As I write this article, 2-1/2 years after my husband Marty’s death, I am overwhelmed with surprise that so much time has passed. Memories of that first year are wrapped in a surreal haze and when vivid images do surface, the fog lifts and reveals my year of solitary firsts. February 11th, 2009 marked the death of my husband, my mate of 42 years.
A quote on the back of the Joyce Carol Oates book, A Widow’s Story, says “of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death, the widow should think ‘I kept myself alive.’ ” When I read those words, I remember thinking, “I did that.”
My flight to New York for Marty’s Celebration of Life service was laden with emotions. I remember walking with heavy legs through the airport wanting to scream, “You don’t understand, I just lost my husband.” I remember sitting next to a middle-aged couple and wanting to say to them, “You don’t understand your time together is limited.” I remember writing a note to Marty on the plane, telling him how alone I was feeling, pressed up against the window, weeping silently and wanting to be invisible.
After the Celebration of Life, I turned around to find Marty to say “okay, let’s go home,” and felt a wound to my heart. I had forgotten for an instant that he was gone. That moment brought with it the realization that my husband would never be there to go home with again and that I was no longer Marty’s wife.
I don’t remember the trip back to Florida. All I do remember is the feeling that I wanted to go home. Entering our house to no one’s arms and a “hi babe” was grim and deafening. Yet it was also somehow comforting because it was our home, it held our things, and most of all, Marty’s energy was still palpable.
Everywhere I turned, there was a sense of his presence and of his loss. Marty’s side of the bed was empty, his place at the kitchen table was bare, and his closet was filled with clothing that would never be worn by him again. I wandered around like a ghost, closing doors. I fell into our bed and tried to avert my eyes to the sights of emptiness and my ears to the sound of silence.
At night, I reached over in my sleep to touch Marty with my hand or foot, and awoke with a start remembering that he was GONE. I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking, “This was the time it happened, this was the hour.” Sleeping and eating became unwelcomed obligations – what I knew I had to do in order to survive, but had no taste for.
I didn’t have a big support system in Florida and knew that I had to get help. I met with a hospice counselor who encouraged me to join a bereavement group. Talking with people who understand grief and who had also experienced loss was as essential part of my healing process.
Sometimes I liken that first year to a soldier returning from the war with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Images would flash before my eyes at unexpected moments. When I passed a building associated with Marty’s illness, I would shudder; when I saw an emaciated person who looked ill, I would lose my breath and look away.
Rituals started to emerge. I wrapped myself in Marty’s bathrobe and sprayed it with his cologne every single night – envisioning his arms around me. For more than a year, I wrote letters to him and when I showered, I wrote love notes on the steamy glass shower wall. I put on Marty’s watch and his Chai because it felt like his “energy.” I calendared a reminder to myself (as if I would forget) to light a memory candle on the 11th of each month.
When it came time to pick up Marty’s ashes, I felt anxious and panicked. As I drove to the crematorium on my own, I was in a state of suspended disbelief over what I was doing. When the container holding his ashes was placed in my car, a sense of calm came over me because I was taking my husband home. I don’t believe that these ashes contain Marty’s spirit, but they sit on a credenza facing the golf course in a special wooden box. Just in case there’s a bit of his spirit there, I want him to be able to watch his favorite sport.
During the first six months, I called home many times to hear Marty’s voice on the message machine. It took courage for me to change that message, and I only did that because I was able to capture his voice and store it on my computer. I then recorded my first message as Laurel, a single woman. It was an “I’m not home” message, not a “we’re not home” message.
Every day brought in something new and unanticipated; sometimes it was a day filled with raw emotion. I no longer lived in a state of fear, because the worst had happened – Marty had died. At other times, it was a day that brought me little slivers of hope and optimism. I enrolled in art and writing classes, formed new friendships, and started to live life as a single woman. I was experiencing a renewal and my own transition and there were days when I even managed to smile again.
As it got closer to the year “anniversary” (why would anyone call the day someone dies an anniversary?), I felt anxious and wanted it to be over with. I didn’t know what to expect or how I would handle the day. It was very difficult during those two months before the year marker, much tougher than I had thought. I was raw; once again, I was left waiting and, as if in a thunderstorm, fresh tears rained down.
To mark the year gone by, I decided that I would plant a memory tree outside my office window as a living symbol to honor Marty’s legacy. Letters from my children, my grandchildren and me, along with some cherished pictures and mementos, were buried in the soil underneath the roots of this memory tree. On February 11th, 2010, some of my dear friends came over and we held a small ceremony over that tree of love. It was then that I decided that the day shouldn’t be about loss, but should symbolize something good. Simply put, I now chose to recognize the day that Marty passed away as one of transition – Marty’s and mine.
In the rush of life, there are many symbolic moments that slip by without notice. After someone you love dies, that first year is filled with memories which are too countless to describe. That year, the year ofsolitary firsts, is stitched into my heart and will be with me for however long my forever is.