Diary of a Widower

Daily entries by a husband, who stayed behind with his two sons

One year later. We’ve done it

SUNDAY, October 24 – ‘Now where were we?’ I joke, as I stand there in front of 130 guests gathered in the concert hall of the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Most of them I hadn’t seen in almost a year, since the cremation service. We’d taken leave of each other in sadness, but with hope in our hearts. This afternoon I don’t intend to grieve for our loss, but rather celebrate the fact that we are here today. That we are not only alive, one year later, but also living.

This morning I’d re-read the speech I gave then. At the crematorium I’d frequently quoted Jennifer, herself and her most important message was, ‘Live now. Live in the moment’.

That’s what we’re doing, together with musician friends, whose contributions are much appreciated. In my thank you-speech, I referred to the past year as a ‘piece of crap’. I impress on them how difficult it has been without describing each and every crap moment. I stress life, and offer a number of variations on the theme:  Survive. Experience. Empathize. Live on. Enjoy ourselves.

And that’s what we’re doing this afternoon. Emcee Sander is the ultimate entertainer, addressing the audience with amazing aplomb between several pieces on the piano. He’s also a genuine crooner, as if he’s spent most of his waking hours in smoky cafes. He winds the audience around his little finger, as he introduces the various acts. Effortlessly.  And the kid is only thirteen. When I was his age, I was almost afraid to look people in the eye in answer to them merely asking me a simple question. This afternoon it is clear to all that Sander is a born performer.

Eamonn brings the first set to a close with the rock ballad ‘Basket Case’ by Green Day. There are tears running down my face and I’m not the only one as this ten-year-old takes his place on a high-backed chair and starts to play. It’s as if he’s sitting on the living room couch, casually strumming away. He plays and sings, makes a mistake in the middle of a song, laughs at himself, picks up the thread, and then finishes the song amid a tumultuous storm of applause. Proudly he returns to his seat alongside me.

God, how I love my children. Jenn’s children.

The first anniversary of her death is a true celebration. Just as I had envisioned it:  a memorable afternoon with family and friends, during which Jennifer was present in the music. It was a fitting way to introduce C: living proof that love is possible after tragedy. May our hearts be filled with the spirit of Jennifer’s beloved Baudelaire poem, so that we take no notice of the passing time.

Don’t be martyred slaves of Time,

Get drunk!

Stay drunk!

On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever!

We are alive. No matter whether our stay on earth is long or it is short, that’s what it’s all about.

From young kid to young man

SATURDAY, October 23 – It’s a miracle: Sander’s going to the barbershop for the first time in a year and a half. C and her daughters are tagging along as advisers. Then they’re off to the mall. Sander buys a velvet blazer, tight jeans and a striped shirt. I was so used to his eternal white T-shirt and sloppy jeans that I almost didn’t recognize him in his new clothes. A young man. If only she could have seen him. Is there such a thing as vicarious pride?

Retracing her last foot steps

FRIDAY, October 22 – I take the dog out for a short walk before starting breakfast. Eamonn comes along. ‘Papa,’ he asks, ‘when you’re old, will you get a really huge dog like the one we saw in the park the other day?

‘Sure. An old geezer probably needs a big dog.’

‘Great!’

‘Why did you want to know?’

‘Because then I can come by with my kids and you’ll let them ride on his back.’

Something tells me this is going to be a good day.

11:34 –  ‘Do you really think I should do it, Papa?

‘Eamonn, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.’

‘I know. But do you think I ought to do it?’

‘To be perfectly honest, yes. I think it’ll do you good.’

He tumbles onto the bed and I leave him behind in my bedroom. It’s his decision, his idea, and his moment. I mustn’t try to decide for him. I start to fix lunch. That’ll give him time to think.

‘Okay,’ he says, ‘let’s go. Not on foot. By bike,’ he says.

We’re off.

At the flower shop on Beethoven Street we buy a bunch of red and white roses. The saleswoman thinks we’re a bit odd because we don’t want the stems trimmed and we don’t need wrapping paper. We cycle past our old house. There’s a brief moment of confusion about which street we should take to get to Stadion Road. Eamonn hasn’t been here for a while. One year, to be exact.

It was during the summer vacation that he decided he wanted to cross the street there Just like ‘then’, when he was with his mother, his brother and Elsa. This morning he said he was ready to go there, but asked if we could go in the morning and not at ten to four in the afternoon. He wanted to put it all behind him.

We turn the corner at 11.57 a.m. and the crosswalk comes into sight. We follow the sidewalk until we reach the spot. He starts to cry softly. We park the bikes and Eamonn gives me a hug. I lock his bike for him. He puts the flowers down next to the tree and goes over to the crosswalk. Almost immediately the light turns green.

Looking straight ahead, Eamonn crosses the street. His coat is open, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, and his steps are firm. I count them. When he’s halfway across, he looks to the right and left, and again to the right, and then walks on.

When he’s reached the other side, after 23 steps, Sander and I follow.

Eamonn is leaning against a tree. He’s crying. We hug each other. Then, he turns around and looks at the spot where Jennifer lay. Where the ambulance was parked. Where he sat down. Where a woman who lived in one of the nearby houses spoke to him.  We don’t say anything.

Sander takes pictures of the flowers and the crosswalk. Eamonn and I sit down on the curb. There are so many questions, there is so much to talk about. I confine myself to the remark that it was ‘very brave’ of him to do what he just did. Sander comes over and sits down next to us. Passersby look at us. I start to cry and Eamonn suggests that it’s time to go home. We stand up and then realize that we’ll have to walk back over that same crosswalk to get to the bicycles.

‘Would you like to take my hand, Eamonn?’

He nods. We wait for the light to turn green. It takes a helluva long time. First, all the traffic gets to go and then it’s our turn. The only thing that registers is Eamonn’s hand in mine. I don’t even realize that we’ve reached the other side.

We take the same route back home and stop at the supermarket. Time for a bag of potato chips. On the living room couch, we polish off the whole bag in five minutes.

Mom would have made sure we finished our fruit before the potato chips appeared. Which we had.

14:10 – The rest of the day is uneventful. I say, ‘Okay, guys, how about if we take the dog for a run in the Amsterdam Forest. No, on second thought, let’s go to Beatrix Park instead.’ No problem. We’re on our way – out the door, right turn and then Eamonn stands stock-still.

Damn!?! There’s an ambulance parked in the middle of the street and, on the sidewalk two houses down the street, there’s someone lying in a stretcher. No way is Eamonn going to walk past that stretcher. I tell him that all we have to do is turn around and walk in the other direction. We can get to the park via a detour. He’s clearly upset.

‘Why did this have to happen today?’ I think to myself. What lousy timing.

We’re approaching Stadion Road, when suddenly we hear an enormous crashing sound. Two cars in a collision. I can just get a glimpse of what’s happened some fifty yards ahead of us. Apparently a car was about to turn left onto Minerva Lane when a taxi rammed it on the side. Both vehicles shot straight through the crosswalk, coming to a halt on the sidewalk.

Eamonn stops. ‘What else can go wrong?’ I say, trying to make light of the situation, but a wave of disbelief comes over me. How in the world is this possible?  ‘Come on, buddy, this is too bizarre for words, I know. But it just proves how resilient we are – we’re going to go to the park anyway.’

He won’t fall for that one. I don’t even believe it myself.  Eamonn turns around and heads for home, leaving Sander and I to make our own decisions.

Sander continues on in the direction of the park, with the dog, and I follow Eamonn. Back home, we sit on the couch and at his request look at funny cat pictures on Google.

‘When I’m depressed, I always go to Google and look for something funny,’ he says. Before long, he’s smiling again. We hear the wail of sirens in the distance. Sander comes home and whispers in my ear that there are two ambulances at the scene of the accident.

I suggest we watch Groundhog Day to get us through the afternoon. Good move, as it was one of Mom’s favorites. Eamonn goes into the kitchen to make popcorn. For now, we can take on the whole world, without even leaving the house.

18:20 – Since it’s close to dinner time and we have to eat, Eamonn and I hop on our bikes and head for Albert Cuyp Street for some take-out food. On the way home, Sander catches up with us. He’d gone to the Conservatory to see his piano teacher, so that he could can practice his compositions before the concert this coming Sunday.

As soon as he sees his brother, Eamonn starts singing along. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen, which Sander only got down pat the day before. It may turn out to be his encore on Sunday. The boys are singing at the top of their lungs as we turn onto our street. I smile and listen eagerly to the lyrics which we could well take as our theme song today.

Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time

I feel alive and the world it’s turning inside out, yeah!

I’m floating around in ecstasy

So don’t stop me now, don’t stop me

‘Cause I’m having a good time, having a good time.

21:50 – Just before bedtime, Eamonn finds a pile of papers on the coffee table. I’d printed out the text of the speeches from the funeral service, along with the various anecdotes that Jennifer’s friends had sent us. I was planning to spend an hour or so going through them with the boys, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

‘Will you read a couple of them out loud when I get into bed?’ Eamonn asks. But of course. There’s a kind of fairy-tale atmosphere in the room and Eamonn is lying in bed with a blissful smile on his face. Once in a while he looks over at me, checking to see that I don’t break into ‘that high-pitched voice’ again. I do my best.

‘And some more tomorrow, okay?’ he says.

Is this ever going to stop?

THURSDAY, October 21 – My rage goes so deep that I’m shocked every time it’s unleashed. Today the explosion was so violent that I very nearly called the Amsterdam police commissioner on his cell phone. I felt like doing so to give him a piece of my mind, to rant and rage, and to let him know I’m sick and tired of him and his whole damned police force.

Then I change my mind, count to ten, and continue on my way.

Minutes earlier a woman pushing a baby carriage had been about to cross the road. I slowed down, even though she was on the other side. A motorcycle cop was approaching from the other direction. The woman was about to step onto the crosswalk and in slow motion I saw it happen. Or rather, not happen. The policeman just kept going and the woman with the baby carriage stopped short.

I started shouting from behind the wheel while keeping my hand on the horn. No response. The guy drove straight on and the woman just stood there. Much more shouting and honking from me.

Nothing.

Then, I exploded. Is it ever going to stop, goddamnit?

Now how did she laugh again?

WEDNESDAY, October 20 – ‘Do you remember how Mom used to laugh?’ I ask Eamonn. We’re on our way to the park and for no reason at all he’s started pulling funny faces. Of course, he says and not only that.  Mom had a lot of different laughs. Give me an example, I say. He doesn’t answer for a while. He’s thinking hard.

‘Her snigger.’

‘What did it sound like?’

Eamonn sniggered. And damn it, that was exactly what it sounded like!  I couldn’t have come up with it on my own, but I recognized it immediately. Things have a way of fading: the voice, certain facial expressions, her scent, and now the way she laughed. It’s annoying, this gradual memory loss. Eamonn won’t be troubled by such fading for some time to come. He’s smiling as we walk on towards the vast expanse of grass in Beatrix Park where Elsa is challenging the other dogs to imitate her graceful leaps.

I’m going to chance it. I didn’t ask Eamonn to come along for nothing. ‘Exactly one year ago today we were here with Mom, Sander and for the first time Elsa.’

Eamonn looks around in surprise. ‘Really?’

Then he points to the edge of the field. ‘You’re right! We were over there running back and forth with Elsa.’

He immediately heads off in that direction, the dog loping along behind him. The colors of the approaching autumn are just as they were a year ago – so lovely that I can enjoy them without becoming overly emotional.

Secretly I am hoping that we’ll sense that kind of vibrating dimension we were aware of last November, the indescribable sensation, the certainty that ‘she is there’. But no luck. Unless it’s the double rainbow that appears as we head for home. We accelerate our pace, to avoid getting caught in a shower.

Catch me if you can

TUESDAY, October 19 – Suddenly I was gripped by paternal concern. Sander wasn’t home yet. Forty minutes ago I’d talked to him on the phone and he was laughing on his way back from the Conservatory. I said we’d wait with dinner until he got home, but now dinner was getting cold. I was starting to worry, so I called him.

He answered, but he sounded dejected. ‘Hi, Papa.’

My relief was inaudible. ‘Hey, Sander, where are you?’

‘I’m not ready to come home.’

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Where are you?

‘I was at the place where the accident happened.’

‘Shall I come to you?’

‘No. I’m heading for the next neighborhood over.’

‘What are you doing there?’

‘I’m following a couple of motorcycle cops. They were going way too fast.’

‘Why don’t you just head home?’

‘Not yet, Papa. Right now I want to be alone.’

‘Okay. I’ll see you when you get here. And if you want me to come, just call, okay?’

‘Okay.’

He didn’t call, and after a half hour, I called him. It turned out that he was already home. He’d sneaked in and gone straight to his room. I went upstairs and asked him to make room on the bed. Five minutes of silence, both of us staring at the ceiling until I turned to him and said, ‘And did you catch up with the cops?’

‘No,’ Sander replied. And then he laughed out loud.

‘Well, better luck next time.’

A roar of laughter filled the room.

Just say it, that you miss her

MONDAY, October 18 – It’s the beginning of National Donor Week and donating came up as a  subject  at the dinner table. C’s daughters listened in fascination to Sander and Eamonn who took turns explaining just what happened to the body of their mother such as, which people were given new organs. The girls were impressed and so was I; especially, by the calm way in which they explained everything.

Then, Eamonn asked if he could be excused from the table. Sure, but remember to take your plate into the kitchen. Eamonn headed straight for my bedroom. I went after him. He was already lying on the bed, staring out the window. I asked him what was wrong.

‘Why did you start talking about organ donation?

‘Me? I got the impression that the two of you thought it felt good to talk about it.’

That much was true, but it also upset him. The conversation at the table had brought back visions of the hospital, of Jennifer in her coffin with the bandage on her forehead from the accident and the scar on her breast from the organ-removal.

‘And all of that this week, Papa. Don’t you understand?  This week?’

I understood all too well. However, there was something else that he had to understand:  I still miss Mom, every single day and yet she was able to do something fantastic after her death. Also, that I love him. And Mom, and Sander, and the dog and the cat, and C and her daughters. This week was going to be tough; but, together, we’d manage to get through it.

I heard myself talking, and I realized that it had been a while since I had last said to him or to myself that I still miss Jennifer, every single day.  I thought it so much I’d come to think it went without saying and so that’s  why I was saying it now. Eamonn said he was glad to hear me say so and gave me a big hug. And for me, for me it felt good to say so out loud.

Being honest with the in-laws

SUNDAY, October 17 – It isn’t an accusation or a reproach. Just something I have to get off my chest. So I write to my brothers-in-law who’ve been receiving a weekly email from me with an account of all our doings.  In this case it’s a bit more touchy and I need to establish that I’m not angry, just a bit disappointed.

‘I understand that you all have arranged for your parents to spend a couple of days in San Francisco this week. What a great present for their 49th wedding anniversary. I would gladly have contributed to the cost of the trip, on behalf of the three of us, had I been asked. Gestures like this mean a great deal to me and to the boys. They make us feel like we’re really part of the family and in this regard, I have to say that the contact between us is becoming a bit one-sided.  With some exceptions, we seldom hear from you, aside from a few sentences in response to the emails I send.

‘I sincerely hope that Sander and Eamonn will always remain close to you and your children. They’re Nolans. That’s why it’s so important that we hear from you on a regular basis. Shall we all make more of an effort to keep in touch this coming year, even though Jennifer is no longer among us?’

Falling for his deceptive tears

FRIDAY, October 15 – Elated, Eamonn describes his being elected as a Representative of the Student Council. How he almost burst into tears when, to his astonishment, he was declared the winner. How he’d blinked away his tears, as boys and girls descended on him, showering him with congratulations.

He’s as proud as a peacock. I sit next to him at the dining room table where, despite his electoral success, he has to try the pumpkin soup. I wage an almost daily battle to get him to eat something new, even if it’s only one bite. His face clouds over, his lips pout, and tears make an appearance. This has become his response to a new food. Sometimes I fall for it, more often not.

This time he dissolves into uncontrollable sobs. I give him a hug. He points to the photo on the piano, apparently indicating the reason for his tears as I try to begin to make the connection. The framed photo is of Jenn with dog and children in the park. The month of October, pumpkin soup, the coming anniversary of Jenn’s death you can’t blame him. I remove the bowl. ‘All right, son, just eat what you like.’

Within five seconds a huge grin appears on his face and he’s chattering away again. I’ve probably fallen for fake tears, but the little guy who became Student Council Representative has earned it today.

Hello, tears. Welcome back

THURSDAY, October 14 – After waking up around six-thirty, I’m sitting on the john when suddenly I start bawling. Without warning. The same kind of crying fit I had almost daily last October and November. There was something comforting about it, although I can’t say exactly why. It occurs to me that having a good cry on a regular basis isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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