After you die, I google a photo of Jackie O at JFK’s funeral to see what she wore so I can look the part of the graceful young widow at your funeral. Then I cancel the appointment at the car mechanic I made for the following day.
At the funeral, a friend awkwardly asks what I will do now, and offers up a visit to her home in another state. “Yeah…maybe I’ll do some traveling,” I say. Later, I almost chuckle at the ludicrousness of this reply.
After you die, I stop taking my vitamins and flossing my teeth. They both seem so silly. I’d forced you to get your teeth cleaned a day before you left for the trip you die on. You have two cavities that are going to be filled when you come back. I pack your vitamins in one of those little plastic cases with the days of the week that old people use for their pills. You are 33 when you drown in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Our daughter is 21 months old.
I lose at least ten pounds from being unable to eat those first few weeks. I drink nutrition drinks and tell my actress friend, who is very funny and with whom I’ve shared common struggles with body image issues in the past, how much weight I’ve lost. “Well…you’ve finally done it,” she says slowly with a deadpan face. We both laugh.
When the inspector for the life insurance policy, a man in his late 60’s who looks like a tired traveling salesman, comes and asks me questions at our small kitchen table while our daughter naps, I take notes for a possible writing piece. He looks a bit confused. He notices me writing down everything he says as he writes down everything I say. How long have we lived here, been married? “A lot of plans down the drain,” he says. “So many of the people I meet are nice- and you think, why?” He guesses that you were gentle and I ask how he knew. “I figured by the instrument he played.” The cello.
The morning I apply for social security survivor benefits, I sit on the step outside our complex waiting for a ride. An early morning runner- young 40’s, in his running gear and with his coffee coming in the main entrance comments self-righteously on my sad expression, “You look like it’s going to be an unpleasant day.” “Because my husband just died and I’m about to complete a very unpleasant task,” I answer back, but only in my mind. I just sit there and let him walk away with that smug “runner with coffee who got up early” look. Why didn’t I say anything?
I start writing. I sit on my knees on the floor with the computer on the bed and create a blog to document all of it because if I don’t, I am sure I will implode from the pain. The keening in the shower isn’t cutting it. The sidebar reads, “I started this blog a couple of weeks after learning of my husband's sudden death at the age of 33. The primary goal has been to get me through each moment, hour, and day, but I also hope that someday my daughter and I can read through it and learn something together- about my dear husband-her father, and about death, and about life. You can email me here.” I write feverishly multiple times a day, while she naps or plays, after she goes to sleep. A friend of yours gets part of it published on the New York Times website and I gain a large and loyal readership- many grievers like me- and lots of emails to respond to. Your friend says, “Who knows, you might wind up on Oprah.”
And then I wait, because it feels like everyone, including him, is expecting this narrative to end like it does on film: I will get up one day, an upbeat melodic song will play loudly as I get a makeover, or pack my bags to start a new life, and maybe drive across a bridge as the camera pans out.
After you die, I start seeing a grief counselor on a weekly basis. “We grieve who we are,” she says. So I write and I read. I try to uncover the narrative, or rather anti-narrative, of our life together. I puzzle over clues looking for foreshadowing - some way I could have seen this coming. There is that time I tell you I don’t want to get pregnant a second time just yet with you traveling- because I don’t want to be a pregnant widow. “What?” “You think I’m gonna die?” you ask.
“The thing about literature, students…Are you paying attention? The thing about literature is that you know when something’s coming. Always there are signals. Anticipation trumps surprise. In life, however…I scare easily these days,” writes professor and writer Roger Rosenblatt in Kayak Morning- a book about the loss of his young daughter.
I take our daughter raspberry picking in August and apple picking in the fall.
I fill my eco-friendly grocery bags with books from the library and make photocopies of pages with favorite quotes. I read about children and grief, countless memoirs of loss- pretty much any kind of suffering will do. I read Joyce Carol Oates’ and Joan Didion’s stories of their own anti-narratives, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ accounts of the thousands of dying people she sat with, and I read stories of near-death experiences by Dr.’s and little children, and hundreds of pages on heaven. I read theology and science, C.S. Lewis and Stephen Hawking. I panic if I do not have one or two of these with me at all times. These stories and words are the scaffolding that shades the deconstruction of my life.
I tell the story- this story- with its shocking ending to anyone who will listen. I listen to the sound of it leaving my mouth. “My husband just died.” “How?” “He was a cellist. He was touring the world, finally living his dream. On his day off he drowned in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. He knew how to swim- we don’t know what happened.”
The narrative: I am the unpopular girl in school growing up, a nerd, a late bloomer. I fall in love and marry a brilliant musician. I go to graduate school for writing; we live on a pretty street in Brooklyn; we have our first baby. He dies.
His story: he struggles to make it in the music business for eleven years, works long hours at a day job he loathes and afterwards plays gigs until one or two am, lugging his keyboard and cello around New York City. Nine months after our daughter is born, he gets a dream offer with a rock star, quits his job and starts touring. He travels around the world, plays at Radio City and the Beacon, on The Late Show, The Tonight Show, and Saturday Night Live. This living his dream is one of the things people like to point to as they try to think of things to say to me to fix this: “It’s the quality, not the quantity of his life.” “He did more in 33 years than a lot of people get to do in their whole life.” “Aren’t you glad he got to live his dream before he died?”
I keep writing. I write about our last goodbye. I reenact it in our hallway, opening the door, closing it. I write about the reenactment.
I attend a benefit concert given by the musicians you played with- holding up a tweed dress in Anthropologie beforehand to see if it says, “young widow at a benefit concert.” Later I sit in the balcony of the music hall in Williamsburg with my head on the table, dramatically sobbing while those girls in tank tops and heels wait for the concert below.
The cashier at Whole Foods tells me how she has another job after this one. “I’m a single mom so…” she adds. “I am too,” I hear myself say, and it is the first time I understand that and it sounds incredulous and I feel like a fraud- a little bit the way you do when you tell the receptionist at the pediatrician’s your newborn’s name for the first time. I buy fresh flowers there weekly because I love to have fresh flowers in my house. That cashier always looks frazzled.
I keep your brown shoes, well worn and shaped by the contours of your feet, by the door for a long time after you die. I receive your luggage back from Europe and wash all of your clothes. I water your cello weekly as you’re supposed to do, but eventually I find a program at Julliard where I can loan it. Their curator, a snobby looking man wearing a bow tie looks at it and tells me most of their students already have nicer cellos, but a visiting faculty member can use it. I bring the empty case home.
I meet with your old boss from your day job in the city. On 57th street he hands me an envelope of money they’ve collected for a college fund for our daughter. “You know, time does heal,” he says with certainty before he heads back to the office.
After you die, I make a huge to-do list the size of a poster on our daughter’s large roll of drawing paper and tear it off and tape it to my bedroom wall. “Close bank account”, “change car title”, but also “Buy cute new outfit for daughter so I can get professional picture taken.”
And I do. I have the most beautiful but haunting photo of her sitting on a bench turning around and staring into the camera printed on postcards with the word, “Thank you.” I go through the overflowing basket of sympathy cards and send out hundreds of thank you notes.
After you die, I take long walks beside the Hudson River, pushing our daughter in the stroller. I look for signs of any kind: hawks gliding slowly overhead, dragonflies, butterflies, or rainbows. Dozens of butterflies crash into the windshield of your friend’s car on the way home from the cemetery the first time I go. I still have dirt under my fingernails from your grave. Your friend says he doesn’t believe in signs anymore.
I paint our daughter’s toenails for the first time. She wants blue. I put together a play kitchen from IKEA for her at midnight in our bedroom for her second birthday. On Thanksgiving we stand on the Upper West Side at six am to watch the Macy’s Parade.
I make a sensory bin of dried split peas with plastic dinosaurs for our daughter. I drink Guinness with your friends at an Irish pub on your birthday. “We miss you and love you…cheers.”
I watch other friends who struggled to get pregnant or suffer miscarriages- have their babies. “Congratulations…he’s adorable!” Since I am in my early thirties there are so many of these stories with their expected arc and finish. Wedding and birth announcements abound- the celebratory stage of life…the early narrative.
I write. I read. We don’t have television when you die, and I don’t get one for a long time. I watch Arrested Development on my computer, and Korean dramas. I need some distraction. I never watch the last season of Lost though. That was something we watched together. I don’t know how it all turns out.
After you die, I build a tremendous snowman while our two-year-old watches me in my long down coat, sweating. I yell at the tweens who knock the carrot nose out later calling from afar, “She just made it…” and I point to our daughter in her lavender hand me down snowsuit. I also lie down in the snow and make snow angels in front of our apartment building. I stay there for a while- feeling the cold, staring at the sky from a parallel position, which we rarely do, feeling something like peace.
“The grief will become integrated. You’ll reinvest what he gave you,” my therapist says.
I find a financial advisor and meet with him. I meet with a lawyer and create a will and choose guardians and executors. I meet with other people who are supposed to know things like the cerebral pastor of a large church in New York City. I record our profound theological conversation on suffering and death, but never listen to it. I email a girl with cerebral palsy we know, and ask her to tell me what she makes of it all. She says she’ll definitely get back to me later, but never does. She uses a special keyboard because she is paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
I send another widow a necklace with the word hope typed on a single silver charm. The artist on Etsy who made it sends me the same one as a surprise. Of course, I’ve told her the story. I get the surprise package on New Years Eve. I put the necklace on.
After you die, I throw our daughter a Valentine’s party, and sing to her before bed. I potty- train her. I take apart her crib- the screws that you placed in there- and put together a new twin bed. The tall wooden pieces of the crib lean discarded against the wall while she jumps excitedly on her big girl bed.
I visit churches and sit in the back row. I seem to get the best writing ideas during the sermon, so I pull out my writer’s notebook and appear to be studiously taking notes. I plant impatiens in boxes on our balcony and add a little fairy house to our daughter’s delight. I drink Boddingtons on the balcony in the summer heat.
I order your headstone and choose the words, “Be not afraid, only believe.” Our daughter sprinkles rose petals there on the yearly anniversary. We release balloons because that is what people do.
We visit the library weekly. “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life,” says Dietrick Bonhoeffer right before the Nazis hang him. “It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between,” writes poet and naturalist, Diane Ackerman.
I write on the blog- hundreds of entries. I press the keys on my Mac so hard a few of them lose their letters. I respond to emails from readers. I sign them always, “Hope, Julia.”
“Whoever survives must tell his story. That is his duty,” writes Eli Wiesel.
“Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor,” says Kafka.
I watch two seasons of Downton Abbey in one day.
I select a preschool for our daughter, make snowman cookies, homemade play dough, and throw her a Princess and the Pea themed party when she turns three. On her first day of preschool, she tells me she hears your voice telling her to have a good day. We move to a new town. She has tantrums that leave us wrestling each other, or me sitting with head in hands on the kitchen floor.
I throw a “Pancakes and Pajamas” party with a surprise visit from the ice cream truck when she turns four, and a fairy house building party for five. She gets her own library card on her fifth birthday after school.
I have a cookie decorating party for our daughter and her friends at Christmas. We go to see the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. The physical strength and grit masked by grace and toe shoes moves me to tears. We go again the next year.
I have my first panic attack on the way to the dentist.
I see a new therapist after my old one moves. “I’m so tired of being in survival mode,” I tell her. “What does that mean to you- to be in survival mode?” she asks. Therapists and their damn questions. I go home and begin a twelve-page piece to answer the question for her and for myself, but I never finish it. She also tells me to get a haircut and update my resume. I do both, but I never go back.
I tell the gynecologist checking my breasts that I’m just really trying to stay alive for my daughter. “Sounds like a good plan,” he chuckles. I get EKGs, cat scans, MRIs because I’m sure I’m having a heart attack or a brain aneurysm. It doesn’t seem like a great narrative- husband dies, then wife dies too- but neither did the first part. I no longer trust the archetypes.
After you die, for a long time your empty cello case is next to my bed in the new house. But every morning when I’m half awake and open my eyes and see its shape and shadow over me, my heart jumps. I think it’s a person. I move your cello case to another corner.
I take our daughter to gymnastics, swimming lessons, piano, and birthday parties in warehouses of bounce houses and recycled air that makes me dizzy.
I clean out my walk-in-closet and make it a “prayer closet.” I sit on a floor pillow and say nothing. “Faith is what makes things bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys,” writes Madeline L’Engle. “You might find sober people who don’t pray, but all the happy ones have some kind of regular meditative or spiritual practice,” says Mary Karr’s mentor in “Lit.”
I take a yoga class and tears silently stream down my face during a chest opener. I sign up for more classes.
I buy vitamins. I floss my teeth, and at the suggestion of my hygienist, I even buy a Waterpik.
I take a sketching class online and keep an illustrated journal. It is the first time I’ve drawn in my life and it’s like those dreams where you find a room in your house you never knew you had. I go to the church where we were married on what would have been our ten-year wedding anniversary and sit on the curb and sketch the church while it drizzles. An overweight black man who is singing while waiting for a bus comes over saying, “I’m nosy.” I explain that I’m new at sketching but it’s my ten-year wedding anniversary. I was married at that church, and my husband tragically died- and he moseys away very, very quickly.
I read Flannery O’Connor and take a mindfulness class at the YMCA where I meet a 92-year-old Catholic named Gladys who asks me if I’d like to meet with her for spiritual direction after she hears the story. She tells me to stop praying in the closet and sit near a window or go outside. In an email she writes, “Remember T.S.Eliot? “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning./ The end is where we start from.”
I read a book by a Quaker about the Serenity Prayer and Gladys tells me to say it twice a day. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I use exclamation points when wishing people well, on Facebook or otherwise for the first time in years, “Happy Birthday!” instead of “happy birthday.”
On our daughter’s first day of kindergarten, I walk slowly down the labyrinth of hallways to the PTA breakfast after I drop her off and think, “I can handle this. I have buried my husband.” Our daughter is already reading at a third grade level. We read Peter Pan, The Little Prince, and The Chronicles of Narnia together.
I pray, journal, and read poetry after I drop off my daughter each morning. “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life,” says Robert Frost, “it goes on.” I meet new people and don’t tell them the story, unless they ask. I buy fresh flowers weekly. I write my last blog entry on the third anniversary of your death.
But I keep writing. This is the only way I know.