Twenty(!) years ago my best friend died. It was a sudden death and I learned about it weeks later from an email. The loss was profound and the way I learned of it distressing. My beautiful, strong and vibrant friend was very important to me. We never dated but had agreed that come age 40 if we weren’t married to other people…you know how that promise goes. He never made it to anywhere near 40, and I married. But he was my BFF before BFFs. We had great adventures together and I’ve no doubt we would have had many many more. I can still hear his self-assured voice coaching me as I climbed astride a motorcycle for the first (and last) time; “Keep your spine aligned with mine.” I can see his face, when I stepped out of the dressing room in a see-through honeymoon nightgown and told him “avert your eyes but tell me if you like it.” My memories run like a video montage. I actually have him on video. He arrived at my upstate wedding at the last minute. I refused to walk down the aisle until he arrived. So there he is, ducking (he was quite tall) into the tent as the musicians vamped.
When I first read the email informing me of his death I thought it was a vicious joke. I called his office and no doubt traumatized his sobbing assistant. My husband rushed home from work, I looked at him and said; “I think I’m okay with him being dead right now, I’m just not okay with him being dead forever.”
I thought of that sentiment this weekend. My husband has been dead for over four years. I sense people’s impatience (including my own) with my grief. I don’t spend my days wringing a handkerchief or visiting a grave (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But once in awhile there is a trigger, say a beloved celebrity’s death, that will send me ’round the bend. I’m not willing to bogart a P.T.S.D. diagnosis, that would not be fair to true sufferers. However, a trigger is not just the usual crap we all deal with from time to time. A trigger will cut you off at the knees. It will bring your emotional self back to the beginning. It’s exhausting and defeating and utterly galling. There I am feeling as if I’ve got a handle on this thing called widowhood and BAM! “Not so fast girly, it’s me, your trigger!” – it’s best to picture a cartoon character similar to that little Bill that became a Law. So there I am triggered, treading water as tidal wave after tidal wave rush over me. I am all alone in my sadness as no one, and I mean no one can really understand. That reality compounds the loss of the one person, the only person who ever really saw me and understood me.
I’m not sure which is sadder; the trigger or the loneliness. Explaining my grief to people is exhausting and so sad. I don’t want to teach people how to be empathetic or how to be a friend. To me that’s like having sex with an inflatable doll. What’s the point?! So when I was mired in my sadness this weekend and heard; “are you okay?” from a couple of friends, I was reminded of what I said twenty years ago…My husband is still dead and I’m not okay with that.
I don’t advertise my sorrow (uh, yeah, unless we’re counting this format) but still it shocks me that people assume I’m A-okay. I mean, I do alright a lot of the time and I seem to be getting the hang of this self-care thing, but come on…My husband died. Without any warning whatsoever. In public. I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not 100% all the time.
It more than shocks me when those who know me don’t seem to see me; it hurts me. It’s a reminder of how solo I really am. My husband “got me” all the time, sometimes before I did. So when those close to me are careless or clueless or flat out impatient it hurts my heart.
This morning a close friend sent me a photo of a bench I had paid to dedicate (to my husband) a few years before he died. My friend is visiting the institution which houses the bench (my husband’s place of work and my alma mater). I replied to my friend’s text that I was surprised they hadn’t removed the bench (considering how brutally they treated both me and my husband’s memory after he died.) My friend’s reply? “Ha ha ha ha.” Not; “I hope this photo wasn’t upsetting” or “Should I have not sent the pic?” Nope. “Ha ha ha ha.”
This afternoon I heard from a distant relative to whom I’ve always felt close. She called because I had answered her Facebook message thusly; “No I won’t be traveling to the town where I met and married my husband and never will as it is much too sad for me and might be traumatizing. I also have no interest in attending a party thrown by and for a parent who has ignored me for the past 4 years. I’m sorry to sound so harsh, but ignoring your widowed daughter is harsh.” I had assumed she was calling to say; “OMG of course, I understand. That was a bit thoughtless on my part. I’m sorry.” NOPE. She clumsily asked how I was doing and I said something like; “it depends.” She responded; “But your Facebook photos look so happy.” Huh? What? Shall I start posting photos of me watching When Harry Met Sally and sobbing uncontrollably? How about a few status updates of; “In bed at 7:30 clutching my stuffed rabbit. LIFE IS GOOD!” I prefer to use Facebook to share pleasant things and discover who has political views I find unforgivable. But Facebook aside, does this two time cancer survivor not understand grief and survival? Granted she’s in her 60s and never married and the “Ha ha ha ha” friend is in his early 30s and never had a partner. But…I guess there is no “but” is there? That’s really it, huh? Some people have empathy and some people don’t, and some people simply don’t have the life experience to fake it.
But still. It hurts my heart to not be seen and I’m tired of explaining. Explaining is draining. I would rather use my energy trying to find happiness or peace.
It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and in NYC that means; Fleet Week! The streets of New York are awash in men and women in uniform. If the light (and your alcohol level) is just right, it’s as if you’ve been transported into the film; On The Town. A person (ahem; ME) could spend the entire weekend sailor spotting. I’ve been known to chase down a uniform from two blocks away. I accost these poor visitors with thanks for their service and for brightening up our city for the weekend. Oh, and sometimes I ask for a photo.
By Friday morning I still had not posted any photos on Facebook and began to get concerned messages. Seriously. Some of the queries were from the same friends who had sent “Happy Fleet Week” messages (it’s nice when your friends “get you”). I assured them that all was well and I simply hadn’t found the right opportunity. To prove my reliability I posted old photos; photos my husband had taken of me with our men and women in uniform. It was a warm and wonderful reminder of what a champion of mine he was. Anything was possible with him as my cheerleader and biggest fan. Oh how that man loved me! “You want to work? Fine. You don’t want to work? That’s okay too! You want to try the stage again? WOOHOO! Buy the snakeskin suit, it looks great on you. Splurge!” (Almost) anything and everything was okay in his book. He was always so proud of me and so open to new adventures. I doubt he would’ve gone to as many drag shows, gay bars or straight theatre if I hadn’t wanted to. So there he was, behind the camera as I cozied up to our resplendent men and women in uniform; loving my red, white & blue outfit…and my legs.
I miss the man so often, but I miss that feeling always. I felt strong and brave and seen. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. But even if I never do, I did. For 18 years I had everything I needed and more than I ever dared to dream.
I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth. My family had no money, which they liked to remind us kids of as often as possible. But it wasn’t just a lack of money, it was an utter lack of indulgence that wedged that spoon in my mouth. To say it was an adult-centric household would be an understatement. I have no recollection of anyone asking me about homework but I do remember many many nights of asking my parents to quiet their fighting so I could get to sleep. There were more melodic sleep preventers as well, as my mother would practice piano (placed under my bedroom) into the late night. It was the adults’ world, and we were just visiting until aged 18 (of which we were reminded often). It’s fair to say that I was not raised with any sense of entitlement whatsoever.
Fast-forward to my middle age. I’ve worked since I was 11 but haven’t done so since 2011. I don’t live lavishly but compared to some Americans, I live well. I still am slow to “get” that my needs matter (childhood imprinting works!) but despite my childhood, I seem to have developed a sense of entitlement. I am not comfortable admitting it; but since my husband died, I’ve developed a sense of “deserving” happiness. Ick, right? I have always taken people’s unkindness personally. But, now?! Now there is this inner outrage; “do you know what I’ve been through?!!!! Do you know what I’ve survived?! Do you have any idea what it takes for me to wake up every single day and commit myself to my own happiness and being a good person?!” Lemme tell you something: this is NOT a good mindset when it comes to dating. I truly, in my heart of hearts, deep down in the core of my very being, think I deserve happiness. What does that mean?! Who the hell doesn’t deserve happiness? (Let’s not bring serial killers and politicians into this please.)
What happens when you believe you’ve suffered enough (which is what deserving of happiness really means) is that you (and by “you” of course I mean “me”) are utterly shattered when a partner or potential partner is not nice. Yes I get it, everyone has their stuff. Everyone is limited. But there is no way on earth that my husband was the last decent and kind man on the planet. I’m guessing it’s not that I am attracted to Simon Legrees. I have pretty good taste in people (which is why I like very few of them.) I am highly intuitive and can spot crazy from a hundred paces. (I recently pegged a date as a pedophile…pretty sure I was right.) I think what really is at issue is that I’m wounded. Deeply and profoundly wounded and don’t really have the capacity to endure small scrapes and bumps any longer. It’s been four and a half years and I want so badly to feel as strong and as happy as I did with my husband. I want to wake up in the morning and be happy not feel as if I have to become happy.
I once considered it a mark of my recovery and strength that I was willing to try other people on (which is what dating is). I think perhaps I was kidding myself. When your life shatters in an instant. When everything you thought you knew to be true disappears…Well, I think it’s too much to ask of myself to think I can handle any more blows to my heart.
“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.