My husband was a lucky man. Even with smart phone reminders, I still manage to not remember birthdays or anniversaries or hallmark holidays, so I never got bent out of shape on the rare occasion that he’d forget. He’d say something like, “Oh shit, I’m so sorry—I forgot our anniversary!” and I’d say something like, “Huh? It was our anniversary?”
Which is probably why I don’t get too bent out of shape on the anniversary of Bob’s death (“Bob who?” I tease my sister when she mentions it; she’s always mortified, I think I’m hilarious and so does Bob. My mom just rolls her eyes and says, “oh that old joke again…”). Of course, I always remember the day, though the pale green halo around trees this time of year, more than a date, reminds me. Yes, there’s a cascade of feelings to be felt and memories to remember, but it’s not a day that throws me off kilter with a particular dread or sorrow—not any more than any other day might.
The day he died, May 3, 2011, was achingly beautiful, a day much like ones we’ve had lately: the sun was slowly sliding down the sky, dragging reluctant shadows with it, washing the world with a golden-pink glow that photographers call sweet light. In a long-ago life, the kind of day that would entice him to sling a camera bag over his shoulder and slip into the woods or a tall grass prairie, and capture luminous trees, pasque flowers, bloodroot, sunsets burning through big bluestem. If he were lucky, he might find a pair of great horned owlets huddled together on a low branch, or a fresh fawn curled tight beneath a pine.
Today, I can look back at that day, and say it was a perfect day for Bob to take leave; nine years ago, however, I would have said it was anything but perfect. I was gutted, by the nineteen months that lead up to that day. Nine years ago, I stared out the patio doors into our wooded backyard, aglow in sweet light, bewildered, that something so exquisite could exist at the same time my husband was dying. My grieving mind couldn’t reconcile the incongruence—that breathtaking beauty and breathtaking sorrow could coexist peacefully, equally, at the same time, in the same space. Nothing in my world had prepared me for the intensity of this truth. For a long time after, horror would overshadow beauty.
Three days after Bob died, I hastily assembled a celebration of life service, at the same reception hall that, a year earlier, my youngest sister had been married. To the casual observer, the scene might have looked like a celebration—hundreds of people milling about in good clothes, a curious blend of Elvis, Steve Vai, Lucinda Williams, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bob Mould, Mozart, Weird Al wove through the murmuring bodies. A long table set with an impressive spread of what? I don’t know—sandwiches, salads, expansive trays of fruit and vegetables, likely. In the center of the table, I do know, was a bouquet of Tootsie Pops.
You wouldn’t have been able to pick out the widow in the crowd; I stood in the middle of the room in shiny red stilettos, the ones Bob called “fuck me pumps;” a Mardi Gras-worthy flower print dress of crushed satin and black lace hung from my body, an eruption of watercolor splashes of red and pink and orange. I didn’t feel like I was celebrating my husband’s life, as the dress might have implied; I felt like an implosion, all that was left was fragments of color, the edges burned black; the dress was both evidence and a feeble attempt to defy the repelling label, widow, that now clung to me. At least that’s how I remember it.
No one took pictures of the day, as far as I know, and for that, I’m grateful. I’d rather not have hard evidence of the hollow woman I was, trapped in the snare of the second receiving line of the day, an endless assault of hugs and condolences—no one told me there’d be goddamned receiving lines at a funeral…I wanted to writhe from the arms that held me. I wanted to run and lock myself in the bathroom, or better yet, keep running. I wanted the day to be over. I hated the dress and the shoes and the reason I was wearing them. I hated what my world had suddenly become, and there wasn’t anything that any of the hundreds of people could do or say that could change this, no matter how hard they hugged or what they said. But that didn’t stop them from trying. All I could do was stand there and take it.
A woman stepped in front of me and grabbed both my hands. Before I could speak, she began gushing exuberantly, as though at a wedding, “Oh, Jen! Think of this as a time to reinvent your life—how lucky you are! We all wish we could have a chance at a re-do like this!”
My body instantly seized with fury that was quickly deadened by a new, lead-heavy lag-time. I stared at this woman, who stood next to her very alive husband, shaking my head slowly. My husband was just here—less than three days ago—now he’s gone. The skewed landscape I was standing in was familiar but unrecognizable, the conversations I was having in plain English were incomprehensible. I stammered, “No, that’s not right—” but I didn’t have the right words to counter hers.
Of course, this woman was right, but she was also so very wrong. Sure, if given the chance, we’d all love a redo at life, if—that “if” is the condition most would insist on—we’re given a say in the matter. A forced reinvention is not what I’d call lucky—not then, not now. If I’d been in a better frame of mind, I might have told this woman to take her lucky redo and fuck off. Lucky for her, I wasn’t, so I didn’t.
But her words had staying power in my mind. Over the years, I often wondered why hers, more than anyone’s, struck me so viscerally that day. Even deeply grieving, I knew that she, like everyone at the service, only wanted to help ease the pain of my loss, but I also knew, at the time, no such words existed. Deep in the heart of a great loss, there simply are no magic incantations or switches to flip or wands to wave that can suddenly make everything better. As much as we’d desperately wish it otherwise, it’s not the way things work—the timing of her message couldn’t have been more off. Maybe three years after Bob’s death, I’d have eased into that enviable shift in perspective, from gutted to #blessed!, but three days after? That expectation is impossible, if not outright cruel to suggest, even for the most put-together of us.
Sometimes, I fantasized about tracking that woman down, so I could tell her face-to-face, in vivid detail, what this lucky re-do has looked like for me. Sometimes I’d fantasize that everyone I knew would be forced to go through something like this, so they’d know, first-hand, how hard a lucky re-do actually is. Maybe it would stop people from saying insensitive things at funerals, and instead simply say, “I’m sorry.” Maybe it would help people be better prepared to face their own lucky redo, if and when it shows up in their own life.
My lucky redo involved losing not just my husband, but a career and a business, our life savings, our house, one of our dogs, most of our friends, a lot of my hair, and definitely all of my mind, and it required that I somehow salvage a life—that “new normal!” everyone’s so smitten with—out the few scraps that remained. Like one of those cooking shows, where chefs are given strange and random ingredients, and are supposed to create something not just aesthetically appealing but palatable, from an incomprehensible mess. I didn’t want new, I wanted my old life back.
My redo involved trauma and an eventual diagnosis of PTSD, a condition I thought was reserved for combat vets and survivors of violence. Who knew caregivers (and others) are susceptible, as well? I resisted therapy for a long time, and instead, coped by drinking—to quell the nightmares that kept me from sleeping, to blur the sharp edges of grotesque memories of Bob’s illness that filled my days, to quiet the incessant rage I had for Bob’s medical team, to lessen the shame over losing our house, to mute the incessant, internal critics that told me again and again that if I had done things differently, my husband wouldn’t have suffered so terribly, or that I should be doing a better job at this re-do that’s taking way too long—why wasn’t I happily remarried and nestled into a new life by now? Why do I have to do everything the hard way—I could stay in this haunted house, I could go back to doing hair, but nooooooo—instead, I’m wasting so much time and money going to grad school and monkeying around with a new career that probably won’t make me any money, and cutting off friendships and moving more times than I can easily track anymore. I’ve made so many mistakes at reinventing it’s not even funny, but sometimes it struck me as exactly that, not just funny but downright ludicrous—that anyone would wish for this chance that I’m blowing at every turn. “Lucky” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think about these past nine years. “Shit show” is more like it.
Fast forward to nine years after Bob’s death. I’m beginning my fifth month, alcohol free (I could say “sober” or “recovering” or whatever, but I don’t, which is another essay for another time). When I stopped drinking in January, my life was pretty ho-hum (which is a big part of why I decided to stop—not because of an epic, rock-bottom crash and burn, but because I felt like I was slowly decaying, from the inside, out). I didn’t just quit; I’ve done and continue to do a shit-ton of ‘behind the scenes’ work to get here—again, another essay for another time…toward the end of my first AF 30 days, I wondered how I would handle a crisis without alcohol—not that I was looking to stir up drama to find out, just wondering is all. Didn’t see that fucking pandemic looming on the horizon, that’s for sure. But here we are, and here I am, four months free of the substance that stunted my growth for a very long time. I’m not saying my life is all puppies and rainbows over here in AF Land, in the middle of a pandemic—let’s be real, things are pretty scary. I’m alone, in unemployment limbo, I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life going forward—I can’t even go back to doing hair if I wanted to—these uncertain times are the stuff that makes us want to crawl out of our skin. But instead of running to squelch the discomfort with a bottle of wine, I am learning to sit with it, let it burn over me, the way lightning strikes a prairie, burning old growth that chokes, to make breathing space for new. Allowing horror and beauty to exist in the same space.
For the first time in my life, I can look at the past nine years and see beyond the darkened edges, and find flashes of color—big patches, even—evidence that not everything I’ve done has been a complete failure, as I’d believed for so long. “Holy shit—I did all of that?” Instead of being awash in shame or embarrassment at how long everything’s taken, or what I did to cope, I recognize, with truth and grace, that alcohol did exactly what I needed it to do for me during a time of searing, relentless pain—it anesthetized me. Until it didn’t. But frankly, I don’t know if I could have withstood the ordeal otherwise. We do the best we can, with what we have at the time…once we know different, we can start to do different.
Today, nine years after Bob’s death, I still don’t know that I’d define what I’ve gone through as lucky, or blessed or anything, really. I’m okay without confining it to a label, and instead, just sitting with it, on a day that is so much like the day that he died, and revel in the mystery and magic.