Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

Kissing in front of my boys

SATURDAY, June 19 – Whoa! We couldn’t help it. C and I saw each other for the first time, after three weeks of detailed emails, intense phone conversations, and affectionate text messages. We were simply no match for this intense lovesickness.

Kissing. Kissing in front of the boys (and her girls). It felt so good, so embarrassing, so natural, so honest.  Also, somewhat confronting for Sander and Eamonn. They totally ignored our kissing, but not really, as later became clear.

‘You probably noticed that C and I are very fond of each other,’ I began, as we headed back to the campgrounds after midnight.

Mumbles of assent.

‘So how to you feel about that?’

Sander began: ‘You know what you promised us in the hospital, right?’

‘Yes,’ said Eamonn, ‘you promised us you wouldn’t remarry.’

In a fraction of a second I was back in that moment. I remembered exactly how I responded to Eamonn’s remark, scarcely a minute after I told them that Mom would never wake up again. He was on my lap and Sander was standing next to me, all three of us were crying. And then, in a mad moment of visionary clarity and prospective anxiety, he turned to me and said: ‘And now you’re probably going to get married again. But not really, are you?’ My head was spinning as I replied with the words, ‘Kids, remarrying is probably just about the last thing on my mind.’

Fast forward to this night, in the car, on a jet-black, winding road in the hills outside Nice. It wouldn’t have been helpful to get into a discussion about the precise wording, so I said nothing.

Then Eamonn said, ‘Whatever happens, she’s not my mother.’

At least that was an opening.

‘Eamonn, you only have one mother, and that’s Mom. No one can ever replace her, and you can take my word for that.’

‘And, in any case,’ I said into the darkness, ‘marriage is so totally out of the question at this point.’ Definitely the last thing on my mind. Children apparently think several kisses ahead. I wonder how this is going to affect the security of their world?

‘Sander, what do you think?’

He didn’t feel really at ease, he admitted. And he’d had his suspicions earlier in the day. All that obsessive text messaging back and forth.

I had to laugh. He was not amused.

‘It feels as if you’ve already left Mom behind you. But actually, I don’t really want to talk about it.’

So we let it pass. But it was still racing around in my head. I was searching for a bit of wisdom that would do justice to their feelings – and my own.

And I found it. (I hope.) ‘Boys whatever happens, I will always love Mom. Forget her? Never, never, never. For grown-ups, for me, there’s also such a thing as personal happiness. But do you know what is even more important? My sons. You and you. You’re what counts. And nothing – and no one – will ever change that.’

And I meant every word.

When all you need is Mom

FRIDAY, June 18 – A stop along the French highway. We sit outside and order French fries (Eamonn), pasta (Sander), and salad (Papa). Elsa is lying at our feet, looking around a bit anxiously.

I notice a family of  four at a picnic table nearby.  She’s making sandwiches and he’s kicking a ball around with two little boys. Then the youngest takes a tumble. He starts to cry and the father goes over to him. The older brother stands there, smiling sheepishly. His father goes to pick up the little kid, but he makes a beeline for his mother, who scoops him onto her lap and gives him a big hug.  I remember Jenn doing the same thing. At moments like this, dads don’t even come close.

An embrace that offers security and warmth and love that ripened nine months through the umbilical cord. Is there such a thing as phantom pain in children?  Is the loss of a mother much worse than that of a father because the child still senses the presence of the familiar umbilical cord? And does its absence cause even more pain?

No revenge, only justice

THURSDAY, June 17 – A brief message on Jennifer’s Facebook wall, addressed to her and her friends: ‘Today criminal proceedings will take place against the motorcycle cop who killed you. We will be there and we will speak on your behalf. We are not interested in revenge.  Only justice. We will be compassionate and charitable. That was how you lived. And that is why we love you.’

1:00 p.m. – We shake hands with him. I see fear. Yet, during the trial I address him as follows, in a voice that is firm and strangled at the same time.

“We are here today in order to hear the facts. We are here today to discover the truth. The technical facts of the accident are clear.  What you, Mr. R., brought about on the afternoon of Thursday, the 22nd of October 2009 was in my view avoidable and culpable. I believe this to be the truth, and I hope and trust that the court will come to the same conclusion.

What I came here to tell the court and you, Mr. R., is our truth. The facts of our everyday life, which came to a standstill on that Thursday afternoon.  Jennifer and the children were on their way to Beatrix Park. With our dog Elsa, who had come to live with us earlier that week. Naturally, every day was full of fun thanks to our new pet.

On that day as well. Then, Sander, our oldest son, noticed that Elsa had dropped a toy she’d been carrying in her mouth. Jennifer told the boys to go on, while she went back to pick up the toy. We know what happened after that. The testimony, the technical investigation, and your declaration are all indisputable. There are people who try to comfort us by claiming that Jennifer was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  I disagree.  Jennifer was in the right place, at the right time, and she waited until the light turned green so that she could cross safely.  How many times had she scolded us for casually crossing the road, even though the light was red?

But not Jennifer.  And that makes it unacceptable. And incomprehensible. We’ve all had moments of confusion when in some way we blamed ourselves. Sander wondered if he shouldn’t have said that Elsa dropped the toy. And our younger son Eamonn felt guilty for wanting to go to the park that day. And I tried to make sense of it all, to find a reason, something that could have prevented what happened.

Today, in court, we are seeing each other for the first time. In late October you wrote me a letter. To which I replied. I said, among other things, that I bear you no malice. That is not easy. I am unable to explain to myself, to my children, and to Jennifer’s family in America why this happened.  In the past seven months there were times when I did curse you and even hated you.

And yet I tell myself and the children that hate is uncalled for. That’s what  Jennifer would have said. No matter what happens, hate always causes more  pain than necessary. That was Jennifer. Humane. What you brought about that Thursday afternoon still cannot  be quantified. Time is both a good friend and a treacherous enemy. The shock, the pain, the realization, the grief, the depression, and the bereavement all have their own familiar patterns. No doubt you are going through a similar process yourself.

But where one day you will pick up the thread of your life, together with your family, we are left with a void which can never be filled. And I want you to know what my children have said to me:

‘Papa, do you know that Mom will never see us grow up. Papa, I know that some day we’ll have fun again, but to really enjoy things, the way we did with Mom, we can’t do that anymore. Papa, I want her to come back. Now. Papa, I don’t want to live any more.’

Moments that come by, moments that disappear again. For time heals even wounds like these. I know that from experience. But I want you to know that in America two elderly people, Jennifer’s father and mother, have no idea how to get through each day. Those wounds will not heal in the remaining time that is given them.

I want you to know that at times I don’t know how to get through the day either. That going to bed alone and getting up alone the next morning is pointless. That my career has suffered. And what is perhaps most frustrating is the realization that, while time will no doubt grant us new chances in life, Jennifer will always be denied them.

Mr. R, I am sure that there will come a moment of forgiveness, on the part of my children and me.  But that moment will have to wait until the law has taken its course and until you truly realize and acknowledge your responsibility as a participant in traffic, as a motorcycle cop, as someone who acts on behalf of the police, as someone who ought to know what is and what is not permitted in traffic, as someone who has betrayed that trust, and as someone who acted irresponsibly on that Thursday afternoon last October.

It is the task of the court to judge and to punish. Only then will we – you and my children and I – be able to get on with our lives. Without hate.  Thank you.

Not alone. That helps

WEDNESDAY, June 16 – One minute you’re in a business meeting discussing a particular NOS program and the next minute you’re in the middle of a personal conversation during which the person opposite you casually mentions that he lost his mother to cancer when he was eight and his father when he was sixteen.

There are people who – without being explicit – let you know that everything’s going to be all right and wish you the very best.

And I know: I am not alone. That helps.

14:00 – I’m in the park with Elsa, a sun-drenched afternoon. And damn it, what do I see? Jennifer, in the distance, sitting in the grass against a wall, bicycle on the ground, shoes kicked aside, dress pulled up to allow more sun on her legs. Writing in her notebook, oblivious to her surroundings.

Or in the middle of a stretch of lawn, I see her sitting on a picnic blanket next to another mother, with the children around them. Jenn takes some fruit from her bag as she talks a mile a minute with her friend, collecting stories she’ll recount later on when she gets home.

Beyond the bridge, on the other side of the water, Jennifer is lying in the shade, looking straight ahead. She’s laid her book aside for the moment, saving that last chapter for tonight when she gets into bed. Never read too fast, was her adagio – as if she ever took her own advice. Books were devoured, and there were always new ones waiting for her.

Of course I’m not seeing ghosts.  I see women who could have been Jennifer. That’s the way I saw her before me: relaxed, totally herself, enjoying life’s small pleasures during an hour stolen from work. This no longer makes me angry, but it does take away some of my courage and when I find myself thinking that she should have been there in the park, my heart takes a plunge.

Getting away from it all

TUESDAY, June 15 – We’ve booked a site at a campground in France. We leave this coming Saturday, and will be back in a week. I’ve had enough and really need a break. We bloody deserve it. Away from it all. It’s not far from C, that too. I want to see what I’m getting into. I want to see her and she says she wants to see me.

Growing at a standstill

MONDAY, June 14 – In Manhattan, long ago, Jenn had made a special trip to get them:  T-shirts with the letters E and S, which stand for two of the city’s subway lines. Eamonn’s was the E line from Manhattan to Queens: a blue and white circle on black. This morning Eamonn put it on and then took it off again.

‘Papa, this shirt doesn’t fit any more.’

Growing pains take no notice of a life that’s come to a standstill. Boys grow out of their clothes, get taller and older. Extending the distance between then and the moments yet to come. Jenn was 41 and would never turn 42. Sander was already taller than his mother and Eamonn was heading in the same direction.

But now, that moment of looking each other in the eye at the same height and cheating a bit with your toes is reserved for father and sons. There’s a future to look forward to. It’s only a matter of time, and already I’m wondering how we’ll look back on this period. In any case, it’s been a process of growth. Fortunately, catharsis does not stand still.

Beyond longing for sex

SUNDAY, June 13 – My bedsprings creaked as a result of all my tossing and turning, and I woke up to find myself in a state of extreme confusion. Under the shower I rinsed away my nocturnal fatigue, ran a towel over my face, and looked in the mirror. Then it became clear.

It’s so simple, flirting with single colleagues and mothers in the schoolyard, and sampling various other romantic possibilities.  It’s satisfying, enjoyable, sexy, and good for your ego. But God almighty, how do you keep it up? How do you combine it with work. With children?  And why?  What’s the object of the exercise?

In her book You Can Call me Anytime, author and widow Karin Kuiper says that the patience of the people around you usually lasts about six months. They figure that the period of mourning ought to be over, and before long the potential partners descend on you like flies on molasses. And she’s right. I’ve seen it happen. And while it’s fun, in the long term it doesn’t get you anywhere.

This is something I realized during a long telephone conversation with C. I’d been corresponding with her for some time by email. She’s a recent divorcee with two daughters. At the moment they live in France, but they’ll soon be moving to Amsterdam. This morning was the first time we’d spoken to each other. It’s clear that we have a number of things in common, but we have more to offer each other than consolation. We are genuinely interested in each other, and this morning under the shower I was conscious of a kind of turning point in my present life:  one step back in superficiality in exchange for one step forward towards potential love

19.30 – Damn it, stomach ache. I mustn’t let on. Stomach ache due to nerves, but I see to it that my face is all smiles. Again and again I emphasize how jealous I am and what a lucky dog he is to be able to go on the trip. He just nods.

The youngest son is going on a class trip.

Not a day trip to an amusement park, but three days in Brussels, for Space Camp to learn what it’s like to be an astronaut. The high point is the micro-gravity experience:  the sense of being weightless. That’s what he’s really looking forward to. Just as I’m looking forward to the moment when I can put my arms around him again. Damn it! Why am I so worried? He wants to go, he’s enthusiastic, he’s going to be away three nights and he’s excited that he’ll be sharing a room with two of his best friends. So what’s the problem?

I pace back and forth holding the letter from school, with the list of things he’s supposed to take along and another list with the things he’s not allowed to bring.  Sleeping bag, pillowcase, mattress sheet, shoes with white soles, three pairs of underpants plus one extra, socks, three T shirts and an extra pair of pants go into the sports bag. In his backpack he’ll have his Dutch passport, a copy of his insurance card, and twenty euros for the souvenir shop. Cell phones are taboo, but they’ve made an exception for Eamonn.

He’s raring to go. But I’m not. I remember how he came home holding the letter in which the space camp was announced.  He was simply wild about the idea. Jenn and I exchanged glances, thinking how big our little guy was getting. We had all sorts of plans for those three days. We would have no problem finding an address for Sander for three days.

In the week after her death Eamonn announced that he would definitely not be going. He didn’t feel like going anymore and he couldn’t bear the thought of being away from home for even one night. Far away from me.  I said: we’ll see how you feel when the time comes.

And now that the time has come, I’m grateful and deliriously happy that he’s looking forward to the trip. Which is why I have a stomach ache.

Mentioning her death in passing

SATURDAY, June 12 – Yoohoo! Yoohoo!  Jauntily she heads in my direction, just as I’m about to put the key in the front door. She’s come to introduce herself:  the neighbor from three houses away, and the owner of a small dog that always begins to bark when I take Elsa out in the morning and again at night.

It’s a brief meeting: we exchange names and those of the boys, and because she was born in England, we automatically continue in English. It’s a good opportunity to explain that I live here with my two boys, and that their American mother Jennifer died last October. I also told her about the circumstances of her death.

I then realize that this ‘routine’ announcement has come as a bombshell, and that there are tears in her eyes. The cheerful sidewalk meeting has taken on an emotional charge which our neighbor has trouble dealing with. But to be honest, I regard this as something of a triumph. I’m in control. I can talk about it normally, with a stranger.

Seeing the face that killed Mom

FRIDAY, June 11 – The face looks back at us quite cheerfully from the passport photo that my lawyer has just put on the table. Isn’t there always something strange about passport photos? Something faulty or unintentionally ugly? Not this one. It’s a pleasant portrait. One that with the worst will in the world, no one could possibly object to.

A picture of the man who killed Mom.

The boys are somewhat taken aback. He looks around nineteen. I thought he’d be much older, Eamonn says. His hair looks a lot different, not the way I remember it, remarks Sander. At first glance he seems to be a nice guy, is the consensus. That is, if you don’t know that the now 33-year old H.R. is being prosecuted for wrongful death. He has Jenn’s death weighing on his conscience.

It is just the tiniest bit reassuring that we now know what he looks like. At least it doesn’t look as if the confrontation this coming Thursday will be as unpleasant as we thought. Did R google us to find out what we look like? Eamonn asks. Undoubtedly. That gives him and us something to go on, for the moment when we look each other in the eye. Small comfort.

A kid’s newspaper on grief

THURSDAY, June 10 – Is it okay if I use that newspaper, Papa? To read? No, to draw on. Faces with moustaches, glasses, a new hairdo, and rotten teeth. Dutch politicians Balkenende, Rutte, Wilders and Cohen are horribly mutilated. Together, we laugh at his caricatures. Did you do that when you were little, Papa? Hell, yes. 

With the tip of his tongue between his lips, Eamonn starts on another portrait.

‘You know what, Papa?  I’d think it would be fun to make a newspaper.’

Way to go, an editor-in-chief in the family!  Not an illustrator, but a writer.

‘What kind of newspaper, son?’

‘A newspaper with stories about children who’ve gone through the same things I have. Stories for each other.’

Our elder son joins in the discussion.

‘Somewhere I saw a book like that, with stories.’

A while back I’d left the book on the coffee table, so they could leaf through it if they felt the urge. There are fellow-sufferers out there and a lot of them are children.

‘Do you feel as if you’ve changed?’ I ask Sander.   

‘Yes. I grew up from one day to the next. Suddenly I had to face up to reality,’ he says with remarkable clarity. ‘Sometimes I wish I was ordinary again, just like the kids in my class.’

‘Could be a good story for the newspaper,’ I venture.

But my young editor-in-chief has already started on a wig for Labor Party boss Cohen. Priorities.

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