Friends and readers,
Perhaps I have too strong or idealistic a notion of what a friend is. In the 18th century a friend as defined throughout the 18th century was someone on your side, not necessarily anyone intimate with you, though as Samuel Johnson used the word late in the century it meant a deep soul mate. This former definition still obtains. When Jim and I had a court case, our lawyer told us to distrust someone as he would not “be a friend of yours.” So that’s a qualification of one aspect of what this blog is about. The lone widow. A familiar trope. At this point, you could save time and skip what I have to say telling yourself what is the use of going into what most skirt acknowledging as inevitable.
Widows are not all alike; there are widows under 50, and over 50; widows with young children and widows with grown children; there are widows embedded in their families, who lived a life with their husband among varied friends; widows like me who stayed with their husband and he with them. Widows without money and widows with; sick widows and widows in good health. Sometimes the husband or partner dies suddenly; sometimes after a long agony; sometimes quickly. This makes a difference. Then different widows live in different cultures, some with a strong sense of community to which individuals belong and some where there is no such thing, and variants in-between; widows who live in frighteningly misogynistic cultures (so they are made into abased servants of family members and physically and emotionally abused), and widows in cultures where even old women are valued (rare this); widows highly educated and widows not; widows with good jobs, and widows with no place to go to do anything that’s needed except maybe make a number in a group activity (for which the leader is paid). Does she live where there is public transportation? shopping? does she drive? have a car?
So I am learning what it is to be a widow like me, age 69, children grown up, one beloved daughter living with me, solvent, in this relatively anonymous area where people are continually moving in and out of neighborhoods (the average for owned house neighborhoods is about 7 years; where I live it’s more like 5 years), has decent (good to mediocre) cultural places to attend, who drives, with a car, with my education (Ph.D.), tastes. Retired. I did know by the end of six months that most of what’s said about grief is invented to make those not grieving feel better about this presence in their midst — if they recognize a widow. It’s falsifying. Aspects of my character are changing, or different parts of my character coming out, true. My feelings changing about a few things. I’m glad to have clocks and radios I can operate; to know about my taxes and hire someone who can cope (he is honest if not helpful beyond doing it, no small thing); to feel more in control (an illusion at the best of times but still): with the help of an IT guy remotely coming into my computer I manage it. I’m lucky my older daughter put me in contact with the company and IT young man. But I’m not unusual here: I’ve met others who have IT help remotely. I can try and do drive longer distances (garmin next to me). I’m ambivalent about the teaching: I love the reading, preparation, am glad to go out, enjoy myself somewhat while leading the class and am grateful when the class members say they are enjoying it, appreciate what I bring, and to talk to a few people after class sometimes, but it is also a strain for me. A lot of work to do two in order to be out enough, to have enough places to go to where I can have some kind of meeting of minds.
I mentioned I am following a Future Learn course in Mental Health and Literature and in the week on heartbreak read this: from Dr Andrew Schuman “– about ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ or ‘Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy’. In response to extreme emotional stress, the left ventricle of the heart can become paralysed and swell up, mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack. Only medically recognised towards the end of the 20th century, this condition reminds us that the metaphors we use to describe disappointment in love – ‘lovesickness’, ‘heartbreak’ – are rooted in bodily experience.” I first had this experience this past May, and it comes and goes less intensely since.
It has struck me now that one problem with this Mental Health course is all the terms are men’s — a male set of norms, deriving from Freud and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, is what Jonathan Bate thinks like (he has a poem that literally traces Kubler-Ross’s “five stages of grief”) and what Paula Byrne knows. There was a talk with a woman (Nancy Kelly) who has written a book on depression and runs groups might have been less pollyanna (she didn’t want to tell why she had trauma under the aegis of this program). She would not have been allowed to get away with what she said if the understanding of women’s psychology that Bonaparte uses (out of Gilligan and Lynne Brown) had drawn from that. Byrne provides no alternative to her husband’s point of view People do know that Byrne and Bate are married I assume. the experience of widowhood for a woman is quite different from that of a man (See my paper On the depiction of widows and widowers in the Austen canon.)
But now as the third year sets in I’ve learnt I must live without local companionship, be alone. Not quite since I’ve access to a very good computer and help with it, which I can operate sufficiently. So I have Net-friends, net-conversation, net news, wonderful sites I can reach, movies to watch, courses to join in on, blogs, list-servs, even face-book. Once in a long while meet a long-time friend. Two days ago I met an ex-student who is only 11 years younger than me — 58 — I had not seen him for 20 years. We caught up. He took the all three courses I used to teach at Mason in the 1990s (before most of what I taught was abolished — sophomore level literature): once he went on a trip to Europe and then came to my office with photos he had taken of the places he had gone to as a result of poems we read in class — he followed Byron’s route I recall. Now married, living in Maryland, owns a huge piece of property with small house upon it, has a cat too (!), works at a job that does come from his degree in geography. But long hours and in different shifts every three weeks. Not much time for life outside beyond what’s in his home. He had written to me. I don’t know when or if I’ll see him again. We said maybe summer.
I’ve read in newspapers every once in a while a older widow’s account of herself, writing which classes her sufficiently in my sub-category: I realize a typical kind of person (cold as most are) reading it blame and despise her (indeed one article pointed out to me was by someone who used the ugly word whine) if she complains, which she usually does — why else write? self-expression? about how she’s deserted, avoided by previous friends (especially couples), has made some very bad decisions (e.g., moved from her home to be near a child or just escape — she’s told to wait a year). She tells of really mean and hurtful things said to her, some quite early on. That has happened to me. Two weeks after Jim died I was told my situation was all my fault and if I was miserable for the rest of my life it was my fault. Some widows are told they will remarry within two weeks or so of the husband or partner’s death. I’ve been laughed at. Like How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, they write to break the taboos of silence, and try to get a little truth about widow’s lives out to others (maybe other widows will feel better). They teach me my case is a common one in modern societies.
I like these lines from a prose-poem as a letter to her deceased husband by Margaret Jordan. “Dear one … ” She says hours pass, and days when she does not think of him. That’s not true for me. I can pass a couple of hours and not think of Jim if I am utterly absorbed writing, reading, watching a movie, teaching, giving a paper. But otherwise he’s at the edge of consciousness. But these apply, especially the mood: I am dialoguing with her and Jim:
I stay up late most nights, and your side of the bed is piled with magazines, Half-read books, pens and paper. I sometimes eat dinner standing at the kitchen counter, or in front of the refrigerator, almost never at our old table. I eat meat …
Jim would not be surprised at my garden: that I now have three patches which just might grow daffodils, crocuses and other flowers. I tried before. I do live in the same house but differently.
I live at the foot of young mountains with deep roots. I live on rock, not along the tidal flux of bay and ocean, no longer in unstable earthquake country.
Now I pay the bills, wash the car, put on snow tires, have the oil changed, deal with a mouse in the pantry, the wasp’s nest under the eaves. I have an electric drill, a toolbox, new neighbors.
No one in my life here knew you
I don’t talk of you to students once in my class (as she does with hers), but I do with our daughters. We remember sometimes. I get the Washington Post — and even read some of it with interest.
I confess that the local library contains no book you would want to read, the paper contains no news, I no longer get the Times. Nothing happens here except small local sorrows and weather that would appall you — below zero sometimes, bitter wind blowing off the mountains.
The whirr and call of migrating geese, the shock of a star-heavy, moonless night sky, familiar scents carried by the wind. This is my life now, that I love, almost as much as I loved-and love-you, passionate, unknowable, and stil; as familiar and as present as my own breath.
What I am learning most now, though, is this: what it is to be a widow (like me in the area of the US where I live) who loved truly, deeply, been with a man closely for half a century who was taken in his mid-sixties by the spread of cancer everywhere. At long last our luck as people with no connections, not much money ran out. His brains couldn’t help him. The establishment and those living under its power do not as yet care enough, are not yet frightened enough to do anything about cancer for real. There is too much money at stake: in polluting the environment, our food and drink, and in these excruciating life-prolonging techniques and drastic surgeries.
So, there is no such thing as building another or new life. I will be alone for the rest of my life — except for the friends and true companionship through letters that happens on the Net. I am too unlike most others I meet locally. And there is no world for me to belong to: I don’t quite fit either OLLIs or academic conferences. I participate in further versions of this mis-fit now on the occasional MOOC. I had a world I made with Jim. We made one we shared together. He was my friend.
No, no second act. Carrying on with the first. Life as time gotten through and local space as having people in it whose whole ambiance I witness, experience (what’s meant by social life). Facing up to silence in my (quiet and comfortable) home, with my memories, books with their lives in them. My daughter in her part of the house. In the morning I do better, am able to cope with a life where I am absorbed by my studies, books, movies, writing; it’s late at night and in the early dawn I feel the desolation most.
Sometimes I think what hurts me worst of all is Jim is not here to see and to know how kind I’m to the cats, what a real relationship I’ve developed with them. The first years he insisted they stay out of my study after as a kitten, Ian destroyed some wires and it took Jim four hours to restore our connection to the Internet. When I retired, I did put a stop to that, but I remember when one day I came home from work and have to dart into the study, and close the door on poor Clarycat and she mewed. He reproached me on her behalf, she had been waiting in a way, she was glad to see me. After that I’ve never closed the door on her again. (Well, hardly ever.)
Very windy outside my window tonight. I hear the trees bending, soughing air. Sometimes I wish I could sit and cry for hours and hours until I am drained of everything and have nothing left in me. But I don’t. This is how it is with me now.