Category Archives: bereavement

So, Who Am I Now?

So, the first anniversary of the Widowing has come and gone. Unlike my late wife I have survived, but the question remains: In what form? Who am I now?

I know it’s my obligation to be moving past the past, but the problem is, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.

Still, I know I can’t continue the way I’ve been, even the way I’ve been for the past year, nor would I want to.

Yet I can’t make a complete break with what came before, nor would I want to.

Let’s face it: I can’t continue to keep writing one finely crafted eulogy after another about how great my late wife was, and how bereft am I without her. It occurs to me that by this point, everyone I’d want to know this already knows it. Multiple condolences have been received, cards answered, sentiments registered.

Yet, it still wouldn’t be right to never mention Donna again. After all, she had an enormous effect on my life and I cherish so many memories connected to her.

Of course.

Some of my friends assumed I’d be all verklempt over the anniversary, as if Donna had suddenly died all over again. An anti-birthday. Me, I thought the day would pass much the same as any other. The truth is I sort of feel relieved, as if I’d just completed a marathon. A grief marathon. Not that it’s over, but, just like completing the first year living in a foreign country (which I’ve done), it gives you a sense of the round of the year, the lay of the new land in all seasons. And a firmer footing than you’d previously had.

At this point, I know Donna isn’t coming back. Probably. And I’m still not happy about it, but I am…what’s the word…resigned. And even open to the possibility that things will, someday, get better.

As for my sons, after several roadblocks they seem to be holding up reasonably well as they approach their joint 12th birthdays (what’s generally assumed to be the last birthday of childhood; yikes). The older twin, Verbal and More or Less Neurotypical Boy, busies himself with riding his bike, which he’s recently learned to do for real, and at night occupies himself with his Playstation with a friend via a headset. Nonverbal Sensory Issues Boy has lately taken to sprinkling glitter and goo on the bathroom and office floors in the wee hours, which Donna took as a signifier of an incipient growth spurt. Otherwise, he’s generally the same happy camper he’s always been, playing his favorite videos, treating Little Einsteins as ’90s hip-hop artists treated turntables.

And so we beat on, condolence cards against the current, saying we’re all right, paddling two strokes forward, one stroke back, sailing ceaselessly into the next incarnation.

And So, One Year On

Today marks one year since the passing of my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, about whom I’ve written a great deal since.

donna_swimsuit_june_1982_edited

Donna, June 1982

Some say that when a loved one dies it seems as if time grinds to a halt. In my experience, it’s more that time’s fabric begins to warp in all directions. Sometimes it seems like decades, sometimes hours. It makes you realize what an artificial construct is time, how inadequate the usual ways we mark its passage, how hollow the ceremonies. And it does still seem like she was here just yesterday.

 
 For several well-known reasons, the past year has been an extremely difficult one for many of us. For me it will always, and far above all, mark the first year I’ve spent without Donna around since I first encountered her via a brief email she sent me some sixteen years ago. She wasn’t just anyone, after all — she was THE Donna Young, and it’s my eternal honor to have been married to her. This photo shows her at 22 — almost 23 — long before we met.
What really strikes me is just when we most needed Donna, I and the many others who loved her were forced to do without her — her wit, warmth, insight, generosity, empathy, multiple talents, and the unique way she went through life in general.
Donna was one of the best expressions of what humanity is capable of producing. Although I know nobody can ever replace her, I continue to be inspired by her life, her example, and the light she shone forth, in which we thrived and reveled.
Donna was very human. And I know I contradict myself, but she is with us still.

Tourists in the Country of the Grieving

So this makes eighteen blog posts by which to measure my grief, since initiated on the nineteenth day of this most widely despised year in a horse’s age. Last year my tally was three, so if you insist on people having things to be thankful for this year, I can at least count not having writer’s block (as well as, OK, not having to deal with Microsoft Excel on a regular basis).

Four of the posts really had nothing to do with the grief thing, so then: Fourteen.

Four days to go, still, so count this an encore. (I don’t know if the organist at a funeral home expects an encore for his dirge, but I wouldn’t be offended.)

Is that enough?

Will anything ever be enough?

Anyway, Facebook bugs me. I should probably avoid it on the days that some beloved musician or actor dies, so I don’t become more enraged than usual at the grief tourism on display. The way things have been going of late, that would mean more time off of The Social Media than on. Probably not such a bad thing.

By grief tourism, to define the term, I mean people complaining, even affecting a guise of sackcloth and ashes (surely this should be an Instagram filter, Pseudogrief Pro II), about things that don’t affect them personally. Deaths of musicians and actors both celebrated and obscure, whether they kicked off at 27 or 97, none of whom they ever, probably, met personally, much less had any kind of relationship with; politics and elections, always tawdry at best, horrifying at worst; real issues of social justice and the environment, which do matter, but it’s hard to tell whether the concern for any of these causes go more than Twitter-deep.

I like my friends (the real ones), I do. I can’t expect all of them to understand what I’m going through, when I barely understand it myself. It’s still a new country, but it’s mine. The other inhabitants of grief land all have their own reasons for being there, their own particular horror stories, and I don’t understand all of them perfectly, just as they don’t understand me. But we’ve all been handed a similar parcel that we never wanted and been told: Deal with this.

As for social media grief tourism, it’s been going on for much longer than a year, but, with the admittedly awful election just past, everything has gotten stuck in a feedback loop. Alan Rickman dies, or Prince, or Harper Lee, or Gene Wilder, or Patty Duke or Garry Shandling or Ali or Elie Wiesel or George Michael or Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds, and the tributes pour in, and I’m sorry about all of them but, you know, I started out the year watching my wife and life partner die in a hospital room, and then was left to figure out the rest of my life, so you might excuse me that it angers me when people complain about 2016 being so awful when they themselves are, by any measure, doing great, and I have no patience for the tributes and reminiscences by those who, by any measure, didn’t know them beyond their public face. To scan a Facebook feed (mine, anyway) is to consume a constant stream of this person died, that person died, happy birthday to someone who died years ago, death, cancer, riots, misery, death, political horrors, and more death. It’s hip to be a grief tourist.

clueless_tourists

Yup. Dead, dead, dead.

But why lay claim to misery you didn’t earn?

Not like misery is such a great thing to be in. It’s miserable. But at least I came by it honestly.

To the grietouristcartoonf tourists, I say: Sorry, but you can’t spend the whole year on Facebook bragging about your family and friends and your extensive travels (Venice! Colorado! Hawaii! France! Alaska!) and how great everything is, and then throw in something about how 2016 sucked, and you can’t wait for it to be over (because obviously, come January nobody will die anymore).

You’re clueless tourists in the land of the grieving, I might say. You wear shorts and bathing suits in churches, you take photos of the bereaved relatives and post them to your page, you set out a picnic in the cathedral built of skulls.

I am open to the possibility that maybe after you die, you realize that dying was the best thing that ever happened to you. But you’re not supposed to know this yet.

We’re not supposed to know this yet.

Because it’s beyond the parameters of the game.

And so we keep playing.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Widower Sitcoms, Celebrity Grief-O-Rama, Standing Rock, and Similar Diversions For the Discerning Media Consumer

Until his wife died last April, I had only the slightest bit more knowledge of the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s existence than he has of mine, which is to say nil.

Let’s be clear: I am truly sorry for Oswalt’s devastating and untimely loss, and that he now has to raise their seven-year-old daughter by himself.

Nevertheless, as a card-carrying member of Reluctant Widower Nation, Parents of Minor Children Subdivision, I believe I’m entitled to say this: Compared to some of us, including me, he has it relatively easy.

Mr. Oswalt is responsible for raising one neurotypical, probably bright and delightful seven-year-old girl. I am raising two 11-year-old boys, one of whom is nonverbal, with developmental and learning delays (although they fall under the big autism umbrella, my late wife and I were and are highly dubious about applying the A-word to what’s going on with the boy).

On top of that, Oswalt has a huge fan base and presumably extended support system, including over three million Twitter followers and over half a million Facebook likes. I don’t begrudge him any of this — he earned it by dint of the original, amusing and sometimes poignant stuff that comes out of his brain. I know he didn’t ask for the role of Celebrity Widower, just as I didn’t ask for the role of Occasionally Humorous Grief Blogger, but here we both are.

I don’t know what kind of grief counseling Oswalt is getting, but for most widowers, it doesn’t include appearing on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, where he compared his new life to “every bad ’80s sitcom” in which “there’s no punchlines, there’s a lot of insomnia, there’s a lot of me eating Cheetos for dinner…”

Except for the part about Cheetos (I can manage to put together semi-decent meals for myself and the boys), this is familiar ground. There are nights when I stay up far too late watching Donna’s old cabaret videos on YouTube, or just mindlessly surfing through Internet detritus, or playing Clash of Clans on my son’s iPad, or just watching whatever’s recorded on TV. Anything to avoid facing the lack of being part of a duo.

So what would my sitcom resemble? Perhaps something like “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” if you’d give Eddie a nonverbal special-needs twin and lose the housekeeper. Or crossbreed “My Three Sons” with “Speechless,” “King of the Hill” and  “Married With Children” or throw in a spinoff to “Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon and Amy are the parents of two very different fraternal twins, one nonverbal, one too smart for his own good.

More recently, Oswalt wrote this honest, engaging piece for GQ magazine. Among other things, he said, “It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen.” I can, also, relate to this; I feel much the same about my late wife as he does about his, an extraordinary person gone from the world for no discernible reason.

Add the awful political year we’ve just gone through and the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our nation, and it’s no wonder I’m feeling burned out on pretty much everything on top of the first year of widowerhood. Lately, too, I’ve found reading my Facebook feed to be intolerable, due, I suppose, to the constant barrage of posts about Trump and Clinton and the Electoral College (the latter of which I’ve railed about in the wilderness for years; evidently, it takes the horse escaping to get anyone interested in closing the damn barn door). Then there’s the business with the pipeline and the Native Americans and the standoff at Standing Rock, ending in an apparent victory for the protesters, which I suppose is a good thing, but the truth is I can’t bring myself to care the least bit about it. In fact, the primary reason I’m relieved the standoff is over is that I won’t have to read about it every fucking day on Facebook.

I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about this. People without immediate pressing personal problems have the luxury of caring about social justice issues. Right now, I don’t have that. This is an important thing to remember.

I won’t be signing petitions for anything any time soon, and I don’t feel bad about it. If anyone objects to this, that’s their problem, not mine. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel compassion; I just need it all for myself, and my immediate family, right now. We have lives to run.

Today I Am A Man

Many years ago, I remember seeing a cartoon depicting a pubescent bar mitzvah boy at the bimah (altar of a synagogue), addressing the crowd: “Today I am a man.” Down in the congregation, two middle-aged men snicker knowingly at each other: Yeah, sure, kid.

Since becoming widowed early in the year, I’ve wondered what the typical reaction is among my fellow widderfolk to this particular and very unwelcome life lesson. Of course, although certain general patterns can be observed, when you get down close enough, every reaction is unique.

And I wonder: Is this the final lesson that life has to teach us? For me, that lesson, at the moment, seems like this: You will be loved, if you’re lucky, but just know that all those who loved you will die and leave you bereaved — or else you will die and leave them bereaved. Drink a wedding toast to that.

Is the acceptance of death — your own death — the true marker of maturity? More than marriage, parenthood, self-sufficiency, all those positive things? Does the negative really end up overwhelming all the positive things in life?

Or is it not a negative at all? What dreams may come, as that guy once said?

for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

Or to put it another way, maybe we’re not supposed to know what happens after; it’s not part of the parameters of the game we’re inside of.

One thing’s for sure: Childhood ended a long time ago. And even my 11-year-old sons, who must soldier on without their loving mother, are living a real-life version of one of those cruel ol’ Disney cartoons, like Bambi or Dumbo. Except that their father is still around, and hopes that will be enough, hopes that it will be enough in the end to forestall catastrophe.

And he hopes he will not succumb to bitterness and anger for the rest of his days, having seen very clearly, with personal intent, what life has revealed itself to be.

“Today I am a man…”

The day my wife died

I’ve been writing about a lot of different subjects for a long time, much of it for publication, plenty that nobody’s ever seen besides me.

So I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of writing. But I’ve dreaded putting these following paragraphs on paper; it was a task that called to me to be done, but I procrastinated from one day to the next. And finally here I am sitting in Donna’s old office, at her desk, typing these words on her computer screen (get it over with; you’ll feel better).

I never intended to write confessionals, but getting personal is what I’ve been doing over the past several years, even — sort of — against my will. I’ve struggled with deciding when something gets too personal — when a writer’s instinct to lay it all out there conflicts with my own need for privacy, and for respecting the privacy of family members and friends.

I don’t know whether reading this will help anyone, whether it’s any good, whether it will even speak to anyone else’s experience. This is something no writer really knows, no matter how much success they’ve had or failed to have.

Write what you know, they say. This is a story I was intimately involved with. I was a witness to my wife’s death. This is what I experienced that day.

At the start of the day my wife Donna died, January 19, 2016, I was as hopeful as I’d been for the past two weeks she’d been in intensive care that she would live.

It started out as just another Tuesday — well, not really, because Donna had been in an ICU in a specialty hospital in San Antonio, nearly 100 miles from our home, for the past two weeks, fighting for her life.

I began the day in the most prosaic way possible, dropping off our dog at a local groomer. Right after doing this, my cell phone rang; it was one of Donna’s doctors. I don’t even remember the words he said to me, as I stood there in the parking lot outside the groomer’s, but it was something about Donna’s situation having worsened, that it was gravely serious, and that I needed to come to the hospital.

I think I must have shut off the part of my brain that was trying to tell me, “She’s dying; you have to be by her side.” I’m not even sure, but I think I went directly to the office where I was working at the time. I must have stayed there for one or two hours, my brain in turmoil; I then called Donna’s sister Kathy (not her real name), who had flown down from New Jersey and had been staying with us since shortly after Donna was admitted. We took turns driving down to San Antonio and visiting her in shifts; my 10-year-old twins had remained at home with one of us. I had last stayed with Donna for several days, through ups and downs, mostly downs. Donna had initially been intubated and unable to speak; the tube was later removed, but she had drifted in and out of consciousness, the transfusions, draining of abdominal ascites, and sedation characteristic of end-stage cirrhosis taking an awful toll on her.

I drove home and spoke to Kathy, who was standing in the living room, clearly distressed. “Donna has had a cardiac event,” she said. Those exact words. For the past two weeks Donna had struggled with a stubborn bacterial infection that made it impossible for her to be placed on the list for a liver transplant. Now, her heart had become so weakened that it put even a remote chance of a transplant out of reach.

Donna was in pain and had no chance of recovery.

We had to let her go.

“I’m so sorry,” Kathy said, and we hugged, and I said “I’m sorry, too.”

We quickly gathered our things and departed for San Antonio; the twins were in school, and Kathy had arranged for a family friend to come and care for them until we came home.

Kathy and I pulled into the hospital parking lot at around 4 p.m. and threaded our way down a series of corridors leading to the other end of the hospital, through a large set of double doors, into the room where Donna lay unconscious. We were met by a local social worker I’d been in contact with for the past two weeks, a religious Christian woman — I’ll call her Judith — who was, somewhat incongruously, working for a Jewish agency.

“This is it? There’s no hope?” I blurted out to a young female nurse, who, with a stricken face, nodded agreement.

One staffer explained that Donna would be removed from all life-support equipment and placed on a morphine drip to ease her pain.

It is an indescribably sad thing to watch someone you love get sick and die, and not be able to do anything about it. And there was nothing to do but wait, and wait.

As I sat by my wife, helpless and dying, her body exhausted and spent from an awful ordeal, I thought: How had it come to this, that a strong, vibrant woman — who had once pedaled hundreds of miles a week on a racing bicycle, who thought nothing of lifting an upright bass over her head to carry it through the audience after performing at a piano bar, who had thought nothing of staying up all night club-hopping and going down to the beach with friends after work, then going right back to work in the morning — would end up in an anonymous hospital room, eyes closed, waiting for the end?

Kathy, Judith and I kept watch over Donna for nearly six hours.

At one point I asked Kathy and Judith to leave the room for a few minutes so I could be alone with Donna; they did, and I then told Donna some things which are none of your business.

I had brought a laptop — Donna’s old laptop — and we played song after song on YouTube, a very eclectic mix of her favorites. Mel Torme, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Kirsty MacColl (the musician whose death brought us together to begin with), “They Don’t Know.” Slam Stewart and Major “Mule” Holley (Donna had known Holley in her Village days in the ’80s and credited him with teaching her a great deal, and not just about playing the upright bass). The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which I played, obsessively, over and over for several weeks after Donna’s death.

And on, and on, as the sun set. Donna was sleeping, peaceful, quiet, unconscious.

At one point I filled out a form with information that would be used on Donna’s death certificate.

After 9:30 p.m., the end drew near. The nurses gathered in the ICU, one of them, a male nurse with a stethoscope, ready to make an official pronouncement. He put the stethoscope in place and listened.

“She still has a heartbeat.”

And then, some minutes later, the stethoscope again, and in a quiet voice he said:

“She passed.”

Alive (in an earthly body)

______________________________________________________________

Dead (or “crossed over”)

Kathy, Judith, and I hugged.

I got to say goodbye.

And just felt empty inside.

I had been wearing an old flannel shirt for the purpose of tearing off the pocket at the time of Donna’s death — an old Jewish tradition — which I did, and promptly removed the shirt and tossed it in the trash.

What good did it do, to witness Donna’s death? I don’t know. I know I had to be there, that it was unthinkable that I wouldn’t be, but I found no comfort in it.

In the end, what of value was accomplished by my being there? To die inside, along with Donna?

I couldn’t and still can’t comprehend what the world had lost. What my family had lost. What I had lost.

The music. The writing. The wit and the laughter. The caring. The art of living. The way of being. The love.

The great, great knowledge of so many things. Cooking such wonderful, carefully crafted meals. Expert parenting. Rare insight into people and their problems. Taking photographs of a high professional standard. The memories. So many things, never forgotten, now impossible to retrieve outside of texts previously set down.

Donna! 

The water is wide, I can’t cross over.

At least not yet.

And now, what?

Suffering through a long illness — whether it’s cancer, AIDS, liver disease, or whatever — is inevitably referred to as “fighting a brave battle” against death. Versus what — welcoming it with open arms?  I think we aren’t really supposed to know what happens after we die. If we knew how great it was, there would be mass suicides everywhere. Perhaps.

Perhaps Donna was put on earth (among many other things) to teach my soul how to be more human — more compassionate, more loving, more fully integrated into our deeply flawed, always challenging, but also vibrant world.

But then, why did she have to die so that I could fully amalgamate this knowledge into my own soul?

In other words, she saved my life, but I couldn’t save hers.

Time is now both my worst enemy and best friend.

Because, and this I believe: time is taking me simultaneously ever farther away from Donna, and ever closer to our ultimate reunion.

I know how Donna died.

But as long as I live, I will never know why.

Alone Again (Unnaturally): On Changes and Such

OK, so, several things here.

First off: The widowed thing, once again. Really?

THAT again? Haven’t you said enough about it already? asks one of my nine faithful readers.

Sorry to be so single-minded, but…well, you know, these days it’s kind of unavoidable.

As is a mandatory thing for the recently widdered, I’ve been delving into widdablogs and grieflit hither and yon, trying to make Sense Out Of The Thing That Maketh Not Sense. As with anything, the quality varies widely; there’s a lot of schlock out there (save me from all those awful country songs), but also much beauty. Because my mind functions oddly (always has), I especially appreciate blogs that find the humor in such a manifestly unfunny situation; this award-winning British blog is a shining example (the writer’s also done a book).

To take a leaf from the great Irish writer Myles na gCopaleen’s parody of the Catechism:

Q: What does one do when one’s spouse dies?

A: One reels.

(I input “reeling from his wife’s death” into Google, and came up with some 15,200 results. “Reeling from her husband’s death” is even more popular: 17,200 results. Clearly, reeling is the thing to do; it’s what all the cool bereaved kids are doing. Reeling in the years, then, reeling and listing and rocking and rolling and suchlike uncontrolled motion.)

It’s soon drummed into all fresh widderfolk (spousal-death toddlers?) that each loss is as unique as each individual life, and that even the same person’s death is felt differently by everyone close to them. As a corollary, I might add that although losing a spouse changes you irrevocably, it doesn’t change you into a totally different person. If you were basically good, kind and compassionate before being widowed, you will continue to be so afterwards, but certain character traits may be intensified or bent in unforeseen ways. One worldly literary acquaintance of mine writes elegantly of her increased empathy for victims of diverse tragedies resulting from terrorism and geopolitical chaos. On the other hand, if you were a son of a bitch before losing your wife, you’ll probably remain one afterwards.

So I wouldn’t say I’m better or worse, just somewhat different. A more honest person: yes. Less afraid to speak my mind: check. Less afraid to offend when it’s warranted (at least in my mind): uh huh. I’ve always been resistant to follow trends and crowds, more inclined to go my own stubborn way; now, even more so. I have no patience with the tired tropes of the widowed (so many of whom I find little common cause with, except for, you know, that one thing), the assumptions of how I’m supposed to be now, how I’m supposed to behave. If that makes me a worse person in your opinion, so be it — again, I care so much less what other people think of me, am so much less afraid to be myself. If not now, when? What else can they do to me?

In the end, I figure, how I am is between me and my late wife.

In my experience, liver disease is as bad as cancer both in terms of how it affects its victims and their families, and the way it turns lives upside down (and sometimes ends them), but it doesn’t have cancer’s press agent; it’s not as much in the public space. It’s still acceptable in some quarters to make cirrhosis jokes. (No, I hasten to explain when asked how she died, Donna wasn’t an alcoholic; no, she didn’t die from excessive drinking.) Although she had been ill for well over a year, I never expected her to actually die until the actual day; perhaps naive, but also, to my mind, unthinkable, but true. And although, unlike some widowed folk, I got to say goodbye in person, it was also the worst experience I’ve ever been through, nor will I ever get over it.

I know: that’s not very funny. But it can ultimately be emboldening, in a the-hell-with-it kind of way.

Recently I commented on a post made by an old friend on Facebook, someone I’d known in Boston in the ’80s. She was a writer of some talent and a traveler in the underground zine scene, making her way post-college scribbling various screeds. In the decades since she’d combined a straight day job with various underground zine-y pursuits. After she posted something about her latest endeavor, I reacted negatively, calling it uninteresting (I don’t want to get into specifics to maintain privacy). When a friend of hers asked what I meant, I responded with an expletive. She then messaged me and called my response “out of character, rude and unwarranted.” Which was true enough, but I messaged her back thusly:

“Don’t care anymore, will call bullshit for what it is. I’m actually very disappointed with your life and career. You could have been a writer of promise but chose to throw it away on stuff very few people care about. I’ve reached a point in my life where I will say what I think and don’t care if it ruffles feathers. You should be doing significant work, not stupid zine-y crap like this. Sorry to hurt feelings but someone should be the one to tell you that as far as I can see you’re wasting your life.”

For some reason she took offense to this, and de-friended and blocked me. I wasn’t surprised, but I also don’t regret it. The truth was, it was incredibly refreshing to, at last, tell someone what I really thought of them, or more specifically, their “artistic endeavors.”

And so I’ve realized, as have so many others before me: There is a whole lot of power and satisfaction in giving zero fucks. Some good may actually come from it, certainly in terms of self-actualization. (Thank you, Untimely Death Fairy. Thank you soooooo much.)

LWD (Life Without Donna) continues, as it has a tendency to do. So does my relationship with Donna, which remains the most important one in my life. I see no need to apologize for that. There’s a lot of bitterness, but also sweetness, and if memories are all I have to hold onto right now, that’s still a whole lot better than nothing.

I think of the famous opening line of the movie (originally a play by Robert Anderson) I Never Sang For My Father: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.”

Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.