Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

Doing really well… NOT

TUESDAY, August 31 – He’s enjoying life at the top of his voice. He goes around the house singing, baking cookies for everyone, and playing the piano. This has been going on for days. ‘Come and sit down for a minute, son,’ I tell Sander. ‘How are you doing?’

Pretty well, apparently. But I try to explain that I find his uninhibited cheerfulness a bit worrying. That it wouldn’t surprise me if one of these days he had a relapse. That’s only normal and I wanted him to know that if that happened, I’d be there for him.

‘I had a bad moment today.’

This surprises me. ‘Really? I didn’t notice anything.’

It happened while he was on the way to the Conservatory. He was on his bike and had to stop for a traffic light, when all of a sudden he started swearing. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Just plain mad. Because Mom was gone. Because he had to go to his music lesson for the first time since Summer vacation and because everything seemed so ordinary.

‘I’m glad to hear that,’ I say.

Now it was his turn to look surprised.

‘I’d be really worried if you didn’t have moments like that, Sander. It’s only been ten months.’

‘That’s a pretty long time.’

‘We’ve got a much longer way to go, Sander. No matter what happens with you, with us, with C and her children, what our lives are like, and where we finally end up, just remember that I’ll be there for you.’

He still looked slightly surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have made such an issue of it, but it was for my own peace of mind, as well. I still have to pinch myself and the children every once in a while. Just to make sure we’re not dreaming.

How about that new girlfriend?

SUNDAY, August 29 – The slight hesitation betrayed that she was searching for a polite, but perhaps not entirely honest answer. On the way to the station, I had to ask – what had she thought of C? After a slight pause came the reply. ‘She’s a sweet person. Someone who’ll take good care of you.’

And that was that, an example of how mothers think. In any case, my mother. A daughter-in-law must meet the minimum requirement of what she considers a ‘caring person’. In her eyes, Jennifer met that requirement, and so did C, now, in a sense. In any case, during her visit she had seen this with her own eyes. A woman full of warmth who made her guests happy.

What I was hoping she would notice above all was the visible love between C and me as well as the affectionate relationship between C and my children. The happiness that has gradually become a bit mundane for the six of us, was quite overwhelming for my mother.

Hence her cautious reply, which was keyed to my happiness, as opposed to our happiness. Happiness for me. She added that, in all honesty, it was not possible to gain a good impression of someone on the basis of an afternoon and an evening and that, in the end, it was, above all, difficult to accept that Jennifer was no longer there.  That was the undertone of her reply. That her daughter-in-law had been ‘replaced’.

That is also the first reaction within our own circle of acquaintances, as I’ve been noticing in the last few weeks. Friends and acquaintances still see you as the man without the woman: Tim without Jennifer, the single man with two children, the family without a mother. In our blind but loving haste, we have perhaps failed to take that into consideration.

Where Jennifer’s parents are concerned, I have been very cautious. While we were in the States, I mentioned the woman and her two children we had visited in France and last night seemed like a good opportunity to give Jenn’s mother some more information. So, I told her how the mother and her children arrived in Holland and how well the children get along with each other. Also, I explained that she and I are more than friends and that we have actually developed a relationship.

No names, no details, no rejoicing. What was important was the fact of it and that is what I wanted to share with Jenn’s mother. Happily, her response was favorable. She said immediately that that was what Jennifer would have wished and she stressed how important it was for me to have a partner again, someone I can talk to. That did me a world of good. At the same time, I was aware of the pain this new reality might cause, so I did not go into detail about the intensity of the new relationship.

Our friends and acquaintances would prefer the hour hand to move more slowly, while for us the minute hand can’t go fast enough. Time does not heal all wounds, as we’ve been taught, and that goes equally so for my mother, mother-in-law, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and others who knew Jennifer. C is not a band-aid that heals the pain and, above all, she is not a replacement. She is my new love. Get used to it, world around us. Take as long as you need.

Is life some kind of contest?

SATURDAY, August 28 – I give in. I can’t go through it all again: grab hold of him, kiss his forehead, and try to talk him into it. Convince him that the pleasure that baseball once gave him will come back, that he’s a good player and that his team needs him. I’m trying to make him realize that he well… what actually?

I give in. He looked at me with that wounded look. I saw the pain in his eyes. I saw his contorted body. I felt the tension in his head, the throbbing of his heart. I heard the desperation in his voice when he asked: ‘Papa, do we really have to go to baseball practice?’

I give in. Why should I keep trying to persuade him? Why force him? Why bring back those memories that cause him so much pain?  He told me himself. ‘When I go to baseball practice, I go through it all over again.’ Why pretend to him and to myself that continuing to play baseball, the sport that he and his mother loved, can become part of a healing process?

I give in. ‘Okay, Eamonn. We’re not going to baseball practice. Maybe we ought to sit down and talk about the rest of the season.’  He visibly relaxes. Is this a victory or a defeat?  I don’t know;  but if today I happen to bump into the convicted motorcycle cop, he can expect an enormous punch in the nose. Maybe two.

I’ve finally given in, I say to C, in search of understanding or at least a bit of support.  She looks up, ‘How do you mean, given in? Is life some kind of contest?’ Good point, I admit.

Struggling at work. Big time

FRIDAY, August 27 – I’ve been back at work for two weeks and I’m struggling. I plod and plug away, I pretend, I do my best, I’m honest, I enjoy it, I hate it, it keeps me busy, I couldn’t care less. I drive home, and force myself to be patient. I want to and I will. I hope. It’s difficult.

Not just another first school day

THURSDAY, August 26 – ‘I’m going to be late for work, on purpose,’ I whispered in Eamonn’s ear. It was the first day of the new school year and things were as chaotic as always.  The children are super-nervous, and the parents themselves are so worked up they can’t seem to calm their offspring.

For some inexplicable reason, I thought I could just drop him off and then go on to work where I had an important nine-o’clock appointment. I was going up the stairs of the school when I realized that I probably wasn’t going to make it. Eamonn buried his face in my coat and clung to me.

I went inside with him into the jumble of careening children, tense parents, and teachers doing their best to put on a heartwarming face. Eamonn opted for the role of statue and I was his pedestal. The hands of the clock moved inexorably toward nine o’clock. I tried to pry him loose by telling him that I was almost certainly not going to get to Hilversum on time.

He saw his chance. ‘Will you come to the classroom with me?’ he replied. I couldn’t refuse. Just this once, I thought to myself. There was another boy who’d also persuaded his father to go along to the classroom.

‘Do you know why this is so hard for me?’ Eamonn whispered in my ear. ‘My new teacher doesn’t know about what happened.’

‘Of course he knows.’

He didn’t believe me.

Fortunately the teacher came straight over to us. Unasked, he came up with a solution. ‘If necessary, Eamonn can call you during recess. And we have people here he can talk to if things get to be too much for him.’

I looked at Eamonn. ‘You see?’

His face brightened. A new year, but everything was familiar. He would find a place for his grief, in his heart, in the classroom. He gave me a kiss and walked down the corridor with his teacher.

That afternoon he called me:  ‘My teacher is fantastic. He’s telling jokes all the time.’ I talked to Eamonn while I was at the pre-seasonal press conference of the Dutch public broadcasting networks. Surrounded by colleagues I’d last seen a year ago, I tried to launch into interesting conversations; however, my attempts were invariably stranded in a brief silence that gave rise to the question:  ‘And how are you doing now?’

Will it ever get any easier? Maybe when there are people around me who don’t know about our ordeal?

Terribly angry and desperate

TUESDAY, August 24 – I had a premonition.  Despite a hug here, a giggle there, it was a quarter of an hour before I actually shut the door behind me. Even after I again promised that I’d be at the baseball field at the stroke of six and not a second later. ‘I’ll be on time for your game. Honest!’ He still looked at me as if he didn’t quite believe me.

I’d laid out his uniform on the bed. His new glove on top and the new shoes next to the bag with helmet and bat. Bottle of water. All this so he won’t have to worry about that when his coach comes to pick him up. Good preparations are half the work and yet this proved to be the herald of an unexpected relapse.

Eamonn called just after lunch. He wanted to know, ‘why can’t I get home sooner?’ Patiently, I explained that I had several appointments at work and that later in the afternoon I had to go to Amsterdam for another meeting; but, I assured him that I’d be at the field on time. He went on grumbling. I began to lose patience and spoke to him in a gruffer more-businesslike manner.

Less than a half hour later, I had good news. One of my appointments had been cancelled, so I knew for sure I’d be there well before the start of the game, maybe even during the warming-up. Telling him the news, he burst into tears. ‘I miss you, Papa’.

Sigh. I told him I missed him, too. On my way to Amsterdam, he called again. Couldn’t I get there a little bit earlier. Impossible. Could I tell him what time I thought I could get to the field. No later than ten to six, I promise with my hand on my heart. This was getting to be annoying, but in a way I understood. The first game after the Summer break. Of course, he’d be nervous after five weeks off.  It’s also only a couple of days before school opens.

Triumphantly I set course for the field. With any luck, I should be able to make it in half an hour. Then, suddenly, I got a text message from Sander. Could I call him back right away? Something had happened at home. I’d barely gotten through when I heard Eamonn  ranting and raving in the background. A bit of a crisis, I was told.

The phone was handed to Eamonn who was crying in long, anguished gasps. Then he said something.

‘I’m sorry, Eamonn, I can’t understand you.’

Still unintelligible.

‘What did you say?’

Again, I couldn’t make head nor tails of what he was saying.

‘Calm down, Eamonn! Take a deep breath and repeat what you just said.’

For a moment he was silent.

‘Papa,’ he began, and then he told me what was bothering him, and what he’d been thinking about.

A brief pause on my end.

‘Son, do you really feel that bad?’

‘Papa, I’m so terribly angry.’

‘I know, son, I know.’

‘No, you don’t, Papa. You don’t know how angry I am.’

He was probably right. This morning I left the house thinking he was going to have fun with his baseball buddies. It was only normal that he was a bit nervous. But so angry? And so distraught?

I kept him talking until I got home. The front door flew open and he came running. The phone fell on the doormat. We held each other tight and without saying anything, walked inside, went upstairs to my bedroom and lay down on the bed, still holding each other tight.  We still didn’t say anything. I didn’t feel anger, but there was fear.

‘Were you really that angry, Eamonn?

‘Yes, Papa, terribly angry.’

‘That surprises me a little. I thought things were really improving.’

‘I’m angry every day, Papa. Every day.’

‘Every day?’

‘Yes, a little bit. Sometimes a couple of times a day. But I usually know how to deal with it. Until today. I just got angrier and angrier and…’

I decided it would be better not to go into what he’d said on the phone. Earlier this year he’d promised to come straight to me. That was now. He had come to me. And I was there.

‘What are you angry about?’

‘About everything.’

‘Are you mad at the motorcycle cop?’

‘A little bit.’

‘Are you angry because Mom isn’t here anymore?’

‘Yes, that’s part of it.’

He buried his head in my armpit and nodded. ‘A little bit.’

I understood.

‘Are you angry because I’m at work, and not here with you and your brother?’


Damn it. He had every right to be angry. Damn it.

Friends and lovers meet

MONDAY, August 23 – C and I go to see friends of mine. Two couples enjoying a glass of wine. It’ll take a while for them to get used to seeing us together.

It’s still strange for me as well, biking through Vondel Park, going out and meeting people, doing things together. It feels great, this life of mine: not only as a single father, but also as a loving partner. Two parents with their own, but also shared responsibilities.  Strange?  It’s already becoming familiar.

Spreading little mementoes

SATURDAY, August 21 – I’ve finally found the time to tackle the bookcase in my office.  All those weighty documents that have been lying there for months, looking smugly important. Until now I haven’t really had a chance to go through them in order to decide which ones need immediate attention and which can be relegated to a large box up in the attic.

Certain items are quickly moved to a spot beyond my field of vision: Jenn’s medical records, the criminal file, the correspondence with the crematorium, the insurance company, and the mortgage company from when Jennifer was still alive. All the condolences go straight to the attic and a folder with Jenn’s favorite recipes goes to the kitchen.

I hang her ballet slippers in the living room and on top of the bookshelves in the dining room I place the bottle of wine someone gave us on our wedding day (which we polished off one year later).

Her college diploma ends up in Eamonn’s bedroom. He’s thrilled and has already decided he’s also going to Swarthmore. Let this inspire him.  I put the photo of Jenn with the dog on Sander’s dresser. It’s a beautiful portrait.  It was also on her casket. The last few weeks I found it a bit distracting, the way her face stared back at us so intently. No doubt, Sander will appreciate it.

Quite to the contrary, I hear:  ‘I don’t want that photo in my room. It belongs downstairs, on the piano.’ He won’t budge an inch, so I do as he says.

Finding the right words

FRIDAY, August 20 – A colleague’s former husband has taken his own life. He’d had enough of his bouts of depression. During the viewing, on the eve of his funeral, people remarked about the expression on the face of the deceased: something akin to peace. A kind of acceptance. This is a source of consolation for the bereaved who will no doubt continue to ask themselves how it could have come to this.

I don’t think about him; he is dead. My thoughts are with her and even more so with their son. I search for the email she had sent me earlier this year which then plunges me into the hundreds of messages that arrived during those first few weeks. Messages of bewilderment, disbelief, anger. I notice how often the word ‘speechless’ appears.

I can’t find her email, but I recall that it was an open-hearted message in which she mused about the process of mourning. Whether by death or divorce, you are left behind and this heralds the start of a period of shock, denial, depression, and acceptance. Her words had given me courage. I wrote back to her that she was right, to the extent that I had been able to grasp her meaning.

Now, sadly, I am one of the ones who’s better able to understand her situation, but still it is always difficult to find the right words. In the end, I write the following:

Dear S,

I’m thinking of you, just as you thought of us. That gave us strength, believe me. The words and promises we received in the weeks following Jennifer’s death were comforting and heartfelt, like a warm embrace. But before long the day comes when you have to straighten your back. Sometimes and perhaps often you’ll find it difficult to summon the energy. So it helps when friends, but often strangers as well, write to tell you that they’re still thinking of you. As I will continue to think of you.

Give yourself time to get back on your feet. Allow yourself to fall once in a while. Sometimes lying there gives you more energy than trying frantically not to fall. Follow your heart and not your head, when you ask for advice. You’ve always been a resolute colleague, a strong woman, and a devoted mother, and that will help your son to grow up and prosper.

It will get better. And that, too, is really true.

For now a big hug,


Well, you’re either a field expert or you’re not. No use claiming that ‘words fail you’.  Half an hour later I got an email thanking me for my ‘good words’. We both know that, as she put it, ‘sometimes life can really take you for a ride’. That particular realization is just one of the many steps she is about to take.

Yes I can, I tell my boss

TUESDAY, August 17 – Spent an hour or so with my boss, both of us just back from vacation. Are we starting the new season together, and if so, how? ‘No matter what,’ was my reply.  With one hundred percent energy, concentration, and dedication.  The small print reads: ‘In any case, we’re going to give it a damn good try.’

I tell him frankly that I still can’t commit myself totally. It is my honest intention to pull my weight and to play a full role, but he and I know all too well how demanding the job is. You’re always on call, you have to keep an eye on the various news channels, and there are a great many evening obligations. Inevitably, there is a price to pay in your private life.

This scares me. I’m afraid of falling into the same trap as before Jennifer’s death: focusing my attention on work and work alone. That’s unthinkable now and that’s the snag. When I want to do something 100 percent, I have to give it 110 percent, where in some cases 90 percent would suffice. That’s something I have to learn.

But is 90 percent enough when it comes to being a good father?  Time will tell and luckily that’s what I’ve been given.  My boss says: ‘Give yourself the time.’ We shake hands. Everything’s going to turn out all right, even if it doesn’t.

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