Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the category “Remembering”

Death is a son-of-a-bitch

TUESDAY, September 7 – Was our wedding day the happiest day of my life, as romantic souls insist? No, that honor was reserved for the day our oldest son was born, followed a nanosecond later by the moment our youngest son first saw the light of day.

Our wedding day was special, of course, attended by so many friends and family members who had travelled to the States especially for us in order to witness our exchange of solemn vows. On a Saturday in 1996 in a Catholic chapel in Princeton, Jenn (in a clear voice and self-assured) and I (in a voice strangled by emotion) spoke the following words:

I take you for my lawful spouse, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.’   

‘Until death do us part.’ And then the groom was permitted to kiss his bride. It was a traditional service. We opted for a Catholic ceremony, in deference to the faith of our parents, but also because we wanted to lend a spiritual touch to this festive day.

The event followed American tradition: reception and dinner in a restaurant, followed by the opening dance and then drinks in abundance. Jenn and I had rehearsed a tango which, true to tradition, went wrong. We had to start over twice before I succeeded in leading my brand-new bride around the dance floor. Sheer hell.

Our anniversary didn’t mean a great deal to me. Just one of those obligatory events, a tribute to the ‘happiest day of our lives’, when the husband is expected to come home with flowers or celebrate the occasion with a lunch or dinner at some romantic venue.

Women see all this in a different light, and Jennifer was no different. So we always went out for dinner, to a restaurant we didn’t usually frequent. I have a special recollection of our tenth anniversary, because of the news that was about to break. We were living in London and later that day Tony Blair would formally confirm that he was resigning as British Prime Minister. We had lunch reservations at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. I had no choice, and with a grand gesture I turned off my cell phone. Not on vibrate mode, but completely off. The foreign correspondent was temporarily incommunicado. Looking back, a trifle melodramatic.

In any case, each anniversary was well and truly celebrated: we made time for each other, dressed to the nines, and dined in top-flight restaurants. A glass of champagne and a bit of reflection on the past year were a traditional part of the celebration.

I found the letter we wrote each other, in which we looked forward ten years, full of plans and aspirations. She wrote: ‘In ten years, we’ll be drinking coffee in a pastry shop in PARIS, while Sander and Eamonn think they are very cool sitting at another table all by themselves trying to order beer (Sander) and speak French with the waitress (Eamonn).’

My future with Jenn: ‘In ten years, we’ll be living in the Hudson Valley, working from home, saving money for that Bed & Breakfast we’re opening in twenty years.’

I also stumbled upon the card that Jennifer wrote last year.

Dear Tim,

            Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Fran blew through overnight, and in the morning the sky was dazzling blue and swept clear of clouds. It was hot, and muggy, and our friends were there.

            We have dwelt in a lot of ongoing turbulence over the years. Today, the sky is blue, and we are here.

            Sometimes we find ourselves choosing the same card. Or agreeing on the same place to live. Surprising, and yet not.

            Let us not want more than this: accepting fully what the other can give. Unreservedly.

            When we are content, then we have enough.


The message was obvious. Although here and there it is a bit cryptic, but clear enough for the both of us. We realized how deep our love was anchored, but also the precipices we had conquered and the deep valleys we had crossed. A year ago was thirteen years into our marriage and almost eighteen years since we met and we still knew the value of our relationship.

We loved each other, no matter how you looked at it and in spite of all sorts of events that are no longer relevant. Death has separated us. Death is a son-of-a-bitch.

Pre-nuptial shower shag

MONDAY, September 6 – It can be quite a perilous undertaking, making love in the shower. Like dancing on a slippery cord. Not long after C and I met for the first time, in France, we escaped to a bathroom, where we found the first opportunity to be together physically. The unsuspecting children were playing in the pool.

Every time we stand there under the warm jets of water, I think back to that memorable moment.  Just as now, one thing led to another, but this time it was a recollection of Jennifer that surfaced.  Perversely and at random, memory tapped me on the shoulder, taking me back to the sole occasion when Jenn and I made love under the shower.

It was the evening before our wedding. A pre-nuptial shag in the shower. Just to get that out of the way. And those goings-on took place exactly fourteen years ago. Bizarre the cold shivers that suddenly ran down my spine.

A little help from our foe

SATURDAY, September 4 – Went to pick up our little sloop in the Westerdok canal for a picnic on the water, but we were told that the boat had been towed away by the police because it was tied to a tree. The tree is municipal property and it’s going to cost me 250 euros. I decided to fib a little.

‘Do you have the pleasure boat decal for this year?’ asked the policeman.

‘It’s probably somewhere in the house. I couldn’t find it.’

‘Then we can’t release your boat.’

‘May I explain what happened?’

The answer was yes.

‘The boat belonged to my wife. She was the sailor in the family. She always left it tied to a tree and the sticker is somewhere among her papers. My wife died last October – run down by a motorcycle cop. I haven’t been down here since then. So you’ll understand that all this is a bit difficult for me.’

He understood and was silent.

The truth is that Jennifer was decidedly ‘not amused’ the day when, in quite an impulsive mood, I had bought the boat. It was something for me and the boys. Male bonding. She considered the purchase ridiculous, not to mention rash and irresponsible. How often do you think you’ll take the thing out?

Not that often, I had to admit. This was only the third time in the last year. So, in a sense, she’d been right; but, as a man, you’re not going to say so. Not even posthumously. The motor started without a hitch. The policeman standing next to the boat pushed us out into the open water and we were on our way. At least, that’s what we thought.  But then the motor conked out and we weren’t going anywhere. I cursed from the bottom of my heart. What now?

‘Where are you headed?’

‘To the south end of the city.’

Before we knew it, we were being towed by the police boat and gliding in the direction of the canals. The boys loved it and, gradually, I saw the funny side of our adventure. So, we took out our picnic lunch, leaned back, and began to enjoy ourselves. People on the quay smiled and waved.

Other boats passed us. One was almost identical to ours and I recognized my Facebook friend, a fellow widower who has long since remarried and started a new family. He was at the wheel, full steam ahead and under his own power while here we were being towed home by the Amsterdam police. We waved. I realized that there was considerable symbolism in the scene, but on such a lazy Saturday afternoon, I decided to let it pass.

‘Mom promised me the car’

FRIDAY, September 3 – It took four minutes and cost nine euros and twenty-five cents. One simple administrative operation at the post office and the Mini Cooper was now in my name. I was handed a piece of paper with a stamp which, according to the clerk at the counter, had been intended for the previous owner. ‘I’ll pass it on,’ I said.

I should have transferred ownership within five weeks after Jennifer’s death. That’s the law.  A letter from the Department of Transportation, accompanied by sincere condolences, explained the procedure, listed forms and documents I was expected to produce, and informed me that I would have to go to one of the larger post offices.

But sometime in December, I had lost track of the letter. When I found it, I couldn’t put my hands on the registration certificate for the Mini. After putting all the documents in a safe place, I had forgotten where that safe place was. That happened to me more than once during those first few months. They sent me a replacement document, but it wasn’t until ten months after Jenn’s death that I actually went to the post office.

It didn’t feel quite right. The car was hers, not mine; but, what did it matter? Last week the mailman delivered a ballot for the mid-term elections in the state of Maryland. Indeed, for Jenn. If dead people can vote, I guess they can drive, too.

Things got more complicated when it appeared that Jennifer was registered as having a parking permit at our old address. The new residents weren’t too happy about that, which was understandable. Steps had to be taken.  That afternoon when I picked Sander up in the Mini, he said, ‘Don’t forget that last year Mom promised I can have the Mini when I turn eighteen.’

I didn’t recall any such promise, but I was happy to reconfirm the agreement.  By that time he can do the paperwork himself.

Spreading little mementoes

SATURDAY, August 21 – I’ve finally found the time to tackle the bookcase in my office.  All those weighty documents that have been lying there for months, looking smugly important. Until now I haven’t really had a chance to go through them in order to decide which ones need immediate attention and which can be relegated to a large box up in the attic.

Certain items are quickly moved to a spot beyond my field of vision: Jenn’s medical records, the criminal file, the correspondence with the crematorium, the insurance company, and the mortgage company from when Jennifer was still alive. All the condolences go straight to the attic and a folder with Jenn’s favorite recipes goes to the kitchen.

I hang her ballet slippers in the living room and on top of the bookshelves in the dining room I place the bottle of wine someone gave us on our wedding day (which we polished off one year later).

Her college diploma ends up in Eamonn’s bedroom. He’s thrilled and has already decided he’s also going to Swarthmore. Let this inspire him.  I put the photo of Jenn with the dog on Sander’s dresser. It’s a beautiful portrait.  It was also on her casket. The last few weeks I found it a bit distracting, the way her face stared back at us so intently. No doubt, Sander will appreciate it.

Quite to the contrary, I hear:  ‘I don’t want that photo in my room. It belongs downstairs, on the piano.’ He won’t budge an inch, so I do as he says.

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.

Tipping tips from Mom

SUNDAY, August 8 – Breakfast on the hotel porch.  The boys walk back and forth. Omelet, Fruit Loops, bagels, toast, bacon, sausages, orange juice, coffee, watermelon, bananas. Boys love buffets.  There’s nothing for the waitress to do, but I still give her a big tip. It’s a great morning and her smile is worth it.

‘Papa, do you have to tip? Sander asks.

‘If the waitress ignores us, makes one mistake after the other, brings us something we didn’t order and then says it’s our fault,’ I say, and it’s happened to me more than once, ‘then I don’t have to give her a tip.’

‘But here we serve ourselves. Why does she get a tip?’

‘Because she brought the coffee and put the cutlery on the table, and she didn’t charge us for Eamonn’s breakfast. And besides, she has such a lovely smile.

‘And what if you hadn’t given her a tip?’

‘If Mom had been here, she would have boxed my ears.’

The boys laugh.

I explain how it works. If she does her work properly, she gets 15 percent, and if she’s very good and obviously enjoys her work, she gets 20 percent. Jenn worked as a waitress for years. She hated it, but she perfected the professional smile.

With his iPod Sander chases a tiny beetle under the napkin.

‘Don’t you dare kill that animal,’ I warn him.

‘It isn’t an animal. It’s an insect.’

‘Yes,’ I maintain. ‘But it’s also an animal. And in any case, a living creature. So you’d better be careful maybe it’s Mom, reincarnated into a beetle.’

Great hilarity.

‘No, I don’t believe that,’ says Eamonn.

‘Why not?’

‘Mom was much better than some beetle.’

‘Well, what do you think she turned into?’

Without a moment’s hesitation, he said ‘a llama’.

‘A llama?  Why a llama?’

‘That was her favorite animal.’

Eamonn pulls his mouth as wide open as he can and makes smacking noises. We laugh. The waitress comes over to our table. She smiles, too, without knowing why.

‘Was everything satisfactory?’

‘More than that,’ I say. ‘More than that.’

She stank. Oh yeah, she did

SATURDAY, August 7 – The boys are curious about the sort of things I’ve written in my diary. Almost every morning during this vacation I’ve set the alarm for five o’clock so I can type out the notes I took during the first few months and rework the text. I give them the month of November.

While I continue with the month of January, Sander reads the first few weeks. We’re lying on our hotel bed. He keeps laughing out loud. He finds the passage recorded on November 7th hilarious – the one when we invented the ‘taking-a-shit theory’. He’s somewhat amazed that I dared to write that down since even just the word ‘shit’ is pretty daring. After the first sentence containing the F word, he knows what to expect. We call this artistic freedom of speech.

Eamonn joins in the laughter. He’s playing a game on the computer, but he’s also listening to Sander’s comments on my diary entries during those first few weeks.

‘I’d already forgotten a lot of things,’ says Sander. The shit theory was one of them.  ‘And what just occurred to me,’ he adds, ‘but don’t write this down is that Mom always stank after she pooped.’

Eamonn giggles. ‘Yeah, she did.’

I write this down and read the passage out loud.

‘Oh, no,’ Sander says. ‘I told you not to write that down!’

Eamonn laughs even harder and I join in. In the end, so does Sander. He throws a pillow at my head. I dodge it. He returns to reading my diary and I go on typing undisturbed.

Veggie Mom and her bacon

FRIDAY, August 6 – And the parenting goes on. We get an early start on our way to Cooperstown, a picturesque town in upstate New York and the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jennifer had often told Eamonn how she’d love to take him to the museum one day.

Today we’re making this stop in her name. Jennifer and I had been there together years ago. She had reminisced, then, about the time that she had visited the site as a little girl with her parents and brothers. Everyone in the Nolan family was, and is, crazy about baseball and their favorite team are the New York Mets, well represented in this Valhalla of baseball greats.

Just as on Ellis Island, I take on Jennifer’s role as history guide, talking a mile a minute about this quintessentially American attraction. Eamonn-the-baseball-player can’t believe his eyes. At first Sander turns up his adolescent nose, but our enthusiasm is contagious. I pretend that Jennifer and I are walking hand-in-hand through the exhibitions.

Over lunch we chat not about ‘Mom and baseball’ but about ‘Mom and bacon’. That strip of bacon on Sander’s hamburger smells so good and I recall how Jennifer, a confirmed vegetarian, admitted that her mouth began to water whenever she smelled bacon. The boys enjoyed the anecdote.

‘You can tell that one to your children when you’re old,’ I say with a smile.

Moments later we’re talking about ‘Mom and Grandma’. Eamonn says he can’t imagine Mom as a grandmother. I find that an interesting remark and ask him why.

He can’t explain it.  ‘It’s like I can’t picture her that old. But I don’t have any trouble seeing you as a grandfather, Papa.’

And Sander says that he can, too. Then the two of them start to fantasize about Papa Tim as the grandfather of their children. In a word: ‘someone who’ll let them get away with murder’.  I grin, but there’s a storm raging in my head. Jennifer and I had resigned ourselves to my suspicion that I would not live to a ripe old age, but that she would. She even said that she looked forward to being an old granny.

I decide not to share this with the boys. 

Inspiration from Green Day

THURSDAY, August 5 – We’re on our way to the concert by punk-rock band Green Day.  This is what brought us to Buffalo. It was Eamonn’s idea and I was immediately in favor: a trip to the far west of the state was an opportunity for the three of us to experience new things.

The truth was that I knew little or nothing about Green Day’s music; but, that’s why we have iTunes and Wikipedia. Sander took care of downloading the latest album and their all-time hits. I did some research on the members of the band, and stumbled across an interesting detail.

‘Hey, guys,’ I began casually.  ‘Do you know who the Green Day singer is?

They didn’t.

‘His name is Billie Joe Armstrong,’ I continued.

No bells rang.

‘Did you know that he was ten years old when his father died?

The boys shifted slightly on their chairs.

‘How do you know?’

I revealed my source. And then I told them how as a boy Billie Joe thoroughly disliked the man his mother married shortly afterwards and that he took refuge in music, locking himself in his room and writing songs. The boys listened raptly.

‘Do you remember the number Wake Me Up When September Ends?’  I asked.

Of course.

‘That’s what Mom wrote on her Facebook wall on September 30th last year,’ Sander immediately remembered. Which means that she must have been a big fan of Green Day, but we couldn’t really say for sure.

‘That number also has a special meaning for Billie Joe,’ I added, savoring the boys’ full attention.

Eamonn:  ‘And what was that?’

‘It’s about his father. It’s a tribute.’

On the spot we declared ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ our all-time favorite Green Day song.

            Summer has come and passed                                

            The innocent can never last

            Wake me up when September ends

            Like my father’s come to pass

            Seven years has gone so fast

            Wake me up when September ends

            Here comes the rain again

            Falling from the stars

            Drench in my pain again

            Becoming who we are

            As my memory rests

            But never forgets what I lost

            Wake me up when September ends

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