(Irish-born Yvonne Waterson who emigrated in 1988 is a highly acclaimed school principal and education official in Arizona who lost her husband, Ken, last month while she was in Ireland and he was at home in Arizona)
I was back home a few weeks ago – business in Dublin and then up to Belfast to visit friends and then in rural South Derry with family. While I was away, my husband died at our home in Phoenix, Arizona.
When is the time right to tell the world my husband died? When do I announce to everyone that I am “newly widowed”? He always said – and I never understood it or really agreed with him – that “dying is a private business,” that when the time came, he wanted to die alone, just to sleep on.
And so he did. It was last week, and it was the day before our 22nd wedding anniversary. And it was when our daughter and I were far away in rural Derry, in the heart of Seamus Heaney country.
And it might even have been around the time I was talking to blacksmith Barney Devlin’s son Barry in The Forge on the side of the road at Hillhead, hearing all about the great night’s craic behind Heaney‘s "The Midnight Anvil" when Barney struck the anvil twelve times to ring in the new millennium with another son listening in on his cell-phone in Canada. Posing for a photograph with Barry Devlin on the other side of "The Door into The Dark" I was happy to be back home and anxious to write about it, holding in my hands the anvil that made the sweeter sound.
All I know is a door into the dark.
Later (yet earlier in Arizona), I knew something was wrong when he didn’t answer the phone; when, troubled, I sent a troubling text to my best friend to ask her to please go check if he was home and alright; when, nervously, she told me that, yes, both our cars were in the driveway and that our little dog, Edgar, was sitting on the couch, silently staring back at her; when she found a key under the doormat; when she opened the front door and tentatively called my husband’s name once, twice, and then a third time to no response; and, finally when she crumpled.
“He’s passed away! He’s passed away!” she cried. “He’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”
Then our daughter’s primal scream, a horrible, harrowing sound from somewhere deep within her, a sound I will never forget as she heard me tell my friend on the other side of the Atlantic on the other side of America on the other end of the line to please call 911. Just. Call. 9-1-1.
Too quickly to be true or anything good, I heard the noise of our house filling up with strangers, kind and efficient, from the police and fire departments, the crisis management team, and finally the people from the one mortuary that agreed to take my husband’s body even though there was some as yet unresolved fuss over who would sign the death certificate.
If nobody would sign it, perhaps he wasn’t dead.
“Are you sure he’s dead?” I asked.
“Yes. He’s dead. Yes. I’m so sorry. He’s gone.”
They pronounced my husband dead at 1:10pm not a full hour after I had called and left a message for him to please pick up the damn phone. Replaying my voicemails, back in America, my lovely loving parents with my daughter and me now, I can hear the irritation in my voice, and it reminds me that I find it easier to harbor annoyance than worry, and that anger is infinitely easier to bear than sorrow.
Blue morning over the LIffey
A week before, I had been so happy, wandering streets of Dublin still familiar to me, as though I had never left Ireland. I called my husband from Trinity College, where I’d happened upon a graduation, and when I told him how much fun I was having, he told me to have some more. And, I did. I was proud of myself, smug even, finding the perfect anniversary card for him in one of those bijou boutiques that have popped up on the south side of the Liffey and then breezily asking the concierge at The Brooks Hotel to mail it to America for me as though I were Meryl Streep‘s Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada."
For over two decades, we had an ongoing contest, my husband and I, over which of us would present the other with the best birthday, anniversary, Valentine, and Christmas cards. I won. Hands down. Every time. Even after he thought he was on to something when he discovered a Papyrus store at the Biltmore Fashion Park.
Naturally, some of our years shone brighter than others – they sparkle still – and browsing through dates and sentiments scrawled on cards saved in a drawer along with drawings by our girl, old polaroid pictures and postcards, business cards from my different jobs, I see our story unfold from beginning to end. Stranger than fiction, it shimmers with all you would expect from a page-turner. I’ll maybe write a story for you one day.
So when the anniversary card I had the hotel mail for me arrived from Ireland in my Arizona mailbox yesterday – too late in spite of my good intentions – I had to open it. Turning it over in my hands, the post-mark – 11.11.13 – brought to mind another anniversary – the second since my cancer diagnosis. There is no doubt that November is the cruelest month in this house.
Had I remembered what it was I’d written to my husband a week before, I might have left the card sealed in its envelope and put it in the pocket of the shirt on his dead body. But I had forgotten. When I scanned my handwriting on the inside of the card, I knew that, yes, I would have won again. He would have smiled, deadpan, at the last words he never got to read from me:
“See you 18th & I hope our next anniversary is without cancer, aneurysms, & dog shit.”
After our last dog, an over-anxious greyhound, Molly, my husband was adamant that we revert to being strictly “cat people,” but when our daughter rescued that tiny dog on a busy street a few weeks ago and immediately named him Edgar, he somehow relented.
How you feel after the death of a loved one is difficult to articulate. Is it too soon to say that I am still alive, that life is for the living and for finding new rituals? Maybe. Then again nobody knows what to say or do. There are no rules. It is a complicated business, and it is neither private nor simple. It is painful.
A good night’s sleep eludes me, and it feels a bit like I swallowed a sharp stone that has lodged in my very center. How I wish it would go away. But it’s early days. They tell me I am in a state of shock and to take one day at a time.
They tell me he is in a far better place now. Really? How could any place be better than in our dining room next month to light sixteen candles on my daughter’s birthday cake or in the audience to cheer our girl as she walks across the stage to receive her high school diploma less than two years from now?
How could any place be better than a ringside seat at all those milestones that bring pure and simple pleasure?
I have always been slow to stir on Sundays, in spite of the predictable sunshine breaking and entering through slats of closed window blinds and the sounds of my husband making a pot of coffee.
He always tried to do it quietly, but I was always awake and listening, enjoying the distinct sounds of newspaper pages turning, tiny showers of cereal falling in a bowl, slices of bread popping from the toaster, and tell-tale stifled chuckles from our daughter if she had successfully snagged the Sunday comics from the newspaper her dad had strategically arranged for reading.
Propped up against my pillows, I liked the outside interference too – the random arpeggios up and down, ringing gently from California wind-chimes that hang heavy and lower today from a Chilean mesquite tree that dominates our backyard; the distant rumble of a truck on an otherwise abandoned freeway; the plaintive coo of mourning doves, and the soft woof of a neighbor’s dog. Altogether it is a Sunday morning spell, cast just for me, selfish me, so I have to let it linger into the afternoon.
Workday mornings are different and will be different still when they resume. A little more hurried and harried by stupid thoughts of what and what not to wear, what needs to be turned in, last minute signatures on a permission slip, money for lunch, reminders to take vitamins and cancer medicine and maybe something to take the edge off and to have a great day. Just one more cup of coffee, a goodbye hug, a kiss, and a rushed and perhaps perfunctory “I-love-you-I-love-you-too-see-you-tonight-call-me.”
Before going to work for the past twenty-two years, I have counted on three things: 1. My husband blows me a kiss. 2. He flashes a peace sign. 3. He watches from the window until I disappear from view. These tiny, ordinary rituals made the perfect farewell. Fare well. Every day. So at the mortuary yesterday, my daughter and I gently unfolded his cold hands and created a sort of ‘V’ with two elegant fingers of his right hand.
Peace. Out. Baby.