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Archive for the ‘mourning’ Category

On July 5, 2010, I was unexpectedly widowed. I’ve spent the months since then learning how to live alone. I am starting to adjust, although I dislike parts of how I live now, and probably always will. But one thing I have not accustomed myself to is the difference in how women regard me.

For me, one of the bonuses of being in an obviously happy relationship was that other women could relax around me. They trusted me not to come on to them. If I helped them, they understood that I had no agenda beyond being helpful. If I found them attractive (and, of course, sometimes I did), I wasn’t about to act upon the attraction.

What I liked about this perception of me is that it allowed me to talk to women, and to get to know them as people. Of course, I’m sure that some women entertained lingering doubts about me, and that their interactions with me were hedged with reservations. But, so far as the culture permits, as a married man I could be friends with women.

Now that I’m suddenly single, much of that is gone. Although I’m not aware of having changed my attitudes or behavior, how I’m perceived by women is suddenly changed — even by women who have known me for years. Although I’m still operating on the assumptions built up by years of marriage, I’m reclassified as single.

Being relatively young and looking younger, I am assumed to be looking for another relationship As a widower, I’m assumed to be missing regular sex. Suddenly, my speech is being scanned for innuendo, and my actions are viewed with skepticism. At best, there’s a reserve and a questioning in the women I meet that wasn’t there before.

And, just to make matters worse, my awareness of that reserve makes me more nervous, which makes many women more nervous still, creating a vicious cycle that I don’t know how to break.

The irony is, I am far from sure that I want another relationship. I can’t say that I would turn one down, or that I don’t have excruciating bouts of loneliness, but the possibility barely registers with me. I’m still recovering from the last one, thank you very much, and I’m not sure which would be worse: being widowed a second time, or leaving someone I loved to survive my death.

I can’t help thinking, too, of how Raymond Chandler and George Orwell made fools of themselves after their wives died, begging every women they met to marry them. Orwell even went so far as to suggest that any woman who married him would soon end up a wealthy widow with control over his writings, a piece of bribery that strikes me as both gauche and as being at odds with the upright image he affected in his writing. I would hate to be a figure that attracted similar ridicule and disdain. Chandler and Orwell sounded so desperate.

But the main reason that I contemplate staying single is that I never did care much for the mating game. The ritual has changed since I was last single, but for all the loosening of outdated tradition, it still seems to degrade men and women alike. I mean, no wonder there are so many breakups and divorces: the game is so stylized that you have practically no chance of getting to know a lover or a spouse until after you’ve moved in together.

True, I was lucky once. But the odds of repeating that luck seem slight. And why should I settle for second best? The thought of looking for another relationship seems so tiresome to me that it’s hardly worth the effort.

Right now, all I really want is friends with whom I can talk, regardless of whether they are male or female. A cause or two to distract me wouldn’t hurt, either.

But the frustrating part is that there is no way to communicate this attitude to the women I meet. If I tried to express my attitude, it would either seem too personal too soon, or else some roundabout strategy in the mating game. There are no rules in the rituals of male and female for declaring that you are not playing, and no way to protest your classification.

So the fact remains: against my wishes, I am suddenly a single man. And every woman knows what a single man wants, right?

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Wanting to feel useful, today I tackled a task I’ve been putting off: cleaning up the plant pots from the courtyard outside my door. I imagined that I shirked the task because it would be dirty and exhausting, but I had barely begun before I understood that the real reason was I didn’t want to face the memories that lay in wait for me.

Except for the laurel, none of the several dozen pots had been planted by me. It was the sole survivor of three that Trish and I had bought years ago when the strata council had chopped down the fir that shaded our balcony. The others had quickly died, and this one had been moved to the courtyard when our deck was last rebuilt, only to die in last summer’s heat wave when I was too distracted to notice. Our parrots Ning and Sophy had enjoyed having it against the outside of the living room window, since it gave them a hidden place from which to peer out at the world.

The rest were the remnants of miniature roses and one or two efforts at growing mint and other herbs. I had never had a hand in those. They were Trish’s, and among some people she was as well-known for her roses as for always carrying a craft project with her.

Before the carcinoids took hold, an hour or two in the evening or weekends was a part of her life. She was proud of them, having never had much success with gardening before, and she kept her notes about them in a leather-bound book stamped with Celtic knotwork designs. She enjoyed, too, going to the monthly meeting of the local rose society, and she delighted in the names of each rose: Pandemonium, Golden Amber, Black Jade, Pinwheel, and all the rest.

But the real point of growing the roses was distributing the blossoms, few of which were over three centimeters in diameter. Regardless of whether she was going to her job, or we were going shopping at Westminster Quay, the parrot shop, or a bookstore, her departure was always delayed by her snipping the latest blossoms. At summer’s height, she would soak paper towels and carefully wrap the blossoms to preserve them. When she got to wherever she was going, she would hand them out, to the delight and occasional puzzlement of the recipients.

I suppose you could rationalize the distribution of the blossoms by the fact that Trish had several dozen plants, and, when they were blossoming, we hardly had room in our townhouse for more than a few blossoms. But, although we never talked about why she went to such efforts, I knew that she enjoyed offering the small gifts that she had produced to those she saw regularly.

Once, a cashier snootily refused them, and we never shopped at that bakery again. For my part, I was furious that such an innocent and pleasant gesture should be met with hostility. Most people were pleased by the gesture in the middle of their workday, and some came to look forward to it so much that they were visibly disappointed if Trish had run out of blossoms or the plants weren’t producing that day. To some distant acquaintances at Westminster Quay, she was simply the Rose Lady.

But as Trish sickened, she had less energy for roses. One by one, their numbers feel due to frost or disease, and, increasingly, the losses were not replaced. When she could, she still enjoyed tending them and distributing the blossoms, but, with each year she had less energy for anything so active. Nor did she want my help; the roses were her activity, and, not being a gardener and increasingly worried myself, I did not offer help as often as I could.

Two years ago, her health was poor enough that she hardly had time to fertilize the roses, let alone prune or keep them free of disease. Last year, as she struggled with pneumonia and slowly died, she had no time for them at all.

Today, I found that only three rose bushes survived, and one of them will need some concentrated attention to thrive again. But I decided that, despite my lack of gardening skills, I will do my best to keep them alive. The effort is a way I can continue to connect to a time that, nine months later, already seems so fabulous and distant that sometimes I wonder if it existed at all.

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Since I was widowed, family and friends have made extra efforts to draw me out of myself. They make a point of inviting me over, and, at their parties, they are likely to ask me several times how I am doing. Socializing, they keep telling me, is better than “moping around at home.” Their efforts are well-meaning, and I appreciate the concern behind them, but I admit that I accept their invitations out of politeness more than any other reason.

To start with, I am not a person who easily accepts pity or help from others. When I’m sick, mostly I just want to be left alone to get better. I’m not surly with nurses, but I hate feeling helpless or putting people to any trouble for my sake, and twelve years of caring for a chronically ill spouse has only strengthened my preferences. I remain much more accustomed to caring than being cared for.

Just as importantly, what most of my acquaintances don’t realize is that I’m not exactly lacking social opportunities. Even without their special efforts, my social life is more active now than it has been for the last few years, when I was caring for an increasingly fragile partner. I’m now exploring all sorts of events for which I had no time a year ago.

In fact, recently, when someone sat down across from me and earnestly asked, “So, what have you been doing with yourself?” in a tone that suggested that I must have long, empty stretches to fill, I had to suppress a howl of laughter. Far from being eager to seize every opportunity to get out of the house, I have often found myself bowing out of events, just so I could have a quiet night for a change. But I have always moved in several different circles, none of which overlap, so probably few people appreciate how busy I actually am.

Not, you understand, that socializing comes easily to me just now. I usually test as someone balanced almost exactly between extrovert and introvert, but I am learning how to socialize as an individual, instead of half of a couple. Consequently, while I am glad to see people, being with more than two or three at once is a strain. I no longer know that someone automatically has my back. I find, too, that I automatically scan a group every few minutes to check how Trish is doing.

In other words, rather than helping me to forget my situation, being with other people accentuates it. I especially feel my changed situation when an event ends, and I return home, alone and unable to discuss what I’ve just seen with anybody. Sometimes, the better time I have with other people, the worse I feel because of a mixture of guilt at being still alive to enjoy myself and the contrast between my married life and now.

But there’s something else that most of those around me don’t seem to grasp: while I don’t want to cut myself off from people altogether, I don’t always mind being alone, either. Being alone with my memories is the closest I can get to Trish now. Moreover, I have a lot of things to process – not just the mechanics of probate and the winding down of Trish’s affairs, but assimilating the memories of our life together and figuring what I am going to do with the rest of my life. Although I sometimes talk over these matters, I also need to think about them, long and carefully by myself. I’m not going to adjust to the changed conditions of my life if I have no time to mull them over in my mind; right now, I need more time alone than most people do.

I can’t help thinking that, culturally-speaking, we’ve swung from one extreme to another when dealing with grief. Where once we accepted a period of mourning as a natural transition from one stage of life to another, we now view it as unhealthy wallowing in depressing subjects.

I’m sure that many people chafed at the culturally-designated periods of mourning in Victorian society, but our own attitude is no better. Depressing subjects don’t go away because you evade them – if anything, they often become worse if you don’t face them. All the well-meaning people who keep inviting me to places don’t seem to be aware that, for all their good intentions, in the long run they may actually be making me less able to cope instead of more.

But, to some extent, I suspect that all the invitations I receive are extended for the sake of those who make them as much as for me. In our death-denying culture, seeing someone in mourning is an uncomfortable reminder that there are somethings that you can’t escape and can’t mitigate with positive thinking or some other nostrum. If someone in mourning is seen socializing, acting more or less the same as everybody else, then everyone else can forget the unthinkable more easily.

Perhaps all these remarks are unfair to people who are only trying to do me a favor. Knowing exactly how to support someone in mourning is difficult, and I don’t want to suggest that I am ungrateful for the efforts being made on my behalf. Really, I’m not. But I do want to suggest that the situation is more complicated than most people imagine. There is such a thing as trying too hard, and even a well-meaning action can sometimes obstruct rather than help. Some problems, as I am finding, people have to work out in their own way and time.

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Four days ago, my Nanday conure Ning lost Sophy, his mate of 24 years, to old age. They had nested successfully four times, producing six chicks, and were a model of happy monogamy, constantly preening and never moving more than a few meters from each other. Ning had cared for her as though she were a chick in her final days, standing over her and preening and regurgitating to make sure she was fed. He was beside her when she died, and I have been able to observe first hand how he grieves. Being a widower myself, I feel a certain identification with what he is going through.

He knew at once when she died. Within a few seconds after she died, he nuzzled her once with her beak, and then moved twenty-five centimeters away, looking very small, with his feathers pressed tightly against his body, which is a sign of unhappiness in any parrot. He did not attack me when I placed her body in a shoe box to take to the vet (as I had half-expected), but went quietly up on my hand and into the cage.

When I returned from the vet, he was in the same position and had eaten little from his dish. But he screeched excitedly when I opened the door, and climbed up to my shoulder, pressing as tightly as he could against my neck and staying there for a couple of hours. I neglected the other birds to give him some time, stroking his back far more than he usually allows.

I was worrying that I might need to feed him and that, without his mate, he might no longer be able to hold his own against his arch-rival Beau, but my concerns proved needless.

As soon as I let the other birds out, Ning became manic. So much as 230 grams of bird can, he stamped around the table and the floor, trying to be everywhere at once. He seemed to have decided that he was going to prove his dominance once and for all by a frantic display. If so, it worked incredibly well – Beau is still reluctant to leave his cage when Ning is out. Now, as a result of Ning’s display, the dining room table is no longer a No-Go area for all the birds, but has been thoroughly annexed by Ning.

That evening, Ning preened me more than he had since the days after we brought him home, and he decided I was flock. But he would stop periodically to cheep for Sophy, and would occasionally fly off to the cage, and peer around it as though hoping she was somehow there. Later, when I put the cover on the cage, I could hear him cheeping for her again. I admit that went to bed early that night, because I could not stand to hear him.

The next morning was even harder. Ning went to Sophy’s convalescence cage, and seemed bewildered when neither she nor the towel I had arranged for her was there. After a moment, he moved down to the perch and started regurgitating. For a moment, it felt to me as though he was responding to Sophy’s ghost, and I was glad when he climbed to the top of the cage.

Fortunately, he started eating again on the second day, and his appetite is hearty. But he will take all the chew toys and attention that I tend to give him, and his efforts to preen me have a gentleness and a desperation that they never had before. He obviously needs the closeness – and, to be honest, so do I. At the same time, he regularly asserts his dominance by inspection tours of the area he claims.

It seems to me that the ability to mourn is a sign of sentience. After all, if a creature does not have a sense of itself, how can it feel loss? If it does not have a sense of others, then how can it mourn? If I did not already know from both personal experience and from Irene Pepperberg’s scientific studies that the intelligence of parrots overlaps with the lower levels of human intelligence, Ning’s behavior over the last few days would have proven his sentience ten times over. We’re supporting each other through our mutual loss – and I can only hope that I provide him with half the comfort that he gives me.

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“In the West End of Derby lives a working man
He says, ‘I can’t fly but me pigeons can
And when I set them free
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings’”
– “Charlie and the King of Rome”

This morning when I took the cover off the cage, my parrot Sophy was lying on one side, with her mate Ning hovering over her. She didn’t open her eyes, and her breathing was labored. I scooped her up and put her on the table, and she barely opened her eyes. I knew then that she was dying, so I decided that cleaning the cages would wait.

Sophy had been in a convalescence cage for the last few days after she slipped from a perch and started favoring her left leg. But her appetite was healthy and she was otherwise acting normally; the convalescence cage was just so she wouldn’t climb until her leg was better. Last night when I put her and Ning to bed, she was moving better, and I was cautiously optimistic that she was healing.

But she was thirty years old – old for her species — and had been growing quieter over the last year, so her condition this morning was not a total surprise. I debated taking her to the vet, and decided she was better at home, where she could be in the company of her flock when she died. Besides, the way she looked, I was not sure she would live long enough to arrive at the vet, or that the vet could do anything I couldn’t.

So I sat there as the sun rose, scratching her ear and trying to fed her corn. She refused the corn, and the loving regurgitation of Ning. In fact, she seemed to have trouble waking at all.

When the sun poured into the living room, I stood with her for a while so she could bask in the light, something she would do for hours, given a chance. The sun on her feathers roused her, but only a little. I placed her back on the table and continued waiting, scratching her neck feathers.

A few minutes later, she shifted her head awkwardly once or twice, as though trying to get comfortable. The eye that I could see grew misty. She seemed to stiffen, and all at once she had stopped breathing. Ning prodded her with his beak, and, when she did not respond, moved a body’s length away, preening himself with an air of apprehension.

That was the end of my twenty-four year relationship with Sophia J. (for Jabberwock) Bandersnatch. It was an end that I could hardly have predicted from the start.

When we bought Sophy from the bird-sitter, she had been neglected and abused for several years. She had no tail-feathers, and she had plucked her breast. Recognizing her as a nanday conure was so hard that we almost had to take the fact on faith.

We were told that she had locked in a cage for at least three years, and fed only on sunflower seeds. When she made a noise, a hand or a thrown boot hit the side of her cage. The only noise she could make was an outraged squawk.

Under these conditions, what could we do? If ever a bird needed rescuing, it was Sophy. When the bird-sitter reported back to her original owner that we found that she had a sweet personality, his reply was, “Sophy has a personality?” – more proof, if we had needed any, that he had no idea how to care for her.

When we brought her home, we placed her in the spare room, thinking to quarantine her for a month before introducing her to Ning. But the two birds started calling so excitedly that after a couple of hours, we brought Ning in for a visit.

We were ready to supervise, but there was no need. Ning leaped down off my shoulder and sidled up to her on the perch and immediately started regurgitating. Sophy made a stifled sound of surprise, as though to say, “Excuse me, sir, but have we been introduced?” but her objections could not have been too serious. Moments later, they were mating.

After that, Sophy and Ning were nearly inseparable, eating, bathing, playing with chew toys, climbing up on me. Always, in season and out, they mated, even on my shoulder. If one of them strayed more than the width of the living room, the other would start making anxious squawks. Ning was the more independent and aggressive of the two, but we soon noticed that anything Sophy wanted, she got. In anything she cared about, she was the dominant bird.

With Ning as her companion, Sophy blossomed and started to accept us. She would go everywhere with him, even occasionally down on the floor, which she obviously regarded as a dangerous place. I remember the two of them constantly worrying a small tin back and forth as though playing football.

One time, she crawled into one of Trish’s boots that was lying flat on the floor. She made an inquisitive cheep and, frightened by the echo, retreated squawking.

Over the next couple of years, her feathers grew in. But she remained an over-zealous preener, so that her feathers often looked ragged and you could see the gray of her down on her breast.

A few years later, she was healthy enough that she started laying eggs. The first one surprised her as much as it did us. She kept looking behind her at the egg, as if she could not quite believe that she had produced it.

Other eggs followed – so many at first, that she became egg-bound had to visit the vet just after Christmas. Ning moped around, and, early on New Years’ Day, we took him to pick her up. His rapturous purr as he started preening her in the examination room was as true a sign of devotion as you could see anywhere.

We bought a nest box, and watched her excavate the peat moss that lined it to her liking. Soon, eggs and hatchlings followed – Frumious (because what else should a Bandersnatch produce?), Jabberwock, and Rambunctious, Rogue and Rapscallion, and Madrigal, all born in the living room. Sophy would spend hours cooing over her hatchlings, over-preening them but caring for them fastidiously until they were weaned. Once they were eating for themselves, they were Ning’s concern for a few months so far as she was concerned, and she always seemed relieved when her offspring left for new homes.

A flock, a mate, and babies mellowed Sophy immensely. She never was much for hands after her previous experience, but she came to trust us enough that she would simply press her beak firmly around an encroaching finger, instead of drawing blood.

We knew that she trusted us, because every morning, she would lean from the top of the cage to preen our faces, more gently than any parrot I have ever met. She was the only bird I trusted to preen my eyes, because even a sudden noise would not excite her into nipping me. When I lowered a shoulder, she would scramble across the cage, careless of any obstacles, to climb up on me.

She would sit for hours on my shoulder, with or without Ning, as I worked at the computer. Sometimes, I would sing silly songs to her, and she would shake her tall and fluff out contentedly just at the corner of my vision.

I could go on and on – but I see that I already have. But I can hardly remember a time that her playful and loving presence was not part of my home life. All the birds were a comfort to me in the weeks after my wife died, but she was the one who sat with me the most, and seemed most sensitive to my grief. In return, remembering her sitting contentedly on one leg on the back of the cage, I like to think that we helped her put the years of abuse and neglect behind her.

As I type, Ning is restless, hopping from my shoulder to the table to the floor, and flying up to the cage. He keeps looking around as though expecting to see her, and is unable to keep still.

Without any anthropomorphizing whatsoever, I know exactly how he feels. Even after watching her die, I still can’t believe that gallant little Sophy is gone.

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In the common room they’ve got the biggest tree
And it’s huge and cold and lifeless
Not like it ought to be,
and the lit-up flashing Santa Claus on top
It’s not that same old silver star,
you once made for your own
First Christmas away from home.

– Stan Rogers

This time a year ago, I was rushing downstairs with every knock on the door, hoping to get there before Trish did. At the door, the Kevin and Kell collections I’d ordered for her might be waiting, or the DVD of Oysterband’s 25th Anniversary Concert, or the Northwest Coast masks I’d bought. If one of them was, then I would have to figure a place to stash them until Trish was out and I could hide them more effectively.

This year, I am by myself, reflecting on how many traditions can accrete around a relationship in thirty-two years, and dreading the blankness of a Christmas without them.

The first Christmas we shared, Trish and I had barely been a couple for six weeks. We spent much of it at our separate families, but not before we exchanged gifts; she gave me a ceramic chess set, and I gave her Renaissance’s Live at Carnegie Hall. I still have both, although much of the Renaissance album is a bit lush for my tastes today.

The next year, we were an established couple, and backed each other up on all the obligatory Christmas visits. In fact, between dashing over to West Vancouver on Christmas Day, then to Parksville on Boxing Day, and half a dozen other places as well, we overdid the traveling so much that one of our first traditions was born: Never again. In future years, we confined our dashing about to the parents, and maybe one or two other events that we either couldn’t avoid or wanted to attend.

Other traditions were born that year, too. That was the year Trish started her tradition of giving her craftwork as gifts. Blackwork embroidery, cross-stitch, crochet, beaded ornaments, embroidery – over the years, the diversity was astounding, and all done to her perfectionist standards. One year, she made several hundred angels and bells, and sold them to buy Christmas presents, an effort she never quite equaled again. One year, too, I threatened the efficiency of her assembly line by doing candles, but the results were too mixed for me to do so a second time.

Trish’s crafts brought other rhythms to our Christmas as well. The one where she stayed up until three in the morning on Christmas Eve to finish a piece was one I might have done without. But the one of decorating our tree with her ornaments is one that always gave me a flash of pride, to have something so utterly unique in the living room.

Another tradition revolved around gift-giving. While I was a student and later as a grad student, we had a budget so tight that it always threatened to snap like a rubber band stretched too far, so we never got into the habit of buying large presents for each other. Besides, where was the fun in that? In our second year as a couple, we got into the habit of buying a couple of dozen small gifts for each other. Later, when our income increased had increased, we might include one or two moderately priced items, but, by then, the pattern had been set, and the small gifts continued – so much so that, over the years, Christmas and birthdays were when most of the books, music, and movies came into the household.

One advantage of buying small gifts was the amount of loving conspiracy that they inspired: splitting the alphabet in various gift categories so that we wouldn’t buy duplicates, secret phone conversations, and mysterious deliveries, all accompanied by cryptic and increasingly outrageous hints. We started using recycled gift boxes, wrapped in the most exotic papers we could find, and adding tags with puns and hints that would have made a veteran solver of crossword puzzles weep at their obscurity – tags that only really became meaningful after the gift to which each was attached was opened.

We learned quickly to take only some gifts for each other on Christmas Day, because other people became impatient with our exchange. But that worked out, too, since it meant we had a few presents to open when we awoke, and still more when we got home after visiting my folks on Christmas Day, and Trish’s folks on Boxing Day.

Then there were the stockings. There was always a marzipan pig in mine, and a Birk’s spoon in hers, either from her mother and me. Trish especially had a genius for finding the exotic and improbable at dollar stores, and often her stocking was the repository of the earrings I had found for her. In later years, when we decided the last thing we needed was more knickknacks or novelty items, the stockings were full of gourmet candies and sauces, which we would be happily discovering well into March.

Somewhere around December 28th or so, when the visits had temporarily slackened, came the gloating over the loot – I mean our first real chance to dive into the gifts and thoroughly explore them. Since our tastes overlapped so much, most of the time a gift could be appreciated by both of us, so we felt slothful and luxurious as we lounged around and made happy discoveries.

New Year’s Eve were for board games. Most of the time, there were just the two of us, but for a half dozen years, a couple of nephews were included, who always fought over the rules and pleaded with us for more alcohol than we would let them have. These massive game sessions would last for eight or ten hours, with pauses to refill the punch bowl on the kitchen counter and for me to cook a hearty lasagna of four or five cheeses.

And, finally, when the New Year had begun, and the guests were gone, came the tarot reading. Neither of us believed in such things, except perhaps as a psychological aid, but we both liked the atmosphere. Anyway, if New Years isn’t a time for omens, then when is?

After that, the days would drift back to normal until January 6th. On Twelfth Night, Trish insisted half-seriously, the tree and ornaments must be stowed away for another, or we would risk bad luck. So down they came, each hand-made ornament carefully wrapped away for another year, and I would march about the house all day singing a song from an old Steeleye Span album:

Oh, Christmas is past,

Twelfth night is the last,

And we bid you adieu,

Pray joy to the new.

This year all these things are gone with Trish. My Christmas shopping is much easier, but much less interesting, and my chances to see how gifts are received greatly reduced. I don’t really need the stacks of recyclable gift boxes in the walk-in closet, and I won’t be doing much visiting, since all except one branch of Trish’s family has apparently decided to drop me. I suppose I could start a new tradition and do some extensive volunteering throughout December, but I’m not sure you can call something a tradition if only one person is involved – and, anyway, it wouldn’t be the same.This year, every time I pass a gift that I no longer have reason to buy, I’m in mourning for the traditions that have died along with the person who shared them with me.

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Usually, I don’t worry much about what people think about me. Oh, I like most people, and want them to like me. And I know that I can be regarded very differently, depending on what others have seen of me and the baggage they bring to their observations. Yet, except in specific circumstances like a job interview, in the past, I haven’t usually agonized over other people’s perceptions, although whether this attitude is confidence, arrogance, or self-defense, I have no idea. In recent months, however, events have made me more conscious than usual of others’ opinions.

One reason is that I heard from someone I went to school with, who discovered me on the Internet. We were never close, although the circles we moved in overlapped until she moved away in Grade 10. She wrote to me:

“I happened to be talking about you the other day. I’m not really sure how you came up but I was relating a childhood memory to a friend. I said something along these lines: “There was this boy in my elementary school who was painfully shy and awkward. He was brilliant, that much was obvious, but I doubt many people bothered to get to know him because of his shyness. But. When he would run, he was magic!” It went on from there while I described not knowing you as a person, but cheering my ass off for you at various track and field events and how you probably never knew that there were people like me who thought you were magic.”

Well, I cop to awkward; that’s what usually happens when you grow up left-handed. But painfully shy? I thought of myself more as brash and apt to blurt out the wrong thing in misplaced confidence. Nor did I lack friends, or an awareness that I had an easy ride through adolescence because I was a bit of a sports star.

The description seemed so incongruous next to my own memories, so deflating in places and so out in left field in others that I had to laugh. I sent my conflicting memories back, and my correspondent found the differences hilarious, too, so now we exchange emails once or twice a week.

Another reason for thinking about how others see me is that I was widowed a few months ago. Soon after my partner’s death, I became aware that everyone I met seemed to be staring at me as if I were a Prince Rupert’s Drop that would shatter if mishandled for even a second. I could see people visibly making an effort to edit their sentences, unsure whether they should mention Trish, or talk about her, and hesitating even more over asking if I wanted company or had any plans about how I was going to live now (I didn’t, and still don’t, for the most part). Suddenly, people were always watching me – and judging me, too. Most of them were well-meaning, but they were still judging me, far more than they would have in other circumstances. Or, possibly, I simply noticed the judging more.

At any rate, I started receiving pity-invitations. Acquaintances started inviting me to events because they had concluded that getting out would be good for me. Friends invited me out to dinner, or to parties for the same reason.

They were right, and I understand that they meant well. But, although I’m sure that people judge me all the time without me knowing, I’m not used to being so obviously judged. I feel like a specimen at the aquarium, living out my life behind a pane of glass beyond which everyone stood waiting to see what I could do.

I am aware, too, that they mean to help me. That, in itself, is hard to take – not because of any misplaced sense of macho, but because, after twelve years of taking care of someone in failing health, I am far more used to helping than being helped. Although I still accept most of the invitations, a self-consciousness has entered my dealings with friends and relatives that leaves the simplest of interactions seem forced and false as I try to ignore it.

The third reason is hardest to describe, because I want to keep most of the circumstances private. Perhaps it is enough to say that I let someone I admire and who could have been a friend think me unstable at best or a player of head-games at worst because I believed that doing so was the right thing to do for everyone.

I still think that way – on alternate days. The truth is, when I’m not feeling ashamed of trying to manipulate someone’s perceptions of me, I’m wondering exactly what those perceptions are. Most likely, I’ll never know, yet I wonder all the same. The result is that, once again, I find myself spending far more time thinking of other people’s perceptions of me than I am used to doing.

Perhaps this newfound awareness is only natural. A marriage – at least, a happy one like mine – is a filter for other relationships. Now that I am a widower, those relationships have to be renegotiated for the first time in years.

Under these circumstances, perhaps spending an inordinate amount of time thinking of other people and how they perceive me is a natural stage that I just have endure until it passes. But, meanwhile, I am getting weary of feeling like my mind and body is one continuous rib-bruise.

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