My need for the “widow card” joke began at the gynecologist’s office, a month after my husband John’s death. I was mindlessly filling out paperwork amongst a waiting room filled with mostly couples. Seemingly happy couples, women with budding baby bumps, and men rushing to get them water before sitting down, and casually sliding their arm around the mother-to-be. I remember when that used to be my life. Now my life has been reduced to the marital status boxes on the paperwork in front of me: single, married, divorced, widowed.
Widowed. I couldn’t possibly check the “widowed” box, could I? Am I a widow? I didn’t feel like a widow. I’m only thirty-one years old, not to mention John and I were separated when he died—does this count? A widow is sad. I was not; my life had been a nonstop anxiety-fueled episode of The Bachelorette mixed with the Home Shopping Network since he died. Sure I had cried, but they were tears for my children and John’s family. I didn’t have the right to miss him, to cry for him, or to mourn him. I am the reason he is dead; he committed suicide because of my refusal to stay with him. I don’t get to be a widow.
I look at the patient admission forms in my lap and decide to check the “widowed” box. Maybe the doctor will be sympathetic when I answer the dreaded, “How many sexual partners have you had in the last ninety days?” question, if she knows I am a recent widow. Maybe my widow status will make her assume I’m too fragile for her to lecture me on safe sex practices and I can avoid her judgment altogether.
My widow status works. In lieu of a raised eyebrow or free condom offer, I receive her condolences after she finishes the exam and goes over paperwork with me. “It must be difficult to lose someone you love, especially someone you’ve had children with.” She waits for my response. “Thank you,” is all I say. Can she tell that I don’t miss him? Can she tell that I’ve been so embittered by the infidelities committed by him before his death that I haven’t cried over him?
For the two months following this day I receive condolences everywhere I go. Life in a small town is like that. Everyone wants to share with me fond memories of John. The John they knew in high school or middle school; the John they knew at work. With each commiseration my guilt increases. Why are they telling me these stories? I am not John’s widow! I don’t want to hear good things about him!
I want to hold on to the bad things. I want to cling to the times his eyes emptied, as his voice rose along with his temper, without warning. I want to clutch the way his apathy invalidated me when I needed validation the most after his affairs. I want to latch on to thoughts of him demoting me to a paper doll by choosing my clothing each day; I want to wear the humiliation of this memory, in particular, like a fur coat in August. These things make it easy for me to hate him. These things keep me from missing him. I want to think of him as inhuman and selfish instead of an admirable man who eventually succumbed to a brain chemistry he had no control over. I don’t deserve to be called a widow.
I decide to cope with my guilt about the undeserved sympathies I receive by turning my faux widow status into a joke that my best friend Andrea and I call “the widow card.” When she asks me to do something simple, like hand her a drink I respond with, “But I can’t! I’m a widow!” We both laugh and then she reminds me that she’s only letting me use the widow card excuse for one year before she stops waiting on me hand and foot.
My refusal to cry over John, and the widow card joke, sustains me for one more month. I fill this month with dirty martinis at first, and then with slightly dirty martinis. One morning I decide that martini glasses are much too small for olives, so I forgo them. That night, I graduate to straight vodka. Beautiful vodka, whose clarity looks so much like a million-dollar diamond, that I begin to believe I am a diamond too just by ingesting it. I am unbreakable. The only problem with being vodka though, is that men will find you irresistible, and by irresistible, I mean vulnerable. I add men to my daily vodka regime, because I can. Straight up, on the rocks, extra dirty, I add them all. Then one morning I wake up on a man’s brown leather couch to realize the entire month of May has passed, and parts of June. I realize it is the day John’s ashes are to be buried.
The cemetery was abandoned on that hot day in mid-June. Even the birds had deemed it too uncomfortable to make their presence known verbally. I was asked by John’s family to bring something to put in the burial box that encased his urn before it was lowered into the ground. I declined. His burial box should include things from his family, of which I was no longer a part. I do not get to do the sentimental things widows do. I don’t get to be a widow.
My young friend Allyssa gets to be a widow. Her husband Jeff was buried ten feet away from where I am now sitting, almost a year ago. Jeff passed away suddenly of a natural illness at the age of twenty-six. Allyssa loved her husband, and he loved her, and they loved their babies. They loved each other in a way only people in their twenties know how to love: with passion, lack of inhibition, and purpose. We lose this as we enter our thirties.
Thirty-somethings love with repetition, familiarity, and a sense of duty. In many ways, true love only exists between people in their twenties. Love in our twenties happens before the realization that bonds and promises can be broken. Love in our twenties happens before our naked bodies age and become something we only want seen in the dark. Love in our twenties happens before we are taught that codependency is a bad thing. Jeff and Allyssa loved each other in their twenties.
I remember a year ago watching Allyssa’s children put handfuls of dirt on their daddy’s coffin as it was lowered. I remember wondering how she was able to stand upright. I remember feeling guilty that I could relate to her despair through my experiences with John’s adultery. How could I possibly compare her loving, devoted husband’s tragic death, to my husband breaking his vows of fidelity to me? The two are not the same.
As John’s ashes begin their descent into the brown clay earth, the tears of my children sitting in my lap flow freely, and for the first time since his death it occurs to me that John no longer has a body. John is ash. His entire being is now encapsulated by a small, fabricated box. As I fix my eyes on the dull metal I begin to meditate on thoughts of his body. His body, which I once regarded as part of my own, is now reduced to dust. I will never see his body again.
I flash back to two and a half years ago on the third day after my discovery of his first affair. John had moved all his things into the detached garage that was built on the back part of our property. The detachment and dust of that garage was a perfect metaphor for who he’d become in the last few years.
He was sitting in a folding chair next to an engine from one of his many unfinished car projects staring absently past me as I paced. I was openly sobbing and asking him why he’d given his body to another. He wouldn’t answer me. I walked over and knelt in front of him. My knees, bare from my cutoff shorts instantly became coated in dirt and engine grease. I didn’t care. When I lay my head on his lap his arms went from crossed in front of his chest, to limp on either side of him. His torso, neck, and head arched away from me in disgust at my pathetic display of grief.
I took his hands and made them cup my wet, salty face. “Your hands,” I had sobbed, “your hands were on her. These hands, my hands.” He nodded his head in agreement not once looking down upon me. When I let go of his lifeless, heavy hands they dropped back to his sides. I then crawled into his lap and placed my hands on the side part of his neck that merged into his shoulder.
“She was here too?” He nodded in agreement. “And here?” I asked with snot puddling on my upper lip as I let my hands glide over his chest and abdomen. He nodded, still cold and lifeless. “Say something to me!”
I shook him, “How can you do this to me?” He looked down on me and without inflection in his voice he said, “I do not love you. I never did. All these years I was only playing house. I knew you’d be a good mom, and women like her are not, but I love her. I want to be with her, not you.”
There was something that burst inside of me. It was a feeling that rippled from my esophagus to the ends of each strand of my hair and down to my toes. The feeling died down quickly to make room for the fear that I felt next. It was oppressive, demonic, and all-consuming. The fear took root as I looked at John. The cloudiness of his eyes, as he spoke those words to me, obliterated the last seven years of my life. The fear manifested in my lungs, it took my breath causing violent fits of coughing and gasping between my sobs. This fear would continue to take things from me in the years to come, things like my sleep, my appetite, and my faith.
I didn’t know until that moment how much I had loved John. I didn’t realize until then how much of myself I had sacrificed at the altar. These things had been immeasurable until their absence. I had been in love with a figment of my imagination, devoted to a man that never existed. I wished for a gravesite or some sort of ceremony to help me accept that fact that the man I had devoted my life to no longer existed.
My weight plummeted. I wore sunglasses and no makeup to work. My menstrual periods ceased for three cycles. I started losing chunks of my hair. I vomited so frequently that my teeth became loose from the stomach acid. I was hospitalized for heart problems and fainting spells. I began taking pills: huge, coated, colorful antidepressants that took away my ability to write and to feel.
It is possible to mourn the living. I didn’t know yet that his erratic and cruel behavior was a symptom of his declining mental health; I wouldn’t know this until long after his suicide. All I knew was that the tender, lively man I had married six years ago was gone and my mourning of him began on that day, two and a half years before his death.
When the last bits of earth were shoveled over John’s urn at his funeral, I realized I finally had what I’d wished for: a place to grieve him. I publicly wept over the death of my husband. A death that had taken place in our garage years ago. For the first time, I cried for his physical death and for the hope I’d harbored that we would get back together one day.
Rumpus original art by Becca Glaser.