Diary of a Widower

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

Her last words in her diary

SUNDAY, November 22 – A month since the accident. That’s how milestones are created. I clearly remember the day that Sander was exactly one month old.  That was another Sunday morning, August 27, 1997.  Jenn was breastfeeding him and I went to the front door of our house in Weehawken, New Jersey, to pick up The New York Times from the doormat.

The latest news was splashed across the front page:  Lady Di has been killed in a car accident in Paris. Like the rest of the world, we were in a state of shock. We sat there on the bed with the baby, who knew nothing about life and death, happiness and unhappiness, and who did nothing but drink ravenously at his mother’s breast, occasionally looking around with those big brown eyes of his.

On another Sunday morning: October 31, 1999 to be precise – I googled this one – I got a call from our news bureau in Hilversum.  That wasn’t unusual in Washington, D.C., but they wanted me on the radio immediately. They’d just gotten word that a plane had crashed off the coast of Long Island.

Egypt Air 990, with 217 passengers on board. Not much information as yet, but enough for a couple of broadcasts to bring listeners up to date. My radio studio was in the cellar and when an hour later I came upstairs, Jennifer was sitting on the edge of our bed. In her hand was the result of a pregnancy test.

Positive. She was going to be a mother again.

Another insane example of how life and death are on a collision course.  Pure chance, of course, and yet… Unexpectedly, but in a natural manner, people die and people are born. On the morning that 217 passengers went to their death, we welcomed the news that the following summer our second son, Eamonn, would be with us.

11:30 – a month since her death. What does this tell us?  Does it feel like it’s been a month?  I haven’t the faintest idea. Short, long… isn’t it actually something that happened yesterday? Isn’t it already a life sentence? I just don’t know. Time stands still, that’s one thing I do know, while the world continues to turn.

Our world has been turned upside down. The foundation has disappeared out from under our feet. It feels like a kind of weightlessness and it’s as if we’re suspended in space hovering above the world. Above the earth, which remains just out of reach – inaccessible to us. Inside this bizarre time capsule we somehow manage to get on with our lives.

One month ago. Her life didn’t end on that Thursday afternoon, shortly before four o’clock.  There was no proper ending. When someone dies, the event ought to have been preceded by an endgame; there should be a clock with hands indicating that time has run down, so that we realize ourselves that that final moment has come. In her case, that possibility was snatched away, severed, interrupted, and cut off from her and from us.

For a while, though, her life goes on in the virtual world. This morning I examined a number of pieces of her life puzzle, still visible on her laptop. It’s lying open in the dining room, still on. We couldn’t bear to turn it off. It would be like closing a casket. I take an initial look and see her last messages on Facebook, where she was an active social butterfly.

Her last message on her Facebook wall: ‘Jennifer Nolan cannot answer this morning’s question, ‘What is Mach One?’ It was recorded at 8:07 on Thursday, October 22.

Lots of remarks, reactions, questions, answers – curious, thoughtful, funny, friendly.  She lived life to the hilt in that virtual social network, and it hurts to see her spontaneous words and sentences appear on the virtual walls of other people. Sander has started to collect and save all her activities on Facebook.

She had been translating that afternoon, doing a job for our notary public who needed an English version of a handbook on buying and selling houses. I didn’t even understand the legal terms in Dutch, but that wasn’t a problem for Jennifer. The job would pay a thousand euros which as it happened was the exact sum we owed the notary per his calculations.

A couple of weeks before, Jenn and I had bought an apartment just two streets away from where we’d been renting for almost a year and a half. The place was wonderful, though in need of substantial renovation.  She had already furnished it in her mind.  The guestroom would serve mainly as her office:  Japanese design and a spot for her own shrine.

Space – personal space – was important to both of us. It wouldn’t be a problem in the spacious new apartment, with a surface area of two hundred square meters. That same notary is now looking into the American law of succession, which takes precedence over Dutch law. She was American, we were married in the United States, and we originally lived there.

Fuck bureaucracy.

Looking around in her laptop, I find a recipe for onion bread , which she had been planning to try later that Thursday. After her walk in the park with Elsa and the boys.

Her last email to me was full of delight and gratitude. I had managed to find a video clip she wanted as a surprise for a friend who was celebrating his thirtieth birthday that Saturday. She was busy planning the weekend. A friend from London was coming to visit.

Her diary is lying here on the dining room table. I ask myself if I should look in it. It’s so personal; it’d been her companion for years.  She was always writing – about herself, about her friends, about the boys, about her husband. The black leather bound book is so Jennifer.  I’m going to read it; but, sometime in the coming year, or maybe much later. I’ll read it and I’ll likely be surprised, irritated, shocked, and reassured.

Looking up, I see the couch, where she would have been sitting as she wrote. A cup of coffee in the morning, tea at other times of the day. Head against the pillow, purple-pink-green blanket over her legs, no doubt with the cat on her lap.  I look up and see an empty couch. The curtains are still closed. Sander is asleep and Eamonn is staying over at a friend’s house; the cat is outside and the dog is lying low somewhere.

I sneak a look. I want to know what she wrote that morning. This is her last diary entry, dated October 22, 2009.  The last paragraph reads:

I have my two fur babies now. My gorgeous, silky, sleek, elegant, perpetually irritated and vocal feline, and my enormous unusually beautiful, kind and sweet-tempered dog. She takes up a ton of room but I don’t mind, really. She’s very contained and doesn’t chew on everything, jump, slobber or act stupid 🙂   

For my own consolation, I choose to regard that smiley as a grand, symbolic gesture, a way of finding closure.  A month ago she was cheerful, enthusiastic, contented in every way. She loved people, but loved animals even more. I can still hear the way she voiced that simple request:  ‘Be kind to animals.’

11:00 – I took a garbage bag with me to the bathroom. I’d already done an initial clean-up shortly after her death, but it was time to remove all her things.  More tampons, panty liners, make-up, cleansing cream, contact lenses, powders and ointments.

It is now officially a male bathroom.  I filled half a garbage bag and now there’s a brick in my stomach. Sander wants to know if he can hang his shirts in Jennifer’s closet. Not sure if I can swing it today. Enough is enough.

15:30 – No idea how he does it, but he does it. He walks up to the microphone and says coolly:  ‘The first number we’re going to play is ‘Little Sunflower’. I would like to dedicate it to my mother, who died last month as the result of a traffic accident.’

Then he sits down at the piano and strikes the first notes together with a bass player, a drummer and a guitarist, who jam here in ‘The Bathtub’ every Sunday afternoon.  Sander sometimes comes by.

The audience – some fifteen people in all – usually go on talking during the performance, but today they are quieter than usual. Several older men look straight ahead. I sip my Palm Beer. The dog is lying at my feet. I pet her obsessively.  He’s pulled it off.  Unbelievable.

17:50 – I’ve altered some personal details on my Facebook profile.  I am no longer married, which is true.  Another question I ask myself is whether there is a kind of ‘wedding ring etiquette’. When do you take it off?

21:45 – Sander is lying on the floor. He looks at me intently.

‘Listen, Papa,’ he begins.  I just called Mom’s cell phone.’


‘I wanted to hear her voice.’

‘Did you leave a message?

‘No, but I was hoping she would somehow pick up the phone.’


‘Was it hard to do?’


‘Then why did you call?’

‘Because it helps.’

‘That’s good, Sander. Really good.’



‘Yes, Sander.’

‘I want you to call her cell phone.’

‘I’m not going to do that.’

‘But it’ll help, Papa.’

‘No, Sander, ‘it won’t.’

‘It helped me.’

‘I’m happy for you, Sander, but I don’t want to call. And I’m not going to.’


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