Pre-Covid, I attended a weekly writers’ group. We’d take turns sharing our stories and being critiqued. One night, a fellow shared a fiction piece about a male protagonist. The scene felt cloying to me: a distraught grieving widower talking at length to his wife in the cemetery.
“That’s not what it’s like,” I insisted, when it was my turn to offer advice. “I lost my husband. I should know. I sure as hell don’t hang out at his tombstone having long chats with him.”
“Really?” the fellow said, eyes smarting, obviously stung. “I read this to my wife and she cried.”
Hmmm, I thought at the time. One can fantasize all one wants. I used to do it too. Until you’ve lost a spouse? You haven’t the foggiest notion how you’ll respond.
Well, I suppose I owe this guy an apology. I think he’s moved west, so I doubt I’ll get the chance.
Since then? I’ve watched many well-done examples of this type of scene on TV. I mean, unless you’re doing a voiceover, how else is the audience supposed hear what’s going on inside the griever’s head? True, the above example is on paper; the writer could just do the omniscient thing, right?
But, who am I, who was I, to think that just because I lost a spouse I have/had the monopoly on responses to it? Eighteen years ago? Had my husband died anywhere in the vicinity of myself? In the loosey-goosey (a term he loved; he’d get on a bent with words that felt good coming from his mouth – “alacrity” is another one – and he’d use them over and over and over) way he died? I’d have been suspect numero uno.
My response to his sudden passing? Blank. Nothing. Nada.
Perhaps it was the way in which I was told. His mom said, “He didn’t make it.” The brain loves a riddle, yes? For the rest of the night my brain tried, in vain, to work this out. Didn’t make what? What didn’t he make?
This repeated, as I called our oldest to tell her her father was gone. Because he didn’t make something. As I watched our youngest, a son, just 17, still living at home, slouched forward in his bed, long arms, fingers, extending toward heaven. “You’re telling me my father died?” No. He just didn’t make this thing. As I tracked down our middle child to figure out how to get her home. She’d just returned to Whistler, where she was living at the time, from the Vancouver airport, having picked up her boyfriend who’d been home to London, Ontario, for the funeral of a friend killed in a car accident. It was the end of November; icy snow made it a treacherous drive.
There was this: how is it possible that her boyfriend just attended a funeral and her dad, seemingly healthy, just dropped dead? These two things can’t be true. And: how can she get herself safely back to the airport? And: how can she ride in a plane, alone, knowing her father didn’t make it? Didn’t make it.
The family members gathered overnight in my kitchen, watching me make coffee like a coffee-making expert – we’ve all gotta be good at something, right? – saw what probably seemed like a normal human and not a fresh widow. No screeching. No tears, even. No tearing out of hair. Rending of clothing. Definitely not a Hollywood-worthy response. So disappointing.
I feel tremendous guilt when I watch impressive scenes of loss. Now that right there: the catch in the voice, the pained squeal, the wet eyes. Rita! Could you not have offered up something?
He didn’t make it.
This time of year rolls around again and even after almost two decades the shock of that night returns. Maybe if there’d been a warning of impending doom the response would have been different? More outwardly expressive? Proper?
I go to the cemetery. This year I go alone, which is unusual. It looks like his sister has planted new tea roses and his still has one bloom, dried and pale pink. And also? I find a sweet bud. New life. Trying to come, so hopeful, despite winter’s approach.
I pull crispy maple leaves from around the tea roses in front of his tombstone, his parents’, his nephew’s. An omniscient eye watches tears fall. The eye must have ears too because it hears this, over and over and over, “I really miss you guys.” Sometimes the “really” is emphasized. Really.
Walking over to discard the bucket of dead leaves a humongous shiny black tombstone catches my eye. You can put pictures on tombstones now. Did you know that? There’s two pictures on this one, of a cousin of Hugh’s, in a tux, and also, driving a Standardbred horse. Wow. I check the dates. Phew. There’s only one. His DOB. He’s still alive.
I go back to hang with my late husband’s tombstone for a bit. Regard the beautifully engraved horse heads on either side, at the top. Regard the four letters below “beloved husband of”: R-I-T-A. No middle name, no DOB, as though in denial that half of her ashes – her life was split in two after all – will reside here someday. With the remains of a man who loved and helped define her so long ago, with horses, with children, with all the “Heart, Spirit and Inspiration” his name could offer up.
The omniscient eye with the ears hears this: “Why?!” Over and over and over. It does not hear an answer.