The tears just came when they decided to. I had little control over it. I’d never been able to make myself cry, but I’d been able to keep myself from crying. Now it seemed my psyche and emotions were calling the shots and I could either accept it or stay holed up in my home for however long it took before I could emerge back into society without the threat of tears overtaking me. I decided to accept it.
Besides, my feelings and behavior were surprising to me and I was curious about them. How would I feel next? What would I do before the day was out? I felt pulled along by some higher force that knew what was good for me better than I apparently did. Mostly, I was okay with that. But when I dissolved into tears in public, it was, admittedly, a little disconcerting.
In January of 2011, I sobbed in front of the entire Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) group as I thanked them for their support. Little more than a week later, when I held an open house to honor Howard’s life, I managed to make it through that event without tears. But in February, I mistakenly thought I could attend that month’s CIPA meeting without a repeat performance of tears. I hadn’t considered that there would be people at the February meeting who hadn’t been at the January meeting. When our eyes met, the tears began to form at the corners of my eyes.
At home, no day passed without tears for the first three months or more. I missed Howard, to be sure. But sometimes I suspected the tears were more about the loss of what had once been between us than the absence of him in the moment. It was tricky stuff. At times the tears felt like the necessary discharge of built up energy–a kind of relief valve. At other times, I felt they were little more than a form of feeling sorry for myself. Mostly, they didn’t last long, but I could never predict what would trigger them. Going through his things? Making dinner for me instead of the two of us? Canceling his credit cards? Maybe those things would trigger tears and maybe they wouldn’t.
I was finally ready to have a face-to-face meeting with the Social Security Administration by the middle of April. I was there primarily to file for the death benefit–all two hundred and fifty-five dollars of it–but I had also been told I needed to talk with them about widow’s benefits, something I had no clue I might qualify for. I was taken aback by the almost immediate combativeness of the young clerk. She behaved as if it was her job to protect the government’s money from fraudulent filers, and I might be one of them. She disliked the marriage certificate I presented, but ultimately accepted it. She drilled me not only about Howard, but also about my first husband. I’d arrived an innocent, but had the odd feeling of being a criminal because I was being treated like one.
I managed to hold it together until she referred to my dead husband as my “second ex.” I clarified. I’d divorced my first husband. He was my “ex.” My second husband had died. I was a widow. Haughtily, and with a shake of the head, the clerk said that to them (the SSA), they were both my “ex” husbands.
That was it. I started to cry. I looked her in the eye and said that I guessed she’d never lost a husband.
And she softened. From that instant, the formerly combative clerk was more advocate than opponent. She apologized. I apologized for crying. I said that while she could refer to my first husband–the one I’d divorced–any way she wanted, I expected a bit more respect for my dead husband. She apologized again. But I couldn’t stop crying, and it was more than a few tears sliding down my face. I was sobbing and I struggled, with limited success, to curb it. The clerk handled my business as quickly as she could, apologizing again for making me cry.
When I’d finished my business (and discovered that I would, indeed, be receiving a widow’s benefit), I made my way back to my car and stopped trying to keep the sobs in check. I just leaned over the steering wheel and let them have their way with me. Once I could actually see straight, I drove home.
By summer, the post-death fog had lifted and the tears were no longer a daily event. But when my youngest sister was diagnosed with cirrhosis in the liver she’d been given some years earlier to replace her failing one, the impact on me was cumulative. She went into a quick downward spiral, and I responded to more than her plight. My feelings about her plight were piled on top of the still-raw loss of my husband. Grief upon grief. Threat of loss upon loss. Social events I’d been looking forward to were now impossible and drifted by without my attendance. Some of the returning life in me had been sucked out with the news about my sister.
Still, I was working. I was seeing clients. I was managing.
Then, in July, I presented a recently expired “bird bucks” certificate for ten dollars off to the clerk at Wild Birds Unlimited. The certificate had arrived shortly after Howard’s death and had been forgotten until I found it buried in my billfold, days before my trip to the store. I didn’t want to lose the ten dollars. My hope was to have the certificate honored and I actually thought I could make my case without tears.
It would be fair to ask why in the world I thought I could do that. It would be fair to ask why I felt compelled to ask that the certificate be redeemed, even though it was expired.
My answer? I don’t really have one, but I suspect that there are clues in the words, themselves: lose, redeemed, expired. Maybe I just didn’t want to experience another loss. Maybe it seemed to me that enough had “expired.” Maybe my subconscious was looking for redemption. And maybe a cigar is just a cigar and a “bird bucks” certificate is nothing more than that. Life’s mysteries are not all profound and mystical. Sometimes they are mundane, the only profundity to be found in their abject silliness.
When tears threatened, the young man behind the counter went looking for help. The gray haired woman who emerged from the back room assured me that the certificate would be honored. Before long, she was offering words of solace that sounded right out of a grief training manual and I began to feel like a character in a Monty Python movie. I couldn’t laugh in that moment. Let’s face it, feelings of embarrassment bordering on mortification do not segue into belly laugher easily. That would have required a level of spiritual adeptness I most assuredly found lacking in myself in that moment. True, I wasn’t far down the road with my discounted birdseed before I saw the humor in it, but standing before the bird expert cum spiritual advisor, I just didn’t have access to it.
Tears and laughter do, I came to understand, often share the same psychic space . . . and I could hear my late husband laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation all the way home.
Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall