“Sounds of Myself”
(selected pieces from memoir of grieving)
On day #1, only a few hours after he dies, you realize that you are legally a “widower.” … a strange word to describe yourself, you think. The suffix, “-er” doesn’t indicate what you do, like writer, reader, swimmer, hiker, but rather your state of being following the death of your spouse.
And, over time, your pesky, words-itchy mind also notes that it is the masculine of “widow,” but that most such words add a suffix to describe a feminine version, like “actress” or “czarina” or the amazing, when you think about it, “coquette.” So is this reverse sexism? or a bow to the fact that there are more “widows” than “widowers” in our warrior world?? or what??? you wonder.
Neither did you ever think such a word could describe you because, until now, you’ve pictured “widowers” as old men with grown daughters and sons fussing and figuring. You don’t have children, or grandchildren, to distance you emotionally from your carefree youth. Indeed, you were legally “single” for 29 of the 32+ years you lived with John Page. “Two bachelors,” is how nice people referred to you.
Then, suddenly, the world changed … and YOU and HE got hitched!
So now you’re a “widower” and it feels very strange in so many ways. You wonder if there’s a better word for you … perhaps “re-singled” …
How A Few Words Bracket My Life With John Page
One day in the depth of January 2016, about two months after he died, at “The Shores” at Peconic Landing in Greenport, I was thinking how lovely it was that the word “swell,” whispered with effort and a hint of wry smile, in response to my, “How are you this morning?” turned out to be his last utterance.
And I recalled the first words I ever heard out of John’s mouth back in the summer of 1974.
I was standing on the beach in Wainscott, looking out over Georgica Pond, from a point where it comes within feet of the Atlantic Ocean, rapt by the view and setting. I hadn’t heard his approach… his bare feet in sand under surf sounds … but suddenly, there he was beside me!
“Don’t you think this must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet?” he began.
In the years between, millions, I suppose, of words passed between us, many, many of them in sharing the beauty of some spot in the world where we were standing together. But we returned, over and over, to that first one in Wainscott, as though to the wellspring.
It’s so much quieter now
Way back when, you developed the unattractive habit of talking to each other, hollering from room to room actually, throughout the day… “Whaddaya want for lunch?” “Whaddaya got?”
“Whendayawanna leave?” “What time is it now?” … like that.
When you became a little deaf, and the timbre of his voice was affected by Parkinson’s disease, common sense might have dictated that you communicate only in each other’s presence. But bad habits die hard. So you argued half jokingly about which was worse, your hearing, or his voice. He … “When, please, are you going to get your hearing tested?” and me … “Did you do your voice exercises today, dam it? … like that.
It’s so much quieter now … you’d give your left arm to be engaged in one of those quarrelsome exchanges again. And you think too of his sometimes irritating questions that you now miss terribly.
“Do we have enough gas?”
“Should you have laundry soap on your list?”
“Does Ruby have enough water in her bowl?”
“Is it time for my medicine yet?”
“What’s the balance in our Fidelity account?”
“How long will you be gone?” … like that.
Right now, “caregiver” seems a much better appellation than “widower.”
Most of all, in the sound department, you miss hearing him sing in the shower. He sang when he felt great, and he sang when he felt just OK, and he sang when he felt lousy, and he sang because he realized he needed to practice using his voice. And we hardly ever missed calling family and friends on their birthday mornings to sing a “Happy Birthday” duet …always to their delight.
Now you play the radio all day long, but still, it’s so much quieter …
This is what you realize, suddenly, on your 195th day as a “widower:” … you have not used a toothpick since John died! You don’t know why at first, but the fact shocks you.
Surely your teeth have felt mucky since, as they do right now. You walk over and reach for a toothpick on the lamp table between the living room chairs where you sat together every night after dinner to watch TV, read, talk, listen to music, and enjoy the fire.
And it hits you!… Bada bing!!…
John always proffered the toothpick holder … maybe because it sits closer to his chair… you chose a toothpick … he took a toothpick, and you both sat, happily picking your teeth… and frequently enthusing over how enjoyable it was! (or, when one of you picked a poor one, cursing the fact that they don’t make them with the same precision they used to… like everything else these days, yada, yada, yada…) This went on typically for about three rounds of picking… partly depending on what you had for dinner.
… it was as much a social custom as a dental hygiene practice!
This would surprise our dental hygienist, who thinks we use a toothpick at her suggestion, plebian habit though she believes it to be, because we told her we’ve tried, but cannot, plebians such as we are, get comfortable with the awkward contortions required to floss successfully.
And you think you remember now, that you actually started using toothpicks after you found an attractive antique china toothpick holder at that little antique shop in Great Barrington, Mass., on the corner where you turned, coming down from Butternut Ski Basin, where you skied so many winter weekends in the 80s and 90s….
Out of nowhere, on a recent June day, you remember for the first time since, how light he was in that last week…
You don’t remember why you were trying to pick him up off the bed, only how surprised you both were that you could. And you wish you could do it right now… look down on him in your arms and make him smile.
And this reminds you of all the other ways you held him during a long life together… in hugs… short hugs, long hugs, needy hugs, giving hugs, holiday hugs, “I’m home!” hugs, goodbye hugs, “let’s make up” hugs …
… lifting him out of a snow bank laughing, hauling him out of the ocean when a wave knocked him down.
And, in the final six years, picking him up with increasing frequency after falls… in stores, in restaurants, in parking lots, in theaters, at home, …off the floor, out of the closet, and up from the garden, where he insisted and persisted in weeding to the last weed standing… always concluding with an “It’s-OK-hug.”
Yeah! that’s what he said as we hugged so I wouldn’t be so upset, “It’s OK… we’ll be OK.”