widowhood


I’ve been watching soap operas on and off for nearly the length of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of me hiding behind the sofa – instead of napping – while Mom folded laundry and watched As The World Turns.

Since leaving the US, I haven’t watched soaps much, and most of those I have caught up with now and again are long gone anyway. Occasionally though I catch a glimpse on YouTube, and sometimes, it’s intriguing enough for me to watch for a little while. I like seeing the grown up versions of characters who were infants or toddlers on shows I was watching while I was in high school or university. It’s like catching up with old neighbors, classmates, or the people you worked those crappy service work jobs with when you were in school.

Recently, a show I was addicted to when I was in high school had a character come back from the dead. I love that about soap operas. No one is ever dead until the writers are ready for them to be dead, and even then – it’s still negotiable.

The character in question was little more than a plot device decades ago. The accidental offspring of an affair that evolved into a messy divorce slash murder mystery. The exact details are fuzzy, but the child was eventually packed off to boarding school not to return until he was a more useful teenager.

The actor who played this love child – turned annoying teen, who eventually morphed into a mobster –  left the show a few years back but has returned of late. The character he played had been recast but that’s never a problem in soap land.

Sometimes writers create an elaborate imposter story line to cover the plot holes, but my favorite plot device when these issues arise is the long-lost twin.

I only bring this up because of the twist. The twins in question are in love with/and/or married to and have a child each by the same woman.

That’s strangely more real life these days than when I was a teenage soap opera viewer.

And why would this interest me? Well, back in my widowed message board days, the subject of “what would you do if your dead spouse showed up alive and well on your doorstep” often came up. They don’t call it magical thinking for no reason.

As I’ve caught this and that YouTube episode, I have noted the fans responding to the dilemma faced by the widow/wife, who finds herself with a not-so-dead husband and married to a man she’s just discovered is his long-lost twin. And nearly every single comment was “well, why doesn’t she just admit that she loves not-dead husband and go back to him? They are soul-mates, dammit!”

I’ll save my disdain for soul-mates for another day, but my reaction has been to chuckle and hold fingers back from the keyboard.

I know exactly why the writers leave her with her now husband.

Time travel isn’t a thing.

We live in a forward trajectory. All of us. Though I know everyone can think of at least one person they know who seems frozen in the past that’s simply not how life works.

Once a moment is lived, it’s past. It’s a memory. Memories can capture and hold us like Narcissus’s reflection held him, but they can’t be lived again or even recreated.

My first husband has been physically dead for almost a dozen years. A side effect of his illness caused him to develop dementia early on, and so my reality is that I lost him three years before he died.

It’s been so long ago that I can’t clearly remember his voice, laugh, or conversations that we had before he got sick. All that’s left are some plans that never left the drawing board and a tiny tot who is nearly out of high school now, and who he never had a chance to parent at all anyway.

If he were to show up on my doorstep would I even let him in is the better question. But trade ten years of marriage? A life that I love so much every other time of my life comes in a distant third to it. Swap the present for a past?

No.

No one would. And if they would, they might want to ask themselves, why aren’t they actively searching for a better life already? Because that’s the only time people look backward longingly, when they aren’t happy right now.

I do understand the appeal of stories like these. Humans are such “what if” creatures. As Yoda said, never our minds on where we are or what we are doing. Grounding ourselves more in what’s going on around us is really how happiness and contentment are found. I think Buddha said something to that effect too or maybe it was Jesus. My Catholic school and yoga training really do overlap sometimes.

But I do love me some back from the dead to find his long-lost twin was brainwashed and living his life. Corny 1980’s soap drama never goes out of style. Just like people’s wrong-headed notions about love it seems. Not completely.


Garage sale

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Spent some time purging drawers and closets in anticipation of the hamlet-wide garage sale later this summer.

Dee has outgrown nearly everything, which caught me off guard because normally I shop for her every other year. She’s put on exactly zero pounds but shot up an inch-ish or better. It’s all legs. Devilish hard to fit the child’s waist. Girls’ clothing these days are vanity sized and reflect the chunkier body types that have resulted from our processed food/low-level of energy lifestyles. Dee is not the shortest kid in her class anymore, but she’s got a Scarlett O’Hara waist compared to nearly all of her peers. Tiny waist and coltish legs spells difficulty in sizing her, so just about every pair of pants I got her back in late February are now floodies and still a tad too big around her waist. Hobbit-legged and thick-middled, the girl ain’t.

I rummaged and purged my own rather meager collection of apparel myself, sticking slavishly to the rule that “if it hasn’t been worn in a year, its history”. I continue to pride myself on the fact that every article of clothing I own could be neatly packed into a large Rubbermaid tote should the need arise.

All this pro-activeness called to mind the agony of purging and packing for the move to Canada before Rob and I married back in June of 2007. In fact four years ago yesterday, we left Des Moines behind.

I sometimes miss the idea of that house.  The openness and space. Some of what we’ve done in our recent renovations replicates it in a way, but we are far from done and even farther from achieving liberation from boxes of packed away stuff that is never thought of much less in danger of every being used again.

Over lunch today, Rob ruefully expressed what he called his “buyer’s remorse” about the renovation project that never ends. Selling and buying new, however, was never an option. Real estate around here is overpriced and much of the newer stuff is poorly constructed. For a little bit of debt, we can create spaces in our existing home that will more than suit as opposed to taking on the monumental debt of a brand new mortgage for what amounts to overvalued real estate on a prairie that is downwind of various petrochemical plants. It’s somewhat of a no brainer.

It’s doesn’t make the process less cumbersome or tiring.

The last time I purged a house, it was slash and burn. Goodwill, friends and friends/relatives of friends benefited tremendously from my zeal to simply lighten my load. I gave away more than I sold and simply threw away everything else. And with only the occasional exception (it would have been nice to have kept that Pampered Chef pizza cutter because the one I have now bites in comparison), I haven’t missed anything.

That’s the thing about stuff that most people can’t wrap their minds around – it honestly won’t be missed once you are able to pry your fingers loose of it. In all likelihood, you will never waste another thought on it again.

I toy with the idea of just getting a waste-bin  delivered and just have a chuckfest. But, of course, I won’t. A lot of what constitutes clutter isn’t mine, and though I am convinced that it would be years – if ever – that anyone would ask after the departed items, I respect the fact that what I deem useless and spent embodies something important for others.

Accumulation of stuff seems to be a condition of life – unless one is a monk of some kind. Renunciates are what they are called in yoga. Renunciates eschew things in an effort to seek the balance between living in a physical world without placing too much attachment on it while Householders do the opposite while still being expected to rise above it all. I think the latter is the more difficult. Having fewer things, as I have learned, spoils a person. The more room I acquire the less I want to fill it up. The more stuff one has, the harder it is to decide what’s necessary and the greater the likelihood that one won’t recognize the tribble like nature of stuff. Stuff breeds because it feeds want.

Too much stuff blinds us as well because it fairly demands that we attach value – monetary and emotional – to it, making it harder to get rid of and easier to let pile up in one way or another.

I suspect I will spend the better part of the rest of my life waging a quiet war of attrition with clutter and accumulation. Most days I am zen about that but today it’s raining and cold and my hair is frizzy. Not that this has any bearing, mind you, and I have just been thinking  – again – about how to lighten Rob’s load without any success. Maybe banana bread and cookies? At least that’s not permanent clutter.


Calhan, Colorado cemetery.

Image via Wikipedia

I worked in five different schools over twenty years and so acquired a lot of work only friends. Though a handful of these people have stuck with me in various mediums, most of them have faded to “people I used to know” status, and I use the “know” in only the vaguest of ways. I wouldn’t claim to have really known any of them past their working face and am certain that street is a two-way.

Sis left a message on my FB page last night mentioning that a mutual work friend of the way back days of middle school yore was looking for me. The three of us taught together back in the late 80’s and early 90’s at one of the rough-and-tumbliest junior highs on Des Moines’ eastside. The poorest of the poor white trash attended this school. Kids who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the State Fairgrounds and running along the banks of the river. Neighborhoods where the boarded up houses were inhabited by families who couldn’t afford to replace the windows when they were broken out by gunshots and where the city didn’t bother to pave the streets or install sidewalks.

I once drove a student to his home in one of these postapocalyptic looking neighborhoods and was sharply admonished by an older co-worker who told me in no uncertain terms that I was “never to drive down there alone again.”

I didn’t get warnings that stern when I drove through the “hood” on the North side and that was during the height of the gang wars*.

The friend in question eventually moved up the chain of command, I transferred away and so did she. I saw her occasionally at the yearly convention our district used to hold in the spring, but she became someone from my past. I invited her to the wedding when Will and I married, but she sent her regrets.  I think she sent a gift to the baby shower for Dee, but she’s never seen even a picture of Dee, let alone Dee herself.

The last time I ran into her was four years ago at the last high school where I taught. It was days until the end of school and I had resigned, getting ready to sell my house and move up to Canada.

She asked how I was.

Everyone asked, but those who hadn’t stayed in touch or contacted me in the aftermath of Will’s death always had this guilty air about them that I found exasperating. It’s not as if I thought the world revolved around me and was overly hurt about the lack of cards or emails when he died. I was more annoyed by the way they seemed to think they had some input into my life or pertinent advice to give me – because many of them did – and I wanted to remind them that they’d been absent too long for this to be the case. But I didn’t. In this instance though, she didn’t know Will had died, and that was always a treat – breaking the news to people who’d dropped off the radar after he got sick. Better was the twofer – Will died and oh, I’m getting remarriedshe had quite the non-reaction to the first and a small stroke over the second.

Actually, a horror induced stroke because I was quitting my job, selling my house and moving to Canada to marry a guy I met on the Internet. To be precise about it.

She was not the first to question my judgment but was one of the few that didn’t get an earful of scorn and mind your own life while I – an adult with more than half a brain – mind my own, thank you.

In retrospect, I suppose my news sounded a bit extreme and possibly hasty.

But she was over a decade absent from my life at this point and had no idea of who I was at that moment or what had led me to the place where I was. We were strangers again in all the ways that matter. Sharing a past experience counts for exactly nothing though it can make for a pleasant coffee date.

Her husband died not long ago. I saw his obit on the city’s newspaper site.**

I followed the link to the mortuary website and left a note. Such a wonderful way to bridge the time and space that separates sometimes.

So when Sis told me that this friend was looking for a way to contact to me – I knew why.

We have something in common again.

Except we don’t.

All I can do is the same thing anyone else can, impart a few sympathetic words and remind her that time is really going to make a difference at some point down the road.

Maybe that is a lot more than it feels like. But it’s all that I have to offer.

*It surprises people but in the early to mid 90’s, Des Moines was an important bit of turf in a territory war between the Bloods and the Crips. Both would eventually lose out to Hispanic and Asian gangs, but for a while, tales from students about nightly shootings and keeping an eye out for rolled up pants legs and “colors” was part of my job description. And people said I was overpaid.

**I check the obits in hopes of one day seeing Will’s mother there. Yeah, I know what a cunt that makes me. And I don’t care.


Yoga training typically culminates on a late Sunday afternoon with the Sutras. We’ve hit chapter two, which is the meat of the mental practice – because yoga is all about reaching the interior whether it be the muscles and organs or the thoughts and emotions.

We spent a great deal of time on teaching beginners, so Patanjali got shorted. Thirty-five minutes is inadequate to the task of fleshing tapas.

Tapas?

Tapas is all about the pain and the letting it go. Emphasis on “letting it go”.

Patanjali insists that we are only anchored to the physical world through the pesky inconvenience of having bodies. Bodies that are not us.  The true “me” of me is not my body at all. Therefore, all experience happens to the body and what “I” should be doing is experiencing, acknowledging and then letting it go.

Everything. Good, bad, meh and bloody awful. Feel it. Know it. Wave goodbye.

“Nothing is permanent,” Cat, our instructor, pointed out.

True. It’s our attachment to the idea that good things should have no end and bad things are unfair (I’m overly simplifying) that leads us into the mud and mires us there.

I just listened.

Not because I have no thoughts or concrete experiences to share, but because I know that this is one of those deceptively simple ideas that become nightmarishly difficult when reality envelopes a person.

“Our reactions are choices,” another woman chimed in.

Essentially, we can shape our lives through letting go or just acknowledging that all experiences are finite.

And here the conversation veered into the anecdotal experiences that, I think, aren’t helpful.

A fellow student was in a serious accident and was told by her doctors that she would never regain the use of her arm. She told us that had she listened to the doctors, she would indeed have no function, but she chose to ignore them and rehabbed herself to the point where she is now able to use her arm – not 100% – but no one could tell by simply looking at her that she has difficulties.

I hate these analogies. They are exceptions and they lead others to believe that we are all destined to be exceptions when we aren’t.

We are the rule. Sometimes reality is what it is. No exceptions.

This doesn’t preclude trying to be an exception but it does mean that more often than not, one will have to accept that they are the rule and then – let it go.

“We can change our reality,” Cat said.

But we can’t. Reality is. Sometimes all we can choose is our reactions and how to live within the reality. There are some realities that can’t be let go. They can only be managed.

Managed isn’t the best term, I’ll admit, but there are experiences that stick even though we have let them go.

Will is dead. I have a dead first husband. Not much I can do with that. Very little to work with. Certainly can’t change it.

But I can acknowledge it and let it go, knowing that its effect on me is permanent and that “letting go” might have to be revisited periodically throughout my life.

Same holds true for my classmate. If she had not been able to regain the use of her arm, she would still have had to let the experience go and live within the parameters of her altered reality.

I don’t know if Patanjali addresses this later on, but letting go is a process and it can take years or a lifetime. The choice – I believe – is the attempt to let go in the first place or to cling and not bother.


Sigh. I don’t lead with my widow foot. There was a time when I would if I thought there was some advantage to it. I was all about easing my burdens through any means necessary through the caregiving years and right after Will died. But these days, I am vague about my status.

Vague?

I talk about Rob, the fact that I have grown step-daughters, that he and I are raising a seven year old still and that we’ve only been married for going on three years. I don’t elaborate on the how’s, why’s or huh’s – because the math could lead a person to speculate all manner of options leading to the bottom line that is my life.

It’s not that I am ashamed or even overly worried about the effect that my having been widowed once – a while back now – has on people. It can vary but normally people are a bit taken aback and by the time they find words – if they are inclined to words at all – I’ve moved the conversation along.

I do that because I don’t feel new people need to offer me condolences or feel sad for me.

But yesterday at yoga, in the course of being drawn out about my writing, I got backed into a bit of a corner – mostly because I’d tried to talk around the topic of my memoir instead of just laying it all out – and I revealed, in as few words as possible, the whole widow thing.

Later, during a discussion of the vritt’s – I posted about them recently – I used going through the motions after the death of a spouse as an example of how sometimes sleepwalking through life is not a bad thing but is instead a cushion to help a person get by. I framed it in light of my own experience.

One of the great things about moving away from Iowa was leaving behind those who knew about Will. People who could bear some witness to the me of that span of time. It was nice to be shed of them in a way.

Gradually I have revealed this part of my life to people, but as I talked about my memoir to the women in my training, I admitted that what keeps me from finishing it is the fear of it being published and widely read. Mostly, because I don’t want to be known as a widow. Someone who went all “boot-strappy” on her life and overcame … adversity? Is it really adversity if it’s a normal life event that everyone will go through at some point or another if they partner up and stay together?

“Some people find my life interesting,” I told the group at one point, “but I don’t want to be a guru or self-help maven. This is how I did it and have someone think it is the right way, the only way instead of just a way.”

Someone commented here once that I was her grief guru. That is something I can’t be. I believe only in the process of life under which all the details fall and one of them is coping with death and moving on with life at some point.

Ach, I am rambling. I don’t know what to say to people anymore about grief, which is another problem with finishing the memoir. I feel removed from it though never safe from it, if you know what I mean.

Time to hit the showers, me thinks.


Trusty Uhaul Truck

Image by Open Wheel via Flickr

The last tote was strapped to the topper of the Avalanche at about 7PM this evening. My best friend, Vicki, arrived with her youngest daughter and helped Rob and I load up the remaining items to be sold (or given away) into her van. The house was empty of everything but the few pieces of furniture that will go to my “niece” to furnish her new apartment next month. It was time to leave.

 

 

 

Time to say goodbye.

 

I went through the house alone. I had to close the garage door and leave the opener on the counter for the new owners. There were two openers. I think the other got packed. Next time we are hiring this packing crap done.

 

The last time the house was this empty was the day we moved in. Fours years ago in exactly two months from today. Four years ago. Katy was eleven months old. I was packing another house. Will was dying.

I can’t say that I will miss the house. I have said already it has few memories that one could call happy, and it was my prison for a long time. Still, it hurt to say goodbye. And it was silly really because like the hospice and the cemetery, Will was not there. I could hear him admonish me in a tone of voice that ranged somewhere between patience and exasperation, reminding me.

 

Outside and heading towards the truck and U-Haul with tears still streaming, Rob met me with an already sweat soggy shoulder and a strong, comforting embrace. Everything was still as it was a moment earlier and yet everything was all right as well.

 

Goodbye house. Goodbye Des Moines. But not goodbye to Will. After all, like Elvis, he had already left the building.


Parker Duofold pens from a 1920s magazine adve...

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“None of us can have as many virtues as the fountain-pen, or half its cussedness; but we can try” – Mark Twain

 

There was a small article on fountain pens on page 194 of the September 2006 issue of Oprah Magazine. I saved it because it reminded me of my late husband. Will loved pens. In general he hated shopping unless it was for a new pen or Pittsburgh Steelers paraphernalia. He would tease me about my Target addiction and only reluctantly would he actually accompany me, but he rarely left there without a new pen.

 

He didn’t write much in his line of work. Mainly he took orders and filled out inventory files, but he insisted on having a good pen with which to do these things. Before his illness took its vicious hold of him, he had printer perfect block letter penmanship, and his cursive was small and impossibly neat. He would leave yellow post-it notes for me on the kitchen table with short utilitarian messages and “I Love You’s” whenever he left the house and knew I would get home before he could get back.

 

But he did write once upon a time. There are three or four pieces of lined notebook paper with poems he wrote when he was just starting college that I have saved. They reflect a rough time in his life. A good friend of his had just committed suicide and the younger brother of one of his close friends had killed himself around the same time as well. The poems are dark and painful. He shared them with me one day not long after we were married. He had been to his mom’s to clean out his old room and discovered them in an notebook. He had wanted to throw them away. He didn’t think they were very good, and they reminded him of the day when he had almost committed suicide himself. I convinced him to save them. I am not yet sure if I am glad I did. I don’t know much about that time of his life beyond what he told me. But right now I am not able to throw away anything I come across that he wrote.

 

I even saved a letter that former girlfriend wrote him a few months before we were married. She was a foreign exchange student he met in high school and their correspondence spanned about 7 or eight years. He stopped writing to her after we became a couple. Not because I asked him to but because he considered her a chapter in his life that was closed. She wrote a few more times before she reappeared about two months before our wedding expecting him to be free to pick up their on/off more romantic on his side than hers relationship. I think something about seeing she and I together made him finally realize that he had been used. I don’t know what she thought. The letter represents another time in his life I don’t know much about either. I realize now that there were a lot of things about him I didn’t know.

 

Periodically Will would initiate a shopping trip strictly for the purpose of acquiring new pens. He would normally purchase several at a time because as a route salesman he knew that they would eventually be left at a stop, lost in the seat of the truck, or drop from his pocket as he loaded and unloaded his cube van. I still have his favorite one. It’s maroon and black and though it doesn’t work very well anymore, I can’t throw it away. Like the poems and that stupid letter from the spoiled little Dutch girl.

 

Our daughter seems to have inherited his love of writing utensils though she loves mechanical pencils just as much as she loves pens. Will didn’t like pencils at all. He even balanced his checkbook in ink. We are forever collecting pencils and pens now. Her favorites tend to be girly with sparkles and feathers. It never ceases to amaze me how much she is like him when she never really knew the man that I fell in love with. He was long gone by the time she was born. She only ever knew her father as a sick man. Confused. Frail. And then wheelchair and bed-bound. Finally unable to talk, see, feed himself. “Daddy never talks to me,” she would say when I asked her if she would like to visit him in the nursing home where he spent over a year of the last fifteen months of his life.

 

The pen I saved is one she uses sometimes though often she will decline to use it because “that’s Daddy’s.” It’s funny the little things that pull up memories you forgot you even remembered. Articles in Oprah, god would he have laughed about that, and fountain pens.