It was all fun and games, and then suddenly it wasn’t.
Within the last year, Mark and I kept getting jury summons in the mail. Mark was in the hospital, and I was caregiver and sole wage-earner, so I kept requesting deferrals. Hardly three weeks would pass before another letter from Jury Services would arrive for each of us. It happened over and over again.
The latest summons for Mark arrived two days ago. I couldn’t help myself. I posted on his Facebook page, “Another jury summons in today’s mail. So, what’s your excuse THIS time?”
Mark and I shared a very dark sense of humor. Like when the news reported that Meinhardt Raabe, the actor who played the munchkin coroner in “The Wizard of Oz,” had died. Mark’s looking at me, I’m looking and him and then we’re giggling like 10-year-olds and breaking into song: “He’s not only merely dead/He’s really most sincerely dead.”
So, the jury summons arrives for Mark and I’m cracking jokes. And friends are picking up on it, laughing with me. And then it turns over, suddenly, and the laughter starts to feel uncomfortable. Like, beneath that humor is something huge, and scary and as these days grind on, I am in for it.
I got away from Facebook, and began typing the letter to Jury Services: “Dear sir or madam, enclosed please find a death certificate for Mark Allen Daves….” I was fine, until the last paragraph. I type. “I am his wife, so if you have any questions or concerns, please contact me at…” And I stop, thinking, “Wait. Is it “I am his wife,” or should it be “I was his wife.”” Neither sounds right. I am stuck. Was or am? Was or am? And then it occurs to me, the right wording.
“I am his widow.”
I have used the word, but until this moment, I have not claimed it for myself. I am his widow.
TSUNAMI. A wave of grief so intense, it knocks me into a deep despair lasts through the night, and beyond. It’s days later now, and I’m still picking sand out of my teeth.
Food often tastes like paste. Sleep is dicey, at best. The Anxiety Monster that I’ve battled since childhood (and which was, amazingly enough, seldom present in the past two years) is breathing cold down my neck. I left the house. I cried, I sobbed, I screamed, I begged. All at 60 miles an hour, on 635 LBJ Freeway in Dallas. Cars are zooming around me, because while the speed limit is 60 mph, the only people who actually go 60 mph are tourists and very old people. And, apparently, grieving widows.
I have medication to help with the anxiety, which, when I remember to take it (Grief Brain) does help curb that impulse to burst into a million screaming pieces. I have hot tea with valerian root to help with sleep. I have friends who say “Call me, day or night.” These things I know are close at-hand.
The problem is what I don’t have. Mark. My touchstone and my mirror, my barometer and my compass.
I am fogged in. The house is disordered, cluttered. There’s always something that needs doing. And I would call you to help, but I can’t make myself pick up the phone because that might distract me from what really needs doing — which I would do myself, if I wasn’t so foggy.
The numbness is wearing off, more every day. I am angry. I am depressed. I am frustrated. I am stunned. I am angry. I am depressed.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
There really are times when reaching out is a near-impossibility. Inertia. There is a desire to get up, get out, to change direction, leave the chair, pick up the phone, go for a walk, drink some tea, read, write, pray.
But Grief says, “No. Be still. Sit with this.” The first mission of Grief is to demobilize your defenses. Grief says, “Stop. Notice what is missing.”
You’re doing fine, running along just fine, being a model cancer widow. Then Grief stops you on the beach and says, “Here. Hold this,” and dumps a 500 lb fish in your arms, and then jogs off. And then you’re on your butt, wrestling this humongous THING that is yours now, and just when you think “I got this, I think I really got this,” you glance up and looming overhead is the biggest, darkest wave you’ve ever seen.
You’re in a room full of people whom you know and love. You’re all talking and laughing, and someone says something about her husband, and you all laugh, and then someone else comments on her husband, and everyone laughs, and then suddenly you realize you are now on the outside . You have no husband. You have no anybody. Oh my God. You want to stay here, you want to belong, you want to shove down the pain and keep laughing, but Grief says, “Stop. Feel this.”
I am no stranger to the wave. In the early 1990s, I experienced one signficant loss after another: my beloved grandmother, my father, a dear longtime friend Betty, and my best friend and soul mate Shawn, all within four years. Shawn’s death at age 31 was sudden and terrible. I felt ripped apart. Afterward, for a very long time, nothing in the world felt right or safe. I had never imagined such a loss, had never grieved so deeply. Mark Daves, my husband of less than a year, held me up, and kept me safe in the water.
It was Shawn’s life partner Mario who described grief as being like a tsunami. You’re going along, doing “okay,” and then Something happens, and maybe you don’t even know what that Something is, but suddenly you’re in it, fighting for air, drenched, drowning.
I sleep on my side of the bed. I keep one of Mark’s shirts and a pair of shorts folded up on his pillow. They’re his only clothes that haven’t been laundered. In those first days, they smelled of him. I could go into my room and hold them to my face and ah, yes, here he is. It was a comfort, relief from reality.
They don’t smell like him now, except for maybe a slight trace of his scent. When I turn out the light at night, I still pull his clothes to me, and bury my face in them, hoping beyond hope that something remains.
Stay with me, love, keep me afloat, what will I do, what’s ahead, how can I stand this?
“Hush,” Grief says, and hands me the 5oo lb fish. “Be here now.”
[Artist’s statement on the painting: “Tsunami: It is painted due to an immense personal loss. The light shows presence of God through suffering that is cold, painful and unstoppable.”]