Posts Tagged ‘grief’

Outside the Boxes

I’m moving.

To be honest, I’ve been promising/threatening to move out of my townhouse for eight or nine years; but this is the year I intend to set my intention into motion.  Perhaps it’s the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death or the fact that I’ve lived alone in the house we bought together for nearly as long as we shared the space. Maybe it’s the crack in the ceiling or the bumps in the wall; the peeling paint in the garage or the rising property taxes. Most likely it’s the fact that several of my closest friends have put their houses on the market and are dealing, painfully, with closings and contractors, agents and buyers, finishes and new beginnings. Whatever it is, I’m ready to go.

I haven’t settled on the “where” quite yet, although I’ve narrowed it down. I fanaticize about a perfectly designed free-standing, one-story, one-person house, energy-efficient, well-appointed; unique in its design and its aspirations. I’m inclined to use an architect because I’ve worked with designers for much of my work life and because I want to create something special: not just a model home but a template for other singletons; neither too small nor too large but just right…assuming we singletons have made peace with living alone.

To get ready, I’ve begun to tackle the “stuff”, all those objects one unthinkingly accumulates over years of staying in one place. I don’t hoard and I’m not above sweeping a drawer full of items into the trash from time to time. Still, I’ve lived in this house nineteen years, half that time with another person. In the finished basement I scarcely visit, there are boxes on shelves built by my former roommate, aka my late husband.

(Is there an expiration date, I wonder, for terming him “late”, as if he’d simply stayed extra hours at the office?)
I sit on the floor and open the boxes. Some are empty, which I take to be  a good sign. Others contain records, mostly albums, but also a few 78s. I open one filled with sheet music and “fake books.” These are the staples of any piano bar crooner, which I was for at least a dozen years (Billy Joe put in half that much time, but he got a hit single and a career out of it). I catch the faint scent of Scotch and cigarettes and flash back to evenings in the company of a tip jar and a group of mostly sad, tired people. The song I wrote was far more downbeat and jazzy than Joel’s, I think but in its own way, just as evocative:

Life at a bar begins around five
The cocktail crowd brings the place alive
Talk turns to business, baseball, and broads
One for the road turns to two

(©1982 Nikki Stern & Owen Vance)

Next to that box is another filled with lyric pages, vocal scores and charts from my years as a theater and pop composer, a memorable but highly unprofitable career I abandoned more than two decades ago. No one writes music by hand now; music software “listens” to what you’re playing and translates it fairly accurately into notes on staffs. I’m not even sure who reads music anymore.  I look at the scribbles–the notes, the fading pencil marks, mixed in with a couple of photos taken with a Polaroid at a recording session. Who was that person? What did she expect would happen?

There is a box of trinkets—there’s no other word for them—that I clearly valued at one time. They should be my madeleine, my gateway to a long-ago world but when I touch them, nothing happens—no sharply recalled moments visit me in the cold basement.

The bulk of the photos are in albums stretching back more than forty years: My senior prom, my college roommates, my mutton-chopped boyfriend; images of our family, Mom and Dad looking predictably vibrant; programs, diplomas, yearbooks, newspaper clippings (Nixon resigns!)—they’re all here. The thirteen years’ covered by the images of my husband remind me how much time we spent together–and how little time I really had to become adept at navigating a lifetime relationship. There is a box of his with items from his early years. It’s logical that he would bring his cherished mementoes into the house and the life we were supposed to inhabit together for longer than his time with his parents.

I sit among images and belongings of dead loved ones and missing friends, of younger selves with ambitious dreams and untainted hopes and I prepare to feel the predictable flood of emotions: a cocktail of grief and longing, sorrow and not a little rage at what was not achieved, not finished, not retained, lost forever, goddamn it.

The wave never comes, only a little sigh escapes me, as if I were finally exhaling. This flotsam and jetsam is the tangible evidence that I’ve lived my life up to now. The memories are stored in the dusty closets of my mind; I can get to them as needed. I will one day need them. Old people go back as their future closes in on them. I’ve already had a glimpse of the hemmed-in existence that awaits me.

But in this moment, I have to live, I want to live outside these boxes. I still want what’s new: new experiences, new places, new patterns; new connections. So I consolidate everything into one box; whatever doesn’t fit goes into a trash bag and out to the garage. It’s time to get moving.

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The prolific author Joyce Carol Oates has written a book about losing her husband, following in the heart-broken footsteps of many other such memoirs, such as The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Oates’ book, A Widow’s Story, has been generally, although carefully, praised save for one review by New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who (bravely or foolishly; take your pick) questions author’s sincerity of purpose.

Maslin is careful not to criticize Oates’ grief process but rather takes aim at the lack of emotional meaning or depth in A Widow’s Story. Oates’ book is “far less fastidious… flabbier and flightier” than Didion’s work, Maslin asserts, and includes threadbare metaphysics…much minutiae…and worrisome signs of haste.” She also finds Oates’ selective retelling to be deceptive. For example, the author includes poignant and poignantly funny stories about grieving but fails to go deeply into her forty-seven year marriage. A far more grievous omission, in Maslin’s view, is the fact that Oates became engaged eleven months after her husband died and is now happily (one hopes) married. “How delicately must we tread around this situation,” Maslin asks? All of this leads Maslin to conclude that Oates may have been seeking to “willfully [tap] into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market.”

Full stop.

It’s difficult for me to distance myself from these kinds of memoirs—as a writer or as a widow. My first reaction is almost always a distressing cocktail of anger, despair, envy, and confusion.

The writer in me asks: How did there come to be a subset of memoir about spousal loss? How do we rate and rank these books? How do we rate or rank the loss? Are those with greater command of the language or the market share the ones who are most “qualified” to write about this subject? Does it depend on circumstance, or on context? Was my experience with grief and mourning worthy of a  share of that “lucrative loss-of spouse market,” even though I was told way back in 2001 that the story of a middle-aged childless widow was far less compelling than that of a young mother of three whose husband had (also) died in the 9/11 attacks?

The widow in me wonders: How long?

The Oates book and Maslin’s review have generated a fair amount of blogosphere discussion about the grieving process. Author Ruth Conigsberg insisted that “…these memoirs are…highly subjective snapshots that don’t teach us much about how we typically grieve, nor more importantly, for how long.” Conigsberg, it should be noted, has her own book concerning the myth of the stages of grief.

She notes optimistically that many older people do recover from losing a spouse to natural causes fairly quickly and even remarry, as did Oates. Her findings are not to be confused with studies that show younger people who lose their spouses in traumatic situations and remain widows or widowers are six times more likely to experience dementia.


Nine and a half years after my traumatic loss, I float in a sea of doubt. I don’t even know if I’m still grieving or if something else is at play. Was my marriage at forty an anomaly, a one-time event? The more time that passes, the more I circle back to “before”—before I met the man I would marry; the years spent in the company of inappropriate, uninterested, non-committal men while yearning for the comfort of a stable relationship. I spent, will have spent, will spend, more years alone than in a romantic partnership. The marriage, as joyful, as sustained, as relieved and as (foolish me) safe as it made me feel, was a blip on the radar screen of my life, an accident of fate. I float, I coast and I wonder how I can draw any kind of illustrative, instructive or illuminating lessons from the before, the “during”, or the after.

The writer in me thinks: Oates is a well-known, well-respected writer and professor at Princeton University. She’s out there. It might have been more, what, helpful, to let us know her process included finding happiness again so quickly. Then again, she wasn’t necessarily writing a self-help book, just an accounting.

The widow in me understands: Any memoir I write would be so unresolved as to be thoroughly unsatisfactory, even to me.

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December 15 is the anniversary of the marriage that no longer exists. The marriage no longer exists because the husband no longer exists, having died eight years ago, which begs the question: does the anniversary still exist? Or perhaps the question is, how do I acknowledge its existence? 

In a parallel universe, one of those infinite dimensions that split off at each major event and form the “what-ifs” of our lives, I might be planning a dinner or a getaway for the two of us. My mind turns that way from time to time. Such magical thinking, as Joan Dideon has named it, is inevitable. It’s a coping mechanism, one that changes form and purpose over time.

Last month my father-in-law Pete turned ninety. From a legal standpoint,  he is no longer my father-in-law, but such definitions often prove to be utterly inept when it comes to describing the ties that bind us. He is an amazing man: tall, trim, and upright; still exercising, making minor repairs, or running food over to shut-ins during the holidays. Writing to thank me  for a gift,  he closed:  “When people ask me how I’ve managed to reach ninety, I tell them it’s all smoke and mirrors — and it is!”

JimPete94 Pete and Jim, 1995

 Smoke and mirrors and the “what-ifs” are represented by those parallel universes we can’t see and can’t know, notwithstanding quantum physics and fervent believers in alternate realities. In another universe, I would be celebrating with my tall, strapping husband, he from such long-lived and healthy stock. Or perhaps not. If one thing changes, so does another; change has consequences. Events set off other events: illness or injury, trauma or death, disappointment, division, good fortune or incidents that affect those closest to us. The road keeps on dividing and subdividing. 

In an alternate reality…ah, but I don’t live there. Nor do I any longer live in the past I can’t change or the future I can’t know. In the here and now, I am, if not deliriously happy, at least profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have married and loved. So I’m going out to dinner with my sister, who was extremely close to my husband. After all, he was and will always be her favorite brother-in-law.

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