Monday, August 24, 2009

On a Widower's Discussion

As I mentioned in my two most recent posts (see here and here), I entertained some friends from college the weekend before last. This is the third and final post in a series regarding events surrounding their visit.

Mr. K and I became friends near the middle of my sophomore year (his freshman) in college. Mrs. K and I had been friends for nearly a year at that point. Ms. T had joined the fold about six months later. So it was a nice surprise when I was introduced to him and found that he and Mrs. K had known each other (in passing) during their high school years. He and I became fast friends and often spent time together without the girls. (He and Mrs. K would not become an official item until after our falling out almost a year later. And even then, he and I remained on good terms until they actually began dating).

After our falling out, his friendship was, in a way, that which I missed the most. While he had played a role in those events, his role had been much more passive than the others. He had merely accepted things as they had become, without making any grand attempts to change them. As it turns out, his role and mine were quite similar, although I was not in a position that would allow me to affect any sort of change in the matter initially.

A few months after my wife died, I received an e-mail from Mr. K. We had all resumed some contact prior to her death (and with her encouragement), but it was the first time I had heard directly from him alone. He simply wanted to check in and see how I was doing. Now, even immediately following my wife’s passing I found myself reluctant to talk about how I was doing. But typically if someone asked I took it as a clear sign that they really wanted to know. More so than the now rhetorical “how are you?” we lob back and forth at one another in passing conversation. So I sent a brief message back which included details of how I was doing instead of the vague generalities I used to appease the “how are you?” crowd.

And I never heard another word from him.

Fast forward to last fall when we got together for the first time since Mr. and Mrs. K’s wedding. When we saw one another we immediately picked up where we had left off all those years ago. And it was a wonderful feeling. His friendship was as genuine as the smile on his face, and we had a great few days together.

And I never heard another word from him.

Now, in the months between the visits, I came to realize something about Mr. K. In this age of e-mail and text messaging, he is not a written communicator. And though the telephone has been around since before our births, he is not a verbal communicator. While most of us use many forms of communication (sometimes simultaneously), it turns out Mr. K is primarily a face-to-face communicator. And now that I have come to understand this, we are once again as close as we ever were.

Which brings me to the story of what happened in the ocean.

As much as I enjoy going to the beach, I don’t typically spend a great deal of time in the ocean itself. When my daughter was younger, the majority of my time there was spent near the edge playing and building sand castles. As she has gotten older, she has become more interested in being carried out into the water and bounced along in the waves. But the vast majority of my sea-bound activities revolve around my daughter. So it is a very rare occasion when I am able to sneak off into the waves for a few moments alone (since I can only do this if another adult is present to watch her).

Such was the case on the Saturday of my friends’ recent visit. After spending a great deal of time bouncing my daughter over and under and in and out of waves, I took her to the shore and asked Ms. T if she would watch her so I could take a quick swim. (Mr. and Mrs. K were still minutes away from returning from a walk down the beach). It was wonderful to spend a few minutes actually swimming alone in the ocean, and I hated to see it end.

Just as I turned to head back to the sand, I noticed Mr. K making his way toward me in the water. When I met up with him, I glanced at the shore to see that my daughter was still okay (with both girls now) and decided to stay a few extra minutes to swim with my friend.

Since I don’t ever wear a watch and refuse to get sand in my phone, it is anybody’s guess how long we actually spent out among the waves. But the time was well-spent, with the conversation drifting in and out of a variety of topics you can discuss with close personal friends. But the best part for me was when he initiated a conversation about how my daughter and I had been doing without my wife. And he called her by name.

There is one thing that has come to mean a great deal to me over the past two and a half years, and I may have mentioned it here before: I love it when people use my wife’s name when they talk about her. Now, my family (both sides) is very good about this. Friends who are/were close to both of us are good about this. But very few others will dare to mention her name. When someone mentions her by name, it validates her existence and her importance in my and my daughter’s lives.

So by his unwitting utterance of a single, five-letter name, my friend advanced a few steps in my hierarchy of friendship. And by not only initiating, but carrying on a lengthy conversation about her, he advanced a few more steps.

But hierarchies aside, what was most important in that moment was that, unbeknownst to him, he provided a sense of comfort to a friend who is still very much in mourning.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

On a Widower's Discomfort

In my previous post, I mentioned that my daughter and I recently hosted some friends from my college days. And while my previous post centered on a situation that should have made me uncomfortable, but did not, this one focuses on a situation that should not have made me uncomfortable. But did.

Because of a falling out I had with these friends during my junior year of college, the reconciliation of which happened only a few months before my wife died, we did not spend any time together while I was married. And since the two currently wed friends in the group, Mr. and Mrs. K, were married a year after we were, I did not spend any time with them as a married couple until after I had been widowed.

During our first visit last fall, Mr. and Mrs. K would freely reference their sex life. Not in a way that was inappropriate, especially considering that my then-four-year-old was with us, but it still made me uncomfortable on a number of levels. Now, my wife and I made it a habit to keep our intimate life private, which is why you have not read even the slightest hint of a discussion about it on this blog. So I was a bit taken aback at the fact that they would make so many comments regarding their own. And during those moments, I opted to stay quiet.

But time has passed since then. And while I am still not going to divulge even the remotest piece of information about my own private dealings, I find that I am not as inclined to be quiet when others feel it necessary to remark on their own. Such was the case on the Friday night of Mr. and Mrs. K’s most recent visit. After my daughter had been put to bed, we all sat around my kitchen table to play a card game. Throughout the game, Mr. and Mrs. K made various comments about what goes on behind closed doors. Our single (never married or in a serious relationship) friend, Ms. T, was one part mildly amused, one part moderately repulsed. But I chose to take a different tack. I offered simple one or two word commentary, mostly in agreement or disagreement with the possibilities of whatever comment had just been made. We were all having a good time and no one was too uncomfortable. Or so it seemed.

As we were clearing our dessert plates and drinking cups after the game, Mrs. K made a comment to me in the kitchen to the effect that I shouldn’t be talking about sex since I presumably wasn’t having any now (I’m not). I retorted that while that may be true, I was married for five and a half years and left it at that. After I went to bed that night I thought about her comment, but could not put my finger on why the game-time conversation had bothered her so much.

It suddenly hit me the next day.

I am very sensitive about my house and yard. I go to great lengths to keep them up (weather-permitting with the yard) and maintain a nice home for my daughter and me to live in. And for some reason I am always nervous about what other people will say when they visit our home for the first time. Maybe even more so now that I am maintaining it alone.

Mr. K and Ms. T were very gracious guests and were at times even complimentary about my home (though they all three had something to say about the fact that the bedroom and bathroom accessories match a set of our dishes). Mrs. K had her own set of comments to make. She wondered why my kitchen and dining room (painted four years ago) were a less-than-masculine shade (they’re lavender). She got a lot more mileage out of the dishes/bedroom/bathroom combination than the others (it’s very outdoorsy. My wife picked the most masculine pattern she could find as a courtesy to me). She made comments about my furniture (which was all given to us. She would have really balked if I hadn’t sold the flowered couch and loveseat last fall). Ironically, she made no mention of the plants and flowers that adorn our front steps or the butterflies which can be found throughout the house and lawn, both of which are my own “feminine” touches.

It wasn’t until she made the comment about the place not looking or feeling like a bachelor pad (in a tone that clearly stated that she believed it should), that her comments began to make sense to me. I told her in no uncertain terms that there was no reason for my home to feel like a bachelor pad because it wasn’t one. It was our home, where I continue to raise our daughter. (And even if she had been a son, I would still not have suddenly transformed the house into some kind of bachelor pad just because my wife was no longer here with us. Regardless of gender, kids need to grow up in a loving home, not a bachelor pad, no matter how loving it may be.)

But the reason her comments made sense to me was as disheartening as it is disconcerting. Simply put, she is uncomfortable with my being a widower.

Now, I will probably never be privy to the reason or reasons she feels this way. It could be that she is upset about the way she treated my wife and me in the early days of our relationship. It could be that she sees that at this point there is no chance of me dating Ms. T and thereby closing the circle of friends. It could be that she doesn’t understand how I can live day-to-day in the face of such adversity and still make it all work.

It could be. But I really don’t think it is.

I think what’s going on instead is that she realizes how easily this could happen to her. It’s easy to read books or watch movies where a spouse dies and remove oneself from the situation. But when someone you know, someone you care about, someone who is too young to have already had and lost it all is widowed, it suddenly forces you to think about a lot of very uncomfortable what ifs.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this Widower’s Journey, it’s that people don’t want to face their grief or those questions unless they are absolutely forced to.

And even then, the results are generally not very pretty.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On a Widower's Dance

I am a nice guy. A nice, Christian guy. And while I’m certainly no Adonis, I’m also not exactly grotesque. I try to eat right and am in decent physical shape, even with the extra ten pounds I’ve put on since last spring. I’m fairly book-smart and possess at least as much common sense as the average person. I take care of all aspects of the house and yard. I recycle. I make sure the dog is fed and taken out. And I am a good father. Maybe even a really good one.

So it should come as no surprise that I am viewed as somewhat generally attractive to a certain thirty-something subset of single ladies. This actually does surprise me most of the time when it comes up, although I am learning to remember that the rest of the world has forgotten that I am still grieving and may not be thinking much about dating again at this juncture. But clearly there are certain afore-mentioned ladies that are.

Or at least appear to be.

Such is the case with my neighbor’s out-of-state sister. We’ll call her Ms. D. She and her daughter come for a visit each summer, and while our daughters have played together (said neighbor does not have any children), she and I have gotten to know one another a bit. I am always careful not to send out any unnecessary signals that might make a nice, young single woman think I am attracted to her when I am not, but I’m also not sure that I’m very good at that. And in her defense, I’m not sure she’s attracted to me either. But it certainly appears to be so.

The weekend before last, we entertained some friends from college who now live in two other states, neither of which being the one where we all attended said college. Two of the friends, Mr. and Mrs. K, are married to each other and the third, Ms. T, is single and seeking. Now, to set the stage, it is important to know that both of the girls in this friend group had self-acknowledged crushes on me during our college years, but I never dated either of them. In fact, I was virtually excommunicated from the group when I dared to date outside the circle early in my junior year. (On a side note, this girl was actually the one I dated before my wife. I did not date much, but I tend to refer to her as “the one who showed me what I didn’t want in a wife”). They still weren’t too happy when I started dating my wife about six months after that break-up, even though they knew and liked her. In fact, had we not reconciled the friendship shortly before my wife died (and with her encouragement), I doubt I would presently have any sort of relationship with these three friends.

Now, to be fair, I have good reason to think that Ms. T may once again see me as a viable candidate for her husbandry. And I have heard Mrs. K encourage such things, though in the subtlest of ways. How much is coming from Ms. T and how much is coming from the suggestions of Mrs. K is anybody’s guess. But needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about their visit. Especially as it was to take place at my house.

As guarded as I try to be, however, I could not have been prepared for what happened when they arrived.

My friends arrived late on Wednesday. My neighbor’s sister arrived early on Thursday. Suddenly I was forced into a position where I would have to guard myself against sending signals to two very nice, very different women for whom I have no romantic inclinations. Normally this sort of situation would send me into a panic, complete with cold sweat and stomach knots. But not this time.

In a rare moment of widower humor, I instead stood back and watched the dance unfold.

There were several moments over the next few days when I would find myself talking to one of these ladies and the other would suddenly materialize as if out of nowhere, only typically in closer proximity to me than the other. It was like those scenes from “reality” dating shows where one woman cuts into the conversation/date/make-out session so as to get her own time with the man whose affection she is so desperately vying for. Only I was under no obligation to stop conversing with the one, simply because the other had made her presence known to us. So they joined in the conversation each time, but were seldom successful in drawing me completely away from the other. However, as we stood and talked, I was very aware of the body language and physical repositioning between the two of them and also with regard to me. It was a very slow and subtle, yet also seemingly very deliberate, dance.

Now, for those of you who have read even one of my previous entries, you will note that I am generally a very humble man. I do not attempt to blow my own horn and try to relate very honestly how grief over my wife’s death has affected my daughter and me. But during the course of the grieving process, I have also learned that it is okay to see situations for what they are (or at least appear to be). And if such situations call for humor and/or laughter, then so be it.

So during those few days, I stood and watched a dance that I believe was apparent only to me. And inside, I allowed myself to chuckle a bit.

Looking back on it now, I continue to chuckle, if but only for a moment.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Her 31st Birthday

A “side-note” before the post: Please note the new Important Dates section in the sidebar. This was borne out of a comment made by womanNshadows with regard to my previous post. (Thanks for spurring this idea on). I would encourage other widowed bloggers to do something similar, as it gets hard to keep up with all of the different specific dates, and it would be nice to pray for each other more fervently during those days that are likely to be the most difficult. That being said, keep in mind that many widow/ers in the sidebar are experiencing anniversaries yet this month.

One might be inclined to think that, due to my lack of posting in recent weeks, Grief has decided to leave me alone for a bit. It has been quite the contrary. We have managed to stay pretty busy, but there have been some significant dates (see sidebar), some major changes (see future posts), and some simple conversations (again, see future posts) during which it has managed to rear its ugly little head.

Not the least of which was my wife’s 31st birthday.

It seems strange to refer to it as such, since she never got to experience her 30th. Or, for that matter, her 29th. But July 21 would have been her 31st birthday. If she had still been here to celebrate such an occasion.

Instead, we were left to recognize it alone, but with her family for the first time since her passing. I say recognize with purpose. Gone are the celebrations that we used to have - usually a quiet night out to dinner and a movie, or after our daughter was born, a family dinner out, with a birthday date to follow another night. No, these have been replaced by a quiet recognition on my part the last two years. But now that my daughter is old enough to understand dates and times, it has become appropriate to share what specific dates mean. Or should mean.

Or would have meant.

I woke up in the back bedroom at my in-laws home in the Midwest that morning, a home they did not own when she was still here. I wonder if the memories would have been more unbearable if the day had begun in their old house, the one in which she had done the majority of her “growing up”. I will never know that answer. But I do know that there were plenty of memories to go around that day.

I followed the scent of fresh-brewed coffee into the kitchen, and sat for a nice breakfast with my mother-in-law. My father-in-law had gone to the store and my daughter had long-since eaten and was watching tv in another room. I rather enjoy these morning chats with my mother-in-law over coffee on the days she doesn’t have to work. But today, she reminded me way too much of my wife.

For anyone who knew my wife, it was always a surprise to them when they met her mother. One just couldn’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance. When my wife would remark on this, a fact that she actually enjoyed (unlike most women!), I would simply smile and tell her that I enjoyed it too, as I had a good idea of what she would look like at fifty, and I was definitely okay with that. As my wife started to lose weight, first on purpose after our daughter was born and later from complications of her illness, the resemblance became even more unreal.

So on this, her birthday morning, I tried hard to carry on a meaningful conversation with a woman who was hurting as much or more than me, while trying to ignore the fact that she looked so drastically like the woman for whom we were hurting.

It must have worked. Or if not, she was at least gracious enough not to call attention to my obvious pain.

The majority of the day was to be spent at the local 4-H fair watching our nieces show their hogs. We had missed their steer show while I was at my conference, but had managed to make it back in time for their dairy beef show, fashion review, and (later in the week) livestock auction. Since it was the only day we could get together with a friend of ours (hers from high school, mine from college, then ours together once we realized we all knew each other), we agreed to meet at the fair. It was wonderful to see her and she was able to spend a good portion of the afternoon with us. She also arranged for us to see another friend of my wife’s from high school, who happened to be in town and had not seen us for a couple of years, so that was a nice surprise as well. The mutual friend and I are in the same field, so we always have a lot to talk about and the conversation flowed easily. It was really good to see her.

Sounds like a pretty good day, huh?

And it would have been, but for the blasted memories. You see, the last summer we visited family before my wife passed away, we spent some time at that very fair. In those very stands. Watching some of those very kids (my nieces anyway). This friend was not with us that day, but my wife’s best friend from college, who happens to have the same name as this friend, was. That year we were able to see the steer show before we went away for our first and last ever anniversary trip (our early school calendar had prevented us from doing so in previous years). We spent the day with our other same-name friend watching the girls win awards for their steers and showmanship and the like. Some of our best pictures of my wife and her friend and us as a family came from that day. They are some of the last pictures I have in which my wife looked happy. And healthy.

The summer after my wife passed away, this friend gave me a scrapbook of their friendship she had made. The last page is simply a copy of our family picture taken that day, with lyrics to a song I have since come to hold very dear (and will share in another post sometime down the road). The book still sits on the buffet just inside our front door.

That evening we went to dinner at the home of my wife’s older sister and only sibling. She is a tremendous chef, but her meal was toned-down this day. My wife’s birthday was not mentioned among us that night, nor would it be. Her mother and I had discussed it briefly that morning, and I discussed it privately with my daughter, but that was all that was to be said. Though we all knew one another was hurting, we opted to bear our grief in silence. Alone together, as it were.

Over the next day or two, my mother-in-law started to once again remind me only of herself, and I found that much easier to bear. I joined Facebook and found that both my sister-in-law and father-in-law had posted a subtle remark that would have let only those close to them know what the day would have been (if they had not known already). And I decided that I much prefer remembering this and other days like it alone with my daughter.

Which is probably how it will be remembered come next summer.