Note: In the interest of being possibly read more widely (which remains to be seen), I’ve recently put this post available on medium.com along with some other recent writings.
In my early days as a bereaved, if I can use that word as a noun, I read a book — where I’d heard about it I don’t recall, it isn’t important — called Levels of Life, by the celebrated author Julian Barnes. Written after the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, it is a short book in three sections. In the first two sections, Barnes doesn’t discuss himself or his wife at all; he describes in minute detail the lives and accomplishments of several 18th and 19th century balloonists, including a pioneering aerial photographer known as Nadar and the romance between actress Sarah Bernhardt and the British army officer and adventurer Fred Burnaby. Only in the third section does he describe his feelings and emotions after Pat’s death. In the entire book, though, he doesn’t describe her in any way, not even mentioning her name once.
Although I think I know why Barnes did this, and his prose is careful and exacting, the book still pissed me off. I suppose he refrained from giving any specifics about his wife to make the work more universal, but I found it insulting both to his wife and to me, the reader, that he would go into such specifics about historical personages he didn’t know but didn’t so much as give us a peek behind the curtain at the person who meant more to him than anything else in the world.
And so, we come to my story. As Kirsty sang in “Soho Square,” I don’t want your pity, baby. But lend me your ear.
When your brilliant, talented, beautiful and irreplaceable wife dies on the 19th day of the year from terminal liver disease (nonalcoholic, of indeterminate cause), that pretty much puts the rest of the year directly in the toilet. And probably at least the next couple of years after that.
Although Donna had been ill for at least a year and a half, the end came suddenly and, to me, shockingly. I held out hope that she would recover until the last day of her life. I wasn’t ready for it. I still don’t really accept it today, half a year after the bitter fact.
The fourth of July marked six months since Donna left our house alive for the last time, carried out on a stretcher to a waiting EMS ambulance. The following morning she would be flown emergently to San Antonio from Seton Northwest Hospital in Austin, where I’d visited her with the boys the evening before (which, unbeknownst to anyone, would be the last time the boys would ever see her). A brusque doctor from India told me to pack a suitcase with Donna’s clothes and take it to Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio, for her return trip after a liver transplant.
A stubborn bacterial infection foreclosed any chance of her being eligible for the transplant, and after two weeks of ups and downs, driving back and forth between San Antonio and Austin, I received a call from one of her doctors, telling me that Donna’s end was near; a “cardiac event” had foreclosed the chance of any recovery. Donna’s sister and I were able to be with her, waiting for the inevitable, for nearly six hours, as she peacefully drifted away on a morphine drip. I don’t wish the experience on anyone.
On the fifteenth of June I dedicated a bench in her memory at our neighborhood park. A good crowd came, and I was satisfied with the eulogy I delivered.
On the bench is an engraved plaque:
In Loving Memory of
Donna Young Eichenwald
Cherished Wife, Mother, Sister, Musician and Friend
“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door”
The day after the ceremony I was more depressed than usual, and it occurred to me that subconsciously I might have been thinking that if I built a bench for Donna, she might come back to me. Yes, I know that’s not rational, but what about grief is rational?
The Fourth of July was one week before we would have celebrated our joint 57th birthdays.
Excuse me if I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate with fireworks or anything else.
For fifteen years we knew each other. When we became aware of each other’s existence we were living thousands of miles apart, her in New Brunswick, New Jersey, me in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
We were brought together by a combination of coincidences, the match that lit the flame being the death by speedboat of the British singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl in December, 2000.
We began emailing each other the following month, hashing out our mutual grief along with our life stories and philosophies.
Both of us felt an uncanny connection to each other, as if an unseen hand was pushing us together.
Twelve and three-quarter years we were married.
Nearly thirteen years elapsed between my mother’s death (1990) and our marriage (2003).
Also, nearly thirteen years between our marriage and Donna’s death.
Donna was 56 when she died, the same age as my mom.
We were born on the same day, in the same year, about 20 miles apart; she in northern New Jersey, me in Queens.
I was eight minutes older.
This is not in itself a solid reason to get married, but we had others.
I can define myself in many ways: As a father, brother, son in general; to refine the search, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, brother of a successful entrepreneur, and father of twins, one who is nonverbal, with special needs; and most lately as a recent widower (a word I hate), struggling to make sense of life in the wreckage.
The truth is that since 2003 I had defined myself, first and foremost, as part of a couple, as half of Wes and Donna.
Many people on Twitter seem to be repeating the phrase “the remainder of 2016 is canceled,” or words to that effect. A lot of them go on to mention Bowie and Prince and so on. To which I say: Shut up. You have no fucking idea. You didn’t know them. You’re attaching yourself to mass grief to give yourself Internet cred, but it’s not your loss in the sense that they were your friends or family and you actually knew them as people.
As for me, I’m angry that the world is discussing Bowie and Prince and not Donna.
And what am I supposed to do for fun now? Go on a Grief Cruise, to “celebrate” my birthday as well as Donna’s, a joint birthday, once cause for wondrous celebration, now turned to ashes?
WELCOME TO YOUR FABULOUS GRIEF JOURNEY ABOARD THE SUICIDAL CARIBBEAN PRINCESS!
FEATURING EIGHT PORTS OF CALL, EACH MORE DEPRESSING THAN THE LAST!
ENTERTAINMENT NIGHTLY! DANCE AWAY YOUR FEELINGS OF HOPELESSNESS WITH BUDDY GRIEF AND THE SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS ORCHESTRA!
ASSUAGE THE YAWNING VOID AT THE CENTER WITH OUR AWARD-WINNING BUFFETS AND CONSTANTLY OPEN BAR!
Thinking about all the unfinished business is one of the hardest things.
As is waking up every morning and realizing: Oh.
As is coming across what would have been the perfect gift for Donna (who had idiosyncratic but exquisite tastes) and having nowhere to go with the gifting impulse but sadness and regret.
It’s inevitable, what with the DNA transfer between each other from 15 years together.
I dreaded the approach of the 57th birthday, alone again (un)naturally. In a tribute to her popularity, Donna still received birthday greetings from 41 people on her Facebook page: several greetings from people who obviously didn’t know, “happy birthday in heaven” wishes, and many gracefully expressing their loss. My own birthday greetings may have been somewhat fewer in number than last year, which is fine with me. A few of my more sensitive, tasteful friends posted, simply, “Thinking of you today,” quite appropriate and welcome.
And here we are. But where are we going?
It’s yet early. But still, still we continue in the eternal present.
A friend of mine suggested that Donna’s bench is now “an official point of contact” and that I should welcome the opportunity to come there and commune with her.
But the truth is, when I visit that bench I just feel sad, as it confirms…well, you know.
But the other truth is, she is now everywhere and always around me.
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