Six months after my father was diagnosed with cancer, and four months before he died, I met my parents for a tour of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. It was January 2008, and the museum was under construction. We stepped over wires and unfinished flooring, and my father kept telling my mother, “Be careful, Phyllis.” She was wearing the low-heeled, conservative Italian shoes she usually wore. Always cautious, she walked more gingerly with each warning. I took her arm, and she kept her eyes on the floor, breathing quickly through her nose the way she did when she was nervous. When the tour ended, my father stood in front of her, cupping her face in his hands. He gave her a long, loving look and told her he had never understood the museum’s vision, but she had, and now he saw what she had always seen.
Since my father died my mother likes to say, “‘Widow’ is a harsh word.” I often reply, “Not necessarily. That’s the meaning you bring to it,” but that nuance doesn’t interest her. She wasn’t prepared to be a widow. She was dependent on my father, she was disorganized and shy, and some of her friends wondered how she’d fare. But my father’s business success had made them players in San Francisco society and my mother refused to let his death sideline her. She decided to share her experience of widowhood with her wide circle of friends and write a book. I suggested she read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story.
“No,” she said. “It’s not going to be like those books. It will be a how-to book. How do you start your day? Should you go out with couples? When do you give away the clothes?”
She writes notes on white, unlined index cards and leaves them scattered around her house: by the kitchen phone, on her desk amid piles of mail and magazines, even tucked among towels, brushes, and creams on her bathroom counter.
She’s also acting as a widow’s coach for Pawnie, her longtime friend from Boston whose husband died shortly after my father. The two couples double-dated in college. Now, my mother tells me, she advises Pawnie to write down one goal for the week: go on a lunch date, attend a lecture at the Jewish Community Center, call someone new. She finishes her advice to Pawnie with a firm admonition: “Don’t think, just do it.” To my mother’s surprise and delight, Pawnie does what she says.
My mother tells me about her conversations with Pawnie on one of our almost daily calls. I imagine her in her kitchen, doodling her trademark stars on a scratchpad while we talk, dressed in sweat pants and an old T-shirt printed with young girls in various postures of aerobic exercise. My father hated her exercise T-shirts. But listening to her, I’m amused and proud. My mother as counselor. She’s never had a day of therapy in her life.
My mother stays connected in other ways, too. A glutton for the local news, she knows every birth, death, marriage, divorce, luncheon, dinner, or award ceremony in San Francisco. If I ask about someone, she tells me his family lineage, the names and ages of his children, where he used to live, and his prior occupations. At the end, she gets to what’s current. She keeps newspapers until she’s read them thoroughly, sometimes weeks later. Mail collects on her desk.
Last week I suggested she had a hoarding problem. We were at my house after Rosh Hashanah services. She was resting on the couch, sporting old-lady tie shoes, the kind that years before made her look askance at my father’s mother, who also wore them.
“I do not have a hoarding problem!” she said. “It’s my feet. Nobody understands what I’ve gone through with my feet.”
I’ve heard this many times. She has bunions and bursas. Before my father got sick, she was off her feet for several months following foot surgery. She claims this set her back from organizing her desk. I say her procrastination about throwing away the mail and newspapers has been going on for as long as I can remember.
“Think about it, Mom,” I persisted.
“Can’t you just let me be!” she sighed, closing her eyes.
One day, after my father got his diagnosis but still had energy, he and I sat at the kitchen table, where we gathered up her out-of date invitations, magazines, catalogs, and junk mail.
“She never notices,” he said gleefully, dumping piles into a garbage bag. “I do this all the time.” We laughed hysterically, bringing bags to the trunk of his car. The next day he drove to his office and threw them in a dumpster.
I tried to organize my mother’s mail again with my father a few weeks before he died, but he was too tired; his heart wasn’t in it. My sister, phoning from her home in Santa Fe, said his calls had changed. “He’s gone inward,” she said.
Soon after that, my father was spending his days in bed, and my mother let me clean her office. I’d sit on the hallway floor and order a stack of her papers, listening to my father breathe. I found at least a hundred birthday and greeting cards and enough personalized stationery to last two lifetimes. I kept some photos for future albums, and one in particular of my father that I put in my purse and didn’t show anyone. It’s a three-quarter profile, taken in a conference room. He’s about 40, with salt-and-pepper hair. He wears his signature oversize glasses (like me, he was near-sighted), and he’s leaning forward, smiling, about to speak. One hand waves as if he’s making a point. On the photo’s right border, someone has written, “We must hold more meetings like this!”
Occasionally my mother would come in, look around, and ask in an alarmed way, “What are you throwing out?” but she was too overwhelmed to protest. She was wearing the tailored shirts and pants my father liked. Her hair was done. She knew he was dying. I still didn’t. I’d thought after the last round of radiation he’d be stronger.
One afternoon a family friend came by. He was 87, six years older than my father, and fit and vigorous. Why is he so strong, I mourned, and my younger father isn’t? When their visit ended my mother walked the friend to the door, where they hugged. I watched her after he left as she hurried toward the kitchen, her shoulders shaking. She was 18 when she met my father; now she was almost 80. Though still in denial of his impending death, I couldn’t help grieving the unanswerable: Why did he have to die and leave her?
The many people who assumed my mother would fall apart after he died tell me now they were mistaken.
“You know,” a friend confided, “don’t take this the wrong way, but she’s blossoming.”
For the first time in her life, my mother is attending bi-monthly Torah classes. She gets up at 5:00 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. class. This, from a mother who was too groggy to make my sister and me breakfast before school, a mother whose idea of on time was 20 minutes late and who once arrived at a lunch of my friends 40 minutes late, wearing one earring and saying gaily, “The best is worth waiting for.” At the time I was so angry I could hardly look at her. Now, I’m grateful that she’s the first one at class, saving me a place.
Some things are harder to change. The week after our class we went back to my place. After we had talked for a while, I found her standing at the door, looking hesitant as she straightened her coat.
“Mom,” I said, “I’ll help you down the stairs.”
As soon as I said it, I knew what her response would be.
“I didn’t want to bother you,” she said.
That’s the mother from before, the wife basking in her husband’s star, not the independent woman who recently returned from an art trip to Paris and Belgium.
She told me not long ago, “Getting into bed alone is the hardest part.”
She always was a night owl. My father used to be in bed by 9:00 p.m., calling to her, “Phyllis! Come to bed!” He’d be wearing pressed Brooks Brothers pajamas, and would fall asleep by the time she turned in hours later.
“Who knows what she does,” he would grumble to me.
I know what she was doing. She was reading old mail and newspapers, probably chomping on a chicken wing or popping chocolate kisses or composing one of the “occasional” poems she was, and still is, known to recite at lunches or other special gatherings of her friends.
These days when she’s up late, she’s scrolling through the Web, which she recently learned to use when one of my sons was home from college. She tries to get to bed at what she calls a decent hour. I picture her closing up the house: pulling down the shades, turning off the lights, and finally climbing into bed. She sleeps like a log. She always did. My father would wake during the night and go into another room to read. When he came back she’d be asleep and still sleeping when he left for work.
Now, she tells me, she’s up early, opening the curtains by her bed, comforted by the roses, remembering how my father would appreciate their pale pink and yellow beauty when he was in bed his last few weeks and saw them as if for the first time. I imagine her going into her messy, familiar bathroom, glancing at an index card, and remembering she’d better get to the nursery to pick out a new lemon bush, or make a list for the dinner party she’s planning. There are so many things yet she wants to do.