In early 2018 my wife, Marian, received a diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer. Throughout the rest of that year we dealt with the tedious busy-work of being a cancer patient, until in late October the oncologist said, “There’s really nothing more to do.”
In response to “What happens next?”, she promised, “There won’t be any pain, or none we can’t easily handle; you’ll just get less interested in eating, and steadily weaker.” Which was all correct. Marian received excellent, thoughtful care at home from hospice workers; became weaker; went to sleep normally on the evening of Saturday December 1, and didn’t wake up the next morning.
This essay is a review of what I’ve felt and learned in the year following that morning.
While mulling my future during the months of Marian’s illness, I made a three major policy decisions about how I should live “when I’m a bachelor” (as I put it to myself), and set some general goals.
An early decision was, blog it. I would start a diary/journal/blog and maintain it for at least the first year of this transition. From reading I had done, I knew that journaling was a tool for managing emotions. I expected strong emotion, and a blog could be a journal. Then, there’s memory. I don’t have good recall for the details of life. When we lived three years in England, we wrote lengthy letters home documenting all we did, and the compilation of those letters is still a valuable and entertaining reminder of a high point of our lives. On our longer travels we kept up daily travel blogs, and reading those is a way to remember the details of trips that otherwise I’d only recall in vague outline. The first year of widower-hood would surely have lots of events, and I wanted to be able to remember them in good detail.
Finally, I wanted to be able to look back after a year and actually measure how well I’d met my goals. A blog is a diary that one can search quickly and make tabulations from. I’ll note some of the resulting numbers at the end of this essay.
The second decision I reached was, I don’t want to be a home-owner any more. Marian loved our house on Tasso Street. I liked it, but I also felt a burden of responsibility at maintaining an 80 year old house. It was sound enough; we had kept it at a high level, but I was always aware of its age, pending maintenance, insurance cost, the health of the trees, the landscaping… I wanted out of all that. I didn’t try to decide where I would live; but I made up my mind it would not be there.
The third policy decision was, I won’t re-marry or again have an intimate partner. Initially, this just seemed automatic, mere common sense; but on Day 22, the real reason came to my consciousness with a rush.
Over the months I made a number of goals for myself, which I sketched in a file of notes that I’m looking at now. Chief among them,
Be more social. I’m naturally an introvert, finding groups stressful and solitude energizing. For decades I and Marian had supported (one might say, enabled) each other’s introversion, a little society of two. Without her, I feared a descent into complete hermetic isolation. I made a list of people and organizations that I felt comfortable with.
Do more volunteering. My work at the Computer History Museum was valuable in giving me a sense of contribution and worth, as well as structuring my days and weeks; and it comforts me to have a time structure with certain things scheduled on certain days. So: more of that, although at the start I wasn’t sure where. (Soon I found Friends of the Library, which supplies interesting, challenging work.)
Attend more events. To get out of the house and see things, not following my inclination to veg out at the computer or TV, seemed important for mental health. I listed possibilities including concerts, movies, local theater, museums and galleries. We’d done rather little of these things in recent years, although we had enjoyed ourselves almost every time we did.
Travel. I’d enjoyed our many travels. In recent years, Marian’s limited mobility had made travel somewhat more difficult and stressful, but still, we’d both greatly enjoyed a tour of the Italian Lakes in as recently as 2017. I wanted to think of myself as a bachelor who got out and toured and saw things. However, I also knew that the few times I had traveled alone, I’d not enjoyed it as much. I would have to see whether I could enjoy it at all, now.
Making these decisions and writing down these goals gave me a small sense of control in a stressful time. I mentioned the decisions briefly to Marian. She was surprised I wouldn’t stay in the house, but accepted it. Her only comment was to point out, “You won’t have anyone to take care of you the way you’re supporting me. You need to be in a situation where you can be supported when the time comes.” I saw the sense of this immediately, and that thought acted as a filter to winnow the more fanciful ideas I’d been kicking around, about where I might live.
I opened the WordPress blog at codgerville.net in November, but didn’t do any posting until what I decided to title “Day 1”, my first day as a widower. The following is a summary of some things I posted in the first few months, but reorganized around major topics. Texts in this font are quotes from the blog. Other text is my interpretation and comment from the vantage point of a year on. On Day 2,
…it was just over 24 hours ago that the extremely polite men from the mortuary contracted by the Neptune Society carefully and respectfully wrapped Marian’s body and wheeled it out of the house where we’d lived together for 45 years. She loved this house and more than once said she wouldn’t leave it alive, and like most things she said, she was right.
Her end was not at all unexpected; she and I were in no kind of denial about her diagnosis, or the reason she was being cared for by hospice nurses not regular doctors, or the steady deterioration in her strength.
…with with the removal of the body and nothing more to do, I moved around the rooms, and it felt — stuffy. Over the months of increasing illness we’d accumulated a thick layer of “invalid stuff”. A walker. A commode (horrible thing, she hated using it even more than I hated emptying it). A wheelchair. An oxygen machine. Elder diapers (“insurance pants”, we called them). And medicines everywhere, in the bathroom cabinet, by the bed, in the kitchen.
I opened every window in the house and turned the HVAC fan to “circ”. Then I rounded up every bit of invalid stuff and corralled it in one room. Anything that might have value for someone else, I stacked in a mound in the middle of the guest room, but a lot of stuff that didn’t, went into the trash. Illness and feebleness and stinks — out!
Eventually I was shivering (the air coming in the windows was about 60F) but the place felt cleaner.
By Day 3 I had begun to see a pattern to grief:
It just comes on at unpredictable times, then passes off. Something reminds me of our life together — as when, yesterday morning, I passed the local ice-cream store and suddenly remembered she always ordered mocha almond fudge flavor — or it will be nothing at all, just a sudden uprush of pity and regret. And the eyes prickle, the throat constricts, the voice, if I’m talking, becomes thick and broken. A deep breath, a shake of the shoulders, and it passes off.
So these little fugues, every couple of hours or so, are the metronome to my days.
Such a spasm could be triggered by the smallest things.
Two years ago, for reasons I don’t remember, Marian ordered a couple dozen bulbs of miniature cyclamen, and planted them at random spots all around the front yard. Unlike some of our attempted plantings, these have settled in and thrived.
They are peculiar little beasts: the flowers come up from bare ground in September (and Marian saw them this time). The rosette of tiny leaves only comes in after the flowers fall off. The leaves get thicker all spring and then disappear in late summer.
Walking in from the car today I saw how all the leaves had popped up in the past week, and somehow that just tore me up. Still does as I write this.
Two months later another flower got to me:
…a major grief spasm, the first after several days of calm. As I left the house to head for my meeting, my eye was caught by the azalea under the front window, which is covered in pink blossoms. This was Marian’s favorite plant, selected by her and carefully nurtured for many years, and its blooming — which always seems to come unexpectedly, one day bare and the next day blazing with pink — delighted her every year. I was just swept with a wave of pity and regret that she couldn’t enjoy its blooming now. I tried to talk it out to my steering wheel as I drove to my meeting, and couldn’t keep my voice from breaking.
Soon I made the dismal discovery that there were things I enjoyed only because we shared them.
Last night I scrolled through the DVR list and automatically started playing the latest episode of Cook’s Country. And quickly realized that I didn’t care about how Basque fried chicken is made!
Oh, this is so sad! Cook’s Country and its sister show America’s Test Kitchen were two shows that Marian and I could watch together and talk about. “We could make that.” “Nah, too many ingredients.” But now: I don’t expect to cook an actual entrée ever again. I don’t care about easy ways to make suppers. And there’s nobody to exchange snarky comments with about over-elaborate recipes. So this is the first TV show that I’m dropping because its main interest for me, was sharing it with Marian.
When I began clearing out Marian’s closet with the help of her sister, Jean, I hit this with a wallop.
One object just broke me up. I tried to talk about it to Jean and just could not make my voice work. (Fortunately emotion doesn’t clog up my typing fingers the way it does my throat and mucous membranes…) Sometime in the 1990s, Marian embarked on making a quilt, based on an elaborate pattern of stitched flowers. She bought fabric and matching thread; she stitched probably four complete squares out of the twenty or so in the pattern; cut and sewed parts (stems, petals) for a few more. But she found her eyesight just wouldn’t support the very fine hand-stitching required. She stowed the project neatly in a drawer; once every few years she’d take it out and look at it; but she could never finish it.
So here is this unfinished quilt, a pile of neatly-cut fabric sections, paper patterns and templates, and small boxes of completed components, representing probably a hundred hours of work, with hundreds more to finish it. Does it go to the landfill?
Jean took it and said she was confident that her thrift shop people would find someone who wanted it. I hope she’s right. Anyway it is a relief to have it out the house, I guess.
There was more when I started “Downsizing”, removing things I can’t possibly use or need.
Early on I collected all Marian’s knitting supplies — a fat sack of assorted hanks and balls of yarn; three nice cloth binders each holding dozens of knitting needles; some other knitting doo-dads — into a basket. I offered the collection to a friend who had often talked knitting with Marian, but she said no thanks, she had all that stuff. So now the collection needs to go to Jean, who will take it to her Church thrift shop. So I went through the basket again before putting it in the car, and spent the next half hour sniffling. She worked so hard at that hobby, enjoyed the challenge and even the frustrations (“Oh no, I made a mistake three rows back!”), created nice things. And of course had all her tools perfectly organized. It’s just deeply saddening to see it go.
Around Day 29 I started to get some clarity on grief.
…walking to coffee on the old route, the route we’d have walked a couple years ago when Marian was still healthy, and grief and regret swelled up in the back of my throat.
“Regret” is maybe not the word. Is there a word for strongly wishing things were not such? For me, “regret” has links with guilt, or at least responsibility, but that’s not accurate here. I regret that my life is how it is, but I don’t rue that, it isn’t my fault; it just is the case and I would it were otherwise.
As I tried to work out that train of thought, my logical brain finally produced a little comfort with the thought, “Well, how would you have things be instead?”
Followed by the realization that there is no credible alternative to how things are! Would I have it that Marian had not died four weeks ago? But what then? Four more weeks of the really miserable, feeble condition she was in? How is that desirable? Or, suppose I had a time machine and could go back to the start of this year, when presumably the cancer hadn’t blossomed in her pancreas? There would be nothing anyone could do, even with perfect knowledge, to prevent that. (Imagining a sci-fi scenario, a person from the future pops in and tells an apparently healthy woman, “You need to start a course of chemo, stat!” Riiight…)
So that helped a bit, or actually quite a lot: to work it out that, despite how much I wish things weren’t as they are, there is no other believable way they could be. So… what? Blow your nose and soldier on, I guess.
Weeks later I remembered that the Buddhists have a word for strongly wishing things were not such. It’s Aversion. By aversion they mean the feeling of wanting something to not-be. To abandon aversion, to discard it and so acknowledge that reality is what it must be, is central to the Buddhist way. I knew all that, although it didn’t come to mind at the time.
A couple of days in, I felt something different than grief: an itchy, scary anxiety.
Yesterday I wrote about the sudden, acute grief spasms. This is different. I’ve noticed it off and on since day 2: a slight nervous, stressed-out feeling, as if there were something I should be doing but aren’t, or somewhere I should have gone to but didn’t, or as if I were running late for something important.
But none of that is true. I know when and where I have to be and what I need to do — god knows I have enough TODO lists across the desktop! But my mind knows that something’s not right, and is flogging me for it. Not sure what to do about this; only if it goes on too long I will surely suffer some physical effect of the stress.
The following day, I noted a little more insight on the feeling.
Walked to the Y, did my exercises, walked home. Thinking all the way, trying to isolate and examine this not-quite-constant feeling of anxiety or malaise. What is it that eats on me? I think I have a handle.
For 45 years, Marian and I formed a tight little mutual support group of two. Psychologically, siamese twins. For most of that time, the act of walking home from the gym had the context that I was walking home to where Marian was. This fact of being part of a couple was the basic context (or milieu or background) for every act. Yes, I went to the gym and returned on my own initiative; I didn’t have to, I chose to. But in the deep background, whatever I did, I did in the context of being part of “Dave’n’Marian”. It didn’t supply “meaning” exactly, but was the water in which we goldfish swam.
And that’s gone; the context, the background stripped away, leaving all my actions isolated in space. The practical reasons for going to the gym, or going at that hour, are exactly the same as ever. But because there’s no context except me and my choice, it seems to call the act, every step in it, into question; seems to demand justification, or re-verification.
Hopefully this will fade as I begin to establish a new context for myself as “Dave the Bachelor”.
The lack of that context showed up again, and often.
…went out to shop for groceries. This was a little eerie because although I was at the same store that I’ve used a hundred times before, I wasn’t there for the same things. All I wanted was a little fruit, some pickles, and some zero-cal sodas. The shopping wasn’t preceded by a planning session with Marian, deciding what we’d cook for the coming week. This was one more instance where a familiar action is stripped of its former context. Like a play being performed on a bare stage, with the set and props whisked away.
A couple of weeks later I found a more practical explanation for anxiety.
The anxiety I’ve been having spells of this month? The best description would be the sinking feeling you get when you realize there was something you were supposed to do and you now realize you forgot to do it. Well, I had a bit of an insight on its source: I’m afraid of screwing up.
Here’s the thing: I, probably very much like most people, am prone to forgetting things or overlooking things. But for several decades I’ve been able to rely on Marian’s good memory and practicality to catch my mistakes or oversights before I make them. “Aren’t you forgetting that…” or “You do remember, don’t you, that we have to…” were common sentence openings for her, to me. Not so much the reverse, although once in a while I would think of some consideration she’d missed.
Now I don’t have that steady oversight. I lost my co-pilot; I’m flying solo. And apparently, it scares me. To a degree, the fear is legitimate. I will screw up, forget things, drop balls. People do.
I find myself compensating, making lots of lists, checking my online calendar often, reviewing the upcoming hours to reassure myself that I have all my obligations under control. The extra efforts in home maintenance (treating the leather cushions, refinishing the table tops) are ways of asserting my ability to maintain in a general sense. Hopefully with time I will regain some confidence in my own wits.
Yet another realization in the early days:
…this occurred to me while I was zoned out in the chair at the blood center yesterday: that we constantly validated each other. I’d come in from a run: she’d say “how was the run?” and I’d say “good” and she’d say “excellent.” She’d finish updating the bills and I’d say, “good work.” “I started the laundry”; “Good!” “I changed the bed”; “Good for you, thanks.” For any little thing accomplished or achieved by one, the other would administer a little validation pat.
Well, that’s over. Got to be self-validating now.
Another aspect of validation is simply sharing:
Part of grief, part of the loss of a partnership, is the lack of anyone to share what you see. Anything you notice, anything unusual, any change in the neighborhood or the weather, what’s your first impulse? Well, mine was, and still is, to point it out to Marian. An observation shared is more real. If only I see that there’s an unusual bloom on a bush, or somebody walking along with a cute dog or an unusual hat, or a new construction fence to herald imminent demolition of another house — if only I see that event, is it real? Pointing at it, hearing, “Huh, yeah,” back from your partner: then it’s real. Real in a different way, not only because somebody else verified that you saw something, but that they concur with your interest or concern, and so validate that.
Living without a partner to share and validate your experiences is a different life. What’s a constructive response? Well, journaling is one. Hence at least one reason for this blog.
Over time I began to understand that what I had lost was not just a partner, but an entire life-style. Almost every part of the comfortable routine I’d had for 45 years was now changed and would have to be re-thought. One small example: before Marian died it had not occurred to me that, afterward, I would never cook again! Well, I’d feed myself, but I would never be called on to prepare a complete meal with protein, veg, fruit, set out on a tray in the manner that we’d alternated doing for years.
I didn’t really grasp this change of life-style at first. It hit me piece by piece. The first and largest piece was finding a home for Beau.
Forty-odd years ago, Marian brought home a “pony-tail palm” (beaucarnia recurvata) which over time grew and grew, until “Beau” towered nearly 7 feet above the rim of the pot, and had branched out like a menora.
Expecting that my time in this house was limited, I have worried about what to do with Beau since the middle of last year. I wanted to find a new permanent home for this plant, and hated the idea that it might end up in a compost pile. Fortunately, Liz, a niece-in-law of Marian’s sister Jean, is a landscape gardener by trade, appreciates plants, and agreed to take Beau into her own home.
…at noon sharp, Liz and her son Spencer pulled into the driveway. They very professionally staked and tied Beau’s branches, moved him out to the truck, and wrapped him securely in a sheet. They roped him him securely into the bed of the truck and he was off to his new home.
I had not expected this to be an emotional event; after all, this was exactly what I wanted to have happen, had planned for, and marked the end of my responsibility for the plant.
But it was emotional, very much so. I had a hard time controlling my voice saying goodbye to Liz, and for half an hour after they left I wandered around the house, sniffling and wiping my eyes — closer to actual tears than I’ve been since Day 2 — and mumbled a couple of times, “Just shards of the old life, going away,” which was the best I could do to sum it up.
“Shards of the old life going away” became a mantra for me over the next months, with a mental image of breaking out of a huge egg, pieces of shell falling off. It was a useful and accurate metaphor, but — almost a year later, in a wakeful moment at 3am, I realized what any therapist would have spotted immediately. I mean, come on: what else did I see wrapped in a sheet and carried out of the house to a vehicle, just two weeks prior?
I swear, that connection did not occur to me until around Day 340. Just shows how much self-awareness I have…
Nevertheless, there were many days in the following weeks when I identified the loss of a pattern of living as a source of grief, independent of loss of a companion.
I started by recycling a stack literally 6 inches thick, of paper transaction records and monthly statements from the early years of our managed accounts, and some other historical records dating back into the ’80s. When that wad dropped into the blue recycle bin it was like there was a mechanical connection to my sinuses. I just choked up. Over old papers of no value? Papers that we stopped accumulating over 15 years ago and hadn’t looked at between then and now?
Here’s another trivial trigger: the corkboard in the kitchen where we thumb-tacked things to remember. I started pulling irrelevant stuff off it. Out-of-date notes about museum exhibits to see, phone numbers of vendors I’ll never use again. Stuff. And I got to the printed list of the thirty-odd dishes that we liked to cook. It was a reminder list, so when we were planning the week’s menu on Sunday, we could look the list over and say, oh, right, I’ll do that pasta, you can do this stir-fry. Won’t be doing any of those dishes again. I know this. But to pull down this visible reminder of the old life was just — hard.
More and more I am coming to grasp that as a widower perhaps the least of my bereavements is the loss of my wife. With her went an entire, carefully-crafted lifestyle. It doesn’t go all at once; it peels away in chunks, or shards as I found myself saying about Beau. And each shard that drops away is a fresh bereavement.
Clearing out a bookshelf a few weeks later, I got analytical about this issue.
…a box of bookmarks. We were both readers and until, say, ten years ago we had several books apiece in progress. So we needed bookmarks, and we’d grab free bookmarks wherever, and after a while Marian set up a box on a handy bookshelf to hold bookmarks so it was easy to grab one. There are bookmarks in the box from decades of reading, and from bookstores we’ve been in: Powell’s in Portland, Davis-Kidd in Knoxville, the Tattered Cover in Denver, Munro’s in Victoria. Dozens.
Now, here’s the thing. Starting a decade ago, we pretty much stopped buying physical books and moved to reading on our laptops: stuff on the web, or books on Kindle for Mac. We typically had one (1) bookmark in operation, in whichever book we were reading aloud at bedtime. Everything else was on a screen. So these bookmarks have been gathering dust, unused, for years. The newest is from a hotel in Normandy from our 2012 trip.
Unused, unregarded bookmarks. They should be tossed. But it definitely hurts to do it.
As I was boxing books from this shelf I hit three map books from our days touring the UK: a road atlas for Ireland, the AA Road Atlas of Great Britain, and a book that was absolutely essential to us for several years, the Master Atlas of Greater London. (You see, children, there was once a time when we didn’t have GPS or a phone that ran a map app. We were utterly dependent on maps printed on paper, if you can imagine something so crude!)
These handsome volumes have no use whatever, now or in the future. The maps are out of date; before today they had not been off the shelf for 20 years. It has been literally forty years since we used the London Atlas. These books need to go into the recycle bin.
Along with the bookmarks.
And it hurts.
I can imagine a sympathetic person saying “Well, why don’t you keep them, then? Or a couple of bookmarks anyway.” But that just puts it off. I’d face the same issue when packing to move to wherever I go. It’s just more possessions to be responsible for, and really useless ones at that.
Here’s the contradiction: these objects have a triple nature:
- To me, they are powerful symbols of a life I once lived.
- To anyone else they are meaningless.
- Yet they have no practical use in the life I am moving into.
There are a lot of objects in this house that have this contradictory nature. How many do I keep?
In the end I kept a few art objects — but no bookmarks.
I started the process of downsizing after only a month. I knew the house would be sold, and there was no point in putting off the job of getting rid of stuff. As I went along, emptying out one shelf or drawer after another, I went through a lot of emotions: first grief at losing pieces of the old life, but eventually the emotions evolved into a kind of resentful rage. Here’s an entry from Day 67 when this came to a head.
…One drawer was all kinds of stuff from our times in England: guides to various castles and stately homes, guidebooks, maps. All of no use to anyone. We’d accumulated those on the spot, then saved them — why, exactly? Not planning to go back, and they’d have been outdated if we had. And neither of us ever went to that drawer to review places we’d been.
Harder even was another drawer where Marian had saved a thick stack of Stanford Women’s Basketball memorabilia: programs from the last dozen end-of-year awards banquets; programs from Final Fours we had attended; newspaper and magazine clippings.
I got very emotional flipping through this stuff and carrying it to the recycle bin. I was both crying, and raging, saying over and over, what’s the point of fucking memorabilia if you never go back and fucking look at it?
I did not want to deny, or to denigrate, the care and effort Marian had put into keeping this stuff, yet I cannot accept the alternative, to retain it all indefinitely, packing and moving and finding storage space it in whatever new home I get. I would feel stupid trying to carry these memorabilia onward when I know I’ll never look at them. I don’t want them; they have zero value to anybody else; so they have to go — but, to effect that puts me in the position of being the executioner, in effect, the killer of a part of her life and our lives together. Not a job I asked for, but here I am, doing it.
From Day 112, forty days later:
…This is a closet I’ve been dreading because there is so much stuff there I need to decide what to do with. There are family memorabilia that I’m sure other relatives would want (heck, things I want: high school annual?) (On the other hand, Seriously? What is the possible point of keeping a high school annual that is fifty-fucking-nine years old? A good fraction of the Bethel High School graduating class of 1960 are dead, and the rest wouldn’t remember my name, nor I theirs without a program.) Out! Just the same, it hurt.
There was column in today’s paper about the problems faced by children when a parent dies and leaves them with the dilemma of a house full of stuff to dispose of. I can well believe it! I’ve been tossing stuff for weeks and am strongly aware of several pools of stuff still lurking and looming and daring me to come at them. I can sympathize with any elderly, feeble person who shirks the task of de-cluttering right to the end.
…I cleared a couple shelves of one of the big brown steel cabinets in the shop. Two big roasting pans into the recycle. When was the last time we roasted anything large? A couple of the slides I scanned last week were from a Christmas dinner we hosted in 1992. I think that was when that roaster was last in an oven. But there it was, carefully laid away in the shop for the next time we needed it. Doing these discards and thinking about the care, the practicality, and the ultimate futility of it all, caused a lot of strong emotion.
Each piece of stuff has no intrinsic value, is worth zero, zilch, nada, to you or to anyone else — yet each piece has associations that tug on you. Marian referred to those SWBB media guides when she updated the alumnae section of the fan website… but the pile of media guides was of no use to me, in fact it had negative value because I don’t want to spend the mental energy to figure out where to store them or how to preserve them in the future. Their highest and best use is to be pulped in the recycler and to become new grocery bags. But throwing them out somehow suggests I am denigrating the use Marian made of them, denying her diligence in documenting the team.
Which is really stupid; and indeed, it is a comfort to imagine how, in fact, she would have disdained such sentimentality.
This is the chief lesson I learned about downsizing. It hurts for two contradictory reasons. One, you have to confront the fact that there was no real value in the things you kept, or reason to keep them in the first place. But, two, you have been thrust into the painful job of being the executioner of your own past. The feeling of resentment at being forced into this position of Discarder of the Past was actually a help; I could take out my resentment on the things themselves.
On Day 123 I understood another facet of saving stuff when from the storage cabinets in the garage I brought out several document boxes of old checks and payroll stubs.:
After I dragged the roller cans to the curb for pickup tomorrow morning, I went in the house and had a few minutes of emotion. Actual crying, sobs and sniffles and all. Crying over “shards of the old life, going away,” in the phrase I came up with back on Day 15.
All those saved checks, saved pay stubs, saved books, saved image files — records that we never once referred to over the years — what was the point of curating that collection? I think now we were (unconsciously) trying to make a monument, something that proved we were here, we were competent, we behaved in a laudable way. That nonverbal message was the only possible value for that stuff.
Now, throwing it all away, I was grieving for a life that is over. Not Marian’s life, although her death precipitated this clean-out, but the comfortable, stable, quiet, mediocre life that we crafted for ourselves for forty-odd years. The life’s gone, and the evidence of it, that we had so carefully organized and hoarded, is on the way to the landfill. And that reveals just how pathetically sad and futile it was to save it in the first place, which is another good reason for crying.
Well. That’s a lot of navel-gazing for 8:30am.
All sorts of things caused these reactions. Take for example our computers. We’d had four, a laptop and a desktop each. I used Marian’s machines for certain things for a while, but finally I moved all those functions to my own, and then,
That was the final thing that I had been using Marian’s iMac for… The obvious next steps are to format its disk, and put it into the nice Apple return box that’s waiting on the floor by the desk. I stuck the Mac OS USB stick into a USB port on the back of it and then stopped. I was starting to cry, and damn it I have to go and do a Docent tour in an hour.
This shit is not getting easier with time and practice. Bleagh.
Driving to and from the museum I was recalling how Marian would have felt about my sentimental regard for her computer. I believe she would have said, “That’s pretty silly.” So, channeling her pragmatic personality, I booted the iMac from the USB stick and formatted its drive. Then I packed it up. The Apple return program provides very nicely designed packaging with a clear instruction sheet. It took five minutes to have the machine securely boxed up and ready to go.
The summit of downsizing was dealing with our collection of photographic slides. We had thousands of them, and (unlike most people’s collections of old photos) they were painstakingly well-organized and indexed, because that’s how Marian was. Work with the slides went on for weeks, but I started to confront them on Day 75:
I want to mull some more on the contradictory problem of why we kept the slides all those years and so rarely looked at them. In fact, one group I went through, “Group 116: Eastern Canada 1996 (328 slides)” I am pretty sure had never been looked at since 1996. It was a nice trip: in a rental car we hit Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. On return we must have spent several evenings going through the slides and discarding at least half. Then Marian would have spent a couple of days cataloging and numbering them. Then we would have had Jean and Bill over for an evening and projected the final show for them.
Then they went into a box — and stayed there undisturbed until today. So, why did we even bother? I can come up with an answer, not a good answer, but an answer. It’s that the taking of the pictures was an important, satisfying hobby for both of us. Looking for picture subjects added a lot to the experience of traveling. It helped us remain aware of the quality of light, the texture of the sky, the shape of the land. So did trying different angles and zooms and ways of framing a scene, looking for just the right composition.
In those days the payoff for this effort was delayed until the slides came back and we could project them. Then we could go through and critique what we’d got, congratulate each other for the good ones, select the best, decide how to sequence them for a nice program. That was fun and satisfying. And showing the final product to our relatives that one time, that was validation for our work.
Now, having to finally do something with these relics, I kind of wish we had just dumped the slides into the trash at that point. We had two reasons for keeping them. One, the finished set of slides represented so much time and care and effort, it would have been unthinkable to just throw it away. And two, there was always the possibility that someday we’d pull out the, put the slides back into carousels, and project the show again. A few trips, we actually did show more than once. Very rarely more than twice.
Over the preceding decade I had been slowly digitizing slides from the collection. Now I finished the process, spending many hours over several weeks, reviewing the groups of slides I hadn’t scanned, selecting a few of the best, and digitizing them. Somewhere around Day 150 I was able to take the whole collection, 15 plastic boxes with several hundred slides in each, and dump them all into the trash can. The can was full to the brim with 35mm slides.
From the quotes I’ve selected above you might think I was in misery every day. On the contrary, first days, and then whole weeks, would go by without any real distress. Almost from the first week I began to explore a new, solo life. From Day 15, a Sunday:
Last week I mentioned how it was quite an emotional experience to go back alone to the P.A. Café Sunday morning. Today I had the notion to go to Baron Barista instead; and then had the sudden notion, “Wonder if I could walk that?” A quick check of Google Maps showed it was 2.2 miles and 40 minutes, which seemed well within my capacities, so off I went, paper under my arm.
Swinging along it dawned on me, with a real jolt of pleasure, that I was doing something that was only possible to me as a bachelor. Even a decade ago, such a walk would have been out of the question for Marian, and so wouldn’t have even occurred to me as a possibility. Here I was, doing a new thing that was possible only in my new life. Trivial though it was, it felt good.
A couple of weeks later I noted,
In general I think I am feeling more comfortable in my new life. I haven’t been bothered by that low-level anxiety for several days. It’s easy to trip into spasms of grief, but on the other hand I’m noting little satisfactions. Every partnership requires compromise, and when the partnership ends, those constraints are removed. I mentioned in passing on Day 9 that I’d gotten rid of three ferns that I’d never liked. That was one compromise eased. Here’s another: I stopped at the grocery store yesterday and among other items, bought a loaf of bread, of a brand that we never had in the house because Marian didn’t like it. I did like it, and now I can bring it home if I want. Trivial, but a tiny up-side to the process of fitting into a new life.
A few days later I took a long walk in the Baylands and noted,
This was a walk that Marian liked to take ten years ago, before her walking range diminished. But today I very consciously thought “I am doing this for my own pleasure, not out of nostalgia.”
The following Sunday,
Out to the old coffee shop with the winter sun just up, shining through broken clouds. Walked along being very consciously aware, in the moment, apprehending the air and the light and my body, thinking, “this is me, this is mine,” deliberately claiming life as a solo person.
Next month, I mused on this quite explicitly:
At 11, departed to get a haircut from Chris, just like on Day 18. There was this difference: as I pulled into the Ladera Shopping Center parking lot, I automatically scanned for open slots near to the top — just as I had twenty or more times over the last two years or so, so as to park to minimize the distance for Marian to walk. And suddenly realized, wait a minute: I can walk just fine. I don’t need to park close to the entrance. I can sashay across the length of the parking lot with no difficulty. And pulled into the first available spot.
Claiming my new life. I never felt any resentment at Marian’s limited mobility or the limitations it forced on us both. If I thought about it at all, I admired her matter-of-fact, dignified acceptance. This is how I am now, was her attitude; and this is how we deal with it. Parking close to your destination, avoiding stairs, skipping activities that needed many steps — these was just ways the partnership operated.
But I’m living a new life now, and it has pluses and minuses. One of the advantages is that I no longer need to compromise with limited mobility. (Well, for now. How long will I be freely mobile?) Today I consciously realized that advantage.
Weeks later, packing for a trip, something similar:
I had another moment, not exactly of grief but of combined relief and pity. I went to the “travel drawer” (oh jeez, yet another drawer I need to clean out) to get one of the small mesh bags we used to pack toiletries. The one I picked up had something in it: oh. Marian’s first-aid supplies.
For most of this millennium, she suffered from fragile skin: her skin would split or tear seemingly under a hard look, or at least any small collision with a corner of anything. So she always had to be ready with bandaids, tape, gauze, to patch a split. She handled this as she did all her other maladies, with intelligence and calm practicality. Your skin breaks; you swear quietly, patch it, and carry on. So one of the toiletry bags had this double-handful of assorted patching materials. I was so pleased to be able to throw all that out on her behalf. At least that isn’t an issue any more.
Late in the year I went on my first real travel as a single. At the outset, I had another, similar experience of freedom:
After landing [at JFK] I had to go from C65 to B38, nominally all part of the international terminal, but in actuality requiring a shuttle bus ride. As I was striding along from the bus into the B-gates terminal it occurred to me that I was striding, carrying my bag, moving right along. Marian and I took several flights in 2016-17 when her mobility was increasingly impaired, and using wheelchair assists to get from gate to gate, and always trying to plot the shortest walking route. Today I consciously savored the feeling of being freely mobile, realizing that it is not a given, wondering how long I’ll have it.
So, how did that trip go? On return I wrote:
This was my first voyage as a lone bachelor… Did I miss Marian, or miss having a travel companion in general? An emphatic yes to both. Several times I caught myself imagining sharing the experience with her, and getting emotional.
Also having new experiences (good or bad) is richer, more real, more significant and memorable, when you share the experience with someone else. This time, being part of a tour group was a help. At meals we could talk about the wacky traffic in the narrow village streets, or the fact that Greek hotels, even the upscale ones, don’t supply washcloths. Sharing such observations validates them and resolves one’s feelings about them. This was an emotional support that Marian and I gave each other, minute by minute, through hundreds of travel days. Being in a group of friendly strangers was not the same as that, but better than being alone. A journal (i.e. this blog) is another partial substitute for a companion.
But also, as I realized a few days in, Marian’n’Dave was a bolder, more adventurous traveler than Dave is alone. Partly that was because Marian was more disciplined than I about traveling. She was on a trip, and she would, by god, make the most of it; where I am shamefully willing to back away from the effort to go out and explore this town, or attend that concert, or go find a meal in a strange restaurant. I have to fight the tendency to just wimp out and go sit in the hotel room.
Partly, it was that a couple can encourage each other, spot possibilities and explore trade-offs of different plans, more efficiently than a single person can do. Dave’n’Marian were quite a bit smarter, more flexible, and more observant traveler than Dave alone is.
The new life wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Day 83:
I had an episode of something like, but not quite, imposter syndrome. I’ve had spells of this earlier, but this was the first time I thought about the sensation and tried to describe it. Basically I feel like I am faking my life. I see myself from outside, sort of, and feel a kind of contempt for a commendable, but obviously flawed and ineffective, effort to act like a real person.
This is new with widower-hood, I’m sure. When I was part of a couple, there was the constant agreement and validation that what we were doing was right for us, appropriate, sensible. I mentioned on one of the very early days that I missed the frequent little verbal validations we gave each other; but here I am missing something deeper and more subtle. It’s the implicit, unverbalized, confidence that what “we” are doing, the course “we” are charting — while it may be difficult, may not be as we’d ideally like it to be — is still correct, inevitable, impeccable, and would be approved-of by anyone else who really understood our situation.
Now, while there are times I feel quite correct, and even times when I positively enjoy the new possibilities and loss of old constraints; but there are also times like this morning, where for a while I get a sinking doubt in my rightness, a sensation that I’m clearly faking it and could be called out as a failure and mocked at any moment. Not a sensation based in reality, and it isn’t crippling or even very bothersome. But I thought I should write it up as one more effect of bereavement.
Closing the house and moving to Channing House was a major shift. Preceding the move I thought seriously about the decision.
To “not be a home-owner” was, as I’ve written before, probably the first decision I made when I began thinking about becoming a widower, a year ago, when Marian was first diagnosed. My thoughts then were theoretical, speculative, but this stood out as a firm conclusion: if she goes, and I’m a widower, I won’t stay in this house. Researching ILFs and choosing Channing House is all the natural consequence of that decision.
I didn’t analyze it at the time; it just seemed right. I’ve explained it to other people since as not wanting the responsibility of a house, tired of worrying about maintenance and insurance and property taxes. That’s all true, but not complete. Analyzing it now, as the coffee water heated this morning, what came to mind was that I really wanted to break with the past. I don’t want to occupy a truncated partnership was the sentence that bubbled up out of my subconscious. (Whoa! Go, my subconscious!) To unpack that sentence, I don’t want to continue to live as half a couple, alone in the shell once occupied by the tight little corporation of Dave’n’Marian. The house is the physical representation of that shell.
So, yay me! Yet, on the actual day of moving:
Saturday, after the truck had been loaded, I got in the car and started the drive to Channing House and, no surprise, was hit by strong emotions at the thought of leaving home. I was weeping as I drove, but part of the emotion was a kind of rage and determination. I was shouting our loud, lecturing myself, about You planned this; you mean this; it was a great house but — and at this point it turned into a kind of chant or a ritual curse — no more fucking a/c breakdowns, no more fucking roof rats, no more fucking earthquake insurance, no more fucking noisy refrigerator, no more fucking worn-out dishwasher … and so on on for a couple of blocks, naming all the irritations and stresses that came along with home ownership. So when I headed down the ramp into the C.H. garage I still had wet cheeks, but was also felt purged. During the last couple of weeks there were so many occasions of “This is the last time I will ever—“ Fine, but there were lots of things that were good to never do again.
Another shard, falling away.
I could insert many more quotes from that year of journaling, but these have been the major emotional turning points. One last significant one. Second only to “not be a home-owner,” was the early decision to “not take another partner.” Like the first, this just seemed natural, but on Day 22, the real justification for it came out in a burst.
On the way to and from the museum I was “talking to my steering wheel,” a habit I’ve had since I’ve had a driver’s license, to lecture my dashboard about what’s concerning me. Homeless people do it while pushing their shopping carts of trash through the streets, and look crazy. In your car, nobody can hear you, and if they do notice you, these days they’ll assume you’re on the phone, talking to (depending on your vehemence) your dealer, your agent, or your parole officer. But not crazy.
Anyway, I was explaining the reasons I’m quite sure I won’t be hooking up with another romantic partner. There’s a lot of things I don’t expect to do ever again; for instance, just this morning for no reason it occurred to me I’ll probably never go camping again. But not taking another partner was one of the first decisions I made when I began thinking seriously about “being a bachelor”, months ago after Marian’s diagnosis. Then it was based on practical reasons. Now — as I explained to my dashboard — I have another and stronger reason, one I couldn’t have conceived of then.
It’s this (and here’s the kind of snappy dialog my dashboard is privileged to hear): At the very top of my list of experiences to never, ever experience again, is the experience of supporting and nursing a loved partner as they fail and die. I did it once; did it I think as well as I could do it; but a saint I am not, and I am not ever going to put myself in line to do it again, thankyouverymuch. At my age, any anticipated pleasures of love are very much trumped by the anticipated pain of that experience. Or, by the pain of the alternative, being the partner who goes through the dying process, dependent on the generous care of the other. Nope. Nope nope nope. Not going to be in an emotional partnership ever again, because at my age, one of those two scenarios is the inevitable, and probably near-term, end.
And the Numbers…
As I noted earlier, one advantage of a blog over a simple diary is that you can tag each entry with keywords, and search it to count the entries with particular keywords. So based on that, here’s a numerical summary of that year of reporting.
Days on which I reported:
|46||Grief (not the only days I felt it, just the ones where I wrote about it)|
|104||Going for a morning run|
|65||Something related to selling the house, signing papers, talking to realtors or contractors, etc.|
|21||Traveling (two trips)|
|23||Doing some creative writing|
|36||Working on some handicraft, restoring furniture etc.|
|18||A medical/dental appointment or procedure (all routine)|
|43||Working at the museum, curating artifacts|
|58||Working at the museum leading a tour|
|84||Working at Friends of the Palo Alto Library|
|14||Attending a concert|
|14||Visiting a gallery, museum or other exhibit|
|33||Attending a theatrical performance of sporting event|
I’m pleased that I’ve managed to pretty well keep to most of my goals. I got out of the house often, stayed busy generally. I got through the stress of selling a house, and settled in to a comfortable situation on the “land-locked cruise ship” of a well-run senior residence.
Very occasional grief bursts still happen; or I can make myself emotional any time I like, by just thinking of particular things. But grief is no longer a “metronome” to my days. I’ve always been phlegmatic, rarely having emotional highs or lows, and now I’m pleased to find I am, with only occasional blips, maintaining a general level of serenity.
Yeah. I’ll take that.