anniversaries and deceased spouses

A Facebook friend posted today in memory of the anniversary of her first husband’s death. As I was skimming through the replies, another widow commented that you never forget.

That’s not true.

The anniversary of my first husband’s death was a month ago. I completely forgot about it until I say my friend’s post today.

Oh, I didn’t forget that he died. In fact, last night I was thinking quite a bit about his illness because of news I received about the spouse of a young woman who is like a niece to me. The similarities took me back a bit. But I didn’t remember the anniversary until today.

I didn’t know how to feel about this. I suppose I should feel terrible, but that’s not really how I feel. Not guilty either because going on with your life, and really being present in it is, in my opinion, the only healthy option.

But I have a lot of widowed friends, and I am privy to some of the ongoing grief they share online. Years and years after the fact, and even being enmeshed in new realities, they never let anniversaries roll on by.

I checked the calendar to see what was going on that week. Husband was away. Teen had first semester finals. My mother was struggling a bit because one of my younger siblings moved back in with her after their life fell apart. I suppose these are reasons for forgetting the day I had a husband die on me. It was quite a while ago.

Does it count that he pops up in my thoughts at other times?

I will guess that some of you would say no. Anniversaries are extremely important mile-markers for most bereaved. Like the memorials they set up virtually and in real life. Like the graves they visit. But, I don’t do any of those things either, so I suppose this is just one more thing to chalk up to me just being me.

People still read my old posts on grief. The dating ones more than others, but one of the questions that comes up early after a loss is “how long?” How long will this misery dog me? Will I ever be happy? Or even just feel okay and not relive the agony multiple times a year for the rest of my life?

I still don’t know how to answer  beyond assurance that for the majority of people, grief ends. Missing probably never ends for most people. Missing and sadness are not grief. And for some people, new chapters in life can offer as good or better lives.

I am okay with having forgotten. It’s a first. There’s always firsts with widowhood. So many firsts. This one I wasn’t expecting however.

An almost burnt-down lit candle on a candle ho...

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Every year without fail that day pops up and I generally don’t notice until it’s smack dab upon me. It’s not that I’ve forgotten I had a husband before Rob and that he died in January. I just lose track of the days and suddenly it is the day, and six year after the fact, I am once again left to wonder what to do with it.

When I remember Will dying, I recall that it was Monday, the day after the Steelers won the AFC championship. It was unseasonably warm. I had strep throat and Dee had an ear infection. I was tired. Annoyed that once again I had to cajole family and friends into being even the tiniest bit useful, and that  – as always – most of the heavy lifting was mine to do alone.

That’s what I remember.

What I felt was just tired and relieved and free. It was over. Finally. The day I didn’t think would ever come, came, and it was everything I expected and nothing I expected.

When I first began creeping about the Internet looking for signs that I was not the only young widow on the planet, I stumbled upon terminology specific to grief culture. One word in particular curdled my eardrums: sadiversary. A cutesy-poo term for the anniversary of the date of death. I refused to use it, but it is an integral part of my yearly dilemma. This idea that the day a person died should be honored in some way, which is quite Celtic really. In that ancient culture, birthdays are mourned and dates of death celebrated because your birth into this life is your exit from the better alternative of “heaven”. Therefore your departure from this life is your rebirth somewhere much better. But that’s not why people memorialize.

I don’t write mournful dirges of what I lost or how I was cheated or how death is unfair or widowhood is wrong. Not that any of that is untrue in this or that way depending on a person’s circumstances, but it’s not true from where I stand.

I don’t light virtual candles, put up pictures on Facebook or change my profile pic there in memorial.

Rob goes and leaves a note for her on the guest book page of her virtual memorial. The girls do too, and they update their statuses on Facebook or put up pictures. There is a bench in a park in the city for them to visit. It bears one of those memorial plaques. The kind that just have a name and dates and makes a person wonder who this person was and what moved someone to claim a park bench in their name. It works for them.

Will is buried in a little town that is home to the bar where he played for a pool league. He is only buried at all because his family hounded me about it. I haven’t been to visit his grave in almost four years. It’s a literal millstone and I resent it’s very existence.

What I feel about today and the few days on either side of it is anger. White searing hot effing anger.

Not that he died. He had to die. There wasn’t ever any option not to and both he and I are in far better places because of it.

No. I am angry at all the people who made his dying so much harder for me.

For most of the year, I let it go. I remember that people are just people. Frail, fallible and of varying mettle. But this time of year, I remember the people who wouldn’t come to sit with me while he died. Or who came but spent the time talking about their own problems – the boyfriend who had a panic attack and had to go to the ER, the abusive mother, the time when this or that other person died and how hard it was for them. I remember standing in his hospice room, death rattling in my ear with a cranky, confused three-year old on my hip and a cell phone to my ear listening to one excuse after another of why so-and-so friend couldn’t come and take my little girl home and watch her until my mother arrived from 300 miles away.

The condescending tone of his mother’s friend as she relayed my mother-in-law’s queries to me because his mother still refused to talk to me on the phone personally. The whine of the hospice social worker who was more concerned about my maintaining contact with the vicious woman so that she could heal than she was about me or Dee and how Will’s mother’s toxicity had already damaged us. His fat stupid trailer park cousin, who hadn’t ever once lifted a finger to help me suddenly thinking that I should let her babysit in the future and expressing her concern about my mental health. The indignant hospice nurses who seethed as they recounted to me how his mother and her friends sat around his bedside having a hen party while they saw to his needs. Not a one of them checking to see if he needed his lips moistened or holding his hand. Just watching television and chatting as though a coffee table sat between them and not a hospital bed with a dying 32 year old man on it.

I remember his friends. Useless as ever, showing up the night before he died, standing around his bed smelling like the sports bar they’d come from and dressed in black and gold. Not one of them had ever visited him in the nursing home. Not one had ever called him after his diagnosis. I can still hear the hurt in his voice when he would say, “I called so-and-so today but he never called back. Why doesn’t anyone ever call me or visit?”

And there where the people who wouldn’t come because “they wanted to remember him as he was”.  His aunt. His uncles. The guy he considered his best friend.

And of course, there are the friends who never showed up at all. Maybe I got a card from them after the fact or came home to a message on the answering machine that grated like fingernails on a chalkboard, explaining that they’d had a long day at work or child’s sporting event to attend or it was just too sad for them to contemplate and “I hope you can understand”.

Which I do, every other day but today.

Then there was the visitation, where his mother accepted money from his friends for expenses and pocketed it. Where she told them that he died because I wouldn’t let the doctors treat him and that I was dating already. She and her family and friends sat in the spot reserved for family while I stood at the door, endlessly shaking hands – being hugged by people I loathed – and wishing every single second that I hadn’t allowed myself to be talked into such a stupid waste of money I didn’t have.

Most of the year I am okay with the fact that his family, friends and the majority of our mutual friends had a party right after the visitation. One that I wasn’t supposed to know about because I wasn’t a good wife to Will and didn’t deserve sympathy or consideration in their opinion. I wasn’t invited. The party was to be his send off by those who truly loved him. All those people who turned their backs on him when he got sick and have never once asked about his daughter or checked up on her in any way. They put on a little show before the visitation ended. Dressed in Steelers football jersey’s. They sang and danced the “touch down” song, tears streaming. All choked up as though it hadn’t been nearly two years since most of them had laid eyes on Will and as if they wouldn’t slither into the night, never to be seen again. A lot of people thought it was touching but they were the kind of people who probably think releasing balloons or gathering to toss flower petals is meaningful too.

Most of the year, I let that go. But not today.

There are no candles to light or  polite status updates or memorial rituals for remembering that on the one day in my entire life … in his life … when we needed people to step up, almost no one did. And on this one day of the year, I remember vividly, and I don’t forgive you though he would have because he was a much better person than I am.

It’s Valentine’s Day and Rob is busy rearranging in the latest round of purge and conquer. He likes to listen to music while he works. Loudly. That’s why the stereo speakers in the truck are Bose and he can’t wait until winter is over and he can reclaim it from me.*

He loaded the cd player with a collection of compilation discs and we spent the afternoon going about our business and shouting to each other when necessary.

As I was preparing dinner, “the song” came on. The Everlast song that pops up and reminds me of Will. But I don’t take it as a sign anymore. It’s just a song that had meaning once but has no relevance anymore. It was an interesting song to come up on Valentine’s and nothing more.

A couple of songs later however, Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You began to play. Will chose that song for our first dance at our wedding reception. It’s been a long, long time since I have thought about it, let alone heard it.

“Okay, okay,” I thought. “Happy Valentine’s to you too.”

On Sunday I had to zip over to The Park early because I had volunteered to man the table our writing foundation had at the Winter Art’s Fair. Rob continued his restructuring by attacking the bookcases. We have a lot of books between us.** When I got home, he’d accomplished a lot and in his typical meticulous fashion had even inspected and dusted every single book and shelf.

“I found this in one of your books,” he said as he handed me a folded sheet of notebook paper. “It looks like a letter you wrote a long time ago to your friend, Fran, but you never mailed it.

It was dated February 16th, and as soon as I read the first lines, I knew exactly what year:

Dear Fran,

Just a quick note to let you know that Will and I are engaged. He asked me (on one knee) last night. Even though we’d been talking about it for a while, I was still surprised.

Now the songs made sense. The year was 1999. This year marks a decade. A significant passage of time in the whole anniversary scheme of things.

Sometimes I really do need neon flashing signs.



*I drive the Avalanche in the winter. It’s the safer vehicle.

**And several duplicates because, ironically, both Will and Shelley were huge Stephen King fans.