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.


  1. This is really beautiful... and I think you're right... I've noticed friends dance around saying my husband's name--friends--and they seem to cringe sometimes when I say his name. But I put it out there like the magical pink elephant. You're gonna hear his name because something in the moment reminds me of him... I shouldn't have to be suppressed because you're uncomfortable. You know?

    That's really special, I think, when someone else brings up our spouses names on their own. It's like he's not just an imaginary friend in my head; they are validating his existence. I totally agree!

  2. i liked this. and i echo Mars Girl. no one where i am now knew my husband but my daughter and son so of course they say his name. but we Three Musketeers are the only ones. i bet it is very nice to be out among others, friends who knew the two of you, and to hear your wife's name, and for Mars Girl, to hear her husband's name on the lips of someone who has no real vested interest other than they cared about you as a couple.

  3. Just wanted you to know I've been reading your blog off and on for awhile now. I really like it.

    When I was a young widower conversations that provided a sense of comfort meant the world to me.

    Best of luck in your journey.

  4. That's most perceptive. My in-laws can scarcely bring themselves to say her name, even now and after all this time. It's crazy.

    A (more recent) close friend of mine always refers to her as 'your wife'. Which doesn't really work, in the present circumstances.

    It's often struck me that people are trying to protect me from pain by sheltering me from hearing her name.

    But really, the one person who has really confronted this is me. I'm the one who has steeled himself through all the pain it once took to say her name -- not that I ever shied away from it.

    The same thing happens with all those euphemisms they used. 'Since she passed away'. 'When you lost her.' And so on, with so much pathetic pussy-footing around the truth which they find they just can't face.

    I tend to fly firmly in the face of this. And so I find that I use the words, religiously, and always have done.

    'When she died.' 'Since her death.' 'As she was dying.'

    Perhaps it shocks them -- I don't know. But many times, honestly, perhaps I'd have been glad if it had. I

    t's time to confront this stuff, head on. It happened. And we have to deal with it, because there's just no other choice.

  5. Mars Girl - I think it is far healthier to speak about our deceased spouses than it is to avoid any mention of them as if they never existed. And I have found this to be especially true in helping my daughter handle her grief. There is nothing shameful about grieving and I wish the rest of the world would recognize that!

    WNS - I don't know which is worse - to be surrounded by people who never knew your spouse's name, or to be amongst people who do and are just too afraid to mention it. Neither is a comfortable situation...

    Abel Keogh - Thanks for commenting. I have actually been reading your blog for the past few months or so as well (I started with the post about "pictures of the dead wife"). Your advice has been quite helpful.

    Roads - I find that I use the euphemisms myself depending on my particular "mood" (except when I am writing, when I tend to use them interchangeably within a post).

    What I have found to be interesting is that there are people who have not "dealt" with her death yet. There was one couple who was rather close to us who simply could not bring themselves to write a letter for my daughter's scrapbook "because it was just too hard to deal with". I didn't know what to say when I heard that. But I think if anyone knows how hard her death has been to "deal with" it would be me.

  6. Your post resonated with me. I have a few people in my life who say his name on a somewhat regular basis. I have many more people who seem to get uncomfortable if I mention something about him. I'm thankful for those I can still say his name to....