Posts Tagged ‘widowhood’

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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After months of wondering, now I can finally say: It turns out I’m a tidy person after all.

Probably, it seems strange that a middle-aged person wouldn’t know such a fact about themselves, so let me explain:

My late partner Trish was in many ways an exemplary person, more generous and loyal than anyone else I’ve ever known. But even those who loved her would not say that she numbered tidiness among her virtues. Although she kept herself and her clothes clean, she reacted early and strongly against her mother’s obsessive housekeeping. In her adult life, she was infamous for being able to create clutter around her within minutes of sitting down in a spot –even if she was in someone else’s home. It didn’t help, either, that she was always buying craft supplies against a possible future project.

I never cared much for the resulting clutter, although I didn’t object that much, either. I always kept tidy the areas of the townhouse that I frequented, like the computer workstation, as well as the kitchen and bathroom, but despite some vague threats, I never tried to tidy Trish’s storage areas. Anybody who has been in a long term relationship will understand why – there are some things that you just don’t do if want the relationship to stay happy.

Then, in the last couple of years as she became progressively weaker, even I had better things to do than tidy, like spending time with her.

But, one way or the other, I was so busy accommodating Trish’s preferences that I lost sight of my own. Although one of the first things I did in the months after her death, just to keep busy, was to tidy her things and give many of them to wherever they would do most good, I wasn’t sure how long the vistas of empty tables and the expanses of carpet that my efforts created would stay. Maybe, my efforts would be like weeding, and gradually I would slip into sloppier ways living by myself.

To my surprise, the tidiness has continued. It’s not that I’m obsessive about keeping the clutter down, or go to bed with discomfort gnawing at the back of my mind if something is out of place. It’s more that having worked so hard over so many weeks to make sure that every book had a place on the shelf and that drawers were free for random objects, I’d rather keep the townhouse in the same state. Besides, taking twenty seconds to put something away when I’ve finished with it is far less objectionable to me than tidying once a week or month in a massive effort that makes me feel that I’ve lost a day to drudgery.

Anyway, when you’re the only one in the house, you know that if you don’t do something, no one else will (not that Trish ever did much tidying, even when she was healthy). When the effort is up to you, you might as well act now than later.

So, apparently, I’m a tidy person after all. I might have guessed by the home directories on all my computers, which are so well organized that I almost never have to do an automated search for the files I need.

But like I said, what a strange thing to learn about myself at my age.

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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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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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