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Archive for the ‘widowhood’ Category

On this date in 2010, at 3:05pm, my partner Trish died. We had been together thirty-two years. Since then, at a time when most people are settling down domestically, I have had to start again. So far, my new start has not included a new relationship. Nor do I expect to.

Whenever I state my current situation, most people assume that it troubles me. They imagine that I am discouraged, and tell me to cheer up, that a new relationship could happen at any time. A relationship is such an important part of their lives, they cannot imagine someone who does not share their pre-occupation. From their perspective, I must be being stoic, wearing a brave face while being shredded inside.

What they don’t understand (and probably never will, unless they are widowed themselves) is that I mean exactly what I say. I wouldn’t refuse another relationship. I might even take a chance on a less promising relationship. However, it is no longer a priority

Perhaps part of my attitude is my realization that, unless you divorce or break up, a relationship is going to end with one of you dying – a fact that popular culture conveniently ignores. Having faced that overwhelming event once, I admit that I am nervous about facing it twice. Emotionally, the death of your partner is overwhelming, and, even after your grief has quietened to a chronic condition that is always in the background, it puts you out of sync with your family and generation.

Still, I might take a chance – but only if I thought my new relationship had any chance of being as successful as the one I shared with Trish. We worked hard on our relationship, and, even after thirty years, many people assumed that we had just found each other. When I have had the best, why should I settle for anything less, just because I am afraid of dying alone (and I am afraid) – or, worse, because everyone thinks that I should be hanging out on OK Cupid, and taking night school classes in the hopes of meeting someone?

Having been lucky once, I am not greedy. I have had my share – in fact, more than my share, when I observe many of the relationships around me.

However, the main reason I am not particularly eager for a new relationship is that, in the last six years, I have learned to survive alone. I have learned to go to parties without being supported by someone or supporting them. I have learned that, if I don’t do a chore, it won’t get done. I have learned to live without having someone with whom to share absurd or puzzling moments. Now my calendar is my own, and I stay up or go to bed early without consulting anyone else.

At first, I didn’t care for being responsible for no one except my parrots and I. But I survived – I had no choice, because a minimal number of things always had to be done each day, even after I had plunged into the bureaucracy of death and out the other side. Now, I am like a castaway who, after praying each day for rescue, realizes that I have become accustomed to my own solitude.

In fact, I suspect I am no longer fit for a relationship, anymore than, after twelve years of freelancing, I am fit for working in an office. Inevitably, I have grown egocentric. Unlike most people, I no longer define myself by my relationships – not even the one that Trish and I shared.

I think wistfully of a relationship from time to time, but I abandoned worrying about relationships – or a lack of them – several years ago. In the last six years, I have learned to live with myself, accomplished a few things that satisfy me, and even to find a bit of contentment. But the difference between me and the average adult is that relationships no longer define me.

By your standards, I might be poorly adjusted. However, I no longer expect what most people suspect. You may not understand my perspective but, then, I no longer understand yours either, except by a conscious act of empathy.

Please do me the courtesy, though, of believing that I mean what I say. For the most part, I am content with my adjustments to life – even if many of those adjustments are not the ones I expected to be making at this stage of my life.

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When you’re widowed, the way I was in 2010, eventually the immediate grief fades. You still find yourself regularly ambushed by memories of your partner, but you start to establish new rhythms and patterns.

The trouble is, these new rhythms and patterns are not nearly as satisfying as the ones you used to have. In particular:

 

  • No one is around with whom to share the jokes heard during the day, the observations or news, or to talk about a new book.

     

  • After an event, you have no one to discuss what happened, what other people said, or what meanings or motivations might be behind them.

     

  • Cooking for one hardly seems worthwhile, and too many nights of takeout soon becomes pathetic.

     

  • At first, not having someone who needs to know your schedule is like being on vacation. However, after a while, it simply emphasizes that you’re on your own.

     

  • If you don’t do a chore, it doesn’t get done. Moreover, when you do get around to a chore you’ve been putting off, there isn’t anyone to share it with to make it less dreary.

     

  • You find yourself dreading social events, because they end with you returning to an empty home.

     

  • When you hear a car outside, you have to keep reminding yourself that it isn’t your partner’s.

     

  • You have no one to buy gifts for or to celebrate anniversaries with.

     

  • At night, the bed seems far too large – and, in winter, too cold.

     

  • Planning a future for one is a necessity at twenty. Add a few more decades, and it only seems pointless.

     

  • People keep expecting you to start a new relationship when you are not even sure that you want one.

 

If you have never had a long-term relationship, or current one is unsatisfying, some of these points might be puzzling. After all, isn’t what freedom from obligation what everyone wants? But obligations are what relationships are all about. You can miss them more than you might imagine – especially when you’ve cheerfully fulfilled them for years and they suddenly disappear from your life.

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I’ve got scar tissue, I’ve got cash in hand,
Got a season’s ticket to the promised land,
And I do this for a living, Mister, don’t you understand
That I’m dancing, dancing, dancing
Dancing as fast as I can.

– Oysterband

I never knew my maternal grandmother well. She died when I was a few years old, leaving my grandfather to live alone for another two decades. I remember him as a quiet man, with a methodical way of moving and a mildly abstracted air. Even as a child, I knew I didn’t understand something about him, but I’ve only realized after being a widower myself for the last three years what I didn’t understand.

Or perhaps I don’t understand, and I am projecting my own feelings to make them seem more universal. But I suspect that, so far as he was concerned, those last two decades were an extended epilogue to his life. He never seemed particularly unhappy, but as a widower he seemed to live in a minor key, as though his life were mildly pleasant, but not very important, as though what mattered to him had already happened.

At least, that’s how I interpret him, because that’s how I feel now. I don’t lack friends or family, and I retain interests in art, books and music that keep me busy. But long range plans? A new lover or partner? I live contentedly enough without the expectation of either.

Apparently, this is a state of mind that you have to experience to understand. When I try to explain it, inevitably people conclude that I must be unhappy or in need of cheering up. They tell me to be patient and not to rule anything out. If they have been widowed themselves and remarried, they use themselves as an example of the possibilities that might await me, if only I choose.

Worst are those who ask if I’m seeing anyone. I’m not, and increasingly people are starting to urge me to try, to sign up for online dating, or take a night school course where I might meet someone. Any day, I expect efforts to set me up with a blind date. Sometimes, it feels like I’m a character in a TV episode whose problems they expect to be wrapped up neatly in an hour between the commercials and distractions of everyday life.

What they don’t understand is that I don’t feel like I have any problem that is in any urgent need of solving. Yes, I might be overly aware that implicit in letting someone new into your life is the likelihood that one of you is the fact that one of you will eventually watch the other one die. And it’s true that, after several monogamous decades, I know less about meeting women than the average fourteen year old.

But while I’m sometimes lonely, I’ve fallen into the patterns of a solitary life. You might say that I’m content with the moment, that I’m reluctant to look for more after the patterns of my life were abruptly demolished, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But I’ve found enough shreds of purpose to keep me vaguely satisfied. I’m not longing for more, nor am I feeling thwarted or incomplete. Just having a routine after wading through grief is a relief, and I don’t need a grand love or cause to give me direction.

Could everybody try to understand that’s good enough, and control their urge to interfere? Do that for me, and I promise the same studied neutrality when you go through widowhood yourself, okay?

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I never really knew my maternal grandmother. She died before I was five, and I can no longer separate what I remember from what I’ve been told. But I remember my maternal grandfather, a kind but faintly abstracted man who outlived her by seventeen years. He never remarried, although he could have easily enough, but, now that I’m a widower myself, I imagine that I understand why: he wasn’t unhappy, but after his wife of over forty years died, nothing seemed to matter much any more.

Those who lack his experience or mine might leap to the conclusion that my grandfather suffered from depression, and that I do as well. Even if they can make the empathic jump to the understanding that melancholy would be a more accurate description, they would still be prone to tell us to not give up hope, that we might still find someone else with whom to share our lives.

I don’t know about my grandfather, but I know that I haven’t entirely ruled out that possibility. However, what other people have a hard time comprehending is that I don’t particularly care if I do.

Still, let me try to explain: My attitude has nothing to do with grief. I am not telling myself that I’m staying faithful to the memory of partner, much less keeping a promise I made to her. If anything, she would have preferred me to find another relationship.

Nor do failing health, a reduced sex drive, or any of the other ready-made explanations that some people are no doubt preparing to categorize and dismiss me with relevant. If anything, I’m fitter today than I have been for over a decade, and as appreciative of good looking and intelligent women as I have been at any time since puberty.

Okay, I am reluctant to take up again the tired games that most men and women play with each other. I thought them demeaning the last time I was single, and I am even more contemptuous of them now. They seemed to be changing about the time I married, and one of the great social failings of our time is that to a large degree they changed back again.

I admit, too, that it is harder in middle-age to make time for someone else in my life now that I’m middle-aged. When I was a young adult, everything about my future was uncertain, not just who might become my partner in life. But today, how I earn my living and the pattern of my days is well-established, and I am much less inclined to change my routine to search for someone, let alone make to make changes to accommodate someone new coming into my life. I’m more settled than I was as a young adult, and I have far more of what I want.

Almost certainly, self-defense helps shape my attitude as well. When you think you know the pattern of the rest of your life and who will feature in it, then have those assumptions swept away, it is only natural to be wary of falling into such pleasant complacency again. The effort of rebuilding alone is enough to make my uneasy – suddenly reverting to a state I last endured in adolescence is not something I would care to do again. Once is more than enough to instill caution.

Yet all these are secondary. The main explanation is this:

Being married was the central part of my life in my youth and early middle age. I regret none of it, not even the bad times, because they were easier to struggle through in company. Nor is there a day that I don’t miss Trish. But I’ve had all that, which is more than most people can say, so I’m not greatly concerned if I don’t find it again. Almost certainly, the odds are against it.

In other words, being a widower has taught me stoicism. The ambitions that everyone has for themselves, the expectations they have for me and their advice on how they think I should spend my life simply aren’t important to me. I might still manage to do or say some worthwhile thing (although my own ambitions matters less than they once did, too), but whether I do or don’t, it doesn’t greatly matter – not even to me, except in the most abstract sense.

My present attitude is neither something I’m proud of, nor something I feel ashamed about. From habit, I try to step back and describe it as accurately as possible, but trying to change it? Why would I bother? In this attitude, I suspect, I am no different than my grandfather was, all those years ago.

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Last Sunday, Trish and I would have celebrated our anniversary as a couple. As I have done the previous two years since she died, I observed the day (“celebrate” is hardly the correct word) by taking myself out to dinner. And, as I sat at the restaurant, I had a small moment of personal insight.

I was given a table in the bay window at the front of the restaurant. The table would have been ideal for two people who wanted to focus on each other, but for a person eating alone, it gave two choices: to sit either staring at the wall, or staring out at the dark and rainy street. Both choices meant my back was to the rest of the restaurant.

As I stared out at the cold and damp people hurrying along the street, I reflected that I was lucky I hadn’t been given a seat by the kitchen or the washroom. But I told myself I had better get used to unusual tables, because they were likely to be my lot for the rest of my life.

I sipped a cider and nibbled some bread, considering this prospect. The waiter took my order, and I kept on considering. Slowly, I realized that I was not embittered by the prospect. Nor was I anticipating it, nor resigned to it. I simply knew that was how things would be.

The realization, I discovered, was a profound relief.

Ever since I was widowed, friends have urged me to look for a relationship. At their urging, I have tried to join activities where I might meet someone. Not very seriously, I have tried online dating sites. Once or twice, I have gone out with a woman.

None of this activity led to anything serious. Perhaps it might have if I had tried harder. But the truth is, I never cared enough to do so. I was lucky once – far luckier than the majority of men who marry. Why should I expect to be equally lucky a second time? The odds seemed against me, and, although I’ve been lonely in the last thirty-two months, I don’t mind loneliness so much that I would automatically exchange it for any other alternative.

The truth is, a self-declared eccentric like me is not going to be much attracted to many women. I’m a romantic whose experience of relationship-hunting is decades in the past. Even worse, I’m a feminist, who had a feminist spouse, and I have little patience with the games I’m still supposed to play. Effectively, I’m an innocent with an exaggerated sense of idealism, which means that I would be unrealistic to pretend that these traits don’t substantially reduce my second chances.

No doubt this realization has an element of self-defense. Middle-age is supposed to be a time of settling in to your life. To have your routine routed and your expectations extinguished is enough to make anyone wary of trying a second time. After all, I barely avoided being broken on the facts of my life the first time.

But what I mostly realized while eating dinner on Sunday was that my life over the last two and a half years had fallen into a rhythm. I have meaningful work, and friends and pets. Although I can hardly call myself supremely happy, I am content, and disinclined to search for alternatives.

After all, my maternal grandfather lived alone for nearly twenty years, and seemed to manage a full life. My sister-in-law divorced over a decade ago, and her time has been full of accomplishment. And, clearly, there are some advantages to living alone, like keeping irregular hours when necessary and not being answerable to anyone  So who knows what other ones I might find by accepting my situation instead of resisting it?

For that matter, who knows if I’ll meet someone? I’m not prescient.

Meanwhile, though, please, don’t tell me to hang in there, or that I’ll never know unless I try, or offer any of the other cheerily meaningless cliches that people offer when someone has reached a conclusion that they shy from themselves.

I’m not asking for sympathy, much less direction. I’m describing the place I’ve reached so far, and while the description may appall you if you’ve never been here, let me assure you: for the time being, it suits me just fine.

I’ve things to do and places to see. And right now, doing these things matters to me far more than changing my relationship status on Facebook.

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I’ve never care much about cars. Sometimes, Trish and I would give a car a name, like Wodwo Tulk or Macaw, but a car has never been much more than transportation to me, and definitely not a source of pleasure or status. Yet today when the tow truck disappeared around the corner with our last car, bound for the garage, the moment seemed solemn. Except for the townhouse, the car was the last major piece of our life together.

We bought the car in 2006, a silver gray Toyota Corolla like thousands of others, distinguishable only by its manual transmission. It was used, but in such good shape that it might almost have been new, and Trish was so excited that she hugged the salesman (much to his surprise).

We never did make any long trips in it. By that time, Trish’s health was already too compromised for anything more than a trip across town. But for several years, the car made her more mobile, until she started struggling for the alertness to drive safely. I almost never rode in it myself, except on weekends, when, like many couples, we would run errands, the CD player blaring Oysterband or The Pogues or Ray Wylie Hubbard while we enjoyed each other’s company.

Then came Trish’s final hospitalization. For a month, the car stayed in the underground parking, unused except for the few moments each week when I turned on the engine to keep the battery charged. But in the aftermath of her death, I forgot the task for so long that, by the time I remembered it, I was too late.

In the months following her death, I quickly took care of about ninety percent of her affairs, including cleaning out her belongings. But that last ten percent was something I evaded as being more final than I could bear. When the car’s insurance came up for renewal, I put it in storage, but I couldn’t stand to do anything more. It was twenty months before I could even bring myself to transfer the car from Trish’s estate to me.

Meanwhile, the car gathered dust. Local children wrote “Wash me!” in the dust on the window. A couple of neighbors hinted repeatedly that I really should do something with it. Someone taped to the window the contact information for a scrap metal buyer, who would pay $150 for the vehicle (I angrily recycled the information, and took to glaring at the person I suspected of making the suggestion). But I couldn’t bring myself to do anything except wash the car and clean out its contents.

Still, I was slowly edging towards repairing and selling the car when, two weeks ago, over a hundred cars in the neighborhood had their tires slashed in a night. I was lucky, and was left with two intact tires. But since the car had to go to the garage anyway, I might as well ready it for sale.

When the tow truck arrived this morning, I realized I was dragging my feet as I went down to meet it. I stood to one side as the driver prepared the car for towing, carefully working around the slashed tires. Despite myself, I found myself thinking of what the car had meant for Trish, and how she was long past needing it. For no good reason, I reached out and touched it one last time.

The driver said that I didn’t need to stay around. I told him I would anyway. It seemed like something that I had to do.

Finally, the car was ready. I watched the tow truck carry the car out of the garage and on to the road. As I climbed the stairs to the townhouse, I paused at the top to watch it out of site, feeling as empty as an orange peel.

In a week or two, I should get good money for the car. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about. As it disappeared, I was thinking that another piece of my past was disappearing, too.

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“Who writes the story?
I don’t know any more,
And maybe nothing’s what it seems,
Spare me the glory
Just get me safe on shore
And I’ll only put to sea in my dreams.”
– OysterBand

The Victorians were wiser than I imagined, having a year of mourning followed by a period of half-mourning. The convention wasn’t just a social restriction; as I’ve found, you need a couple of years after the death of a spouse before you’re ready for normal life. So, with that need in mind, and with the second year anniversary of Trish’s death approaching, I’m declaring the end of widowhood.

I don’t mean, of course, that I’m forgetting our life together. I still have memories that paralyze me in the middle of whatever I’m doing, and that make me frown in the effort not to tear up. I’ll probably have such moments for the rest of my life, like a joint that aches in the rain, although they might become less common.

Nor do I mean that another woman is in my life. I’m laughably unfit for online dating, and while I’ve met several women in the last two years who have become friends, that’s all they are. The only woman in whom I’ve had the faintest interest isn’t speaking to me, and is unlikely to, and I’m not much concerned. I’ve had one spectacularly successful relationship, and I can’t expect another one.

I am not even suggesting that I have a new direction in life. I don’t, and I’m not likely to. Three years ago, I thought I knew what the next couple of decades would be like, and, with those expectations gone, I don’t see any point in aspiring to new ones. Despite some recent efforts to find new directions, I expect that thirty or forty or fifty years from now I’ll be found dead or ill among amid my books, music, computers, birds and exercise equipment, living much the same as I do now. The thought doesn’t worry me much, and I’m not in the least suicidal; it’s just the way things are likely to happen. Generally speaking, I accept that, just as I accept that I’m on the short side of medium height or have heavy shoulders.

So what do I mean? Simply that a time comes when living in the past feels like futility. For me, that time has come. The immediacy of the thirty-two years I spent with Trish is fading. Not that I forget much, not even my failures. Yet, emotionally, that era seems so distant from the way I live now that at times I have trouble believing that I am the same person who did or said what I remember. To deny that my past is gone out of loyalty or nostalgia would be perverse, and not at all what Trish herself would want for me. I know that, because in the final weeks of her life, she was often worried about what would happen to me without her.

Maybe to you, embedded in your relationships and children, what I’m saying sounds melancholy, or a sign of depression. But, contrary to our cultural expectations, none of us has a natural right to be a happy idiot smiling through out days, although, if you haven’t been widowed or traumatized yourself, you probably don’t understand that. However, from where I am, that’s a truth so obvious it hardly seems worth repeating. To you, it may not seem like much of a step to stop living in the past and start moving into the present, but trust me – it’s an immense one.

But what about the future, you ask?

I don’t rule anything out. However, right now, the future is more than I can think about. I have half-formed plans and intentions, and I’ll probably realize a few of them as I look for ways to fill my time. But they don’t have the urgency they did a few years ago. In that, I’m not much different from most people, if they would be honest with themselves. I’m just more likely to express uncomfortable facts.

What I am trying to say is that I’ve decided to quit feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I’m cultivating stoicism. My intention is to keep moving, one step at a time, not looking backward and not looking ahead, either. And if that seems inadequate to you, all I can say is that from running and writing, I know that’s the only way that most things get done.

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