The Widow Rules

I make lists of arbitrary “rules,” for holidays, or for living as a middle-aged woman, or for taking fall excursions.

But haven’t made the obvious list for this blog: The Widow Rules.

Angelic Daughter and I are rounding the bases of the fifth set of holidays and anniversaries without Mike, the calendar shoving us toward August, and the fifth anniversary of his death. I’ve written about how I think ritualizing these milestones is probably unhealthy.

But five years feels significant. From the frantic activity of the first year, to the breakdown toward the end of the second, to the slow healing of the third, Angelic Daughter and I have been through a lot together.

Then in year 4, the pandemic hit. I’d go out only for groceries, prescriptions, or essential medical appointments. I’d watch helplessly as the isolation took its toll on my daughter. Crawling along, day by day, issuing the same reassurances, that it will end, it will be over, eventually.  We will get to see our friends and family again. Sometime.

But the dream of a life beyond grief and loneliness is fading. Retirement, travel, meeting new people, finding a new man, even wanting or desiring a new man at all, seem lost or unattainable to me now.

But losing hope is against the rules (that rule is implied by the others).

So here’s what I’ve got, for a nearly 5-years widow:

1. Clean it when you notice it.

Little tasks add up and aren’t overwhelming, like taking on an entire room. I don’t pressure myself to maintain a pristine household. I shoot for a reasonably healthy one. No one’s coming over now, anyway, and they may not, ever, even “when COVID is over.”

2. Enjoy what you see in the mirror.

I have naturally curly hair. Deal with it. I’m not blow-drying it for anyone, anymore. I gave Angelic Daughter and myself do-it-yourself haircuts when we couldn’t take the shagginess of nearly a year without a visit to the salon anymore. We turned out looking pretty good. Cute, even. But I don’t care if you don’t think so. I like it, and that’s what counts, now. Besides, the Bulgarian is the only man I have ever known, including male relatives and my late husband, who ever noticed a haircut of mine within 72 hours, if ever, anyway. And he was getting paid to work on the house, so being nice was in his best interest.

I’m still using my “skin care for the apocalypse,” exercising regularly, drinking more water daily, and cutting down (or completely abstaining, at least until two weeks after my next vaccine shot and I’m as immune as I’ll get) on certain liquid comforts (used for ‘medicinal purposes,’ as my Dad used to say, on his way back to the bar cart), which has done wonders for my skin. I’ve always enjoyed my face in the mirror, and I still do, when it’s rested, eye-creamed, made-up, and most importantly, lipsticked. But I do that for me. Nobody else ever notices anyway.

3. Forgive yourself.

I can’t change the past. All I can do is change how I think about it, or just let it go. I can try to create a better “past” for my future by reminding myself to live with compassion, humility, forgiveness, and gentleness. When I fail, as I regularly do, I try to forgive myself, and get right back on that horse.

4. Keep learning.

Since starting my job a year and a half ago, I’ve learned how to use about 7 new types of software, plus 4 online tools relevant to my work. I communicate in gifs with my colleagues, as they like to do. Learning new things keeps the mind nimble, it’s fun, and it makes me feel like life is still moving forward–not stuck in stop-time, COVID time, grief time, loneliness time.

5. After you’ve done what you must, do what you love.

I’ve spent most of my adult life doing what I thought was my duty: trying to please my parents, taking care of my husband and child, trying not to screw up. I still have important duties, like staying employed and covered by health insurance, and helping Angelic Daughter learn independent living skills, even if she is too stressed out by loss and isolation to even discuss an independent future. But I refuse to feel guilty about doing what I love, like writing, and, “when COVID is over,” singing, even if it drives my daughter nuts, once I’ve done what I must. Life is happening now, not after I finish the next chore.

I don’t know if these “rules” will help any other widows. I hope they do. Maybe have your own rules to share. Please do. Until then, I remain,

your one-day-at-a-time, enjoy-the-sun-while-it-shines, fail-and-get-up-again,

Ridiculouswoman

Image by Piyapong Saydaung from Pixabay

What’s That Fluttery Feeling?

Photo by Chelsea Curry

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

– Emily Dickinson, via the Poetry Foundation

Nailed it, Emily.

A very rare yellow cardinal was spotted in an Illinois backyard in February.

That yellow cardinal reminded me that “rare” doesn’t mean “impossible,” that hope isn’t foolish–it’s reasonable, necessary, and wonderful. That yellow cardinal made me realize I’d been suppressing hope for too long.

Last Wednesday, I was scrolling through my email and noticed an email from my health care network. I hadn’t visited the doctor recently, so I was puzzled.

I opened the message and was elated to find an invitation to make an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination.

I got shaky. I logged in and grabbed the first appointment listed, but the system returned a “try again.” I got frantic. Was this one going to turns into a days or weeks-long ordeal, staying online 24/7, refreshing my screen, logging out and in, to try to snare an appointment?

I tried the next available appointment, and miraculously, it went through. Success!

I got my first of two shots of the Pfizer vaccine at my local hospital on Friday morning. My second shot is April 2. I should achieve as much immunity as the shots can confer (95% effective) by April 16.

I thought I had been handling all this OK. Angelic daughter and I had settled into a routine that sustained us. We knew what would happen when, which day of the week I’d mask up and go to the grocery store, what time of day we’d take breaks together, and what was for dinner each night. The most I’d say about when we could get vaccinated was “eventually-maybe by May or June.”

Until I got that appointment booked, I hadn’t realized how shut down I’d been, avoiding looking forward, or imagining how things might be “when COVID is over.” When the system confirmed my appointment and issued instructions (where to park, don’t get there more than 15 minutes early, etc.), hope became real for me.

The hospital marched dozens of people through for their shots in just minutes, and found places for everyone in the “observation” room where you go for 15 minutes after the shot, to make sure there are no adverse reactions. They even had a cheerful “greeter” chirping “thanks for coming!”

While I was in the observation room, a stocky man with scraggly grey hair entered. He was offered a seat but said no, he’d stand. He went and stood behind the chair of a tired-looking, grey-haired woman. He said something cheerful to her. Obviously, they were a couple, and he was comforting and reassuring his other half.

I found that touching, and a little painful. Mike hasn’t been here to go through all this with us, and he wasn’t there to go through the hope and joy of the first vaccine shot with me, either.

But I think he’s been around.

There’s been a new owl in the neighborhood since last spring.

Yesterday, we sat outside on the deck, which has emerged from under 30 inches of (now melted) snow. As sunset approached, that owl flew overhead, low enough to hear its wings whoosh, as it had done last spring.

Last year, I could barely buy enough mouse traps to cope with the winter rodent invasion. A chipmunk got into the house too, leaping out at me from a cubby in my desk hutch.

This winter, we didn’t have a single mouse in the house, and no rogue chipmunks scritching around, stealing insulation from the wall adjoining the garage.

I think I have that owl to thank for that. Maybe he was watching out for us, doing what he could.

Now, it’s a waiting game until Angelic Daughter gets her invitation. In the meantime, my jab of hope has inspired me to step up my self-care. I’ve even allowed myself to start thinking about traveling to meet a great-nephew, now three years old, and about when I could get to Maine, or a concert, ball game, or show.

Hope gives me the resolve to live a more complete life. I’m determined to soak in every glorious second of it. I feel like I’ve been given bonus round, a spectacular second chance, and I’m going to do my best not to screw it up.

Here’s hoping your invitation is on its way. Until then I remain,

your hopeful, energized, slightly giddy, but still cautious, masked, and socially distanced,

Ridiculouswoman

“Used Fictitiously”: A Non-toxic Love Challenge

(I’ve been roiling around with this for six weeks, writing, rewriting, ranting, editing – cutting, restoring, cutting again – alternately feeling angry and bold, then timid and scared, and finally, resigned. I just want to just get this off my chest so I can get back to being stressed out about the far more important stuff happening next week and then get back to regular blogging).

Bestselling author Sue Miller’s recently released novel, Monogamy, is about a widow named Annie from Chicago (but living in Cambridge, Massachusetts), who discovers her late husband had been unfaithful to her. The husband, Graham, is described as a big man with a deep voice, who is, as the character Annie says, “more than a foot taller than she was … Ridiculous, really.”

Reviewers loved Monogamy.

I hated it.

But maybe that’s because I’m a widow named Anne from the northern suburbs of Chicago, who knew her husband had been unfaithful to her, and who fell in love with a big man with a deep voice, partly because of the way he called me “Annie.”

I’ve been blogging about that since October 2017. In January 2018, in an earlier version of a post called, “The Bulgarian,” I described him (the man I fell in love with) as “at least a foot taller” than me. I’ve got a screen shot of it (thanks, WordPress), but I’ll skip it here.

I named my blog “Ridiculouswoman” in part because of the absurdity of my attraction to the Bulgarian. I blogged about writing a memoir telling the story of falling for him while caring for my terminally ill husband. My book was finished in the fall of 2018. I began sending out queries on it in December of that year.

I found Monogamy by accident, when the New York Times book review caught my eye. I had never heard of Sue Miller before I bought Monogamy and read it (with a screaming yellow highlighter in my hand) because I felt I had to. I was shocked, chilled, and pissed off. I made a nine-page, two column document listing side-by-side all the names, scenes, descriptions and phrases in Monogamy that seemed very like, and in some cases were identical, to things in my blog, my memoir, my home and my life.

A snippet of a Los Angeles Times review quoted on the book jacket of Monogamy says, “reading it is like experiencing a passage in our own lives.”

No shit.

I’ll spare you any further recitation of details from my nine-pager. There’s no point. Monogamy has the usual disclaimer:

“Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Plus, the coincidental details I recognize are woven into a story that is very different than mine, with many more characters and relationships. Some, like that Los Angeles Times reviewer, would argue that Miller’s ability to make me recognize my real life in her fictional book is what makes Miller a great writer.

I beg to differ.

There are many reasons I hate Miller’s book that have nothing to do with its similarities to my writing and my life, but a lot to do with the dissimilarities between Miller’s fictional depiction of love and widowhood and my actual experience of them.  

When my husband Mike died, this real Annie tried to close his eyes, and asked the hospice nurse to help get him dressed. I kept Mike’s cancer hats, and pressed them to my face because they still smelled like him.

Miller’s fictional Annie decided not to try to get her husband dressed after he dies in his sleep (not after 20 months of pain and struggle and heartbreak and caregiving), because she thought it didn’t matter. At one point, she presses one of his shirts to her face to take in her dead husband’s smell, while simultaneously thinking to herself what a cliché it was, “how many times she had read it and seen it in films.”

How kind, to describe that genuine gesture of aching grief, as a “cliché.” (It’s also surprising, because Miller wrote a memoir about losing her father to Alzheimer’s disease. She knows something about caregiving and loss. I’d expect more compassion).

The theme of my blog and memoir, and, seemingly, of Monogamy, is forgiveness, self-awareness, and the rediscovery of love. But how Miller handles that theme toward the end of the book is cringeworthy.

Spoiler alert

After her husband’s death, on her way home from a disillusioning encounter with a man she had flirted with in her past, the fictional Annie slips on an icy street, bangs her head, and when she comes to in the hospital, ta-da! Presto change-o! She suddenly remembers she loved her husband!

I found that scene insulting to me and to other widows who lived and worked through long and difficult marriages, finding ways to keep loving and forgiving, for decades. Mike and I did the hard work of forgiving each other, and we rediscovered enduring love, through the unfolding tragedy of Mike’s decline and death. Real widows don’t need the absurd, desperate, damn-I-need-to-figure-out-a-way-to-end-this-novel device of a slip-n-fall to knock them into remembering they loved their husbands.

So how do I react to all this in the spirit of this blog, with love and laughter?

I’m opting for gratitude. Yep, I’m grateful. Monogamy has made me hate my memoir. Seriously, I’m relieved. My story is true, sad, and funny, but I have doubts now about whether it needs to be told. It feels like 300 pages of “too much information.”

Yet even if I didn’t have doubts about my book, I have no doubts whatsoever that, because of Monogamy, there’s no hope in pitching and querying my memoir anymore. In this case, fiction outruns truth, especially because the fiction is by a longstanding, bestselling author. Lesson learned.

It’s time for me to start writing my next book. Maybe I’ll try a novel. I’ll use this lesson -use it fictitiously, of course – as inspiration.

Ready to move on, but wanting the 23 bucks back that I spent to read Miller’s damn book, I remain,

Your real widow Annie from the suburbs of Chicago who fell in love with a big man with a deep voice who was “at least a foot taller” than she, who didn’t need a head injury to remember she loved her husband,  

Ridiculouswoman

Image by skeeze from Pixabay