“Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Mike actually read Tolstoy. War and Peace, long before we were married. After he got sick he asked me to buy him several classic books, things he could read through the hours of infusions. Anna Karenina was one of them, along with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He made it through five of the six volumes of the latter before he lost the strength to read anymore. I haven’t yet tried to take up either or any of those.
He was an exceptional reader – but he very rarely dove into novels like those classics. If he wasn’t reading chess books or poetry, he was reading literary criticism, or politics or history. Dense tomes that I found, at best, uninteresting; at worst, impossible – I was exhausted just looking at some of the books he read.
There are so many things I admired about Mike, and so few times I told him that. He didn’t like expressions of gratitude or appreciation. No matter how genuine or heartfelt, he seemed to believe these offerings were fundamentally insincere. I don’t know why.
Substitute the word “marriage” in the Tolstoy quote above, and you will reveal a truth that grief consumes – the memories of the petty battles and the major ruptures that occur in any long marriage that are unique to that marriage. But in grief, the weight of those things evaporates to reveal the longstanding love beneath. And in grace lies the hope to be, or to become, free of regret.
In the large and varied autism community there is a saying: “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every individual on the spectrum is different from every other. Unique. There is no “generic” way to understand an autistic person.
Likewise widows. I’ve started reading other widows’ blogs, and the thing that hits me of the few I’ve seen so far is how very different each experience of widowhood is from mine. Not just the widow’s age, or the manner in which the spouse was lost, or the length of the marriage, but the many ways a widow’s life changes and the new challenges she faces.
One wrote about having to do things she hadn’t had to cope with before – buying a car, fixing things around the house, etc. Nope, I always had that role. Mike was a stay-at-home Dad, and a fantastic one; just the right guy to raise a child with autism. He was a great cook, a genius at finding free, entertaining things to do with a child who needed special care, and a music lover always discovering new, interesting bands and artists and sharing that music with a child who never forgets a lyric or who sings it.
But he was not what you’d call a “handy” guy. If it required set-up, assembly or repair it was usually me who handled that, unless brute strength was called for (with the notable exception of an incredibly complicated model roller coaster I bought years ago for our child for Christmas – he set that thing up in a marathon session, and when he was done and it worked, he said, with triumph and glee, “didn’t think I could do it, did ya?” He also took charge of the Christmas train at the base of the tree. I haven’t tried to set that up without him). I set up the computers and the router, fixed the toilets and figured out how to program the remote. Maintenance Mom. He was Fun Dad.
And Fun Husband, too. We laughed together a lot – sitting together in our little library room listening to Mozart or Bach, we’d read aloud to each other, passages we thought were hilarious. I’d read snippets of Patrick O’Brian to him, he’d read John Ashbery poems to me.
Another widow wrote about coping with family members or friends who had objections to how the widow was performing her widowhood. There are Expectations and people who feel entitled to impose them on the widow.
Not for me. It was, pretty much, all on me. There were four people at the burial – myself, our adult child, the hospice chaplain and my regular pastor. I made all the arrangements and all the decisions, alone.
That’s a long story – too long for a blog and wrong for a blog that is about learning to live a daily life of love and laughter. I’m working on telling that long story in a book. A book that I hope will inspire laughter with the pain. A book that will certainly establish my bona fides as a ridiculous woman.
But when I write about my Mike here, I want to remember and honor the Mike I knew at the beginning of our relationship and the end – both before we were married and when the weight of years of marriage evaporated – on the day he decided to accept hospice care.
That day happened to be my birthday.
And the hospice care was at home. Visiting nurses.
The doctor told him he had three to six months. Mike optimistically chose to hear the six month part.
The nurse told me that based on her experience and how he looked, he had, maybe, six weeks.
He died at home just short of eight weeks later.
But those eight weeks were the best eight weeks of our marriage, where, as he described it when he had the energy to write, the bubble of tension between us burst, and the love was there, revealed, still glowing, and we knew that even though it was weird to believe this, the cancer was at least in this way, a gift.
On my side, our relationship and my return to church, started as an expression of gratitude. I went back to church because I was grateful that I had met Mike. That there was, it turned out, finally going to be a guy for me.
And our relationship ended in gratitude, for the chance to remember how we loved each other, out from under all the crap that builds up over the years, all the day-to-day squabbles and the year-to-year strains. Gratitude, forgiveness and love.
It shouldn’t have taken losing Mike to bring these back to the surface of who I am. And it shouldn’t take so much work to keep them there. But that’s what grace is for. I’m counting on that.