young widowhood and grieving

Calhan, Colorado cemetery.

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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.

Emily Yoffe writes an advice column over at  Slate called Dear Prudence. Rob reads it with fair regularity and occasionally shares the dilemmas she is called upon to “solve” with me. I haven’t been much for advice columns since the long ago days of reading Ann Landers in my hometown paper. I guess I have come to a point where I don’t believe that rigid etiquette will save the world as much as people simply learning to mind their own business at least twice as often as they mind someone else’s and remembering to listen more than they comment, which is an odd sentiment coming from me – a blogger with an attitude and an opinion.

Yoffe’s advice is usually well-grounded in sense and not too heavily coated with some of the rigid Miss Manners’ stuff, but a recent reply to a fellow non-plussed by a female acquaintance of his wife raised my hackles enough to inspire me to email her.

The gentleman reported that a friend of his wife’s had sent her a series of text messages to let her know about the funeral she was planning for her husband. The funeral was set for a week later and the gentleman and his wife were a bit disconcerted to discover that the husband in question was technically dead yet. He’d been ill for a long time and was in a coma, not expected to live much longer. The man wanted to know if the widow-to-be was wrong to jump the planning gun by informing others in advance of the death.

Yoffe’s reply was by the book. Yes, the not quite widow was wrong. Her husband might not die on schedule after all. But she went all stand-up comic in her approach,

Not even Sarah Palin has had the audacity to imagine the advent of scheduling people’s funerals before they actually die in order to get the old and sick to move along.

And added,

It is rather chilling that the wife is texting everyone with the news. (Did she write, “Hubby OOH; funeral Sat”?) I suppose you can be grateful that as a further convenience, she’s not sending around advance information about her wedding gift registry in case she finds a candidate for remarriage.

Following up with this condescending comment,

…refrain from pointing out to the widow-to-be that her behavior is appalling. She’ll be an actual widow soon enough, so all of you should just act as if her grief has gotten the best of her.

It’s hard to say at what point I was most offended but by the end, I knew I had to write her. And this is what I said,

Dear Ms. Yoffe,

I read your Sept. 3 Dear Prudence reply to the gentlemen who was appalled by a friend’s setting up funeral details for her dying husband in advance. As someone who did this herself, I was offended by the fact that you not only didn’t stop to consider that their might have been (probably were) details about the situation that the letter writer wasn’t privy to, but that you felt it necessary to take a swipe at the widow to be by making a cutesy crack about wedding gift registries.

I realize that your advice column is more about clever entertainment than actual advice, but I wonder that someone who is married to a widower herself wouldn’t stop and consider the impact of her words on people who’ve been in the situation that poor widow in waiting found herself.

I won’t bore you with the details of my late husband’s death. If I am to believe you, I apparently missed the meeting on exactly what a good future widow is supposed to be doing in those last hours when there is nothing left to do. The handbook hospice gave me didn’t cover funeral planning or how to project a Jackie Kennedy aura. I will say that on a more personal level I was more offended by your implying that grief is the ultimate pass card and that the ignorant gentlemen should simply join you up on your moral high horse for a more sympathetic view of a situation neither of you know anything about.

Even though that widow will never know you used her to sharpen your wit on for the entertainment – though not the edification of others – you still owe her an apology.

Not surprisingly I got a reply in which she defended her advice on the grounds of anecdotes of situations where people outlived their expected date of expiration, resulting in messed up funeral plans. Not surprisingly, however, she didn’t address the remarriage crack.

“She’s an idiot,” I told Rob after relaying her reply.

“Really?” he said. “After giving her the thumbs up as someone who understood after that piece she wrote about her husband’s late wife?”

And therein lies the problem. The dying thing is complex. There are so many sides to death, and as many people to take them, that sometimes a person is faced with themselves across the debate table with their own conflicting view points hurtling back at them  – because perspective does matter. I am widowed. I am remarried. I am remarried to a widower.  And there are times when none of these experiences line up neatly or at all.

I understand her advice in its context. Everyone wants to believe that reports of death are greatly exaggerated, that doctors are wrong more than they are right, and that terminally patients routinely defy odds. It makes us feel better.  Safer. Death is scary after all despite it being the one thing that we all will do someday.

I still think her wisecracks were cold and calculated for their effect. She is a writer and I can do that too.  They were definitely at the expense of that poor widow who hopefully has no idea what judgmental friends she has. The truth is more people spend a loved one’s last days and hours engaged in similar activities than not, but we keep it to ourselves to avoid this type of censure instead of sharing our turmoil and anguish in the hopes of lessening the burden through distribution. I know. But I’ll let it go now because it is kinder to leave people to their delusions about death and what really goes on until they have to live it themselves.

“Happiness is not given to us, nor is misery imposed,” Matthieu Richard, Buddhist monk and author. In his book, “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” he contends that happiness can be cultivated in spite of a person’s situation. I read this today in the Q section of The Chicago Tribune. It was in an article called “Hurry Up and Get Happy Already” by Tania Padgett.

I don’t know if I agree or not. I wouldn’t characterize myself as unhappy at the moment however, discontent, impatient and frustrated would come closer. Read Full Article