We never saw 13 as an unlucky number. It was the date of our relationship anniversary. In his poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Wallace Stevens writes, “I was of three minds / Like a tree.” I have never liked singular or static interpretations of people or events. Grief shatters you. These are 13 ways of looking at the experience of widowhood, as I try to reassemble myself.
I lost my husband in October. On a Sunday afternoon in September, I had lost him at Costco as we were about to check out, or he lost me. I texted him, then called. We had one of those, “I see you now; you’re walking toward me” conversations. We came home and made dinner. The Younger Daughter, a high school senior, had invited a friend to join us. Before dinner, they had gotten out a tub of Lego and you could hear them raking their hands through the plastic bricks. The Older Daughter joined them. This was not usual; no one had played with the Legos in years. Dinner was roast chicken, which used to be in regular rotation on Sundays, until the Older Daughter, whose favorite meal it had been, informed us she no longer liked it. I think she saw it as somehow childish, to like a food you liked as a child. Her eating habits, like her use of language and her perception of the neurotypical world are esoteric, capricious and definitive. But with her permission, we revived the old standard and made roast carrots and mash and even crème brûlée, which we torched at the table with the little blow torch I bought a couple of years ago. Jim had joked at the time that it would outlive us, in terms of torching enough desserts to exhaust its miniature propane cartridge, and ever since I had viewed it with a mixture of of challenge and suspicion. Did using it speed our demise? Could I use it enough to beat the odds? Apparently not. That night, the threat of an incoming tropical storm cancelled school. And then, after we were in bed, and had turned out the light, Jim had a stroke. That was when I really lost him. I called 911, while the Younger Daughter locked up the dogs. It was, she would reflect later, the last night of her childhood.
When I was a child we had a beach house on what was essentially a sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1938, it was decimated by a storm. The town compiled a history of the storm with firsthand accounts. For years I had dreams of trying to escape the waves, scrambling up the sand dunes that formed a fragile line of defense against the tides. In the dreams, I am trying to outrun waves, feet stuck in wet sand. One woman recalled how she had been holding her sister’s hand when the wave hit their house and she had lost her. This is how it feels to me when my husband turns on the light but cannot speak. He has been swept away. I drive behind the ambulance to the hospital. In the waiting room, TV reporters with wet hair gesture to bending palm trees. Local anchors tell us to secure all outside furniture and prepare to experience power outages and gas shortages. Brain scans will show the part of him that has been erased. For a week, he seems to be returning, struggling to climb up the dune to safety, even as the tides are pulling him back. His eyes are saying something but sometimes it’s hard to know how far ahead he is seeing, or what he is trying to say. I try to get him to tell me what category it is: health, food, work, home, but this frustrates him. The stroke has swept away most of his words so that when he speaks he will say, “What I’m telling you is,” and the rest is gibberish. The speech therapist brings a communication board with Makaton pictures familiar to us from the Older Daughter’s classrooms in primary school. We rake through the wreckage of his language, like beachcombers, like the girls raking their hands through the Lego, looking for the words that will bring him back to us
For the first few nights, I was there in a big reclining chair, waiting for them to call my name, watching the storm radar. It all looks like brain scans and echocardiograms. Initially, it seems he will recover. After they move him out of the neuro ICU and into the regular stroke unit, the prognosis is pretty good. Plans are made to transfer him from the hospital to a rehab unit. Sometimes I am the ghost. When his mother came to the neuro ICU he was furious. Was this because I acted rashly or without his consent or because he realizes how serious it is, or because he doesn’t, or he simply doesn’t want to be seen like this? He has aphasia, which means his expressive speech is damaged. Maybe also how he is processing language. As the parent of a child with a language-based learning disorder, this is difficult and familiar territory to reenter. In the beginning he answers yes emphatically to everything. I called your mom to let her know. Yes. She wanted to come, but I told her not to. Yes. You want her to come? Yes. When the speech therapist does the assessment I realize yes encompasses everything he wants to say. It is all he can say. I am the ghost when he sends me from the room and I have to hide in the hallway of the room so that he can’t see me but I can still get a nurse or reenter when the doctors come so that I can help him understand what is happening and so that I know. We are not regular people in the world any longer. I drift away from my regular life, parenting by text, taking an extended sick leave from work. I have a sense of watching our lives be dismantled and I am just a witness, the ghost in the room. After he dies, I feel him with me in the car, only he is less critical of my driving now. I feel him with you all the time, my friend tells me over the phone.
I was a junior in college. At the start of the year, I was going out with a guy from the beach who went to another college. We had our moments, but it was a tortured relationship. And then there was a sort of ongoing situation with someone else. And there was a drunken but completely consensual one-night stand. And then I met Jim. We had a couple of classes together and after our English Seminar, we’d go to the College Center with a mutual friend. One day we were walking across campus and we stopped to finish our conversation before we went our separate ways and I knew he was the one because I just wanted it to go on forever. We talked about where we had grown up, his father’s death, the people we had gone to school with, clown-themed diners and pizzerias where we ate lunch in high school. He drew me a map of his apartment, told me about the summer he had worked as a janitor in an office building, the road trip he had taken in his mom’s big green Buick convertible, about the town she was from in Alabama. We should go there, we should do that. We made plans for our life together.
5. Dog Owner
After graduation we got an apartment in the Village, near where I had grown up. We adopted kittens from the ASPCA. When someone broke into the apartment, they gave the cats a piece of cheese from the fridge so they were distracted and did not try to escape. The thief ran out the window when I came in. I saw his legs, clad in khakis, ascending the fire escape. He stole small things, the gold earrings my parents had given me for graduation, Jim’s vintage Ray-Bans, which seemed the cruelest loss as they had been his father’s. His father had died from heart disease when he was 12. It was one of the first things he had told me about himself. Men, I would tell my friends, always announce the way that they will leave you early on in the relationship. I did warn you that I’m terrible at commitment, they might say. But what can you do? You love them until it happens.
We got more cats, then had two children, then switched from cats to dogs.
It started about 7 years ago with a little bit of arrhythmia picked up at his annual physical, then he was on some medication, had a few procedures, more medications, the installation of a an IED (a pacemaker with a defibrillator), another procedure, a new medication. But through it all we continued to do roughly the same things we had always done. Only maybe a bit less or more slowly. But if you weren’t paying attention you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong.
The Heart Association used to call me at work and ask if I would send my neighbors cards warning them about the behaviors that contribute to heart disease and I really wanted to support the organization, but not like that. It was not the role I wanted to assume with my neighbors. You should lead a less sedentary lifestyle, I might say. And they would say, Yeah? Well you should landscape your yard and install some outdoor lighting.
My husband had idiopathic cardiomyopathy. It was genetic. It was hard enough to tell friends. But now I can tell you. And I have no lifestyle advice for you, no info sheet. But it’s good to have dogs. They make you go outside for walks and take them for rides in the car. They snore and crowd you in bed so that you forget the other side is empty.
As I walk the dogs I notice things in the neighborhood you miss when you are driving or even running. I like to see what’s in someone’s garage. Have they filled the second car space with plastic storage bins? Is it a workshop? An automotive temple? A third living room, with stuffed chairs? I go by a house with three cars in the driveway. The middle one has flat tires, the last one is packed to the gills with catalogs and plastic bags. I think of our own garage, our closets and bookshelves, the books we shared, the books that were just his, the suits that hang in the closet, the nailhead cloth, memories of the times I came with him to the Saville Row tailor to give my opinion on something that was a major purchase. Now there is a closet full of folded shirts in dry cleaner boxes. I have the urge to leave everything as it is and also to let everything go. I wear some of his things, but others I can’t possibly make use of except as souvenirs, which I don’t need. I tell the Younger Daughter that I plan to give ties to the men who are speaking at his memorial service and at first she says she wants to save them all but this means I will have to save everything forever. I put some of his poker chips in a basket for the service. We need tokens, momentos, touchstones, but that is different than living in a nest of everything.
The memorial service brings him closer to me. His presence is felt among his friends and the memories, the sadness, the love, and the loss we share. People come from near and far and there is this incredible day of togetherness plus all the energy of the coming together, but then there is the pulling apart as the event recedes, and so it feels that he is moving away, too. I’m dead, remember? At the end of the weekend people must return to their own lives and problems. They cannot stay down here in the sadness with me and I would not want them to. We have all lost a part of ourselves, but I have lost a greater part of my identity and I know that I will lose many of them and maybe it doesn’t matter. Like when a couple divorces, did you like them or did you just like him? And so some people will peel off, and I will find new friends with similarly disrupted lives, or find myself inexplicably closer to others. Like everything else right now, it’s a rebalancing, a redistribution. It’s part of the identity question: who am I without him? His widow, so sad, but we never really knew what he saw in her. We were never that close. I know how couples are. I miss that. When someone says they can’t imagine I know they have and they can. I realize at some point I will look at my rings and think that maybe I am pretending to be married. Planning your husband’s funeral is in a small way planning your own. It is the anti-wedding, with many of the same people in attendance, and this time you get to invite who you like and pick the band. You are dismantling your life, giving away his tailored suits, wearing his socks, throwing out the ratty baseball statistics annuals, his toothbrush. Breaking up with yourself.
8. Best Friend
All this business of asking people to speak at the memorial means making decisions about degrees of closeness. A year ago if you had asked me who his best friends were I’m not sure I could have told you. People have their seasons. There’s the person he would have had lunch with the week after the stroke and the kindergarten friend who jumped on a plane to be here the day after he died. It may be the person closest to the person he was when we lost him or the people who can’t imagine their lives without him. For so long we were each other’s best friends, but there are many. I ask Joe to speak at the New York memorial service. He almost hits the emotional third rail, but then walks alongside it. He shares what he was feeling but could not express at the first memorial we had in Alabama only two days after the death. We sat together at both, holding each other up. He is the friend from the English seminar all those years ago. These are the people you turn to and who turn up at moments like these. You recognize them in a flash.
9. Keeper of Secrets
These are questions people ask: Was he ready to die? Did he know he was dying? Was he in pain? Did he know the value of the baseball cards in the trade we made the summer we were nine? Did he know Aunt Gigi gave me some of his old cards? (Weirdly, baseball cards seem to be prevalent in the post-mortem Q & A.) What did he think of me? There are so many things I want to tell him, things that have happened, funny ways that character is revealed and things he would be glad to know or would make him laugh–his laugh is one of things I miss the most; and things that would make him proud of his daughters, but I’ll have to be the keeper of all of that information. You cannot settle scores on the behalf of the deceased, you cannot give up their secrets, or ask anything of them, not even forgiveness.
10. Pillar of Something
Of salt or strength. Holding the weight of it all like a caryatid or a water-carrier, balancing it on top of my head, learning to walk, to look back, to look ahead. No one can do it to you or for you. Sometimes I am just Jim’s wife. Other times I set the basket down and walk on my own, leaving the fixed spot. I gather fruit, other stories. I am learning to shop for myself, cooking what I can manage, what I want to eat. It’s not that it’s so different, but it’s different. There is also strength in being vulnerable, in handing someone the basket or answering the phone even when you’re crying.
11. Fellow Traveler
My situation is my own, but it is yours, too. We will all have to face what our own death will mean even if we never have to manage through another’s. I set off on the journey and had the most amazing person at my side for more 30 years. Now I have to continue that journey on my own. He always snatched the map; I was too slow to locate where we were. I will do it in my own time now, and wherever it is that I am meant to go, I will get there somehow. Thank you for reading this. We will get there together.
It’s not about returning to the person you were. It is surveying the wreckage after the hurricane has breached the sandbar and the houses lie in smashed disorder all around you, like Saltaire in 1938, and figuring out if there’s a reason to rebuild. The survivors stayed for a time in the clothes they had found in a dresser, burned piles of timbers, ate the oranges from someone’s icebox, buried the dead. They came back and rebuilt or they moved away, never to return. You won’t know what it will look like until the next season, when the dunes have been rebuilt, chairs set out, people bracing themselves for the new day. Sometimes I say we and I mean the we that built up over time, the way we do things in our family, the things the two of us said to the girls. It’s still we in that respect. The Older Daughter is grappling with the linguistics, too. She calls him Dad when she talks to him in her sleep, but when she speaks to me she has taken to calling him Our Old Dad or Your Husband.
The last night we were together, after the doctors had explained, one by one, what could not be done, how he was only receding, when all there was to do at that point was wait together for the inevitable, I could not let go of his hand because it was all I had and all that I could do for him was to let him know, wherever he was, that he was not alone. To watch someone descend into illness, to die incrementally, each organ checking out, is awful. It happened slowly then all at once. When he pulled out the feeding tube, more than once, was it because he knew it was over? I just wanted him to get through one day so that there was this hope he was actually still on the road to a meaningful recovery, but each day he strayed off the path a little further and there was more than one definition of recovery going around. Not the kind we had planned for, that I would fight for. You have those conversations in the lawyer’s office, with your friends, you say it’s not what I want, the machines and the tubes, but it sneaks up on you. I played music for us, and fewer people entered the room. What was even the point of the respiratory therapist? Sometimes they asked me if I needed anything. Once during the night he squeezed my hand and I knew that was when he said goodbye or maybe hello. Whatever there might be to forgive, he won’t be able to do that. You have to forgive yourself.