Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

Having the time of their lives

SUNDAY, September 19 – The children are having the time of their lives in the Amsterdam Tropical Museum. The guard cautions them about  laughing too loudly while I pretend they’re not with me. They race from one floor to the next. I follow them at a leisurely pace, hiding the grief that overwhelms me. Shouldn’t Jennifer be here with us?

‘I was just talking about you’

SATURDAY, September 18 – ‘Oh, are you the husband of the woman who was killed by a motorcycle cop?’ said my table companion at dinner tonight.  ‘I was talking about you the other day.’ We’d never met before, and it seemed strange that people were still talking about us ten months later. The man who lost his wife. The woman who lost her life.  The tragedy that touched the hearts of people I don’t know.

Dealing with loss is an art

FRIDAY, September 17 – Much consternation in Dutch society about the future of the black Suzuki Swift driven by Karst T. The police museum is planning to exhibit the wreck.

No way, says the mayor of Apeldoorn, where on April 30, 2009 T. launched a failed attack on the royal family.  He himself was killed, but not before causing the death of seven people. The survivors have branded the idea lugubrious. And they’re right. Why on earth would anyone want to visit an exhibition consisting of the remains of the vehicle that broke your husband’s bones, crushed your daughter’s skull, or disemboweled your friend?

The word ‘lugubrious’ is too mild. It’s morbid exhibitionism.

A while back the boys asked me what had happened to the motorcycle that knocked their mother down. The public prosecutor told us that the vehicle had been temporarily retained as evidence in the trial of R and, after the verdict, it was returned to the Amsterdam police department. On the internet there’s still a photograph in circulation showing the motorcycle after it slid onto its side and went skidding across the pavement.

That, too, was morbid. I hope no one ever rides it again.

For a while Sander toyed with the idea of tackling it with a sledgehammer and Eamonn thought it was a good plan. Whacking the daylights out of the object that took their mother away from them. For the same reason, the Suzuki Swift ought to be turned over to the loved ones of the seven Queen’s Day victims. Call that the art of dealing with loss.

You’re in love again already?

THURSDAY, September 16 – ‘That was pretty quick, wasn’t it?’ My friend M. doesn’t mince his words. Always straight from the shoulder and as honest as they come. He ought to know me well enough by now to realize that I’m only teasing when I say, ‘What do you mean, quick? Do you object to the fact that I have a girlfriend?’

He immediately regrets having been so forthright and apologizes.  I keep a straight face. ‘What exactly do you think is the right time to begin a new relationship?  After a year? Two years? Or are we supposed to remain grieving widowers for five years?’

We’re in a pub where we’ve just seen soccer team Real Madrid slaughter Ajax and .M shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other,  ‘Hey, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.

I pretend to give him a punch in the stomach. ‘Hey, I’m just fucking with you.’

He laughs, a little uncertainly. ‘You know what I’m like. I say what I think. A lot of people think one thing and say something else.’

So what.

I can honestly say that it doesn’t interest me what people think. Naturally, I see the raised eyebrows and I sense the looks. I know that people sometimes say one thing, but think something else. Perfectly understandable. Just try getting it across to people that you can be in mourning and in love at the same time. Sometimes I wonder if I actually understand it all myself.

Let’s get together soon for a meal,’ M suggests at the end of the evening.

‘Yeah, great,’ I say, and I mean it. Although I can’t help adding, ‘But only if you feel you’re ready. Let’s not rush things.’

Back at the place of her death

WEDNESDAY, September 15 – It was a friendly icebreaker. ‘Was it difficult to walk into this place?’ To be honest, no; but, earlier this year it had been when I had to take Sander to the dental surgeon. Both of us had had to swallow hard when we walked into the hospital where Jenn had died.

There’s a first time for everything, so on my second visit to this immense hospital I could answer the question with a firm ‘no’. What I did find difficult was sitting down opposite the general manager of the Academic Medical Center, who had welcomed me so disarmingly. I had a number of questions for him. The most important and the most horrific was: ‘Could my wife’s death have been prevented?’

This appointment was not something I had been looking forward to, but it was unavoidable after an external expert had scrutinized the medical file. His conclusion was devastating and I placed the passage in question which I know by heart on the table. Slowly, one word at a time, I read the paragraph aloud.

‘The final conclusion is that incidents of carelessness took place during hospitalization. If those incidents had not occurred, the death of Ms. Nolan could possibly have been prevented. Without medical intervention, the injuries resulting from the traffic accident were fatal, but earlier medical intervention might have prevented her death.’

Next to the report, I placed a photo of Jennifer so that it was clear who we were talking about. Not a patient, but my wife, the mother of my children. I wanted an explanation, a posthumous explanation on her behalf.

We went through the allegations, point by point. What it boiled down to was the following:

The assessment of the first CT scan was incomplete; the scan was not repeated shortly afterward; the results of the neurological checks were not communicated; and the standard pupil check once every hour after midnight was not carried out.

My host acknowledged one formal incident of carelessness, but placed the other  things in context. He explained exactly what had happened, clarified the possible confusion, and quoted his staff members who had rejected the conclusion. All of this was understandable and to be expected and I let it sink in. It all sounded damned plausible.

But, on that Thursday afternoon and evening, the assurances of one hospital staff member after another that Jennifer was going to be okay were equally plausible. And she still died. She’s dead.

I shook hands with the man and thanked him for his time, took the exit ticket the secretary handed me, and walked to the parking garage. There are plenty of options. A third opinion by a different hospital, as he suggested. A fourth opinion by the medical expert called in by my lawyer. My only remaining question just as an ambulance with a blaring siren demands the right of way is whether I can or am willing to summon the energy necessary to carry out a public search for that possible fatal mistake.

In all honesty, I don’t think I have it in me.  Still, the option is there and that gives me a sense of control and little bit of inner peace.

Sick of myself, of everything

TUESDAY, September 14 – The rain was pouring down and before I knew it, I was soaking wet. Glorious. I needed it, since I was feeling pretty grungy.  I’d just spent an hour with my lawyer crunching numbers, writing up scenarios, and counting hours in order to establish what Jennifer’s death was worth financially. The city of Amsterdam is legally bound to pay compensation to her family.

The calculations could have been done months ago, but mentally I hadn’t been ready for all that.. Come on, your wife is dead and you have to decide how much she was worth. The procedure in itself seemed fairly simple, but, nonetheless insurmountable.

I got on my bike and prayed that the rain would wash away the unpleasant nasty aftertaste. Once home, the smell of vultures lingered and the first thing I did was take a hot shower. I felt like crying my eyes out, but the tears wouldn’t come. Besides what would I be crying about?  About Jennifer, who is no longer here, or the unbearable fact that someone has put a price tag on her absence?

That wretched feeling dogged me like I was wrapped in a smelly blanket, following me to work, where I stared listlessly in front of me. With my typical naivety, I had apparently expected that I would be capable of sitting around the table with my lawyer in a businesslike manner in the morning, and then head back to work in the afternoon as if nothing had happened. On the agenda that afternoon there was the first in a series of four cross-media workshops, the sort of project I’m expected to lead, as deputy editor-in-chief.  I just couldn’t swing it. I felt paralyzed and all the misery of the morning meeting was starting to fill my head.

One of the scenarios my lawyer and I had discussed was the very real possibility that I would not be able to combine my demanding work load with the role of father. Today that was clearly the case. I left the building. Sick of myself, sick of everything.

My snoring helps him to sleep

MONDAY, September 13 – It was only quarter past five. He couldn’t get back to sleep and was standing there next to my bed. It had been quite a while.  I had no objection to moving over and making room for my younger son. Later he said he was getting a little old for this, but he was looking for an excuse. And he found one:  ‘I need the sound of your snoring to get to sleep.’

Family with an uneven number

SUNDAY, September 12 – The rules are clear. No more than two people at a time on the slide; but, here we are, in our local pool, the three of us. We look at each other for a fleeting second. Eamonn goes first, Sander follows, and seconds later I shout, ‘Clear the way!’

Municipal rules will have to be bent this Sunday morning. There are three of us and that’s that. We hurtle triumphantly down the chute, ending up in a disheveled tangle of limbs in the shallow pool as the water sloshes over the sides. I realize how much we have grown.

Mentally, but also physically.

Sander is turning into a gawky beanpole, Eamonn is in the middle of a growth spurt, and I am literally in between. The speed at which we whoosh down the slide together reflects the energy that we’ve rediscovered, and that we radiate. It is proof of the self-confidence with which we face life. Together, the three of us can take on the whole world. So, out of the way!

But it’s still an uneven number. So what do we do with two whirlpool baths?  Eamonn and me in one, and Sander in the other. Once in a while Eamonn jumps over to visit his brother, and, together, we lounge around in the hot, bubbling herbal water.

‘It’s great here, isn’t it,’ I say to Eamonn, as he swims over to me.

He nods.

‘Do you think C and the girls would like it?’

I nod.

‘And Mom. Would she have liked it, too?

‘Yes, I’m sure she would have.’

From the other jacuzzi, Sander asks if we can go down the slide again.

Thinking of the 9/11 widow

SATURDAY, September 11 – It’s that time of year again. The eleventh day of the ninth month. 9/11. I get calls from various media, asking if I’d like to appear on their program and discuss the events of that notorious day. Again, I decline politely. I’ve had my fill.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 were a journalistic high point in my broadcasting career. I was the US radio correspondent for NOS News in Washington D.C. and it was around three o’clock in the afternoon, Dutch time, when I went on the air. For days on end, twenty-four hours a day, I ended up reporting on the collapse of the towers in New York, the attack on the Pentagon, and the search for survivors. And I was also trying to describe in words how the American people were reacting to this tragedy.

During the ensuing weeks, the adrenaline was pumping through my veins. I barely saw my wife and children. I had a radio studio in the basement of our house and because I had to go on-air constantly, I had a fold-out bed next to my desk so I could get a bit of sleep – and next to that a bucket to piss in.  Some people called my conduct bizarre, while I saw it as the logical consequence of a devotion to duty.

In that journalistic whirl of excitement, there was little time for reflection. What was it doing to me? That wasn’t important. My job was to report as accurately as possible on the number of victims, those responsible for the carnage, the political reactions, the upcoming military response, airport safety, a world turned upside down, and the actual facts of the event. That was my job.

Behind all this, there was the human drama. I remember how our neighbor leaned over the back fence and asked Jenn if she or I had any idea what had happened to the people who were trapped in the towers above the devastating flames caused by the two planes. Her brother worked in the World Trade Center. He was never found.

I later visited Ground Zero and recounted the years when I had lived on the other side of the Hudson River, in Hoboken, New Jersey with a magnificent view of those awesome skyscrapers. I talked with a great many New Yorkers, who normally have a reputation for being brash and cynical and they were visibly shaken and deeply affected. America was cut to the quick.

Nor did the events leave me unaffected either  During one of those initial midnight broadcasts, I broke down and cried. It was all too much. On the way to the NOS office in Washington, D.C., I would feel tears welling up, without warning. Crying out of the blue. That was a revelation and a manifestation of emotions I didn’t know I possessed.  As a journalist, you’re used to switching them off. You report on other people’s misery: you’re not part of it. But 9/11 was of a different order.

Less than a year later I was sitting at the dining room table with Kelly, a widow and mother of two young children. It was Jennifer’s idea to approach Kelly for an interview, as the first anniversary was approaching. We had met Kelly and Chris in a playground in Hoboken and the children got along well.

‘You’re welcome to come by,’ Kelly said. ‘I’m always happy to talk about Chris.’

In search of an arresting radio interview, I asked her to read the brief obituary published in The New York Times. Each victim was given a couple of paragraphs in the newspaper, Chris included. She began to read. After three sentences she was crying. She continued to read. About how they had met in high school and gone to the same college,  about how they had married and came to live in Hoboken.

I held the trembling microphone to her mouth. Started crying myself. Should I have stopped there? I thought about my broadcast and let her go on, with that sob in her voice.

The evening before the attack, Chris Colasanti was giving their daughters Cara and Lauren their bath. Then he showed Cara his collection of baseball cards. ‘We have to be strong, the three of us,’ said Kelly. ‘We have to go on living, because he was so very special. It has to be a great life, because he was great.’

Relieved, she looked up, and saw my tears. What happened to ‘detached, neutral, impersonal, objective’?

Great story, I said to myself, as I left her house.

Today I’m thinking about Kelly and her daughters.

19:00 – We’re at a birthday party, and the youngsters have long since headed upstairs where they’re playing a video game. I join the circle of adults in the backyard.  Then, slightly bored, I go up to check on the kids. I’m still on the stairs when I hear enthusiastic shouting and laughing.

‘Oh, hi Papa,’ says Eamonn. His face is flushed with pleasure. As is his brother’s.

‘What are you guys doing?’

Grand Theft Auto’, but we’re not playing with pistols, Papa.’ They’re aware of my objections, and Jennifer’s. Guns are taboo in games. Then and now. I reach for the box and am surprised to see that it’s for age group 18+.

‘But we’re not fighting and we don’t use pistols. Honestly,’ Sander immediately adds.

I stick around for a while and see how Eamonn laughs his head off when he has his main character steal a motorbike and careen off at top speed while in the crosswalk passers-by are catapulted into the air. I say nothing.

On the way home, the boys sing at the top of their lungs. I join in, with no pangs of conscience.

Wrapping up our therapy

FRIDAY, September 10 – Half an hour later, it was decided. We got out our diaries and made appointments for the last two sessions. One would be in early October and the last one sometime in November. The psychologist felt that it was time to round off the Friday sessions and we, or rather I, agreed.

We had last seen her in early July. There had been various developments during the summer vacation, and I called her earlier this week to bring her up to date. About C and the children, about the vacation, about the scattering of the ashes, about my work, about my book, but above all about Sander and Eamonn.

The boys indicated that things were ‘actually pretty okay’. At the moment they’re happy with life, although they still have their bad moments. If there’s one thing that they’d like to change, it’s the frequency of our outings and more often, with just the three of us.

I made a mental note of that. We mustn’t forget to plan things just for us guys. It’s great fun with all six of us, as Sander stressed, but we have to cherish the indestructible bond between father and sons. Maybe we can reserve Friday afternoon or evening for our outings.

I look back on our sessions with satisfaction. Maybe it’s hard to explain the exact areas where the psychologist was able to help; but, she certainly found a way to get Eamonn to come out of his shell and talk about the accident. At unexpected moments she helped Sander to realize that he was carrying unaddressed anger and how he could deal with it. What she ultimately taught me was how, as a father, I could find peace during all those months of inner tornados. All this plus the invisible support that, thanks to her, we were able to give each other.

For me, the best part was the fact that we did it.

There’s a good chance that one of us, in the years to come, will feel the need or the urge to go back into therapy. That, too, was the added value and the investment of the past year. Making everything open to discussion, in secure surroundings, and with a patient listener. Now we can move on.

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