Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

Tell the world about love

MONDAY, August 16 – Here I am, hopelessly stuck behind a stubborn farmer on a tractor, who’s chugging along at a snail’s pace in the direction of Hilversum. The rain is pelting down, as if autumn was already upon us. Back in the wide curve of that provincial highway, which not long ago I had christened my personal vale of tears, I catch myself smiling broadly.

I’m happy. Overflowing with a zest for life, I’m tempted to open the window, stick my head out, and tell the whole world that I’m in love. The rain and the empty fields convince me of the futility of such public rejoicing and, anyway, I’ve already made it known worldwide via Facebook.

It was a simple check mark in the Friends Only section:  Tim is in a relationship.

            I left it at that. Friends are free to draw their own conclusions. The announcement quickly led to enthusiastic responses. Most people said it was ‘great’, some wrote to say that they were happy for me, others wanted more detail, and at work colleagues cast a knowing glance in my direction.

Not bad for a Monday morning.

Sex on my mind. Only sex

SUNDAY, August 15 – Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fucking heaven! Yeah, any objections?!

Starting anew back home

SATURDAY, August 14 – Writing on my Facebook wall, I report to friends that: ‘After 2,800 miles on the highway (4,5 pounds heavier from all the snacks we ate in the car), meeting many friends on the East Coast, not having read a single book (although I’m writing one), but lots of adventures in the air, underneath the waterfall across the border, I want to thank all our American family and friends. Jennifer’s ashes were scattered in a beautiful spot and we will now follow our life’s paths in new directions.

            At nine o’clock in the morning the first steps in this new direction has taken us to the arrivals hall at Schiphol Airport, where C is waiting for us. We head home, where her daughters have prepared a welcome home breakfast. During our absence they stayed in our apartment – pending further plans after their three years in France. The future is uncertain, at least as far as accommodations go, even though  C and I see more than enough future for the two of us. We agree that for the time being they’ll be staying with us.

            Out on the balcony, we drink our second glass of champagne of the morning. Our downstairs neighbor, who’s working in the garden, looks up and smiles. I introduce C as a guest who’ll be staying with us for a while, together with her children. On the way to the supermarket we walk down the street hand-in-hand.  My colleague T cycles by and waves. Shyly I smile back and gradually it dawns on me, my houseguest is my girlfriend.

How to actually scatter ashes

THURSDAY, August 12 – Three pillows on top of each other, clumsily cross-legged (oops, I mean lotus position), the sheet around my waist, the urn in front of me, eyes closed, breathe slowly in and out, and go on counting . Awareness, where are you?

I try to meditate, but don’t know exactly why. Well, in any case, I want to shake off that vacation mood. And in my thoughts return to the woman we will commemorate today in a brief ceremony. I want to empty my head, and open it up to something sacred. Preferably something spiritual.  I can’t do it.

I pick up my laptop and begin to write. Effortlessly I find the worldly words appropriate to this day, and to Jennifer and her children.

16:30 – Near us, a bird was singing to its heart’s content and in the distance the clock in the bell tower struck once when it was all over. The ashes were scattered. And it was good.

Her mother prayed the Our Father. Her father talked about the future saying that we mustn’t dwell on the past, but learn from it.

I spoke of Jennifer as a mother, as a source of inspiration in that same past which we would continue to draw upon.  My emotions almost got the better of me and the boys started to giggle. There he goes again with his high-pitched voice.

I cited a poem by Baudelaire which Jennifer once emailed to a friend, referring to it as her motto:

            Always be drunk.

            That’s it!

            The great imperative!

            In order not to feel

            Time’s horrid fardel

            Bruise your shoulders,

            Grinding  you into the earth,

            Get drunk and stay that way.

            On what?

            On wine, poetry, virtue, whatever.

            But get drunk.

            And if you sometimes happen to wake up

            On the porches of a palace,

            In the green grass of a ditch,            

            In the dismal loneliness of your own room,

            Your drunkenness gone or disappearing,

            Ask the wind,

            The wave,

            The star,

            The bird,

            The clock,

            Ask everything that flees,

            Everything that groans

            Or rolls

            Or sings,

            Everything that speaks,

            Ask what time it is;

            And the wind,

            The wave,

            The star,

            The bird,

            The clock

            Will answer you:

            ‘Time to get drunk!’  

            Don’t be martyred slaves of Time,

            Get drunk!

            Stay drunk!

            On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever!

I opened the urn with my car keys, looked around me and signaled with my eyes that the time had come.

‘Wait a moment,’ said her mother, who beforehand had made it clear that under no circumstances would she hold the urn. Now she had changed her mind. Crying softly, she walked over to me and put both hands into the urn. One of the two brothers present quickly gave her a small plastic container, which he had brought along in case she wanted to save some of the ashes.

She cupped her hands and scooped up some of the ash. Then she rubbed the rest over her tearstained cheeks, pressing the palm of her hands to her face, as if for the last time she was holding her daughter, her baby, her Jennifer close to her.

I was touched.

She sought consolation next to her husband. I began to shake out the ashes. Then Sander took over. And Eamonn, very cautiously. Then the brothers. I did the last bit. It was nicely distributed and we hadn’t even needed the rake.

How to scatter those ashes

WEDNESDAY, August 11 – Well, how exactly do you go about scattering ashes?  Grandma was wondering, too.  Are there certain words that should be spoken?  And prayers, no doubt?  She had no idea. She was dreading the ceremony, and hoped I knew the answer, but I had no idea either. As far as I knew, you just scatter them.  Apparently, that’s all there is to it.

I google Buddhist rituals that include scattering ashes and mosey around for half an hour. Not much to be found.  The procedure involves returning the deceased to the elements water, air and earth. The death ritual itself has already taken place, during the first 49 days following her death.  Nevertheless, I want to lend the ceremony a spiritual touch, especially at the moment when we say a Catholic prayer together with my parents-in-law and brothers-in-law.

I can’t seem to find the right words, that is, a spiritual plan that will be an appropriate way to honor Jennifer.  I’ll try again tomorrow morning. With the pressure of a deadline I can usually come up with something, but first there are the practical preparations.

Number one:  how do I open the urn? The thing is sealed and there are no directions. Sander wants to help.

‘Then go get me a screwdriver and a hammer,’ I say.

Several minutes later I curse out loud. There is blood on my fingers where the tools encounter an intransigent lid. After fooling with it for a while, I discover that I’ve been slogging away in the wrong spot. The screwdriver does the job: just like opening a can of paint.

I heave a sigh.

I take three small pillboxes out of the shopping bag. I tell Sander that we’re not going to scatter all the ashes tomorrow. We’ll save some, which Uncle Pete will then leave behind in three places in New York:  Central Park, the New York Mets stadium, and a third spot which Jennifer had fond memories of.

Again, I sigh.

Using a teaspoon, I transfer some of the ashes and then quickly close the urn. Sander picks it up and starts shaking it rhythmically.

‘Hey, a bit more respect for your mother.’

I take it from his hands and put the thing in the backpack, together with a small plastic rake I bought this afternoon. During my research I learned that if you don’t disperse the ashes they won’t blow away, but will fall to the ground – usually ending up in a pile. That’s why they recommend using a rake, so it won’t look messy. Sander walks out of the room in a good mood. Stage 1 of this huge mission, accomplished.

‘Hey’, I call after him, ‘thanks for your help’.

“It’s okay if you get married”

MONDAY, August 9 – Night has fallen, but we’re wide awake and restless. In the moonlight the waters of Lake George continue to roll restlessly. On the small pier in front of the hotel we see three comfortable chairs and we accept the invitation.

We realize that we’re tired and ready to call it a day – to leave the country we still regard as our fatherland, but Amsterdam is our home, even though we speak English there.  Her and their native language. Even I find it easier to express my emotions in this language.

‘I smile a lot more,’ Eamonn says, as we attempt to draw up the balance. Things are improving. It’s not all good, but it’s better. A lot better, in fact. I remind Eamonn of the moment when he declared that he would never be able to have fun again.  ‘So things actually can get better,’ I say.

Sander agrees. ‘Things feel right. We’re starting to get over it.’

I have no desire to undermine, qualify or feed his optimism. I leave it at that. Sitting here, on the pier, we can take on the whole world.

‘You know what, Papa?  I’d understand if you and C got married.’


‘Watch what you’re saying,’ I laugh.

‘No, I mean in a year or so. That would be all right.’

‘Thank you, Sander.’

Eamonn has something to say, and requests the floor.

But first: ‘Papa, you mustn’t put this in your book. Not yet.’

I give him my word.

Then he tells us what he’s planning to do in a little over two months, what he wanted to do last May, but couldn’t.  What he’ll do later. Sander and I are deeply impressed. On one condition, he says: that we do it together. Sounds like a great plan.

And one thing is clear:  We’re doing well. Very well, indeed.

Tipping tips from Mom

SUNDAY, August 8 – Breakfast on the hotel porch.  The boys walk back and forth. Omelet, Fruit Loops, bagels, toast, bacon, sausages, orange juice, coffee, watermelon, bananas. Boys love buffets.  There’s nothing for the waitress to do, but I still give her a big tip. It’s a great morning and her smile is worth it.

‘Papa, do you have to tip? Sander asks.

‘If the waitress ignores us, makes one mistake after the other, brings us something we didn’t order and then says it’s our fault,’ I say, and it’s happened to me more than once, ‘then I don’t have to give her a tip.’

‘But here we serve ourselves. Why does she get a tip?’

‘Because she brought the coffee and put the cutlery on the table, and she didn’t charge us for Eamonn’s breakfast. And besides, she has such a lovely smile.

‘And what if you hadn’t given her a tip?’

‘If Mom had been here, she would have boxed my ears.’

The boys laugh.

I explain how it works. If she does her work properly, she gets 15 percent, and if she’s very good and obviously enjoys her work, she gets 20 percent. Jenn worked as a waitress for years. She hated it, but she perfected the professional smile.

With his iPod Sander chases a tiny beetle under the napkin.

‘Don’t you dare kill that animal,’ I warn him.

‘It isn’t an animal. It’s an insect.’

‘Yes,’ I maintain. ‘But it’s also an animal. And in any case, a living creature. So you’d better be careful maybe it’s Mom, reincarnated into a beetle.’

Great hilarity.

‘No, I don’t believe that,’ says Eamonn.

‘Why not?’

‘Mom was much better than some beetle.’

‘Well, what do you think she turned into?’

Without a moment’s hesitation, he said ‘a llama’.

‘A llama?  Why a llama?’

‘That was her favorite animal.’

Eamonn pulls his mouth as wide open as he can and makes smacking noises. We laugh. The waitress comes over to our table. She smiles, too, without knowing why.

‘Was everything satisfactory?’

‘More than that,’ I say. ‘More than that.’

She stank. Oh yeah, she did

SATURDAY, August 7 – The boys are curious about the sort of things I’ve written in my diary. Almost every morning during this vacation I’ve set the alarm for five o’clock so I can type out the notes I took during the first few months and rework the text. I give them the month of November.

While I continue with the month of January, Sander reads the first few weeks. We’re lying on our hotel bed. He keeps laughing out loud. He finds the passage recorded on November 7th hilarious – the one when we invented the ‘taking-a-shit theory’. He’s somewhat amazed that I dared to write that down since even just the word ‘shit’ is pretty daring. After the first sentence containing the F word, he knows what to expect. We call this artistic freedom of speech.

Eamonn joins in the laughter. He’s playing a game on the computer, but he’s also listening to Sander’s comments on my diary entries during those first few weeks.

‘I’d already forgotten a lot of things,’ says Sander. The shit theory was one of them.  ‘And what just occurred to me,’ he adds, ‘but don’t write this down is that Mom always stank after she pooped.’

Eamonn giggles. ‘Yeah, she did.’

I write this down and read the passage out loud.

‘Oh, no,’ Sander says. ‘I told you not to write that down!’

Eamonn laughs even harder and I join in. In the end, so does Sander. He throws a pillow at my head. I dodge it. He returns to reading my diary and I go on typing undisturbed.

Veggie Mom and her bacon

FRIDAY, August 6 – And the parenting goes on. We get an early start on our way to Cooperstown, a picturesque town in upstate New York and the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jennifer had often told Eamonn how she’d love to take him to the museum one day.

Today we’re making this stop in her name. Jennifer and I had been there together years ago. She had reminisced, then, about the time that she had visited the site as a little girl with her parents and brothers. Everyone in the Nolan family was, and is, crazy about baseball and their favorite team are the New York Mets, well represented in this Valhalla of baseball greats.

Just as on Ellis Island, I take on Jennifer’s role as history guide, talking a mile a minute about this quintessentially American attraction. Eamonn-the-baseball-player can’t believe his eyes. At first Sander turns up his adolescent nose, but our enthusiasm is contagious. I pretend that Jennifer and I are walking hand-in-hand through the exhibitions.

Over lunch we chat not about ‘Mom and baseball’ but about ‘Mom and bacon’. That strip of bacon on Sander’s hamburger smells so good and I recall how Jennifer, a confirmed vegetarian, admitted that her mouth began to water whenever she smelled bacon. The boys enjoyed the anecdote.

‘You can tell that one to your children when you’re old,’ I say with a smile.

Moments later we’re talking about ‘Mom and Grandma’. Eamonn says he can’t imagine Mom as a grandmother. I find that an interesting remark and ask him why.

He can’t explain it.  ‘It’s like I can’t picture her that old. But I don’t have any trouble seeing you as a grandfather, Papa.’

And Sander says that he can, too. Then the two of them start to fantasize about Papa Tim as the grandfather of their children. In a word: ‘someone who’ll let them get away with murder’.  I grin, but there’s a storm raging in my head. Jennifer and I had resigned ourselves to my suspicion that I would not live to a ripe old age, but that she would. She even said that she looked forward to being an old granny.

I decide not to share this with the boys. 

Inspiration from Green Day

THURSDAY, August 5 – We’re on our way to the concert by punk-rock band Green Day.  This is what brought us to Buffalo. It was Eamonn’s idea and I was immediately in favor: a trip to the far west of the state was an opportunity for the three of us to experience new things.

The truth was that I knew little or nothing about Green Day’s music; but, that’s why we have iTunes and Wikipedia. Sander took care of downloading the latest album and their all-time hits. I did some research on the members of the band, and stumbled across an interesting detail.

‘Hey, guys,’ I began casually.  ‘Do you know who the Green Day singer is?

They didn’t.

‘His name is Billie Joe Armstrong,’ I continued.

No bells rang.

‘Did you know that he was ten years old when his father died?

The boys shifted slightly on their chairs.

‘How do you know?’

I revealed my source. And then I told them how as a boy Billie Joe thoroughly disliked the man his mother married shortly afterwards and that he took refuge in music, locking himself in his room and writing songs. The boys listened raptly.

‘Do you remember the number Wake Me Up When September Ends?’  I asked.

Of course.

‘That’s what Mom wrote on her Facebook wall on September 30th last year,’ Sander immediately remembered. Which means that she must have been a big fan of Green Day, but we couldn’t really say for sure.

‘That number also has a special meaning for Billie Joe,’ I added, savoring the boys’ full attention.

Eamonn:  ‘And what was that?’

‘It’s about his father. It’s a tribute.’

On the spot we declared ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ our all-time favorite Green Day song.

            Summer has come and passed                                

            The innocent can never last

            Wake me up when September ends

            Like my father’s come to pass

            Seven years has gone so fast

            Wake me up when September ends

            Here comes the rain again

            Falling from the stars

            Drench in my pain again

            Becoming who we are

            As my memory rests

            But never forgets what I lost

            Wake me up when September ends

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