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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

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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“I can’t imagine what that must be like,” person after person has told me, referring to the fact that I’m a widower. I don’t have time to write a book to help them imagine, although referring them to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking might give them some idea.

Instead, let me offer some metaphors.

What’s it like, being alone after the person you lived with for over thirty years has left you in a matter of hours? Very approximately, it’s:

  • Like being a cliff eroded by a storm. You’re still standing, but there’s much less of you than before. Moreover, what’s left is unstable, and could collapse at any time.
  • Like being an amputee, learning to get by without an arm or a leg. Everyone thinks that you’re being brave and doing just fine, but of all the thousands of thing you do each day – walking, reaching for an object – there’s not one you can do without being reminded of what’s missing.
  • Like you’re an inhabitant of Pompeii or Herculaneum, and Vesuvius has finally erupted, raining down the destruction that you always knew was coming, but somehow managed to shove to the back of your mind because of everyday concerns and of the years in which it didn’t happen. Now that the moment has arrived, you’re partly relieved and partly unable to grasp fully that it’s finally happened.
  • Like you’re the first person to see a new color. You can’t begin to describe it, because no one else has the least idea of what you’re talking about. They think you’re making too big a deal of the discovery, and some wonder if you’re not hoaxing them in some way.
  • Like you are trapped far from the door at a party where people are talking about topics that matter tremendously to them – sports, perhaps – but don’t matter the least to you. But you’re expected to be polite and pretend that you share everyone’s enthusiasm, and never talk about what matters to you.
  • Like you are far from home and you learn that it has been bombed, invaded, razed and re-settled. Even though you don’t mind traveling for a while, you realize that you will be traveling for the rest of your life, because you no longer have any place to which to return.
  • Like everything you planned and hoped has become so invalid that you wonder if something is wrong with your brain or your sight and other senses that you could ever have had those expectations.
  • Like someone who worries about their memory failing – not because anything’s wrong with your recall, but because what you remember is so distant from the way you live now that the simplest explanation seems to be that you must have imagined it all.
  • Like you are a Visigoth, Vandal or Hun, camping in the ruins of what you cannot possibly understand. Occasionally, you might take a marble column or a block of stone from the ruins for something other than their original purpose, but you cannot imagine what their original use must have been, no matter how handy the relics might be.
  • Like history has stopped and been replaced by an unending present.

Today, my nanday conure Ninguable died, surviving his mate Sophie by just under thirteen months. He died in my hands. It was the last act in a relationship that had lasted twenty-eight years.

He had been listless for the past couple of days, but yesterday evening he had seemed to rally. However, the improvement didn’t last, and this morning he was lying on his back when I opened his cage. I thought him dead, and although he roused feebly, I knew he wouldn’t last out the day.

I had no means to euthanize him, and taking him to the vet would only make his last hours uncomfortable, so I sat with him through the day. He seemed to have suffered a stroke, because he struggled to move his left leg, growing testy at times.. Sometimes, he yawned with his beak tilted up. He didn’t show any signs of pain, just frustration. I was just putting him on to a towel in his cage bottom, so I could use the computer with one hand while stroking him with the other, when he collapsed beak first and twisted sideways.

For a moment, I swear I saw a light in his brown eyes. Then he was gone. I waited a few moments, but I knew what was left was no longer him. The time was shortly before 2PM.

Ning was our first parrot, and responsible for most of the others coming into our lives. We had been fascinated by a friend’s dwarf macaw, and had spent over a month looking for our own small parrot. We briefly considered a blue-crowned conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store, but debated if it was quite right. Then we saw Ning at the store in Kingsgate Mall, and immediately knew he was right for us.

Had we known what we knew a few years later, we probably wouldn’t have bought him. He was missing a nail on one foot, and part of a toe on another – a likely sign that he was wild caught, and had had his feet tangled in a net. Plus the store owner swore he was eighteen months old when by his markings he was under a year. Later, we realized he had probably been smuggled into the country, an abusive practice that we wouldn’t have wanted to support.

But he was so feisty among all the much larger birds in the room, hanging from the bars of his cage and trying to attract the attention of the red lory who was the only bird of his size. We put a deposit on him, and stopped on our way to the Vancouver Folk Festival to feed him cherries and grapes, all of which he greedily devoured.

On Trish’s birthday, we brought him home. We left him to acclimatize while we went out to dinner, but we were both so excited that we could hardly eat. We named him Ningauble, after the ever-curious wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

In the next few weeks, I worked with several times a day in the spare room, teaching him to climb up on a presented perch, then on a finger, feeding him and praising him loudly as a reward.

In the evenings, I would take him out and herd him on to my shoulder, where he would sit nervously before starting off. He couldn’t fly much, because we had clipped his wings, but that didn’t slow him much. He would glide as far as he could, and resolutely trudge along the floor and up the furniture until he reached his cage.

One evening, we were sitting reading when he reached over and gently preened my hair. Between my nervousness that he would bite my ear and my delight at this sign of trust, I hardly dared to move. But the next evening, he preened one side of my hair followed by the back, careful not to miss a spot, before giving up.

He seemed relieved to realize finally that he wasn’t responsible for all my hair, and after a few more evenings, settled down to a token preen in return for having his ear holes and neck scratched. He would sit and preen me for a couple of hours, then waddle down the couch to Trish to give her a couple of hours of attention.

I was in grad school at the time, and used to work in the spare room we had converted into a library. For a while, I used to take Ning into the library, since he would scream for me if I left him in the living room. Unfortunately, he would not only wander the shelves flinging books off, but also produce what our local used bookseller called parroted editions that had been thoroughly chewed to the point where they were unsellable.

After a couple of years, we decided he needed a mate, so we brought home Sophie, a malnourished, abused bird. Our plans to quarantine her for a month were immediately overturned when the only way to keep them from calling from room to room was to introduce them. Under our anxious eye, Ning jumped into Sophie’s cage and immediately started regurgitating to her.

If Sophie could talk, I swear she would have said, “Excuse me, sir? Have we been introduced?” but they immediately became inseparable, eventually going on to produce six chicks, one of whom is still with me, and one who returned to us before dying at a young age from the second hand smoke in a home where he briefly lived.

Ning wasn’t that skilled at feeding babies. But he kept Sophie fed while she was brooding, and delighted in teaching them the basics when they left the nest. At that point, Sophie was glad to pass along the responsibility, and Ning always pined when the babies went to other homes.

Because of the trouble and heartbreak of finding new homes for the babies, we eventually stopped allowing eggs to hatch. But Ning and Sophie didn’t seem unduly troubled. They continued in happy monogamy, with Ning in the adventurous lead and Sophie chirping nervously behind, but following him – on to the floor, or up on my shoulder, where they would sit preening each other and occasionally me while I worked on the computer.

In between, Ning would have territorial wars with the other male birds housed in the living room, always with the psychological edge. Although not particularly large for a nanday, his electric blue and green feathers showed he was the epitome of health. And, anyway, he was the cock with the hen.

He also showed an uncanny ability to find what unsettled his rivals the most at the least risk to him – for instance, sitting just inside another male’s territory on the floor, in a spot where he couldn’t be dive bombed.

And so things went on, the living room full of bird calls, affection and avian macho, until I got into the habit of thinking they might go on forever. But Trish sickened and died, and, five months later, Sophie died. Ning responded by a fit of macho, rampaging around the dining table until it was clear that this previously neutral ground was now his. He was also inclined to mope unless he spent as much time as possible with me – something I didn’t mind in the least, considering we were widowers together.

In the mornings, when I came to open the curtains, he would greet the sound of my voice with a liquid trill that would continue for up to a minute — one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard, and one I wish now that I had got around to recording.

Despite his increasing age, Ning showed few signs of slowing down until the last four months of his life. One day, waddling over the carpet, he stopped and began biting furiously at his right wing. When I picked him up, I could find no damage, but he never flew far again. Instead, he would call anxiously to me, squirming until I picked him up and carried him to where he wanted to be. By this time, I could guess his destination with almost total accuracy.

I had seen similar signs in Sophie, but, considering Ning’s better health, I had hopes that his senior years would be prolonged. Until a few days ago, I even had hopes that with therapy he might fly freely again, since several times he managed short flights when frustrated.

As I write, it’s six hours after his death. I’ve taken his body to be cremated, and removed his cage from the living room – and I still keep looking for him as I type. He’s the one who taught me that parrots had sentience and limited planning abilities. He’s the one who kept me amused with his unabashed enthusiasm, and supported me with a preen and by hanging out when I was discouraged or grieving. He’s the one who taught me that parrots can purr.

Given all this, what could I do but sit with him in his final hours? I talked to him about our years together, sang him his favorite silly songs, and repeated my pet names for him. I cried over the inevitable before it happened and I hoped for a miracle, knowing I wouldn’t get one.

And you know what? I’m not ashamed of any of it. Because those are the sort of things you do for a friend. The only shame would have been to leave him to die alone, and my only comfort is that I did for him what I could.

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To the strains of Sileas’ “File Under Christmas,” I’ve just finished my wrapping for tomorrow. It was a feeble echo of the years when Trish was alive, and brings out the loneliness in my life more than ever.

Trish and I always made Christmas a large event. Although we would sometimes buy one moderately priced present for each other, mostly we focused on small gifts like movies, music, graphic novels, and books – always books, so many that each year we would only run out of new reading material about mid-March. Usually, we would buy each thirty or more gifts a year, opening a few in the morning, and the rest when we returned from visiting and needed to unwind. If we had a Boxing Day visit that we weren’t looking forward to, sometimes we saved a few gifts for opening when we dragged home, full of stories about relatives.

So many gifts took some planning. We had plenty of pre-wrapped boxes that I’m now slowly giving away because I no longer need them. Since I was the more organized of the two of us, and usually finished shopping earlier, I would scrupulously divide the pre-wrapped boxes, taking only half of them. Almost always, I had to wrap half a dozen gifts separately that didn’t fit into any boxes.

Then I would sit down and compose the tags. The tags were never as simple as statements about whom the gifts were too and from. They contained this information, of course, but early in our relationship, we started the tradition of adding a cryptic clue about the present. For example, a book by John Mortimer might have a tag declaring that it was “dead in the water” (mort = death, mer = “sea”). An album by The Pogues might be listed as “Before Pictures from the British Dentistry Association” in reference to Shane McGowan’s irregular teeth, while a season of Doctor Who videos might be described as “first of five, medicinally-speaking,” (referring the basic questions Who? What? Where? When? How?). The idea was to be as obscure as possible, so that the recipient would groan in recognition when the gift was opened.

Last year, I was still in deep mourning, and gift wrapping was so much a duty that I hardly noticed it. This year, however, when I am in slightly better shape, it seems colorless and drab. It involves no clues, because the relatives and friends I buy for wouldn’t appreciate the tradition. And it’s over so quickly, too, finished before an album is, where once I’d need five or six albums and an afternoon.

Compared to other years, it was joyless – but, then, to a large extent so was the shopping. I no longer shop with an eye out for something to delight someone. Instead, I settle for what is suitable, and I’m relieved, not saddened, when the process was over.

Christmas, clearly, is no time to be widowed. There are too many memories in gift-wrapping, and no sense of or belief in a future in which the gifts might be enjoyed.

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Widowhood is a state of transition. It’s the time when you decide what you are going to do after the most important relationship in your life is gone. Or, to be more specific, it’s the time when you decide whether you are going to risk another relationship, or spend the rest of your life solo. Fourteen months after Trish’s death, that’s a decision I haven’t made, but, what most people don’t understand is that if I end up alone, I wouldn’t be overly disturbed by the outcome.

This fatalism has nothing to do with a morbid nostalgia. Trish and I met a month after her first husband died, and became a couple two months after that, so I don’t feel any need to stay loyal to her memory. In fact, several times, she told me that she hoped I would remarry if she died. So, if anything, I suppose I should be trying to meet people.

But the truth is, while one or two intriguing possibilities exist, I don’t need a relationship merely for the sake of a relationship. I’m comfortable with my own company, and as a writer I need a degree of solitude each day regardless.

Part of my attitude is my hyper-awareness of a fact that is obvious, but that no one likes to emphasize – namely, that a relationship ends with one person either leaving or dying.. As you get older, the possibility increases that the end will involve a death. I would rather not face the other person’s death, and I am no more eager to leave her facing my death and having to settle my affairs.

As time passes, this reluctance will probably fade, of course. But the truth is, I just don’t have the pressure to be in a relationship that people younger than me have. When you’re in your twenties or early thirties, being married or in a common-law relationship is a mark of maturity and independence. It can be a way to settle any lingering doubts you have about your sexual orientation. Most of all, it’s something everyone does, which often panics people into bad relationships, just so they don’t feel left out or appear odd. To be young and single by choice takes great strength of character because a more or less permanent relationship is part of what you’re supposed to want or do.

But at my age, the situation is different. I’ve paid my own way since I was eighteen, so I have nothing to prove. I long ago discovered I was a straight male with eccentric ideas about gender roles and an indifference towards them. Nor, for some reason, does modern industrial culture have many expectations about widowhood and its aftermath.

If I were still married, no doubt I would feel the pressure of the expectations placed on long-married couples – but suddenly, and through no wish of my own, my possible choices are broader than they have been since high school. I don’t have to rush to decide whether I should be single or committed, because the decision doesn’t matter except to me and any woman with whom I might be involved.

And if I do end my days single, so what? I’ve had a relationship that was better than any I see around me. That’s not just my opinion or the distortion of romanticism, either – I lost count years ago of the people who said that Trish and I acted like newly weds or who were surprised that we were polite to each other (as though politeness was something you owed strangers, and not those you loved), or how we consulted each other about mutual decisions.
Should I never be in another serious relationship, I’ve been in one that people envied. So why should I settle for anything less?

That would be the real betrayal of my past – not staying single for the next three to five decades, but blundering into a relationship because when I’m tired or not sleeping I feel lonely. I owe the memory of Trish better, and I owe myself better, too.

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A year ago, at 2:55PM, I was widowed. About an hour later, my sister-in-law and I stumbled out of Royal Columbian Hospital into a summer day that was strangely normal, and I began the process of figuring out how I was going to live the rest of my life.

Fifty-two weeks later, I can’t say that I’ve got very far in the process. A happy relationship that lasts for decades becomes a filter for everything you do, and, in part of my mind, I’m still married.

Nor is a year long enough to shake off fifteen years of nursing an invalid. I still don’t fully realize that my time is now my own, or that I can travel. I’ve spent much of the year just coping, making no great plans. I’m camping out in the ruins of my life, just getting by day by fragile day.

Ever sat in a movie theater until the credits rolled, and the lights came up? That’s where I am now, the story ended and what comes next uncertain.

Still, I’ve changed in numerous small ways in the last year, and learned more about myself. I’ve learned that I’m a tidy person, but, while personally clean, not too reliable about dusting or vacuuming. Perhaps that’s because of too many years when caring for Trish was more important than housework.

I’ve learned to endure washing dishes, which was never my task in our division of labor. I did the cooking, which I’ve also had to relearn, since portions for one always seem too small.

I’ve learned that it’s easier to do a chore when I notice it needs doing. Now that most of the townhouse is in ordered to a degree that it hasn’t been since before Trish took ill, attending to things immediately is the easiest way of keeping the place uncluttered.
I run more errands, because there’s nobody to split them with. The same goes for paying bills on time.

I wander more, and stay out longer and later. When there’s no one to come home to except your pets, regular hours don’t seem so important. I stay up later and wake later for the same reason.

I’m still learning now to have a social life by myself, although I had occasional practice in the last few years as Trish became more house-bound. But I can’t say that I’m easy yet, socializing when I’m no longer part of a well-established team. I’ve joined the board of a couple of non-profits, and organized a couple of meetups about art, just to counter any tendency to become a hermit.

As for being a single man, mostly I don’t go there. Although sometimes not being in a relationship hits me like a kick in the ribs, I’m not sure I’m ready for another one. Maybe I’ll never be; the social games of men and women seem more mutually degrading than anything else.

Probably, I’ve grown more eccentric, talking more to my parrots, recording my remarks in my journal or on Facebook and Twitter, because nobody’s around to share them. I grin more at my own jokes. I work harder and longer, but at more irregular hours. I tend to work out too much at a gym. I talk more to neighbors, and to people on the bus. I wonder if I’ll end up as one of those garrulous old men who pour out their life story to polite but secretly embarrassed strangers.

I worry that I might get sick or be crippled and no one will know. I wonder if one day I’ll be found weeks dead on the living room floor, and whether the birds might starve to death if a car hits me. I’ve made my will, but life appears capricious and arbitrary.
But what I’m going to do with myself for the next few decades? Frankly, I don’t have a clue. The wounds may have scabbed over, but they have a tendency to open again if I move the wrong way (or hear the wrong song, or pass the wrong place, or have the wrong memory come bubbling up out of the unconscious).

One year later, I’m still waiting to see what happens. The most I can say is that, if a new career comes along, or a new cause or a woman to share some time with, I’ll respond like one of King Arthur’s knights, thanking the God in whom I don’t believe for the adventure. But deliberately seeking a particular direction is still more than I can manage.

Meanwhile, so much of the texture of my life has changed that I sometimes look back at episodes in my married life and wonder if I really am the man who said or did those things. Often, that time seems to be sinking into the past much faster than the calendar would indicate.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that I still feel like an amputee, learning to walk on one leg or to dress myself with one hand. And I suspect that phantom pain will be with me the rest of my life.

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