You never expect it to happen. People say this as cameras zoom into their shocked faces: “In an instant, my life changed.” The earthquake, the car accident, the drive-by, the overdose, the proverbial hit-by-a-truck. We say “live for now, it could all end tomorrow.” Yet life goes on, decades pass, and you never expect it to happen to you.
In the last days of 2008, my husband of twenty-two years died. Suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably, horribly, in a foreign place, in front of me and our 16-year-old daughter. And in an instant, the space-time continuum shifted. My life changed.
Headline, perhaps: “Man plucked from steady university life to advise president of a mid-sized African nation dies in exotic rain forest of unknown causes — with his wife and child at his side.”
Or, in exactly 50 words: Bill was living part-time in Madagascar, advising that nation’s president on leadership and communication. Annie and I joined him for Christmas vacation. We traveled to a rain forest where he got sick and, after we evacuated across a stormy bay in a small boat to a clinic with no doctor, he died.
Most simply: “Adventurous man suffers adventurous death.”
There are elements of this story so bizarre that it sounds like an airport paperback: an African coup, a large blue sapphire, strange death in a distant rain forest, presidential condolences, diplomatic escorts, a welded-shut zinc coffin, a man late for his own funeral. Even as I lay in the fetal position in my bed, mouth encrusted with cold sores, lungs unable to catch a full breath, the storyteller in me rubbed her hands together and thought, “What a story. What a story!”
Perhaps it’s that writer-brain that got me through, seeing the narrative arc, the absurdity in the tragic, filing the details of his death and what happened after.
But I’m more interested in exploring the ordinary story within. The aftermath of sudden death on a relatively young widow and her teenaged daughter. The months of learning to live without him. The guilt of living well without him. What it means to raise a teenager alone. And how, now unmarried, I’m becoming the woman I always wanted to be.
In this story, it’s not my glamorous husband with the larger-than-life death who takes center stage. In this story, I’m the star.
During the first year grief flattens everything, fogs and clarifies, warps time. The universe becomes a place of beauty and possibility, a place of unbearable darkness. Everything feels brittle and epic.
Even when a man dies with a trust and a will, there’s so much to sort and settle, and there was only me to do it. Endless forms to fill out, faxes to send. Social security. House refinance. Money in, money out. Small settlements all told, it amounted to less than a year of his income.
How did I manage? Friends. Family. Love. Food, walks, hugs, talks, tears. I managed. Through the bureaucracy and terrors and insomnia, the choking, blinding waves of grief. Amidst the pain was huge joy in discovering so much love in the world. People around me formed a giant net, and I couldn’t fall.
I’d always thought that writing was essential, creativity the blood in my veins, that I’d be, perhaps, like Joan Didion, chronicling my journey through grief. And yet, the first nine months, I couldn’t write, except a few blog entries, a few eulogies.
Late at night I dashed off a few unedited missives. People needed to know how we were doing, so I wrote it down. Other than that, nothing. In my version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, writing wasn’t a necessity compared to food, shelter, figuring out money, how I’d take care of my daughter, and how I’d live through the pain.
When I finally began to write again, it was different. I have a theater background, but I’d left that behind when I began to write seriously. For years I’d thought longingly about community theater; the camaraderie, the absorbing rehearsals, the giddiness of audience reaction, the instant feedback for creative work. And I’d done some solo performance, was a peripheral member of the San Francisco indie theater community.
So with deadlines and collaborators, I began to bring the shattered pieces of my life into a kaleidoscope, a full-length solo performance piece about his death and the aftermath.
And so the rest of the first year passed. Slowly the world stopped rocking. On the day of Bill’s Yahrzeit, the first anniversary of his death, I woke up and something was different. Clarity. Relief. I had passed through something big, and come out the other side.
Now I need to figure out what’s on that other side.
Bill and I were together a long time, and there were times in our relationship when I imagined — even wished — he was gone. To see who I would be without him. Now, post-shock, post-guilt (mostly), I get to answer that question.
It means small things: Do I like that blend of coffee? Do I even like coffee?
It means big things: Where do I want to live? Do I want to have lovers or a boyfriend or a husband again? Do I want to stay up late or wake early? How much of me is me, and how much is/was a reflection of his strong personality? Is widowhood freedom, or its own kind of trap?
This column will explore what it means to be widowed at age 48 after a twenty-two year relationship/marriage. To be the only parent of a teenager making her first moves towards leaving home. To take the first steps towards a career as a solo performing artist: one woman, one stage, telling my story. Writing this column is a return and a continuation and something new. It makes sense because writing is what I do; post-crisis, it is the blood in my veins. Yes, performance gives me the community and camaraderie I crave, but writing a column gives me the opportunity to connect with you, a wider audience. And to really explore the question of what it means to be solo.
Join me as I find out.