Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the category “Remembering”

Retracing her last foot steps

FRIDAY, October 22 – I take the dog out for a short walk before starting breakfast. Eamonn comes along. ‘Papa,’ he asks, ‘when you’re old, will you get a really huge dog like the one we saw in the park the other day?

‘Sure. An old geezer probably needs a big dog.’


‘Why did you want to know?’

‘Because then I can come by with my kids and you’ll let them ride on his back.’

Something tells me this is going to be a good day.

11:34 –  ‘Do you really think I should do it, Papa?

‘Eamonn, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.’

‘I know. But do you think I ought to do it?’

‘To be perfectly honest, yes. I think it’ll do you good.’

He tumbles onto the bed and I leave him behind in my bedroom. It’s his decision, his idea, and his moment. I mustn’t try to decide for him. I start to fix lunch. That’ll give him time to think.

‘Okay,’ he says, ‘let’s go. Not on foot. By bike,’ he says.

We’re off.

At the flower shop on Beethoven Street we buy a bunch of red and white roses. The saleswoman thinks we’re a bit odd because we don’t want the stems trimmed and we don’t need wrapping paper. We cycle past our old house. There’s a brief moment of confusion about which street we should take to get to Stadion Road. Eamonn hasn’t been here for a while. One year, to be exact.

It was during the summer vacation that he decided he wanted to cross the street there Just like ‘then’, when he was with his mother, his brother and Elsa. This morning he said he was ready to go there, but asked if we could go in the morning and not at ten to four in the afternoon. He wanted to put it all behind him.

We turn the corner at 11.57 a.m. and the crosswalk comes into sight. We follow the sidewalk until we reach the spot. He starts to cry softly. We park the bikes and Eamonn gives me a hug. I lock his bike for him. He puts the flowers down next to the tree and goes over to the crosswalk. Almost immediately the light turns green.

Looking straight ahead, Eamonn crosses the street. His coat is open, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, and his steps are firm. I count them. When he’s halfway across, he looks to the right and left, and again to the right, and then walks on.

When he’s reached the other side, after 23 steps, Sander and I follow.

Eamonn is leaning against a tree. He’s crying. We hug each other. Then, he turns around and looks at the spot where Jennifer lay. Where the ambulance was parked. Where he sat down. Where a woman who lived in one of the nearby houses spoke to him.  We don’t say anything.

Sander takes pictures of the flowers and the crosswalk. Eamonn and I sit down on the curb. There are so many questions, there is so much to talk about. I confine myself to the remark that it was ‘very brave’ of him to do what he just did. Sander comes over and sits down next to us. Passersby look at us. I start to cry and Eamonn suggests that it’s time to go home. We stand up and then realize that we’ll have to walk back over that same crosswalk to get to the bicycles.

‘Would you like to take my hand, Eamonn?’

He nods. We wait for the light to turn green. It takes a helluva long time. First, all the traffic gets to go and then it’s our turn. The only thing that registers is Eamonn’s hand in mine. I don’t even realize that we’ve reached the other side.

We take the same route back home and stop at the supermarket. Time for a bag of potato chips. On the living room couch, we polish off the whole bag in five minutes.

Mom would have made sure we finished our fruit before the potato chips appeared. Which we had.

14:10 – The rest of the day is uneventful. I say, ‘Okay, guys, how about if we take the dog for a run in the Amsterdam Forest. No, on second thought, let’s go to Beatrix Park instead.’ No problem. We’re on our way – out the door, right turn and then Eamonn stands stock-still.

Damn!?! There’s an ambulance parked in the middle of the street and, on the sidewalk two houses down the street, there’s someone lying in a stretcher. No way is Eamonn going to walk past that stretcher. I tell him that all we have to do is turn around and walk in the other direction. We can get to the park via a detour. He’s clearly upset.

‘Why did this have to happen today?’ I think to myself. What lousy timing.

We’re approaching Stadion Road, when suddenly we hear an enormous crashing sound. Two cars in a collision. I can just get a glimpse of what’s happened some fifty yards ahead of us. Apparently a car was about to turn left onto Minerva Lane when a taxi rammed it on the side. Both vehicles shot straight through the crosswalk, coming to a halt on the sidewalk.

Eamonn stops. ‘What else can go wrong?’ I say, trying to make light of the situation, but a wave of disbelief comes over me. How in the world is this possible?  ‘Come on, buddy, this is too bizarre for words, I know. But it just proves how resilient we are – we’re going to go to the park anyway.’

He won’t fall for that one. I don’t even believe it myself.  Eamonn turns around and heads for home, leaving Sander and I to make our own decisions.

Sander continues on in the direction of the park, with the dog, and I follow Eamonn. Back home, we sit on the couch and at his request look at funny cat pictures on Google.

‘When I’m depressed, I always go to Google and look for something funny,’ he says. Before long, he’s smiling again. We hear the wail of sirens in the distance. Sander comes home and whispers in my ear that there are two ambulances at the scene of the accident.

I suggest we watch Groundhog Day to get us through the afternoon. Good move, as it was one of Mom’s favorites. Eamonn goes into the kitchen to make popcorn. For now, we can take on the whole world, without even leaving the house.

18:20 – Since it’s close to dinner time and we have to eat, Eamonn and I hop on our bikes and head for Albert Cuyp Street for some take-out food. On the way home, Sander catches up with us. He’d gone to the Conservatory to see his piano teacher, so that he could can practice his compositions before the concert this coming Sunday.

As soon as he sees his brother, Eamonn starts singing along. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen, which Sander only got down pat the day before. It may turn out to be his encore on Sunday. The boys are singing at the top of their lungs as we turn onto our street. I smile and listen eagerly to the lyrics which we could well take as our theme song today.

Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time

I feel alive and the world it’s turning inside out, yeah!

I’m floating around in ecstasy

So don’t stop me now, don’t stop me

‘Cause I’m having a good time, having a good time.

21:50 – Just before bedtime, Eamonn finds a pile of papers on the coffee table. I’d printed out the text of the speeches from the funeral service, along with the various anecdotes that Jennifer’s friends had sent us. I was planning to spend an hour or so going through them with the boys, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

‘Will you read a couple of them out loud when I get into bed?’ Eamonn asks. But of course. There’s a kind of fairy-tale atmosphere in the room and Eamonn is lying in bed with a blissful smile on his face. Once in a while he looks over at me, checking to see that I don’t break into ‘that high-pitched voice’ again. I do my best.

‘And some more tomorrow, okay?’ he says.

Now how did she laugh again?

WEDNESDAY, October 20 – ‘Do you remember how Mom used to laugh?’ I ask Eamonn. We’re on our way to the park and for no reason at all he’s started pulling funny faces. Of course, he says and not only that.  Mom had a lot of different laughs. Give me an example, I say. He doesn’t answer for a while. He’s thinking hard.

‘Her snigger.’

‘What did it sound like?’

Eamonn sniggered. And damn it, that was exactly what it sounded like!  I couldn’t have come up with it on my own, but I recognized it immediately. Things have a way of fading: the voice, certain facial expressions, her scent, and now the way she laughed. It’s annoying, this gradual memory loss. Eamonn won’t be troubled by such fading for some time to come. He’s smiling as we walk on towards the vast expanse of grass in Beatrix Park where Elsa is challenging the other dogs to imitate her graceful leaps.

I’m going to chance it. I didn’t ask Eamonn to come along for nothing. ‘Exactly one year ago today we were here with Mom, Sander and for the first time Elsa.’

Eamonn looks around in surprise. ‘Really?’

Then he points to the edge of the field. ‘You’re right! We were over there running back and forth with Elsa.’

He immediately heads off in that direction, the dog loping along behind him. The colors of the approaching autumn are just as they were a year ago – so lovely that I can enjoy them without becoming overly emotional.

Secretly I am hoping that we’ll sense that kind of vibrating dimension we were aware of last November, the indescribable sensation, the certainty that ‘she is there’. But no luck. Unless it’s the double rainbow that appears as we head for home. We accelerate our pace, to avoid getting caught in a shower.

Lennon and his dead Mom

SATURDAY, October 9 – I was playing around on Google and YouTube. John Lennon would have turned seventy today. An excuse to surf the net for interesting information about the murdered ex-Beatle. At every click, Jennifer pops up.

She was a Beatles fan and somewhere in the house I should be able to find that special issue of Time Magazine published shortly after his death in 1980. It’s a collector’s item whose cover I can quickly find on-line, with the headline: ‘When the Music Died’. Jennifer once told me about the evening when the news was announced. She cried and cried and couldn’t get to sleep. For days she felt depressed and even talking about his death decades later made her unhappy.

I watch the videos of the coverage: listen to the reporters stationed in front of the Dakota Building in New York, where Yoko Ono still lives. Jenn pointed it out to me and later to the children; the magnificent building bordering Central Park. In the early nineties Jenn lived in that neighborhood and almost daily she walked past the Strawberry Fields memorial.

Our children have grown up with the Beatles. Not long ago I discovered that Eamonn has the same birthday as Ringo Starr. Moseying around Wikipedia, I realize that Jenn was only one year older than Lennon was when he died. What a cold statistic.

Lennon’s childhood was anything but happy, with a father who left for New Zealand, an aunt who raised him, and a mother who was killed on the street by a goddamned cop. Holy shit! The coincidence! The difference in this case being that the cop was drunk. Lennon was seventeen years old then.

He would later write a song called ‘Mother’, that was inspired in part by his therapeutic sessions with the American psychologist Janov, who firmly believed that deep-seated emotions could be dealt with by means of a heartfelt ‘primal scream’.

This makes me curious about the song, and I go to iTunes and listen to it.  Good God Almighty, what a piece of shit.

Yearning for the impossible

WEDNESDAY, October 6 – I’m overcome by an unbearable thought. I no longer yearn for life as it was before October 22, 2009. I no longer yearn for our life together:  Jennifer, Sander, Eamonn and me, plus two pets. How can you yearn for something that’s impossible? Yearning is futile. At most, you can cherish it. Or wallow in memories. But yearn for what once was? No, not any more. And that makes me unbelievably sad.

Believing it will be easier

SATURDAY, October 2 – A lazy Saturday morning: time to go through the weekend papers at my leisure. Great piece in the Volkskrant Magazine, where columnist Hanna Bervoets takes a light-hearted look at Halloween costumes.

She depicts the excitement of choosing a costume as well as the current themes she is trying to capture in this year’s get-up. I can’t help laughing at her descriptions and I’m half way through the column when suddenly I stop. What Bervoets is describing so comically is exactly what Jennifer used to do. In September she was already getting excited about the Halloween Party, which was a tradition for us: first in the States, then London and later on in Amsterdam.

Together we put together the A list, people we definitely wanted to invite. No A list without a B list, of course. It contained the names of people we regarded as friends, but who would not be too sorely missed if they weren’t among the guests. These invitations invariably gave rise to passionate discussions lasting several weeks.

For Jenn the real fun was preparing for the big day. In our first year in Amsterdam she went as Super Girl, complete with a mini-skirt in bright red – ditto with the pumps. And a cape, of course. Last year she was planning to go as Medusa. Her friend J had gotten hold of a costume in London. The actual choice had been preceded by long deliberations and consultations with me and several other friends.

Our last party was cancelled and this year I had totally forgotten about Halloween until I read Bervoets’ newspaper article. It seems unlikely that we’ll be celebrating the day. We’re busy enough organizing the Memorial Concert on the 24th.

That day marks the fact that the first year is behind us. We’ve already experienced everything once. Halloween will be the first holiday following this milestone.  I’m willing to believe that after this month things will start getting easier, but the shock that went through me as I read Bervoet’s column bodes ill for my peace of mind. Nothing is ever truly past: I’m not so stupid as to dispute that.

October, the month when…

FRIDAY, October 1, 2010 – Time to be on guard. You think you’re almost there, but that moment doesn’t amount to shit. It’s October, the month when.  We can almost see the finish line. Nonsense, of course. Dangerous thinking.  So, this morning I tell myself:  it’s just an ordinary day. Like yesterday. And like tomorrow.

I’m not the only one who looked at the calendar this morning. A colleague came over to me. She wanted to know if our life is becoming more bearable now that the end of the first year is approaching.

I’m quick to reply. ‘Our life has never been unbearable. Life itself is too precious.  Of course, we’ve been through more than enough shit and we still have a long way to go. But was it unbearable? No.’

I leave her behind in dazed confusion.  Actually, things are going pretty well, I could have added; but somehow I was afraid to say the words out loud. You’ve got to stay on your guard. It’s merely October.

Avalanche of young mothers

THURSDAY, September 30 – Every morning I treat myself to the sight of all the attractive mothers in our neighborhood, as they usher their offspring out of the house, zip up coats, kiss them, and reprimand them when they race down the street, battling wind and rain. Suddenly I feel a wave of hate for all those mothers who are allowed to take their children to school today. Why them?

She was way more courageous

WEDNESDAY, September 29 – I seem to be an exceptional human being.  A fantastic man, superb father. Would a woman be showered with the declarations of support and sympathy that are still coming my way? Or would her decision have been seen as quite normal – the fact that her career was being put on the back burner, shelved or interrupted? Jenn would have known the answer and so do I.

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?

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.

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