Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the category “Grieving”

Doing really well… NOT

TUESDAY, August 31 – He’s enjoying life at the top of his voice. He goes around the house singing, baking cookies for everyone, and playing the piano. This has been going on for days. ‘Come and sit down for a minute, son,’ I tell Sander. ‘How are you doing?’

Pretty well, apparently. But I try to explain that I find his uninhibited cheerfulness a bit worrying. That it wouldn’t surprise me if one of these days he had a relapse. That’s only normal and I wanted him to know that if that happened, I’d be there for him.

‘I had a bad moment today.’

This surprises me. ‘Really? I didn’t notice anything.’

It happened while he was on the way to the Conservatory. He was on his bike and had to stop for a traffic light, when all of a sudden he started swearing. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Just plain mad. Because Mom was gone. Because he had to go to his music lesson for the first time since Summer vacation and because everything seemed so ordinary.

‘I’m glad to hear that,’ I say.

Now it was his turn to look surprised.

‘I’d be really worried if you didn’t have moments like that, Sander. It’s only been ten months.’

‘That’s a pretty long time.’

‘We’ve got a much longer way to go, Sander. No matter what happens with you, with us, with C and her children, what our lives are like, and where we finally end up, just remember that I’ll be there for you.’

He still looked slightly surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have made such an issue of it, but it was for my own peace of mind, as well. I still have to pinch myself and the children every once in a while. Just to make sure we’re not dreaming.

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,

Tim

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.

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.’

Whoa.

‘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.

Bad day. That’s okay

SATURDAY, July 31 – Can we go? Can we go?  We’re off to an amusement park, together with the family we’re staying with. Roller coaster, swimming pool, plenty of sun, exuberant children, and amiable parents, but I can’t seem to join in. I feel depressed, have trouble being polite and just stay on the sidelines. I apologize later in the afternoon. Bad day. And that’s okay.

Memorialised on Ellis Island

FRIDAY, July 23 – While on Ellis Island, I tell the boys about the American roots that millions of people began to establish on this little island just off the coast of Manhattan as well as the hardships those immigrants faced when they made the decision to leave everything behind and start a new life in America.

I bring history to life in the stories of Jennifer’s great grandfather who set foot on land here, spoke poor English, and, thus, saw his Greek name corrupted. Then I take them outside, to The American Immigrant Wall of Honor, where countless names of immigrants are engraved.

On panel 627 my own name: Tim H. Overdiek.

It was a gift from my brother when Jenn and I got married in 1996. A gracious gesture to the bridegroom, who in late 1994 quit his job in Amsterdam, sold all his possessions, bought a one-way ticket to New York, and joined his one true love. There’s an accompanying certificate, and my name is inscribed on the aluminum wall on Ellis Island. The boys say they are impressed.  And so am I. I really do have certain roots in America.

Yet, it’s also a bit strange: here I am explaining to my Dutch-American children things that have to do with their mother’s DNA. and how they feel more American than Dutch, and how I – as a Dutchman – ventilate more American sentiments than they are aware of, because they’ve lived abroad for five years. A world turned upside-down, and yet so familiar.

I can’t do any more than help them find their true identity. We are who we are. Children of an American mother and a Dutch father. Roots are important, but they can grow anywhere as long as they are nourished.

On the run again, from the past

THURSDAY, July 22 – Out of the grandparental house. It’s just before nine and I need to get away. It’s very hard for us to relax in this house. I stand there looking at four suitcases that somehow or other will have to be packed. Things that go, things that stay. In six days we’ll be back with Jenn’s parents.

I toss one pile of clothes into two bags, and the rest into the other two. Jenn was a past master when it came to packing, and she always knew exactly what to take along.

Right now, she’s doing her bit by getting in the way. The urn with the ashes stays behind, stuffed into the carryall with the jackets and the jeans purchased yesterday.  Seeya later, honey.

My mother-in-law and I have decided that the ashes will be scattered on the grounds of Swarthmore College. Last month a bench was installed with her name on it.  ‘Jennifer would like that,’ her mother said. So that was settled. I informed the brothers-in-law that the ceremony would be on the 11th or 12th of August. Whoever can make it is welcome. If not, tough luck.

Eamonn is complaining of a stomach ache. When I lose my temper – something which I shouldn’t do but which still happens – he says it’s because of Mom. I assure him that I do understand and give him a hug, but I don’t want to spend too long on words of comfort. I order the boys to get into the car. A brief farewell, and then we’re off – heading for New York. It’s almost as if we’re fleeing, while what we’re really looking for was some peace and quiet.

Revisiting our engagement

TUESDAY, July 20 – Up early. Thanks to jet lag. I slipped out of the house in my stocking feet, so as not to wake anyone, and went for a long walk. Three streets further on, I really woke up. It was on this spot on Clarksville Road that Jennifer and I decided to get married.

It wasn’t a romantic proposal. We’d gone for a walk, just the two of us, like I was doing now – and the subject of children came up. We wanted them. ‘But then I’d like to get married first,’ Jenn said, a standpoint that I found quite conservative; but, of course, we were in the States.

‘Agreed,’ I said, ‘so we’re going to get married.’

We looked at each other briefly, and nodded. A quick kiss and then we continued our walk. At dinner that night we announced our engagement.

Now I stopped there briefly, but then quickly walked on. Despite the memories, I felt little emotion. No more than a smile. Is that a good sign? Does it mean that on this trip, unlike the one in December, there will be no painful memories and associations?

I don’t believe a word of it, but this morning walk bodes well.

Going home with her, at last

MONDAY, July 19 – The inevitable question, when taking a cab to the airport. ‘Where are you headed?’

‘The States. New York, Washington D.C., and a few other locations.’

‘All on your own?’

‘No. My children are already there. I’ll be seeing them tonight.’

‘In a hotel or a house?’

‘They’re with their grandparents. They were born in the States.’

‘Oh, I see. And where’s their mother?’

‘Their mother,’ I laughed, a bit viciously, but mainly to give myself time to think. ‘Their mother is in your trunk.’ He screwed up his eyes, and for the umpteenth time, I

explained it all. The rest of the ride was blissfully quiet.

13.20 p.m. – Was it because no one noticed the urn when my bag went through X-ray? Was it recognized, but the inspectors didn’t think it was worth opening my bag for and demanding an explanation? Maybe the urn wasn’t important?

In any case, on the passenger bridge leading to the Delta aircraft, I was suddenly overcome by emotion. Memories of all those flights from the States to Holland, and vice-versa. The first time she flew from New York to Brussels, where I was waiting with a red rose in my hand and she gave me three Dutch kisses.

We must have flown across the Atlantic at least twenty times. Just the two of us at first, and later with the children. Last December her absence had been so tangible, when the three of us were able to sit next to each other.

This time it was the awareness of our ultimate finiteness that hit me and I was totally unprepared for it. This is the very last time. Her ashes are going back to America, to be scattered. I had always felt that she was close to me and maybe that was why I occasionally pretended to be unconcerned and even jokey about the two and a half kilos of dusty body remains. But not right now.

I stepped on board without wiping the tears from my cheeks. The steward’s face was permanently fixed in an expression of cheerful hospitality. ‘Welcome, sir. 24G. On the other side of the aisle.

The urn stood at my feet. ‘We’re going home, dear Jenn.’

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