Diary of a Widower

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

Archive for the category “Three Guys”

Doing well at not doing well

SATURDAY, September 25 – I got home late, just before midnight, and to my amazement I found Sander sitting on the couch. Wide awake. When I asked what he was doing up so late, he said, ‘Go look in the kitchen.’

It was spic and span. He’d done the dishes, cleaned the counter, dried the pans and hung them up and, as if that wasn’t enough, he’d also straightened up the dining room. Not to mention, earlier that evening he’d baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Compliments all round. What a kid and all on his own. Fantastic. Even though it had already struck twelve, I let him come with me when I took the dog out. He had something to tell me.

‘You’ve probably noticed that I’m not doing really well right now.’

I looked at him in amazement. Not really well?

He started to cry. I gave him a hug. The whole story came out, crystal-clear. He’s still so angry – at the man who took his mother away from him at the fact that she isn’t here anymore. He can’t take it any longer. He wants everything to be the way it was, with a father and a mother. He hasn’t told his new classmates about his family situation. All they know is that he has a Dutch father and an American mother. In the meantime, all he wants to do is scream at the top of his lungs that he is VERY MAD!

Of course, I could explain to him that his rage is perfectly normal, using the scientific mourning curve described by psychiatrist Kubler Ross and that the final phases in the acceptance of death.  Further, that the integration of our loss alternates with a return to the angry phase. For the moment, however, I decide it’s better to say nothing.

I just hug him.

Quitting my job is ‘good news’

FRIDAY, September 24 – ‘I have some good news,’ I said to the boys, after summoning them to the dinner table. ‘I’m taking on a new job at NOS News. Right now I’m not exactly sure what. The most important thing is that I’m stepping down as deputy editor-in-chief, so that I’ll have more time to spend with you guys.’

Call it paternal spin-doctoring. Disguise the bad news by presenting it as a positive development. Mission accomplished:  the boys are ecstatic.

Fortunately, they also have questions.

‘Are you going to make less money?’

‘Yes, but we can handle that. We probably won’t even feel it.  We’ll go on living in this house, you’ll be going to the same school, and there won’t be any cuts in food or clothing.’

Sander: ‘Do you have to hand in your iPhone?’

‘Nope, it was written off ages ago and I’ll probably be allowed to keep the laptop. So as far as high tech is concerned, we don’t have anything to worry about.’

The kid has his priorities.

I’m feeling almost enthusiastic myself now that they’ve accepted the decision that’s been the product of months of wrestling with myself. I tell them we’re going to announce the news at the staff meeting on Monday. This is followed by a long silence, as if the impact of the announcement has just penetrated.

‘Do you want us to come with you when you tell everyone?’ Sander asks and Eamonn quickly adds, ‘Yeah, we want them to know we’re behind you.’

Very sweet, but I decline.

A ‘yes’ for the boys. And for her

TUESDAY, September 21 – I’m well and truly pissed off – incensed,  in a way, that I’ve been forced to make this bastard decision.  At the same time, I’m convinced that I’m doing the right thing. It’s best for me and it’s best for the children, now and later. A strange symbiosis:  it’s so emotional and yet it leaves me totally indifferent.

We keep it under wraps until Monday, when all the team members will be present, and I can announce that I’m standing down.

‘Does it feel like a kind of liberation?’ H asked, when I told him that my decision was irreversible?  ‘Do you feel relieved?’

No. A hundred times no. I’m pissed off. It’s fucking hell. Bloody awful. Just plain shit.  From the bottom of my heart I wish every possible disease on the person who brought all this shit into our lives, both private and professional. It is a rational decision taken in the midst of an emotional situation.

Do I feel castrated in my career? No, but I regret the interruption, after having spent two fulfilling years as deputy editor-in-chief working with people, encouraging colleagues, outlining journalistic policy, implementing creative ideas, correcting past mistakes, monitoring our consistent high quality – all of this in order to become and remain the very best. What an adventure it was.

All of this had nothing to do with lording it over others. What I found most satisfying was making use of my journalistic experience within a top management function. ‘What are your ambitions?’ asked Ben Knapen, then deputy editor of national daily NRC Handelsblad, when I was applying for a trainee position in 1987. I believe it’s better to be cheeky than modest when you apply for a job, so I said, ‘Editor-in-chief of this newspaper.’ I started out in the sports section as general dogsbody where I worked my tail off for a couple of years.

Later I joined the staff of the Amsterdam daily Het Parool and then went on to the national paper De Volkskrant, until I resigned in late 1994 and emigrated to the United States. Five years as freelance journalist in New York was followed by six years as NOS radio correspondent in Washington D.C., and three years as their multimedia correspondent in London. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought that I would indeed make it to the position of (deputy) editor-in-chief.

I’d always felt that I had to work harder than hard. Become a better journalist, learn new things and then move up to a new level. From the written to the spoken word, from radio to television, from television to internet, and then the entire gamut of the field. Doing the same thing year after year held no appeal for me. I’ve learned that routine can be deadly for the creative spirit.

This led to a fairly monomaniacal existence. Work, work, work. Jennifer was often scathing about employers who called me in the evening or on weekends, knowing that I never said no. Nor could she easily accept the fact that I was a workaholic and over the years this led to considerable marital stress.

But now it is ‘no’. I’ve made a temporary departure from the rat race and, for now, no more unconditional devotion to journalism. It’s a ‘yes’ for the boys. For Jenn. And maybe even more so for myself.

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?

Dealing with loss is an art

FRIDAY, September 17 – Much consternation in Dutch society about the future of the black Suzuki Swift driven by Karst T. The police museum is planning to exhibit the wreck.

No way, says the mayor of Apeldoorn, where on April 30, 2009 T. launched a failed attack on the royal family.  He himself was killed, but not before causing the death of seven people. The survivors have branded the idea lugubrious. And they’re right. Why on earth would anyone want to visit an exhibition consisting of the remains of the vehicle that broke your husband’s bones, crushed your daughter’s skull, or disemboweled your friend?

The word ‘lugubrious’ is too mild. It’s morbid exhibitionism.

A while back the boys asked me what had happened to the motorcycle that knocked their mother down. The public prosecutor told us that the vehicle had been temporarily retained as evidence in the trial of R and, after the verdict, it was returned to the Amsterdam police department. On the internet there’s still a photograph in circulation showing the motorcycle after it slid onto its side and went skidding across the pavement.

That, too, was morbid. I hope no one ever rides it again.

For a while Sander toyed with the idea of tackling it with a sledgehammer and Eamonn thought it was a good plan. Whacking the daylights out of the object that took their mother away from them. For the same reason, the Suzuki Swift ought to be turned over to the loved ones of the seven Queen’s Day victims. Call that the art of dealing with loss.

My snoring helps him to sleep

MONDAY, September 13 – It was only quarter past five. He couldn’t get back to sleep and was standing there next to my bed. It had been quite a while.  I had no objection to moving over and making room for my younger son. Later he said he was getting a little old for this, but he was looking for an excuse. And he found one:  ‘I need the sound of your snoring to get to sleep.’

Family with an uneven number

SUNDAY, September 12 – The rules are clear. No more than two people at a time on the slide; but, here we are, in our local pool, the three of us. We look at each other for a fleeting second. Eamonn goes first, Sander follows, and seconds later I shout, ‘Clear the way!’

Municipal rules will have to be bent this Sunday morning. There are three of us and that’s that. We hurtle triumphantly down the chute, ending up in a disheveled tangle of limbs in the shallow pool as the water sloshes over the sides. I realize how much we have grown.

Mentally, but also physically.

Sander is turning into a gawky beanpole, Eamonn is in the middle of a growth spurt, and I am literally in between. The speed at which we whoosh down the slide together reflects the energy that we’ve rediscovered, and that we radiate. It is proof of the self-confidence with which we face life. Together, the three of us can take on the whole world. So, out of the way!

But it’s still an uneven number. So what do we do with two whirlpool baths?  Eamonn and me in one, and Sander in the other. Once in a while Eamonn jumps over to visit his brother, and, together, we lounge around in the hot, bubbling herbal water.

‘It’s great here, isn’t it,’ I say to Eamonn, as he swims over to me.

He nods.

‘Do you think C and the girls would like it?’

I nod.

‘And Mom. Would she have liked it, too?

‘Yes, I’m sure she would have.’

From the other jacuzzi, Sander asks if we can go down the slide again.

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.

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.

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