I drove to California last week to say good-bye to my cousin Nancy, who is now in hospice care. My memories of the trip include the sides of freeways as I whizzed by, and the times I spent with Nancy, who is hanging in there so far, and with my mother-in-law Diane.
To say that Diane is my mother-in-law is a bit of a joke. Yes, she was married to my husband’s father, but she is only a year older than I am. Now that Rick and his dad, Mark, are gone – they died exactly four months apart - we are simply friends, and last week we talked together about the experience of being widowed.
First of all, it sucks, and blows.
When someone asks, “How are you?” we agreed that we usually reply with a non-committal, “Fine,” delivered with a brave smile and (we hope) a clear unwillingness to talk about it in public. You don’t want to know how we are. Honestly.
Diane said she prefers to call herself single, because that feels better to her than saying widowed. Yeah. The “w” word carries a lot of freight. It conjures up visions of squat old ladies dressed all in black with black scarves over their heads, maybe missing a front tooth or two. I’m not saying those ladies are anything but perfectly respectable and whole human beings with lives and stories of their own, but I am more the jeans and purple t-shirt and wild hair type of widow.
We talked about the feelings and perspectives we have as widows that cannot be explained to anyone who hasn’t lived the experience.
We talked about how much grief is a physical experience. Well, it’s a total being experience – physical, mental, emotional. spiritual. I know I have been caught by surprise by what it is really like. I expected to be weeping and wailing, but for me it’s been more a case of catching myself sitting and staring, occasional nausea, occasional tears, bouts of old chronic illness kicking up, nightmares, the surfacing of old, old emotional wounds, and strange feelings of being out-of-body, as if the laws of physics have been repealed. Does gravity still work? Apparently, but sometimes I feel like I’m floating in space, unhitched and unbound by every rule and law I’ve lived by. Nothing makes sense.
We talked about how fortunate we were, to have been with this person who liked us and loved us better than anyone else in the world. That is not a gift that everyone gets. We appreciate that and we are grateful.
We talked about seeing old couples together, in the hardware store, for example, and how we want to go up and say, HEY, do you realize how lucky you are, having someone with whom you can go to the hardware store? We want to tell people to be grateful that they have companions.
When you live in harness with someone for decades, you develop your own little country, with its own culture and language and history and customs. There is a story that is created by your joined lives. When your partner dies, that all goes away. The punchlines to old jokes don’t make anyone else laugh because they don’t know the joke. They weren’t there when the baby touched his father’s smooth face right after Dad shaved, and said, “Moozh;” or the time your other son saw a sandpiper on the beach and said, “There is a walking creature.” No one knows the words and lines that became part of the family language forever.
Suddenly you have to make your own new country, and customs, and culture, and history, living every day into the new reality. I watched an episode of the British series “Call the Midwife” the other night, in which one of the nuns tells a grieving young nurse, “Keep living until you are alive again.” That pretty much nails it.
As for Cousin Nancy – she is on hospice in her little apartment, and she gets lots of visitors, which she loves. She’s stubborn and she’s hanging in there. She’s weak, and on a lot of strong drugs to combat the pain. When I left we hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks and said, “Thank you for loving me all my life.” I’m glad I went.
Thank you, too, for reading this far. I am grateful that you did.
That’s it for this week.