The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Widow

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I told him over the phone that he was one of my best friends. He made an awkward joke, did not reciprocate the sentiment. I had not expected him to.

This was about a year before he died. At the bar I worked at, everyone knew him. My friends were his friends. I was attending the university he had just graduated from—our time there had never overlapped. My best friend was his best friend. Our best friend and I would go visit him in Houston, sit on his couch, look at pictures of him as a kid. I became friends with their friends, got invited to their weddings and birthday parties, became a part of a group who had been close since high school.

When he died, I was living an hour away. I no longer spent all of my time surrounded by mutual friends. My life was no longer defined by him. We talked on the phone in spurts, every day for a few days, then a month or so of silence. I was still in love with him. I still thought that in time we would start dating again, that we would end up together in the end. When I mourned him, I was mourning not only the loss of his actual self, the man who called me when he was standing in the checkout line and then after a minute of chatting, informed me he had to go with some irritation, as if it was me who had called him at a bad time. I was also mourning the future possibility of him, the man I could imagine living in Houston with, who I would stay in Texas for, who I could imagine holding our baby in his family’s pink living room.

In my 19th-century poetry course, our professor spent two weeks discussing the culture of dying that pervaded the states during the Civil War. Mourning was codified. The grieving were given a wardrobe, a timeline, a set of rules, a process to follow.

mourningoutfit.nyplWomen were prescribed black clothes, down to their underwear. A black handkerchief. A black veil. Widows would wear this for at least a year, sometimes much longer. Grief as performance. Grief as code. Grief made manifest.

If he had died in the Civil War, the extent of my mourning would have been a scandal. He was not my husband, my fiancé, my father, or my brother. I would be assigned three weeks of mourning, if that—the amount appropriate for a friend or distant relative. Barely a nod to death.

A large part of my grieving process involved embarrassment. I knew my grief was real and sincere but I felt defensive about it. When I expressed my grief to people who didn’t know him, I felt like I was cheating—and sometimes I did cheat. They couldn’t question my proximity because they didn’t know the situation. He could have been my neighbor I had spoken to twice for all they knew. When I called him my boyfriend to strangers, I used it as shorthand to explain the emotional truth of what he meant to me. I had lost someone I was in love with and had imagined a life with.

With our mutual friends, I felt even stranger. They had known how important he was to me, but they had also known that my love was, to some degree, unrequited. What was embarrassing when he was alive was exponentially more embarrassing now that he was dead. I complicated this embarrassment by doing embarrassing things: calling them crying to say I miss him, asking if he knew that I loved him. What a thing to ask. I never asked if he loved me. I don’t think any of us knew. I don’t think he knew.

I did not get to wear formal mourning garb like a Civil War widow, but we had our own form of denotation. I got an orange rubbery bracelet, like a Livestrong bracelet, that said TEAM RICHEY. I keep it in a box with his funeral program, a prayer card I was given at his mass, and the cap of the first beer I drank the night he died. It’s big on my wrist and I’ve never worn it. There was a memorial T-shirt, but I didn’t get one.

A memorial T-shirt makes death everyday, casual. I wanted my grief advertised, but I wanted it to be taken very seriously. I did not want to play down my loss, but I needed to dignify it. I wanted to be a silent, weeping figure, devastated, barely holding on. Not someone grieving on the go, who seamlessly incorporated their mourning into their workout regimen and other errands. Part of the appeal of Civil War mourning was that it separated the grieving from the everyday.

3mourningOf course, back during the Civil War, a dress was roughly the equivalent of a T-shirt. Even with a corset and a hoopskirt, it was everyday wear for women. Perhaps I wanted Civil War-era mourning in the present time: to sweep into the supermarket in costume, a caricature of grief. Not just grieving, but mad with grief. Not just a performance of grief, but a showstopper.

I think a lot about what he would say if he knew that I was still writing about him. If he was alive, I think he would be angry that I was writing about him, but also, deep underneath, pleased. He was so much like me, a wedge of narcissism in the pie chart of our personalities, and I think people like us are somewhat satisfied by being the subject of someone’s obsession.

I think if he knows, in the spirit world or wherever he is, that I’m writing a book about him, story after story about him, he is gently annoyed, but more than anything just tired of my bullshit. This is why I imagine he doesn’t come visit me in dreams or as a ghost, even though I beg him to. He is exhausted by my grief, and will not give me the validation of a haunting. My obsession is unrequited in death, as my best-friendship was in life.

After his death, when I began seeing a therapist, we talked a lot about my embarrassment. I was embarrassed for loving and grieving someone who wouldn’t have done the same for me, and I was also embarrassed of how I had treated him. Our relationship was pockmarked with petty fights, drunk arguments, manipulations, and liberal use of the silent treatment. When we first met, our connection was immediate and obvious. For the first month or two, he was the one who cared more, tried more, called me three times a day, came to see me every weekend, showed me all the good spots in town. I pretended to hate him, an adolescent but effective flirting strategy, shutting him down when he complimented me, pretending indifference or doubt when he talked. Then, the tide turned. As soon as his feelings were requited, he lost interest.

For the next two years we would go back and forth. He began cancelling visits for no reason, ending phone calls in a huff, acting rude and aggressive at times, or sulky and withholding. And I followed his example, and our relationship became the bizarre and confusing power struggle it would remain until his death, in which we used how much we liked each other as a weapon. The first time he dumped me, I spent three days in my closet with a handle of vodka. The second time, I fucked one of his friends.

In retrospect, I think he just preferred the thrill of the chase—stereotypical male. But after his death I was ashamed that I hadn’t behaved better. I told my therapist stories about us, more and more and more of our stories, waiting for her verdict: was my grief valid?

These are the stories I told my therapist.

  • In the hotel in New Orleans we jumped from bed to bed, timing it so we crossed paths mid-air, screaming.
  • Him at the party, pulling me into his lap.
  • The time we woke up in the morning and I got dressed in the closet while he got dressed in the bathroom, and we met in the bedroom wearing identical outfits.
  • How he wanted us to match. How I changed my shirt.
  • How from that day onward he tried to dress like me, both because he liked when we matched and because it made me angry.
  • How he wanted to drive thirty minutes out of our way en route to dinner to show me where he and our best friend went to high school.
  • How I marked the days where he came to visit with the Star of David on my calendar.
  • How when we met he told me I was the coolest girl he’d ever met.
  • How the first time we rode in his car he had his iPod on shuffle and I knew every song that played by heart.
  • How there seemed to be no end to our common ground. I didn’t know it was possible to have so much in common with someone else.
  • How he loved my turns of phrase. When he complained of a dry spell in his sex life, I boasted of “a wet spell”. When I called a girl we both hated “Cuntburger.” How he would lovingly repeat my words, memorize them and save them up to use in the future.

 

widowingraveyard1Eventually, my therapist said what I wanted her to say: “At first, you talked about not knowing if he loved you back, if you ‘earned’ your right to grieve, and honestly, I didn’t know either. I thought perhaps your feelings were one-sided. But I’ve come to believe that he did feel the same way about you.”

She also said: “One of the great things about love is that, in a sense, it doesn’t matter if they love you back or not. You love them and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

I assume that she said the first part because she knew I needed to hear it, and the second part because it was true.

There are a lot of articles on the Internet about losing an ex-spouse. I have yet to find one about losing an ex who you stayed friends with and fought with and slept with and stayed in love with. This is why I need my grief legitimized so badly. If this were the Civil War, I would have to keep quiet or suffer the judgment of polite society.

Of course, there were also not many ex-husbands back then.

Sometimes I imagine that I’m the one who dies in a brutal car accident. He’s the one who survives. Does he grieve? He would be forced to acknowledge my death. But I don’t know if he would come to my funeral. I think that even if he wouldn’t show it, he would be devastated by my loss in the same way I was by his. Even if he wasn’t in love with me, even if he didn’t think we would end up together, he was always calling me on the phone. Even if he didn’t want what I wanted, he had the same deep, permanent need to talk to me that I had to talk to him. This might be the only thing I’m confident was requited.

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All images courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Hilary Collins is an MFA candidate at Roosevelt University in Chicago. This is her first publication. More from this author →