Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scary Thing #3

Back to 10 Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died, and yes, for me this was the third-scariest.

3. Learned to use the gas mower

With its fierce blade, its requirement for a poisonous, inflammatory chemical, of all the frightening things that lurked in the basement and the shed, the gas mower was the most forbidding. For two years I didn’t touch it; instead I used our hand mower, a quiet, friendly helper that allowed me to meditate over the smell of new-mown grass.

But in our third spring together I had to admit that my friend and I couldn’t handle almost an acre of lawn—front-back-side. Everything was weedy and tufted and unkempt. My neighbor kindly mowed the meadow in back of the house. He seemed to love to use his riding mower, and I might have asked him to add my lawn, but I knew I should minimize favors and figure this out for myself. 

I made a ramp into my hatchback with an old closet door, and pushed the gas mower up and into the car. Just solving the transportation problem felt like an accomplishment. At the shop where we’d had our mowers sharpened every year I explained about Dan and the mower and me. When you pick it up, said the second-generation mower serviceman, I’ll show you how to use it. 

I'm not afraid of all machines . . . 
And he did, taking me out to the little patch of weeds in back of the shop and showing me how to push the button three or four times and pull the chord and adjust something. He laughed when I asked how I would know when it needed more gas, but I stood there until he told me, knowing by then that even stupid questions have to be answered. 

(I had also read the manual. Dan always tossed the manuals on top of the file cabinet and I put them away in folders by location category so that we might possibly find them, and since his death I actually read them. I am probably the only person in the United States who, as instructed, does not wear tie shoes when using her gas mower.) 

Reversing the transportation process, I brought the mower home and I was suddenly, strangely, eager to use it. I could do this! It was starting to sprinkle, but I pushed the button three times and pulled the chord and the mower started! I mowed on the front lawn and it looked better! The sprinkle was turning to rain but I mowed on, unable to stop. Only when I knew that we really must come in out of the rain, did we.

As I chatted to the hand mower (which I still have, as security), so I talk to the gas mower. It’s more noncommittal, a sort of male appliance, in contrast to the sisterhood of the hand mower, but we work well enough together. I hate the noise and feel sorry for my neighbors (never mind that I listen to theirs, I regret adding to the noise pollution). I mow as fast as I can. I tried to reduce the lawn by adding gardens, not a complete success because then I had more weeding to do, and trickier mowing, around the gardens, which required the hand mower, etc. Now what’s scary is filling the gas can and then pouring gas into the mower because I can never figure out the spout, but I proceed through these details; my jaw may be clenched, but I do it. 

Dan did all of the mowing and most of the cooking. I’ve lost weight since he died, but I haven’t got sick, and from a distance at least, the lawn looks pretty good. You clear your hurdles; you take your satisfaction where you can.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Love of My Life

“He was the love of my life.”

A. says this firmly as we raise our glasses to J., her late husband. I’m charmed by her use of the phrase, and pleased to have confirmed what I always suspected. J. died six years and one month ago. We’re late with this honorary dinner—we’re busy widows, our weekends spent in trips and concerts, gallery openings and dinners. But here we are, in the outdoor garden of a favorite restaurant. J. liked this restaurant, says A., they got here at least once before his final illness, and I think of how many good restaurants Dan missed by dying in his 50s, not his 80s, like J., but I don’t say that because we’re here to talk about J.

Later, after we’ve stopped for ice cream and sat on a park bench, watching people, admiring their dogs, greeting friends, and I’m home, I think again of the Hudson City Cemetery where I walk with Lulu, my basenji. In the cemetery we’re finally well paced, Lulu and I, because I have something to read while she sniffs, and I am truly amazed at the number of widows who outlived their husbands by 15, 20, 30 years or even more. 

What were they thinking all those years, I wonder. Did one not remarry? Were they lonely, or, more likely, poor, left to raise a family without their breadwinner? Did they lose the love of their life?

He was the love of your life! a college classmate declared at a reunion. I didn’t argue, but I was startled, having not thought of my life in segments.

Eastern Arizona
Now A. and I seem to have stopped the count. We lived alone before them, we live alone now. In my unscientific, anecdotal experience, widowers who have been happily married want to repeat the experience. If I had died first, Dan would have mourned me, then found someone else. Widows, however . . . well, statistics are against us; to be widowed in your mid 50s or late 70s argues for extreme measures in the mate-seeking arena. People do find each other, of course, at all ages; the only marriage announcements I read are about gay couples and elders, people in their 80s who decide to get married. And I have my mother (1914–2009) as an example. John, her husband, died in February 2007; he would have been 95 that August, and they would have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

I hope you’ll find someone else, my mother told me when Dan’s ashes were barely cold. I was horrified. It was too soon, his illness too searing. I had willingly spent every ounce of physical and psychic energy for him, but I didn’t know if I could do it again. Yes, a new relationship could last 25 years. Or, at my age, death could intervene again, after 25, or 2.5, months. 

By the time I looked up, I had a life. I hear that single men stay away from widows—too much “my way or the highway.” I understand. M’s widowed mother had a beau, but she wouldn’t marry him because—to simplify—she didn’t want to do his laundry. 

Am I lonely? Rarely, but sometimes. Do I skip articles proving that elderly widows make up a large percentage of the poor? You bet. Do I look at my one closet and think how would I ever share it anyway? Guilty as accused. Do I think sometimes that if there were two of us, our reach would be farther, we could explore further? Yes. Do I worry about any of this? No. He was the love of my life. Or one of them. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Scary Thing #4

We're moving down the list of 10 Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died, getting to the scarier . . . 

4. Became a lay reader at my church. 

I don’t know what divine Providence has kept me off the stage. I like the concept: you dress up, become someone else, tell a story. But innate shyness or unusual common sense saved me from what probably would have been yet another level of frustration and humiliation. 

In our own race, we all got ribbons: Gary, Dan, Bernie, Debby
Still, I’ve not been afraid to make a fool of myself. When Dan and I were runners, I was the first to sign up for a local footrace. I did OK, placing in my age group; after that we would both sign up and Dan would do really well, coming in first in his age group, and I would not embarrass us, earning a smaller medal for a slightly later arrival.

When women were finally, belatedly, invited to become lay readers at my church, I volunteered. It was owed to me, after all, but more important, I wanted to do it. All my life I had been aware of select men in the congregation who took turns, one or two of them every Sunday, to move smoothly, flawlessly, around the Episcopalian altar. They actually read very little but rather assisted the priest, handing him the wafers and the wine just when he needed them, standing in precisely the right place at exactly the right moment, in a silent liturgical dance. 

I like to dance, too, though I'm better as a runner, and I was taught as a girl to help, so I went ahead with this ministry, nerve-wracking as it proved to be. Even after training, my first few months on the altar were suffused with anxiety: I would touch something I shouldn’t, would not be where I was needed, would leave an unforgivable gap in time and space, would, finally, in my ignorance, spoil the sacred ritual for everyone. 

I forced myself to do it, rising at 5:30 to go over my notes for the 8 a.m. service, walking through it in my head, reminding myself that my church is full of friends and I hadn’t yet set my alb on fire with a candle or spilled red wine on the white summer frock of an elderly parishioner, as our chief lay reader says he once did. 

Still, instead of bring me closer to the Eucharist, not to mention God, lay readership first had me focused on the details, not the concept, a flaw I’ve suffered from in many areas of life. But when you’re closing the altar rail for communion, and the decorative end piece of the damned thing comes off in your hand, it’s hard to remain spiritual. 

Yet I stuck with it, once again surviving the risk of looking foolish. I pushed myself, got to the point where I could relax a tiny bit and focus on the prayers. Now at 5:30 a.m. I find a prayer that I will say during the service because, as a lay reader, I can do that. Ultimately, serving wasn’t so much learning a dance as a new language, moving over the months from inarticulate, to hearing my mistakes as I made them, to communicating. People say they like to listen to me; maybe they're just being nice. But when our rector told me that he appreciated celebrating the Eucharist with me as lay reader, it was, simply, one of the biggest compliments I have ever received in my life.