Posts Tagged ‘widower’

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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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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My partner Trish loved miniature roses. At one point, she had over forty plants on the balcony of our townhouse and on the courtyard outside. On weekends, she would spend several hours in the morning caring for them. Then, when we did errands in the afternoon, she would take the flowers, wrap them in moist paper towels if it happened to be a hot day, and distribute them to the staff of the stores and services we visited. If any were left over, we put them on display in vases about as high as my thumb, mostly around the computer.

They were very much her concern. I appreciated them as little points of symmetry and color, as well as for their names – Pinstripe, Pandemonium, Cartwheel, Carousel, and Black Jade – but had little to do with them except when buying one occasionally for her.

At one point, Trish had over forty plants. However, by the time she died, the numbers had dwindled to half a dozen, partly through normal attrition, but largely because her final illness kept us busy with more basic concerns.

By the time I had steeled myself to clean out the remains, they were down to four, two of which were not looking overly healthy. Never having been a gardener, I didn’t mind too much. I had more basic things on my mind, and I gave them minimal care only because I associated them with Trish.

But about a month ago, I bought some basil, which I use in spanakopita and lasagna. Somehow, the splash of green made the living room more home-like.

Inspired by that realization, I decided to bring the surviving Black Jade inside. Far from its former glory, it is now a sprig barely twelve centimeters long, clinging to the original root structure, and I thought it needed some shelter in order to survive the winter. Like the basil, it seemed to make my surroundings more comfortable.

Then, last week, I was walking through New Westminster when I saw a half dozen miniature roses on a rack outside a dollar store. One, I was sure, was a Black Jade. On impulse, I picked it up as well as two more.

At home, I put the white and peach flowered plants on the television cabinet, and the Black Jade on the tea tray that I use for a coffee table. They seemed to crowd the living room a bit, but, considering their effect, I decided they belonged there.

They’re not a shrine to Trish. Thirty months after her death, that would be desperate, and more than a little pathetic. But they are a memory of happy times, and they relax my eye as much as the art on the walls.

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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.

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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For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to find the magic shop. You know the one I mean: the one heaped with treasures like a vial containing seven tears of an angel or a battered purse of gold coins that is never empty, the one that is there one day and gone the next. To my lasting disappointment, I have never found it, although I have found occasional intimations of it in occasional antique stores and book shops. But this fascination explains why this afternoon found me at the Circle Craft Christmas Market, treading every inch of the seemingly endless aisles of artists and artisians.over and over – even though, this year, the fascination was muted.

What I like about such events is the diversity. Usually, I spend very little – usually less than $100. But the diversions for the eyes seem endless. Jewelry, purses, saris, wooden game boards, rubber stamps, glasswork with streams of color running through it, woven Metis blankets, cedar hats, soup mixes, ,keychains, wallets, children’s songs, carved wooden bowls, clocks with slate faces, fudge from Calgary, soup mixes from Saltspring Island, vinegars as exotic as wine, CDs of children’s songs, lamps made from spirals of wood, Christmas cake, silk scarfs, birch bark bitings, canned salmon, chocolates, jellies, james, woven cedar roses, china flowers, table place settings – even with all the booths of women’s clothing, the variety seems impossible to summarize.

The fact that many of the items seem too unique for everyday use, if not outright useless and unnecessary only adds to the glamor. There is a kind of glorious excess to such displays, and some of the exhibitors seem to be present largely to share their delight in their own creations, although I know that others are counting on their sales at such markets for their winter income.

However, this was the first craft fair I had visited since I was widowed. As a result, my enjoyment was diminished by the fact that I no longer had someone to buy for. Several times, a set of earrings caught my eye, and I picked them up, weighing it in my hand as I studied its engraving, only to put it down again as I remembered I had no one to give them to. “Trish would like this,” I would think, fingering a purse, only to remember that she had no more need of one. I would imagine her describing a curve in a wood sculpture with her hand, or how she would have lingered over the racks of spice mixes or the gauzy scarfs hanging around a booth like a curtain, and suddenly, the enchantment would falter. Suddenly, I would find that I was not in the magic shop at all, but a cavernous convention center, where there were very few obscure corners in which I could sit and regain control of myself.

The enchantment never faded altogether. I came home with a vegan belt (so-called because it contains no leather) that fitted a silver buckle I bought months ago. And, remembering our habit in recent years of filling Christmas stockings with gourmet food, I also crowded my bag with bread dips and mustards and sauces and candied almonds.

But although a chance-met friend walked me to the station, it was a cold and dark ride home on the Skytrain, with an empty townhouse waiting at the end of the line.

A good thing the fair wasn’t the actual magic shop, I kept thinking, because now I had no one with whom to share the discovery.

And somewhere during the day, I had lost faith that I ever would find it now.

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Face to face and online, people keep telling me that I am bearing my wife’s death well. The truth is, what I am really doing is maintaining the appearance of normalcy. I have just enough sense remaining to realize that people don’t want to hear the details and that what I am enduring is unimaginable to most people who have not gone through it themselves. Certainly, it would have been unimaginable to me before this summer.

I tell myself that I have learned from the parrots in my living room not to show vulnerability. Scream, puff yourself up, or cause a disturbance, but don’t let anyone know that you’re tired or ill: That’s their credo, and I can understand it. Grief is a private thing, and I don’t generally care to share it, except with those who already feel it.

I’m here to say, though, that surviving a spouse of thirty years is like nothing I’ve ever experienced – and I’m not exactly a stranger to trauma. It’s not even like other griefs, except maybe in general outline.

To start with, my situation means endless details. Quite aside from funeral arrangements and telling friends and relatives what happened, my life has been full of canceling subscriptions, changing the name on assets, dragging through probate, arranging new medical coverage, talking to my accountants to my lawyer, and to my financial advisor, and dealing with government agencies and officials of all sorts. Just when you are least able to handle bureaucracy, an avalanche of it is waiting to overwhelm you and suffocate you.

Yet these distractions are the least of surviving a spouse. My situation is also about noting a joke or a situation, only to remember that you no longer have anyone with whom to share it. It’s having thoughts that you no longer have anyone to confide to. It’s learning to cook for one person instead of two. It’s realizing that there is no division of labor – if you don’t do something, it doesn’t get done. It’s breaking down half a dozen times a day over trivia like an old photo or shoe, or watching a video and remembering that your partner never got to watch it, or thinking of a trip that she’ll never take now. It’s a sudden pain in your abdomen that has you worrying about appendicitis but is really just a new manifestation of anxiety. It’s waking up with your hair and your sheets cold with sweat, and getting up in the morning feeling like a hand is pushing against your chest whenever you do anything.

Then, just as you are getting some distraction from a video or book, so that you could almost belief that your spouse is out shopping or in the next room, it’s realizing that the respite is an illusion – that in dozens of tiny ways, your everyday assumptions no longer work.

And that’s just the common themes. Stay home, and you are alone with the thoughts that you have come to dread. Go out, and not only are you surprised to see people going about their ordinary business, but that business seems trivial and unimportant.

In fact, your whole relation to people change. You have less patience with people. Euphemisms like “passed away” or cliches like “I’m sure it’s all for the best” set your teeth on edge. You may find, as I did, that you have no longer have patience with other people’s foibles. You may even pick a fight, so viciously that, even when you apologize, the other person doesn’t forgive you, and you feel like an idiot for making the world a nastier place.

You discover, too, that the way people treat you changes. For one thing, relative strangers feel they can now give you meaningless advice on how you should live.

Also, you are no longer half a couple, but a lone individual for the first time in years. Many acquaintances and friends no longer know how to treat you. You are no longer married – and therefore, provisionally safe – to women. Things you could do or say as a married man now take on new implications, and are suddenly best avoided.

This change in the expectations placed on you is especially ironic, because the last thing you are thinking of is a new relationship. If your relationship with your spouse was as good as mine, you wonder if you will ever have a relationship to match. You seriously doubt that you will, and, anyway, the steps that are usually necessary to develop even a potential relationship seem so ludicrous that you are seriously thinking of avoiding the whole subject for the rest of your life.

In short, surviving a spouse means that the future, which for years you thought you knew in broad outline, is suddenly as indefinite as it was when you were fourteen. You discover, too, that you don’t really care.

In theory, you could start staggering down a new life path, but that would require giving a damn – and you don’t, not really. Taking a course or joining a meetup would just be a new way to pass time, and travel a lot of effort just so you can go somewhere else to be alone.

And if you say all this sounds like self-dramatization, like I’m only going through what billions have gone through before me, all I have to say is, “See? I told you that you wouldn’t understand. You don’t want to, either, because, if you did, you would comprehend just how fragile your life really is.”

Far less effort for me to show the facade they prefer. That way, everyone else can keep their illusions intact.

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