Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the category “Family & Friends”

Memories in the suburbs

SUNDAY, August 1, 2010 – Champagne! I was the first to raise my glass. ‘To Jennifer!’  And, then, in a choked voice, ‘To her friends!’ I had intended to say more, but I couldn’t.  There were eight former neighbors who had gathered together for a brunch in honor of the four of us raising their glasses to this toast. Here, Jenn lives on.

Seeing a group of people all at one time is easier than visiting them separately and having to repeat the story over and over. A good solution.  It was a classic pot-luck meal: people brought food, drinks, dessert, or a simple snack. Vegetarian or swimming in fat.

Sitting around the table, the memories came drifting back. They all had their own anecdotes about the woman who had lived here in the Washington suburbs and who had long suffered from depression. Not many people knew that. The quiet lifestyle where women stayed at home to care for the children and men went out to work had crushed Jenn’s creativity.

Yet almost everyone remembered her spontaneity, her friendly gestures, her intelligent observations, and her warmth. Jenn herself would later characterize those six years in Kensington, Maryland as a cold period. After the birth of our second son, she lost herself for a long time. This also marked the beginning of a temporary ice age in our marriage.

By far the most touching story came from N about how Jenn’s death had been a trigger for her, encouraging her to take action. She regretted that she and Jenn had never gone to Italy, had never stayed in that dream castle they’d talked about in their emails. But she had no regrets about going back to school for a new career motivated not by Jenn’s death, but by the way she had lived.

L talked about her own life. It was the first time she had opened up in company. She had lost her own mother when she was only ten and her father had not been able to care for his children, who had to be placed in different families and also how earlier this year she discovered that that old wound had been cruelly torn open. L suggested that perhaps it had something to do with Jennifer’s death, but in a positive rather than in a negative sense. She was at odds with herself and in the end she left her husband. This was a phase in her personal voyage, one that had brought her some happiness.

Again we raised our glasses. In celebration of life. Her life. Our life.

I’m doing a great job, he says

THURSDAY, July 29 – It’s five-thirty in the morning when my father-in-law walks into the dining room where I’m sitting at the table, writing in my diary.

He puts his arm around me and says: ‘I want you to know that we’re behind you one hundred percent. We love you and your boys. We want you to know that you’re a wonderful father and you’re doing a great job.’

‘Thank you,’ I say. He leaves the room, this man of few words. He can scarcely talk about his daughter. And then this, however brief. Tears are rolling down my cheeks.

A mortal blow to her parents

WEDNESDAY, July 21 – Jennifer’s accident claimed other victims as well. While our scars may even now be starting to heal, I fear that her parents have been dealt a mortal blow. He doesn’t want to talk about it, no matter how you broach the subject.  She does want to talk, but he won’t listen. This is a source of conflict and discord in this marriage, which has lasted 49 years. For now, there is no indication that they are coming to terms with their loss. Perhaps they never will. It is heartbreaking to watch.

Be more social, widower!

WEDNESDAY, July 14 – Friend F does not mince her words. She tells me I shouldn’t isolate myself. She’s tried without success to make an appointment with me. I had finally come up with a suggestion, but at the last minute I had begged off. That’s something I’m good at: avoiding contact.  People accept that. The widower needs a bit of space, so leave him in peace.

This friend understands all that, but still has something to say: That I mustn’t forget that people are constantly thinking of me. That it’s not good to cut myself off from my friends. That it’s important to stay in touch, even if it’s just a five-minute conversation. For others to hear whether things are going well, or not. That friends are always there for me, but it’s good for them to know what’s going on. A simple sign of life is enough.

She’s right. There’s something egoistical about cutting yourself off and mourning on your own. In the beginning it was a question of survival, but after almost nine months the right to crawl into my shell has more or less expired. I promise to do my best.

How are you? I mean, YOU?

MONDAY, July 12 – ‘I feel just like you felt over Christmas,’ Grandma said, when I pressed her. Every time I asked her how she was doing, she started talking about one of her sons who’d done this or that. After two unsuccessful attempts, I discarded subtlety. ‘No, I want to know how you are.’

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.

‘Worry less. Laugh more’

SUNDAY, June 6 – Phone call from the States: a rundown on the dedication ceremony earlier today, during which a bench was unveiled on the campus of Swarthmore College in memory of Jenn.

According to her mother, there was comfort to be gleaned from the occasion which was full of warm and positive feelings. Emotional, of course, not least because it was attended by some fifty of Jennifer’s classmates. They were there to celebrate her life, with lively stories and fond memories.

Jenn’s mother talks about the attendees, about herself, about the speeches, about the bench itself, about the atmosphere, about the drinks and refreshments, and about the magnificent spot where the bench is situated. And about the text on the plaque, of course:

‘Worry less. Laugh more.’

In loving memory of

Jennifer Nolan ‘90

The year she graduated. This weekend was the twentieth anniversary. Jenn was there, according to her mother, who was conscious of her presence. In July we’ll be visiting the campus and no doubt that’s a better spot to scatter her ashes. Central Park would have involved a few logistical problems.

I don’t apologize for the tears I shed on the phone.  They were simply tears of joy.

In-laws just don’t get it

WEDNESDAY,  June 2 –  Learn from your forgets, Eamonn pronounced. Sander had a tip of his own: ‘Just stay home for a couple of hours, lie down on the couch and fall asleep.’ The boys are right.  Work can wait for a while. Fall asleep and forget, then wake up and move on. Lights out.

Ah, forgetting. But I can’t. Especially this. Last December the brothers-in-law – solemnly promised that the boys would always be welcome, and that I could count on their support during the summer months.  So, I made plans for next month; but now they’ve let me down, just when I need them the most. Were those offers of help nothing but empty promises?  It certainly feels that way.

This morning they propose that the boys spend a maximum of ten days with their three families, in three different states. A ridiculous itinerary. I am then informed that I’ll have to take my summer vacation a week earlier and fly back to Holland a week earlier than planned so as not to overburden the grandparents. That last point is something I fully understand, but the fact that I’m now expected to come up with a solution on my own is what really hurts.

This means, for one thing, that I can throw away the two return tickets and that I’ll have to buy new tickets. Also, I’ll have to totally revise my schedule at work. But above all, I must face the fact that I’m the one who’s responsible for my children, and no one else. Aunts and uncles can return to their daily routine. Their promises were no more than that. Hollow.

I sleep for an hour and then get up. I know where I stand and I accept the reality of in-laws. I’m angry and disappointed, but I’m also proud, and I decide to avoid a confrontation. I recall my brother-in-law’s words: ‘We’d do better to simply forget the first year and agree that the past year doesn’t count.’ Nonsense. This year counts more than ever and I’m not planning to forget anything.

Does this first year not count?

SUNDAY, May 30 – Uncle Pete is going back to New York. At Schiphol Airport we have time for a sandwich and we discuss the months to come. I confess that I’m a bit worried about the boys and how they’ll be looked after. It’s important for the uncles to understand that their nephews are no longer happy, carefree children able to forget about their grief as soon as they set foot on American soil.

Am I being overprotective? That seems to be what Peter is suggesting when he says that everything is going to be all right. I impress on him how difficult all this is for me. He must realize that and he must also impress on his brothers that the last seven months have been pure misery. What I want is for him to take a little bit of our shit back home with him and to realize what we’ve been going through, day in and day out.

He puts his arm around me. ‘Tim, we don’t know how to handle this. I don’t know. You don’t know. My parents don’t know. Or my brothers. There’s no blueprint for situations like this. That’s why we’d do better to simply forget the first year. Accept that we’ve made mistakes, that we’re doing our best to survive this year. And agree that the past year doesn’t count.

I understand what he’s getting at, and I appreciate what he’s saying, but his reasoning is faulty. This will be thought of as the most precious year in my life – this year following Jennifer’s death – no matter how awful that sounds. The intimacy that has grown between the three of us, the alternating sensations of intense grief and delirious joy, the certainty and the gnawing doubts about single parenthood, and not least of all the many mistakes we’ve made this year and will continue to make in the future. Forget this year?  Not on your life.

When family can’t cope either

SATURDAY, May 29 – A change of plans. Grandma is not coming to visit this summer, after all. Pete saved the announcement until after the party and chose his words carefully. I fully understand her decision. Apparently, she is close to a nervous breakdown, her blood pressure regularly shoots up and the mere thought of setting foot in Amsterdam, where her daughter died, sends her into a state of panic.

The original plan was that she would arrive in early July, spend a week here during the final school days, celebrate Eamonn’s birthday, and then fly back to the States with the boys. Everything was settled: the flight was booked in consultation with the brothers-in-law and I’d made plans for the two weeks that I’d be alone in Amsterdam. But now she must beg off.  It’s rotten luck, but it was to be expected. I call to tell her that I fully understand. Relief on the other end of the line.

Normally, I would have made a real fuss about a setback like this. Now I can muster the self-control to deal with such a last-minute change. I’m able to let it all sink in, and then accept that somehow things will work out for the best. How? I haven’t a clue. We’ll think of something. If necessary, the boys can fly to the States on their own. In any case, they’re going. ‘We want to go home,’ said Eamonn, speaking for his brother as well.

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