Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the category “Family & Friends”

Hell has many rooms

TUESDAY, March 2 – Wonderful responses to my email. (Except for the woman who said I could always call her if I was feeling lonely.)  That’s the whole fucking point, dumb ass.

Many friends and acquaintances had similar stories to tell. After the death of a close friend, parent or sibling, they were inundated with sympathy which soon disappeared – like snow from the sun.

One journalist friend was shocked.  He hadn’t heard. Understandably, as his wife is dying of cancer. He has other (or rather, similar) things on his mind. After a brief exchange via email, he wrote:

It’s hard to fathom. Hell has many rooms, and even suites. Sometimes we’re ordered to walk around for a while. The true art is to then set course for the light, hand in hand with your loved  ones, as close as you can get. Fantastic to know that you’re working on it. Just as it’s great that you’re walking alongside us. 

Dear friends, let me tell you

MONDAY, March 1 – The weather is gorgeous this morning. In response to the sun on my face, I decide to send my friends an update on our doings and to break the somewhat uncomfortable silence. I realize that that I occasionally take antisocial advantage with my answering machine, and without a qualm; but, presumably, my friends don’t know that.  So, here goes:

Dear Friends,

Let me tell you how we are doing.  In a nutshell: the sun is beginning to shine, at least from time to time. The rays are faint, but still. Little by little, Sander, Eamonn and I are starting to crawl out from under the enormous shadow that was so cruelly cast over us at the end of October and that movement feels good. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot and I can’t say that everything’s fine. That’s certainly not the case. We miss Jennifer terribly and we still cannot understand why this happened. We will probably never understand why.

Yet we know that we have to move on and that we can do it. The three of us are unbelievably close. In a sense, this is a very precious period in our lives, to which I automatically add that I’d give anything not to have to be going through it. I wouldn’t wish this nightmare on my worst enemy. And that’s what it is – a bloody nightmare.

Now, four months later, we have picked up the thread of our lives. For us, at least, nothing will ever be the same. We keep busy with school, with work, and with the day-to-day concerns. As of three weeks ago, we have also had the help of E, an American au pair who we got to know while we were living in Washington D.C.

This means that we have both more stability and more flexibility in our lives during these hectic and emotional times. We also have a weekly appointment with a psychologist and there are people at school the boys can call on. I’m fortunate in having a number of friends whose support I can rely on and who know where to find me if I want to be found.

I know that many people think of us regularly and that gives me strength. I also realize that I haven’t always had the energy to pick up the phone or to respond to emails. When you’re deep in shit, you want to be alone and when everything’s going your way, you want to concentrate on the good things. Now, as we’re slowly but surely readying ourselves to reconnect with the world, we are aware that in the meantime many of you have gotten on with your own lives.

Thus, I wanted to send you this little note. We want to hear from you, even though we might not always respond immediately. We want to hear how things are with you and yours and all about those things that are part of everyday life.

On the other hand we would really rather avoid having to cross that awkward and painful barrier of: ‘I really want to know how things are with you and the boys, but I’m afraid to ask.’

Please talk to us about the ordinary things, what ‘s going on that makes your life pleasant or unbearable – that’s the way it goes, as I’ve discovered. Life does go on.

Our life does too. In fits and starts: now and then there’s a positive development and then you fall flat on your face, again.

Just wanted you to know.

Warm greetings,


Memorials. Friends need them

FRIDAY, January 29 – Two emails from abroad: one of them came in yesterday, but I had deliberately ignored it. No energy. Today I received a similar message, thus,  forcing me to ponder them. Permission for a memorial service:  one in Italy, the other in America. I go all cold at the very thought, even though the requests are full of warmth and love.

J explains that he wants to organize a concert in Italy. He and Jennifer met a few years back in a castle where she regularly spent the weekend. It was a dilapidated country house near Bologna, full of books, with a vineyard and interesting guests:  the ideal getaway from her life in London, with husband, children and the hustle & bustle of everyday life.

J is a professional violinist who lives in London with his partner A. He and Jenn had become the best of friends and last summer they had even gone to visit his parents in Portugal. As it happened, just last weekend the boys and I had watched the jerky images of Jenn taken there with my flip camera. These are the  last moving images of her, lasting only a few seconds, still  her voice sounds so close-by.  J’s idea is  to organize a concert, plant a tree on the estate, and entice as many of their mutual friends as possible to come to Italy for the occasion. He wants to know whether I’ll be there with the boys.

The other request, which came in this morning, is also an invitation, from Swarthmore College. Will the boys and I be attending the unveiling of a bench on  campus in memory of Jennifer?  The email was from Jenn’s college friend B. Their class reunion, which takes place every five years, will be held this coming June, twenty years after their graduation. Jenn had  already been making tentative plans to attend. A stab of pain shot through my body at the thought that she would indeed be there, although not physically. Instead, in the shape of a bench in the park with her name on it, and a favorite motto or saying.

Yes, of course, I reply and I’d be pleased to be involved.  I can’t say yet whether we will be physically present, but I’ll do my best. I didn’t tell J and B that their requests set off an enormous crying fit or  that I was pained by the definitive nature of their initiatives, nor  that I could only see them as another burial.  They seem the fulfillment of a memory of something that no longer exists, but that once was. History.

At the same time, I do realize how precious these initiatives are and how very sincere. In the long run, they are more valuable than the stab I feel in my heart right now. We can’t yet say whether we will actually be coming . The boys have school, of course, but it’s good to know that friends from Jennifer’s past want to show us how greatly they were influenced by her. History doesn’t focus only on the mistakes that have been made, but also or perhaps primarily on what was beautiful. And what will always be beautiful.

How are you today? Great!

facebookpicSUNDAY, January 24 – I’m rested, my energy is returning, and my dirty house must pay the price. I feel an urge to embrace the outside world, starting with Facebook. Sometime ago I turned my back on most of my virtual friends.  My scribbled messages were too personal. Now I want to make friends again, invite them to become part of our daily life again. There’s nothing to hold me back: the windows are wide open again.

Talk or don’t talk about her

SATURDAY, December 26 – And here we are, in bed early. All three of us. Eamonn is next to me, by now sound asleep. Sander has his own guest room. All three of us want rest and quiet, or – as Sander put it – ‘I’m sick and tired of all these people.’

Grandma who talks at the top of her voice, Grandpa who can’t understand what she’s saying, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews vying for attention. The special charm of the Nolans:  boisterousness.  But not right now.

What I’ve noticed, and what disappoints me, is the fact that all mention of Jennifer is painstakingly avoided. Consciously or unconsciously. No one brought up her name. There were no indirect references, no anecdotes, nothing at all. Only my sister-in-law asked me how  I  and the boys were doing.

The rest of the family stuck to the usual subjects. Football, memorable family vacations, Seinfeld imitations, the latest movies. Jennifer did not feature in any of these conversations. Maybe it was better that way, but to my way of thinking there was something really wrong. Weren’t we all gathered here precisely because of her?

In a sense, it was understandable. At least this way we weren’t constantly being confronted with her death, but suppressing it and pretending it had never happened was getting on my nerves.  So much so that in the midst of this large and loud family I was feeling lonelier than ever. However, if the reverse were the case, and Jennifer was the sole topic of conversation, I would probably have been just as miserable.

Sander just came in. Couldn’t get to sleep. He wants to go home and, further, he has two wishes: He wants the new year to start and he wants Mom back. I start promising him all sorts of things, but actually that isn’t even the problem.  I hold him tight. That’s enough. He and I don’t even have to talk about Mom. We don’t need words… a simple hug says a lot more.

‘This is my gift to you’

xmascardFRIDAY, December 25 – They were all there. Grandpa and Grandma, Uncle Jim and Aunt Missy, their Conor and Ceara, Uncle Chris and his daughter Marina, Uncle Paul and Aunt Barbara, their Tommie and Grace, Uncle Pete and Margaret, Sander and Eamonn and me.

Of course, it was difficult. What did I expect? They were all there because you weren’t there. Everyone except you. Where are you? The day went by in a daze. So glad that Christmas is over. Thank God there will be no Second Christmas Day in America as there is in Holland. Around nine-thirty I sneak out. I’ve had enough.

I cry on Eamonn’s hand-written Christmas card.  ‘Happy Holidays’ it says on the front and inside:

‘Dear Papa, For all the shit we have gone through, this is my gift. The best presents don’t come in boxes. The best presents come from your heart. I hope you’ll treasure this one forever. From Eamonn.’

Dropping the ball. Literally

christmastreeTUESDAY, December 22 – Part of it is jet lag, of course, but I find myself depressed by the triviality of New Jersey.  The Marketfair Mall, for example, where for eighteen years I regularly watched Jennifer walk into and out of each and every store.

It’s around the corner from the movie theater and Victoria’s Secret where I used to buy beautiful lingerie for her. There was Baby Gap, where she’d buy outfits for nieces and nephews and the children of friends. And next door, the grown-up Gap where we bought our jeans. At the far end of the mall there was a Barnes & Noble, where we’d wander around for hours, often taking home three, four, five or six books. And sometimes we just settled for coffee and chocolate chip cookies.

There was a theater where we used to sit in the car for hours after the movie, or outside on the curb looking up at the stars and chatting. Or in silence, listening to the crickets. This is the movie theater where nothing ever changed:  there was always the same man who tore our tickets in two and waved us in – and that’s only the mall.

Further up on Route 1 we paid our traditional visit to Target. I saw Jennifer in each and every aisle, strolling in her flip-flops, hunting for bargains in the Girls’ Department. I bought the second season of the Mad Men series, one of our favorites. We’d gotten about half-way, and I couldn’t really see myself finishing the series all alone. I bought the DVD pack, without quite knowing why.

21:00 – They’re decorating the tree. One more damned tradition:  Grandma always waited until her daughter and the grandchildren arrived to decorate the tree. This time Eamonn and Sander were helping her. Then, on top of everything, Jenn’s favorite ornament got smashed to pieces. A silver-orange-and-blue New York Mets ball. I deposit the remains in the trash can. Still, there’s an empty spot in the tree, only visible to us.

Lost after our home-coming

MONDAY, December 21 – What do I write? What is there to observe or to register in this quiet house in suburbia, where I’m lying on the same creaky double bed the two of us shared for years. Though it was on the narrow side, it was still a perfect match, our bodies meeting in various places.

What to say about the place Sander refers to as our home away from home, since we’ve spent so many summers and winters here. Less than three hours by car from Washington D.C. and only an hour from New York, it was a welcoming destination whether we were coming from London or Amsterdam.

A familiar headquarters, a home base from which to visit the shore and family and friends, or explore other cities – all activities that we cannot summon the energy for right now. What to say about our host and hostess, Grandma and Grandpa, visibly suffering the pain of their absent daughter.  Every day they’re a year older as they busy themselves trying to entertain us, all the while asking themselves, just as I do, ‘Oh, Jennifer… where are you?’

What can I say about the photos scattered on walls and tabletops around the house: in the living room her formal high school portrait, and the sweet photo of her – back then with long hair – in front of a Dutch windmill after she moved to Holland; the one on the fridge, taken on Sander’s eleventh birthday when he celebrated with a cake he’d made himself and in the dining room the various family portraits taken over the years, including our wedding portrait.

What to write except for this:  what was, is. What is, once was. The past is pervasive in the present and we crave the invisible strength that will show us the way to the future.

Go, go, go! Let’s not go

vliegtuigSUNDAY, December 20 – Yesterday Eamonn decided which clothes to take on our trip: a  small pile on the dining room floor consisting of a few shirts, jeans, and underwear.  A bathrobe and his blanket also go into the suitcase. He’s taking some books and his iPod Touch on board with him as well as blank pages to draw on.

This morning he was the first one up and dressed, while Sander claimed he was too sleepy and too busy to give me a hand.  While I stuffed items into the suitcase, Eamonn ran to the corner to mail some letters and then back home again. ‘Since the faster you run, the sooner we’ll be in the States.’

He was sitting on the front steps waiting for the taxi, while I was still wrestling with the last suitcase. They say that women always take more with them than men. Jennifer certainly didn’t, but the empty space in our third suitcase is suspicious. I’ve probably forgotten something important, but we’ll worry about that when we get to the States.

We arrived at Schiphol Airport in plenty of time. Once there, I had to take the taxi driver to task for his driving: not once but twice he kept going even though there were pedestrians trying to cross. I also told him why. He wasn’t impressed. There were long lines at the check-in desk, but we made it onto the plane, which was overbooked. Eamonn had run all the way to passport control.

Once we’d gone through security, Eamonn couldn’t wait to board. Only a few minutes late, the doors closed and I looked at my children with anticipation.  Sander on the aisle, Eamonn next to the window, and me in the middle. ‘Seven hours and fifty minutes, and then we’ll be landing, guys.  Isn’t this fun?’

Eamonn was looking out the window. When I leaned over his shoulder, I got the fright of my life. He was crying his eyes out. Not making any sound. I put my head cautiously on his left shoulder blade, pushed my hand under his elbow and took hold of his fingers. Gently I rubbed his palm and planted a kiss on his hair.

After a few minutes he turned to me: ‘Papa, can’t we stay home? I don’t really feel like going to America.’

Ten minutes later, his grief had evaporated. That’s how fast things can change  when you’re dealing with children, I think to myself. Usually to my relief, but occasionally in exasperation. You’ve just opened a conversation with a bit of depth and they can’t wait to switch to some stupid video game. Like after this crying bout he decided that the first thing he was going to do at Grandpa and Grandma’s was to shovel the snow from their driveway.

Kicking Oma out of the house

SATURDAY, December 19 – I just asked my mother to leave the house. It had absolutely nothing to do with her, well-intentioned as she is, but I could not abide her presence in the house for one more minute.

It would have been the same with anyone else. She arrived yesterday and wanted to stay for an extra night. Suddenly, something snapped in me. Four people in my house and none of them Jennifer.  Impossible.

It was horrible to have to tell her that it would be better if she left, but in the end it was better. For all of us. I’d come close to saying things that I would regret later on. She phoned to say she was home, as she always did and I let the phone go to voice mail.

15:00 – We’re in the park and I see Eamonn racing in our direction. Then suddenly he skids on the frozen ground and hits the back of his head. For an instant we stand there, petrified. The back of his head. Then he gets up, pulls a face, and says, ‘Don’t worry. I’m okay. And I still have my sense of humor.’

22:30 – That same conversation again with Sander. About death, about not knowing, about the explanations we search for and can’t find. It’s wearing, the interminable repetition of useless information, but I don’t lose my patience. Then there’s a pause. Sander is about to tell me something.

‘You know what, Papa? Last night when everyone was asleep, even the dog and the cat, I woke up and saw this blue light floating through the hall. It went straight into Eamonn’s room. I saw it, and then suddenly it was gone.’

I don’t say anything, waiting for more. Sander: ‘I think it was Mom.’

He admits that he was a bit scared. I tell him that it’s ‘a very special experience’. And that he should try to treasure such moments, even though we don’t know what it was or what it meant.

I’m reminded of something Jennifer told me. How once, in the middle of the night, she woke up and saw my father appear in a corner of the bedroom.  How he looked at us, and kept looking, and that he saw that it was good. Later on, when Jenn told my sister-in-law L about it, she was ecstatic. L had had the very same experience years before.

As far as I’m concerned, Jennifer is more than welcome to come by and take a look at her boys. In whatever way and in whatever form she chooses.

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