Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the category “Family & Friends”

One year later. We’ve done it

SUNDAY, October 24 – ‘Now where were we?’ I joke, as I stand there in front of 130 guests gathered in the concert hall of the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Most of them I hadn’t seen in almost a year, since the cremation service. We’d taken leave of each other in sadness, but with hope in our hearts. This afternoon I don’t intend to grieve for our loss, but rather celebrate the fact that we are here today. That we are not only alive, one year later, but also living.

This morning I’d re-read the speech I gave then. At the crematorium I’d frequently quoted Jennifer, herself and her most important message was, ‘Live now. Live in the moment’.

(Why this blog? Click here)

That’s what we’re doing, together with musician friends, whose contributions are much appreciated. In my thank you-speech, I referred to the past year as a ‘piece of crap’. I impress on them how difficult it has been without describing each and every crap moment. I stress life, and offer a number of variations on the theme:  Survive. Experience. Empathize. Live on. Enjoy ourselves.

And that’s what we’re doing this afternoon. Emcee Sander is the ultimate entertainer, addressing the audience with amazing aplomb between several pieces on the piano. He’s also a genuine crooner, as if he’s spent most of his waking hours in smoky cafes. He winds the audience around his little finger, as he introduces the various acts. Effortlessly.  And the kid is only thirteen. When I was his age, I was almost afraid to look people in the eye in answer to them merely asking me a simple question. This afternoon it is clear to all that Sander is a born performer.

Eamonn brings the first set to a close with the rock ballad ‘Basket Case’ by Green Day. There are tears running down my face and I’m not the only one as this ten-year-old takes his place on a high-backed chair and starts to play. It’s as if he’s sitting on the living room couch, casually strumming away. He plays and sings, makes a mistake in the middle of a song, laughs at himself, picks up the thread, and then finishes the song amid a tumultuous storm of applause. Proudly he returns to his seat alongside me.

God, how I love my children. Jenn’s children.

The first anniversary of her death is a true celebration. Just as I had envisioned it:  a memorable afternoon with family and friends, during which Jennifer was present in the music. It was a fitting way to introduce C: living proof that love is possible after tragedy. May our hearts be filled with the spirit of Jennifer’s beloved Baudelaire poem, so that we take no notice of the passing time.

Don’t be martyred slaves of Time,

Get drunk!

Stay drunk!

On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever!

We are alive. No matter whether our stay on earth is long or it is short, that’s what it’s all about.

(Would you like to go to the start of my blog, one year earlier? Click here and scroll down)

Being honest with the in-laws

SUNDAY, October 17 – It isn’t an accusation or a reproach. Just something I have to get off my chest. So I write to my brothers-in-law who’ve been receiving a weekly email from me with an account of all our doings.  In this case it’s a bit more touchy and I need to establish that I’m not angry, just a bit disappointed.

‘I understand that you all have arranged for your parents to spend a couple of days in San Francisco this week. What a great present for their 49th wedding anniversary. I would gladly have contributed to the cost of the trip, on behalf of the three of us, had I been asked. Gestures like this mean a great deal to me and to the boys. They make us feel like we’re really part of the family and in this regard, I have to say that the contact between us is becoming a bit one-sided.  With some exceptions, we seldom hear from you, aside from a few sentences in response to the emails I send.

‘I sincerely hope that Sander and Eamonn will always remain close to you and your children. They’re Nolans. That’s why it’s so important that we hear from you on a regular basis. Shall we all make more of an effort to keep in touch this coming year, even though Jennifer is no longer among 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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’.

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