When someone who truly cares about me asks, “How are you doing?” I am silent for several seconds, assessing how I am feeling at that very moment. Most days the most truthful answer would be that I am functioning; I sleep, I get up in the morning, I eat, I get dressed, I make coffee, take out the garbage on the correct day of the week, and I even shave my legs on occasion. I have conducted a total of three workshops since David’s death, consistently written my weekly couponing column, and completed and submitted several essays. I write, daily, even if it is nothing more than a journal entry or a letter. I have not done as well with either grocery-shopping or cooking for my family, and just the thought of beginning an exercise regimen exhausts me. I do like to ride my bicycle, however.
Of course, I know the “How are you” is a loaded question when it come from people who truly love me. They long to hear the reply that I am doing fine, the kids are fine, and that I am recovering nicely from my loss, thank you very much. Those closest to me have even chuckled with embarrassment after they’ve asked the question, knowing of course that I am not really fine, will not be for a very long time, maybe not ever.
Five and a half weeks have passed since the morning I found David. I can look back and wonder at the distance I have already traveled in this journey of grief. I will not soon forget the tender ministrations of my sisters during those first days after David’s death; sisters who were doing dishes, folding laundry, continually hugging both me and my children, and listening, always listening. Neither will I forget the look of shock and pain in their eyes that mirrored my own. I cannot count how many times I repeated the same story, over and over again, about how I’d found David that morning; how I came downstairs and saw him in the chair and thought he was asleep. I went into the kitchen to make coffee, got a glass of water, sat down on the couch nearby, and started writing a letter to my friend Mary, and still did not know my beloved was dead. My sisters knew I needed to report that horrifying fact to anyone who would listen, and even in the repeating, I still could not make sense of it. How could he have seen the doctor that very day and be gone the next morning? How could I have sat near his body for over half an hour and not known he was gone? It did not escape me that my sisters were worried about my sanity during those early days, and rightfully so. I noted the worried glances between them, barely discernible, but visible to me nonetheless. And then came the numbness of shock that carried me through the funeral planning, the funeral and the luncheon. Blessed, blessed numbness. I can vividly remember sitting at the table with the funeral director and my two oldest children and sensing a presence to the left of me, between me and Elizabeth. “I did this, too,” I heard the soft voice of my mother. Yes, yes, you did, I remembered then, and my resolve to get through the terrible ordeal was strengthened. My father was only a few months older than David when my mother lost him. I felt her again at the gravesite, when the funeral director handed me David’s wedding ring, and I thought my heart would break in two.
I know I asked the funeral director where the handbook for Widows was, and I was only half joking. I wanted a handbook that would tell me exactly when how long the pain would last, when it would wane, how soon I would be able to say David’s name without breaking down, a handbook that would tell me how to navigate the rough terrain of widowhood. Instead, I have been relying on the writings of others who have gone this road before me; Madeleine L’Engle in her Irrational Season, C.S. Lewis with A Grief Observed, Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, and even Widowhood by Dr. Joyce Brothers. I am heartened by the fact that I actually do shave my legs when C.S. Lewis saw no point in shaving his face without a spouse there to touch it. I am strengthened by the fact that I have already successfully disposed of David’s shoes when Didion kept a pair or two “in case he came back.” I envy the efficiency of Dr. Brothers and the spirituality of L’Engle. I want more “grief work” to read. I desire diaries that detail the grieving of others who have lost a spouse so that I know what I am experiencing is perfectly normal. I want to read the fictional account of Lolly Winston’s widow who, in a fog of grief, forgets to dress one morning and wears her pajamas to work. And as I read books like this, I get the strong inkling that I will be writing my own book on grief someday, that perhaps my cancer love story is not done and will include my mother’s death from cancer, my grandson’s cancer journey, and finally, the death of my beloved David.
I am also reading books about heaven. One of David’s favorite books was Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven. I have re-read that book, and picked up half a dozen similar books; Getting to Heaven, Heaven is Real, and a devotional based upon 90 Minutes in Heaven, all co-written by Don Piper and Cecil Murphy…the books are scattered throughout the house. I’ve been reading Joyce Meyer, and discovering what it was about her words that drew David in. David liked her down-to-earth counsel. I’ve added several of her books to my shelf just since his death.
If I am surprised by anything in this journey, it is how painful it is to see older couples together. I do not begrudge the young in love; I had that. It is the sight of older couples holding hands that causes tears. I did not get the chance to grow old alongside my husband. David did not get to be an old man, I think at a restaurant when I spot a table full of old guys talking, and my eyes pool with tears. Then one of them rises, painfully, and hobbles out the door, nearly losing his balance in the process. Ah, I reflect then, remembering David’s warning to our daughter Emily a couple of weeks before his heart attack, “Don’t get old. Everything hurts. I can’t do anything anymore.” He was already in pain a good deal of the time.
Another aspect of grieving I had considered only briefly before, after my mother died, is the effect of grief on the mind. My menopausal brain was already struggling to remember things, and now I have been losing things; Losing my mind. Where is the certified document that shows my purchase of a gravesite? Where is the newspaper clipping my friend Mary sent about a grief camp for families? Why do I know the date of Emily’s surgical consult to have her wisdom teeth removed, but have no idea of the time? In a desperate attempt to stem the very real possibility of over-due bills and charges, I have taken to paying my bills immediately upon their arrival in the mail. Never before have I been so efficient in paying them. In fact, I discover when yet another bill arrives, I have paid at least one of them twice. So it is with thank-you notes. With extreme efficiency and politeness, I began a list of the thank-you notes I owed. Halfway through my pile of sympathy cards, I lost the list, and panicked. What if I’d forgotten someone and they held it against me the rest of my life? I am certain that some received two notes, and others got no acknowledgement at all of their thoughtfulness.
How am I doing? I ask myself that repeatedly. David would be asking the same thing if he were here. The irony of that does not escape me. He was always concerned about my anxiety, my tendency to worry, and my impatience. Initially, upon his death, I wanted to hurry through the grieving, to quickly get past that terrible pain and anguish. Why do you always have to be in such a hurry, I can hear him ask. Be patient. There is no getting through the grief quickly, no going around it. We all have to plow right through it.
In the darkness of grief, we set out on the journey of the rest of our life; one foot in front of the other, our hands held out in front of us, feeling for the light. And some mornings, like today, after a day spent with a good friend who knows how to make us laugh, we get glimpses of the brightness ahead, and we know with certainty; I’m going to be okay.
Today’s prayer: “Dear Lord, You truly are the light of the world. Please help my family get through the grief we are experiencing from the loss of wonderful father and a loving husband. Thank you for bringing us friends and family members who care about us. Thank you for continuing to show us that you care about our every need. Guide me in the path you wish me to follow and let me always honor my husband’s memory and glorify your name through my words.”