I Am Not Mrs. Norman Maine

“You have to have a funeral!” The indignation was tinged with hostility. Her words still hung in the air as (mercifully) an actual friend shut her down; “Brenda doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want.”

It was sweet, my friend putting the Barbie girlfriend of my husband’s friend (who was not invited to my home and really had no business being there only hours after my husband’s death) in her place. Great Neck Barbie (as my husband and I had called her) was one of the few fellow Jews in my home at that moment and was well-versed in our tradition of speedy burial. This isn’t to suggest that she had any business telling me what to do however. But I did hear her and her subtext (“you are a bad Jew and a bad wife”).

I have always been susceptible to people’s directives when it comes to social behavior. I was raised by non-practising Jews who adhered more to the Beat credo than the middle-classness surrounding us. In other words; I have always felt a bit clueless. I am in a constant state of observation and if someone tells me what to do, I tend to take it into consideration. But in this case…there was no way I was having a funeral just days after learning of my husband’s death. I had been to two Jewish funerals during my entire lifetime and knew and felt nothing for the tradition. I’m not sure how, and had met the man only twice, but my rabbi showed up in my bedroom the next day. He sat with our small group the day after, prayed and had us all speak. It was powerful and beautiful and all the service I needed.

I don’t know how it happened, perhaps it started as a way to get people to stop asking? But I began to plan a memorial service. I think the service occurred only six weeks after his death, but it feels like it took months to plan. I have planned events professionally many many times. Dinner for 1,000+ in an airplane hangar? No problem. Multimedia musical productions? I got that. I’ve worn headsets, carried walkie talkies and know how to run a light board. But planning my husband’s memorial was the most difficult and ridiculous thing I ever had to do. It was difficult because I was shattered and had to produce an event! Yes: produce. I had no script or even a freaking mood board. All I knew was what he didn’t want (i.e., no children, cremation, no marker). Other than that I was completely on my own…to produce an event that meant nothing to me, nothing to him and caused me heaps of anxiety. A date had to be set for those flying in. But how do you set a date when you can’t get the venue or singer to commit in a timely manner? It was so stressful and so unnecessary. My life had just imploded and I’m dealing with caterers?! The service itself was beautiful and devastating. I soldiered through greeting people at the reception. There were people who I did not like, including those who had treated me terribly during the past six weeks. My husband’s boss attended; the man who refused to retire him retroactively (even though my husband was past retirement age and that common practice would have enabled me to have a modicum of security.) My husband’s family was not there. Did they not know he had converted to Judaism years before his death? Was a trip to NYC simply out of the question? Or is it just that death is really not that much different than life? –  Those who are there when it matters are there when it matters.

The relief I felt when it was all over is indescribable. It truly felt like a second trauma. I was still so very shattered by his unexpected death and have always been a very private person. Having to produce such an event and then having to be the center of it all was excruciating. I regret succumbing to the pressure. I do. When I think of it my stomach lurches. I know it was “the right thing to do”, but so what?! I put myself through such agony for other people. It was utterly unnecessary. That small “service” my rabbi conducted in my living room was all I needed. The beautiful obituary I wrote with his and my closest friends was more than enough of a tribute. I did it because I thought I had to. I thought I owed it to his employees, colleagues and former students. The truth is that not only didn’t I owe anyone anything, but the responsibility really was his. If he had wanted it to happen he would have planned it. I know this now. I know that I am not his living memorial, his Mrs. Norman Maine. But during those first few months I was still holding on. I still wanted to be his wife. I know that now.




I Dreamed A Dream

I still dream of him and it is always, without exception, deeply troubling. In the morning I feel mildly ill and exhausted. I mean; “take to my bed” exhausted, if I were ever to take to my bed. I never did by the way. Even in those first few days, I got up and showered every single day. I could not indulge in that kind of high drama. Had I not had a houseful of people, perhaps I would’ve considered it. But I had no desire to swoon with a rapt audience in the next room.

These dreams I have are not lush or lovely, or chick flick material. They are not snippets of our past life together. I do not get to relive our happiness through the miracle of REM. They are always, each damn one of them, about him betraying me. Often they are about him faking his death so that he could have a multi-year break from our life together. I am never happy to learn this, but am outraged on everyone’s behalf. How dare he put everyone through that! In the most recent version of this dream, I learned that everyone else was complicit. Family, friends, colleagues et al., were all just fine with it. No matter which version of this dream it is crystal clear that I will not take him back. I am never happy to see him and am adamant that he will not change this new life.

There are so many troubling aspects to this dream. First and foremost is that I’ve been having it for years and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. I have had it while in new relationships and while single. I have had it when things are good and when things are bad. The supporting players, set and time period change but the theme is always the same; betrayal.

I don’t want to have this dream. If I must have it can I also have a pleasant Lifetime Movie-ish one? It doesn’t have to be tit for tat. I’ll settle for a sweet dream for every two of this dark and distasteful one. It doesn’t even have to be terribly creative, just show me a clip of the past. How about that memory that steadies my heart rate and dries my tears? You know…when I’m in the hammock with our dog, swinging gently and looking up at the leaves. On cue, Jacques jumps up from between my legs as he hears “daddy’s” car slow to turn into the driveway. Husband walks through the house to the sliding glass doors and comes out to join us. Once upon a time that was my life.

I Don’t Like Her, You Can Have Her

At least once a day I am utterly gobsmacked. I have never made so many Scooby Do sounds as I have in the past 4 1/2 years. I have no idea if the world has changed while I wasn’t watching or I’ve simply had my head someplace it didn’t belong for 20 years. I’ll admit that while married my life was about my marriage. Yes, I worked and had scads of friends, but most of my “observing” was done in the context of my marriage (i.e., why does your family act that way?!) Now I’m exposed to many more new people and behaviors…daily. Of course, the world has changed since the mid 90s as well. It’s not just me.

The last time I was single people met in real life and ghosting hadn’t been invented. If you wanted to view porn you had to make an effort (or at least get off the toilet) to do so. The backlash to feminism hadn’t occurred yet and women weren’t being sold girdles, false eyelashes and hair extensions and encouraged to use upspeak. Now take those ingredients and slowly stir in my own naiveté and cue the Scooby Do head tilt.

There are several specific boorish behaviors that send me ’round the bend. But the one that really flummoxes this feminist is a bit of a weighty issue. When did it become okay to mention a woman’s size and/or shame her for it? I have been on dates and even (gulp) in relationships with men who talk about overweight women with derision. Recently a date actually showed me a profile pic he had saved (and sent to friends) of a curvy woman. She was standing in front of a baby elephant and I suppose therein was the joke? She looked warm and lovely and perhaps was a size 14. Not that it would make any difference what size she was, it would never have been okay to save a photo and use it as a joke. But what was doubly icky is that she was utterly normal. I have been told by countless dates that women post photos of themselves that are “misleading”. Cue the Scooby Do head tilt; “misleading?”, I ask. Apparently there are people who post photos of their thinner (and younger) selves. Hmm, I wonder why? Could it be that you men (with your lack of head hair, abundance of ear hair, middle aged gut and better virility through chemistry) are a tad superficial? Could it be that you’ve watched too much porn or perhaps haven’t noticed that even R-rated actresses have body doubles? Is it that you feel that perfection is a reasonable and safe substitute for real connection?

I don’t know and I’m not even sure that I care. It’s just one more red flag as far as I’m concerned. I’m not entirely clueless, I know that obesity is a real and relatively new problem. All one needs to do is watch a television show from the 70s to see that was once considered “fat” wouldn’t even be noticed today. We are now big, very very big. But that isn’t what this little diatribe is about. What frosts my bum is that what I’ve been experiencing is a fat shaming that is utterly repulsive. I’m a relatively small person and perhaps that’s why men talk about this stuff to me. But you see the thing is, I’ve always found it easier to be outraged on others’ behalf. So now this will have to be added to my teachable moment list. It’ll take pride of place right after; “No, I will not discuss my husband’s death with you…on a first date!” and “Sexual harassment has nothing to do with a woman’s appearance!” Fun date, eh? It pleases me none to have to do it, I assure you. I honest to goodness assumed that men (particularly of a certain age) were evolved, respectful and aware. I never ever expected to travel through my 50s with a constant Scooby Do crick in my neck.

False Victory

What a sense of victory it was; all those firsts! Each time I survived a holiday or milestone I did so with shock and awe. When I made it to the first year anniversary of his death I felt as if I was crossing a finish line. I did it! And I did, gritting my teeth and with white knuckles. Each and every little thing that I had to do by myself for the first time, shook me to the core while filling me with pride. I did it! I made it through the birthdays, anniversaries, lawyer’s appointments, financial decisions, travel, health issues, and holidays completely on my own. Twelve months of firsts and I made it.

Over four years later it occurs to me that those firsts may have been the easy part. The adrenaline of “I can do this!” mixed with my shock and numbness helped ease the way. Now it’s no longer about “getting through” anything, it’s about the stunning and cruel fact that this is my life. Doing it all on my own; the financial decisions, the legal affairs, my health and happiness, all of it, are my one-woman show. It shouldn’t really be so startling to me. I didn’t marry until I was a ripe old age of 32. I had lived on my own for a decade, coming home to an empty house and being my own counsel. If anything it should be easier now. I was stupider then (isn’t everyone?) and had zero professional or financial safety net. I certainly did not have the confidence acquired sometime in my 40s. So you would think that now; devoid of the unflattering perm and having a modicum of security I would find it if not easier than at least comparable. Alas, no.

If you’re a math person you’ll have no doubt noticed a bit of a mathematical formula in the paragraph above. Call it the Happiness Formula if you will:

Youth – knowledge – confidence – resources = 20s Happiness

Experience + confidence + resources + knowledge – perm = 50s Happiness

But there’s a factor missing, one that can’t really be quantified: my broken heart and spirit. I may be stronger on paper but I’m less than whole in reality. I am wounded. It’s that simple. Yes, I am capable of love and happiness, but I am fundamentally bruised and changed. Each difficult task or setback feels bigger and darker now. It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are times I feel I’m owed a break and even happiness after what I’ve been through. I feel that every time the world is not nice to me that it’s personal. I feel resentful that on top of everything else, I still need to fight with the co-op board about my cable bill. I know it’s utterly absurd and unpleasantly self-absorbed but it is how I feel.

I’m disheartened to realize that I did not in fact cross any kind of finish line. That victorious feeling of surviving the first year was a false victory. There is no benchmark, there is no end point. I am not owed a happy ending or even kindness. There is no epiphany waiting around the next corner. For each day I wake up and think; I’m okay, I like my life, there will be an evening that I cry myself to sleep. This is my life now.


I Shouldn’t Have To

I was a turtle without its shell after my husband died. The air outside stung my skin during those first few weeks. I felt so exposed, so porous and so frightened. The first time I left the house alone at night, I could barely breathe. It was one month after he had died and my lovely and loving friends had come across the country and were taking me to dinner on Christmas night. My doormen eased me into the cab as if I were made of glass. He told me to call him if I wanted him to come get me. The look on my face must have frightened him. I arrived at the Central Park South hotel a bit too early and took a seat in the lobby. There was a piano player and I thought; “maybe I can do this”. I heard the first notes of “Christmas Waltz” and started to tremble. I should’ve been hearing that song at Birdland, as I did for the past five years. I would’ve been sharing a bottle of champagne with my husband, both of us looking better than usual in the table’s candlelight. By the time my friends came to swoop me into the dining room I was walking like a newborn colt.

Those days are far behind me. Thank God. I have forged ahead, making new friends and adventures. There are times I’m exhausted from the efforts. But I’m not scared anymore, and I no longer feel exposed…that is until recently. In the space of just one month I have felt, not so much like a turtle without its shell, but like I was being shown to my cell past the lifers. I’m not a prude and I certainly don’t take it personally when men gaze. But to have a man (I’d Just Met) grow angry because I didn’t want to have sex with him? That I take personally. When another man, after a first coffee, grabbed my breast; that I take personally. Chalk these up to bad dates. But then I was out of town and took an Uber, and the 28-year old driver spent the 20 minute drive hitting on me. No, there is nothing remotely flattering about this. And if you think there is, just picture that first walk to your cell. I was trapped in the Uber with a man telling me how hot I was. I arrived at my destination shook. I found a seat in my favorite restaurant, near enough to the piano bar and far enough from anyone else. While I ate, my waiter brought me a drink “from this really great guy and his girlfriend.” I declined but my waiter insisted that they’re great people. Fine, I’ll keep an open mind. Fast forward an hour when I ran out of the restaurant and hid waiting for my Uber. Yes, my 50-year-old self did not see the request for a threesome coming. The next day I could not shake the feeling that I had brought this on myself. I rarely go out to dinner by myself, but I was traveling and I just love this restaurant. I looked at the dress I had worn and actually wondered if I had “asked for it”! I spent the entire day feeling a bit sick and very very sad.

The next night I went out with two couples. I had never met one of the wives before and she had decided, before meeting me, that she hated me. I was dressed like a country club matron, and mostly kept quiet. In other words, there was nothing remotely threatening about me. But then I remembered my 20s: a single woman was either prey or a threat. That was the law of the jungle. I’m hopelessly naive, particularly for a cynic, but I just didn’t realize this was still true at my age. I’m not willing to stop being me so that other people can feel secure or treat me with respect. I will wear what makes me feel strong and happy. But I’m not sure I’ll go where I want to go. I have no desire to feel so exposed, so porous and so frightened ever again. The feminist in me rages against this decision, but my well-honed sense of self-preservation will prevail.

I am a homebody and an introvert by nature. It takes an awful lot to get me out that front door. But I do it. I do it all the time. Sometimes it’s fabulous but often times it’s not. But I still keep forging ahead. I don’t know what else to do to feel as if I’m still alive. The thing is, it takes so much strength to fight my own nature and participate in the world. I don’t have the strength to fight everyone else. And I shouldn’t have to.