“Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be fine.” The naïveté and hubris of those words are breathtaking. But, then, I’ve had some time to learn just how wrong I was about it.
I had lost both of my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, beloved animal companions. I thought I had some experience with death. In fact, I did have experience . . . I just didn’t have experience with losing a husband.
I made that pronouncement within days of Howard’s death. I used it as a shield against the pain I saw reflected in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances. Even when they said little or nothing, their eyes were a mirror of the grief I held and refused to admit to others. I’d already been through the hard part—the long process of his dying. If I’d handled that, I was certain I could handle what came next. As it happened, I was right . . . and also just a little wrong.
Within twenty-four hours or so of my husband’s death, I’d packed up most of his clothes and shoes (with my sister’s help) and handed them off to my friend Gretchen Minney for donation to the Birds of Prey thrift store. If anyone but family and close friends had known how quickly I divested myself of his clothing, they would have been stunned. But I’d had a long time to plan the chain of events following his death. Months later, I saw the wisdom of it. If I’d waited, I might have clung to more than the few things I kept. It was a good move.
I also wasted little time rearranging the house. It was a relief to have the hospital bed, oxygen concentrator, and other accoutrements of end-stage cancer out of the house. Just looking at them made me weary. I moved furniture around, too, and got rid of a few pieces. I needed to reclaim my home for the living, so I bought a comfortable reading chair for my bedroom, moved Howard’s leather wing chair from the living room, replacing it with something new and comfortable, and rescued my small secretary from sickroom status.
Within a month, I held the post-death party I’d promised to have at the house. It was something of a homecoming for Lakewood PD people with whom Howard had worked in the 1970s. Many others came, too, including some of my friends, colleagues, and clients. I was grateful for that. Still, it was something of a blur. I fortified myself with champagne to serve as hostess—rather than crumbling widow—and got through the day.
My friends and colleagues in Boulder Media Women sent cards, many with checks. It was more than a thoughtful gesture, it was a gesture that saved me from worrying about the cash I needed to live on for that first month following his death, a time when I was completely unable to even contemplate work.
For the first several months after Howard’s death, I moved through my days, attending to the administrative and mundane details that had to be managed. I filed the will. I got Howard’s name removed from the vehicle titles. I battled with the annuity company to distribute the funds coming to me in a way that would benefit me optimally over time.
I learned a thing or two in that battle with the annuity company. Those who have just lost a spouse are easy prey for questionable behavior on the parts of those who have something to lose by that death. If I had folded in my grief, it would have cost me a good deal of money—at least a good deal of money for a simple woman with limited funds. Howard had worked hard for that small bit of money he’d tucked away and I refused to allow it or his efforts to look after me with it to be disrespected by problematic practices on the part of the annuity company. Besides, I knew I would need those funds over the next few years.
They gave IRS citations I knew didn’t apply. They blithely argued that they simply couldn’t do what I asked. The agent who had sold the policy—one of Howard’s oldest friends, a man who considered him a mentor—had difficulty believing that if the company said they couldn’t do something, they could be wrong.
I called in my own version of the “big guns”—my longtime broker and financial advisor. I’d always been a minor client, but he rose up to offer support as if I were a major account. Ultimately, I didn’t have to press my broker into service. My tenacity got the case taken all the way up the chain of command to the highest levels of the company for a decision. They agreed to distribute the funds as I requested. I wondered how widows and widowers with less tenacity dealt with these things. I was sure I knew the answer: many didn’t—and got run over by big companies during the most vulnerable time of their lives.
But I didn’t expect the fog that hovered over me. Hadn’t I removed the cords that connected Howard and me during the death ceremony before he died? What was this miasma enveloping me? I was a shaman; I read energy. What in the world was I experiencing? It took a while to understand. Howard’s energy field and mine had overlapped more than I had ever guessed. He was gone, but remnants of that field remained and the part gone felt like a black hole. It felt a little like being blindfolded, spun around, and set loose in a room that was completely familiar but disorienting because it wasn’t being experienced in the usual way.
I couldn’t even bring myself to use the word “widow” yet, but I was beginning to understand what it meant.
Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall