is a natural part of life as much as birth is, then we should be able to talk about it as openly as we do birth.  For Pete's sake, pregnant ladies are habitual oversharers, and they are encouraged to be; I see baby pictures taken in utero, and the whole world, for better and worse, discusses this particular passage, in gory detail, right down to how many stitches the episiotomy took.  But if you matter-of-factly discuss the inevitable death of your dog, or anyone else, well, the world gets angry at you for being so ill-mannered, like you just took a dump on their best Persian rug.

I guess that while I learned pretty quickly that no one wanted to hear about my grief and my loss and my sweetie after whatever they determined was a decent interval, I didn't realize that the moratorium extended to death in general.  I should have, because I remember not wanting to talk about it either.  But my death filter was shattered when I was widowed, and I'll talk about it without a thought.  I'll talk about death, and heart disease, and prognoses, and life insurance, and wills.  And this makes uninitiated people immensely squeamish and fidgety.

But it doesn't bother them.

What to do, then?  I can't unknow what I know, can't stop feeling what I feel.  E cannot know what he's never experienced, and he's pretty typically male when it comes to dealing with feelings, anyway.  Am I obsessed with death, or just through my experiences, totally in touch with it, unable to keep it at a safe distance anymore?  I think of what Octavio Paz said about Mexicans' experience of la muerte, and that, unlike most of the world, they don't fear it, but rather, the Mexican "chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love."  I don't love death, but I love someone who died, and I am constantly considering it in many lights.  The alternative was to pretend, to avoid, to fear it.  And I think some bereaved folks choose that path.  Maybe it works for them, but I have my doubts, and I know it wouldn't work for me.  I know, because I tried it time and again, and it failed me time and again.

I don't have a lot of patience with a world (or a husband) who wants to put its fingers in its collective ears and say "LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU"; my response to that is to think, "Don't be an idiot."  And maybe it's because not only are they being silly, because reality is reality, but also because in doing so, they deny my experience, deny my perspective, and basically tell me who I've become and what I have to say about it is unwelcome in society.   In doing so, they tell me to shut up and go away.  Is my frank acknowledgement of the death's existence any less valid than their denial of it?  I don't think so.

I'd like to ask some of the widows who are further out how death figures into their thoughts now.  Not just the death of the person you loved, but Death, in all its forms and side-effects.  Am I obsessed?  Or am I just a widow?