Widow Lessons
by Margery Facklam

When you have a baby, there's an avalanche of advice. You may hear from women who brag about their long, tortuous labor with unspeakable complications, or women who, with no drugs, have produced a ten pound baby after one or two mild contractions. You can take classes that teach you how to breathe, how to relax, how to nurse your child, and give it a bath, or introduce it to Mozart.

Not so with death. There are no Cliff Notes, no lesson plans, no extra credit for previous experience. You could get a PhD in dealing with death, and not begin to know the subject. But there are field trips. You will step into territory so foreign that even the language is new. There is no we, only I. No ours, only mine. For your passage into this new land you need calm, clear directions, but you find instead the course from hell designed by the devil himself. It is open heart surgery without an anesthetic. Stepping out on faith takes on a whole new meaning.

You feel like a naturalist who has spent a lifetime living in one small country, studying the habits of one tiny creature, only to discover there is always more to know, and questions forever unanswered. This is territory many have explored, but no one can map for the new traveler. There are guidelines. Most are about as useful as "Open this package here." Along the way you'll get directions from acquaintances: "Have courage, it gets better," or "Don't be afraid to cry." Afraid? It takes no effort or courage to open this package of grief. It spills from every pore, saturates every brain cell like a tidal wave.

Friends tell you that it's perfectly normal to feel and act this way, but you hope it's not normal so it can be fixed, or if not, that you'll have the courage to step out in front of a speeding truck. What does normal matter? It's fascinating to list the things that don't matter anymore or that are replaced by things you thought never would matter. There is endless time, but nothing gets done. And countless details you never knew about or cared about before. It's almost a pleasure to write thank you notes for all the gracious things that friends and neighbors have done for you, given to you, because it keeps you focused inside the bubble of time when you were numb and surrounded by love and friendship. For a while, you hold grief at arm's length because in all the busyness, it is not real yet.

What I know now, a year and a half later, is that time runs out on everyone. I'll never finish everything, so it's more important than ever to choose the things I long to do, or the hard things that will have some purpose or give meaning to life. I find evidence everywhere of my husband's unfinished business, little things-lists of the kinds of bird feed to buy, lists of plants for next spring's garden, lists of things to clean out, lists of words to look up, lists of books to read, people he should call, and quotations from books he loved. I find files packed thick with notes for the town library committee, or the volunteers at the nature center, and funny pictures from grandkids. They are evidence of a full life, and I keep them where he left them. They comfort me.

I'm learning the necessities - paying the bills on time, keeping the lawn mowed, the bird feeders filled. I put up the Christmas tree alone, colored Easter eggs alone, gave candy to the Halloween trick-or-treaters alone, went to grandkids' graduations and concerts alone, hoping I concealed my heavy heart. And I joined the ranks of those who do grocery shopping for one. For the first time I really see the widows and widowers. We're the ones who take one muffin, try to find the smallest cantaloupe, buy one handful of fresh beans, and one ear of corn. We're the ones who see middle-aged couples arguing and long to say, "Don't - life is too short." We watch crying babies, fussy toddlers, and tired, impatient moms, wishing we could trade places.

But the longer we wander through this new land of loneliness, the more adept we get at finding smoother paths. And slowly, we begin to create our own maps to lead us back to life.

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