I lost John’s wedding ring this past Friday.
Yes, I re-traced my footsteps.
Yes, I looked in all the places I had been.
Yes, I shook out clothes, checked in the drains, went through the trash, dug under piles of stuff, and searched and searched and searched until it made me too sad to search more.
No, I could not find it.
And yes, I know that it is only an object, merely a thing, and things get lost. There’s all kinds of the standard words I can pacify myself with about how it’s Not That Bad or that it Could Be Worse because c’mon, it’s only a thing and a very small one at that.
It was a platinum band with a slightly thinner gold layer on top of it. On the inside, it was engraved: JLS to ASG 9-15-90. We bought it at the Tiny Jewel Box on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC the summer before we married, all filled with the eager anticipation of joy for the life that lay ahead of us.
I wore it on a necklace along with a little charm of the Space Needle and a gold charm of Texas, all three together connecting where we met and where we parted. When I didn’t have the necklace on, I wore it on my middle finger or behind another ring, as it was slightly too big for my ring fingers. But I never, ever was without it. John wore it from the day I put it on his finger and I wore it from the day he had to remove it in the hospital, just before he died.
It’s only been a few days since it slipped off my hand as I went about my day but I feel unbalanced without it. I’m off kilter, like something has shifted and I can’t quite keep up with the world, like I have been exposed. I always felt it surrounded me with some kind of magic — it protected and it gave me a little shot of courage no matter what I was facing. It made me feel like that promise we made all those years ago had not died along with the physical presence of John. With it on, that life I had planned and worked for was somehow still around me, even though John’s death had profoundly altered the course of those expectations. It made me feel I was not alone, ever.
I generally do not feel alone, even when I am by myself. Let us turn for a reading to the Book of Merle 4:20 “It’s great to be single, it’s hell to be lonely”. I am lucky enough not to be lonely. I’m blessed with deeply loving family and friends. I enjoy a busy life with dogs I adore, rewarding work I enjoy and a home I am happy to be in. I have a strong network of unquestioning love and support I can turn to at any time, sometimes even without asking. I’m deeply grateful for all that I have and for the life I have rebuilt, once again filled with possibilities and anticipation.
None of that has changed with the disappearance of this ring.
But I am so sad without it. I feel its absence on my hand like a weight, like an empty gold circle on my soul. I have lost even more of John and I have let his memory down by letting this symbol slip (quite literally) through my fingers. The farther away I go from his life as my own is moving on, there is a sadness at seeing his memory — the life he had — grow ever more dim and abstract. That ring was a conscious reminder of what we once had and of what he once was.
A friend, who had also lost her husband a few years ago, said that maybe John took it back. And that maybe he would give it back to me again some day, when I was least expecting it. Perhaps. Or perhaps not. It could be found somehow and returned to me or it could be lost for good. Many years ago when I was a teenager, my father gave me a ring he had brought home from his service overseas in World War II. I lost it while working as a lifeguard one summer at a local lake. I remember how sad he was, although he was kind and philosophical about its loss, it clearly represented quite a bit to him. I still feel guilty about it. That tangible item of a very different time and place didn’t erase the memory of his remarkable experiences. But it added to those memories being even more faded and propelled him further away from who he once was.
My father is gone, John is gone and John’s ring is now gone. Just one more small piece missing, changed and chipped away. I am well aware I will lose much more ahead, more than just the things, and those losses will also make me feel alone and sad. I’ll lose not just those I love, but the things that remind me of who they were, who I was, who we were together. I know too I will get through somehow, perhaps a bit more scarred but still trying to rebuild.
But now I have to do it without the little talisman that reminded me each and every day of the life I once shared and the hopeful, perfect round, golden shape it once took.
August 21. September 15. November 3. November 11.
All these significant dates. August 21 would have been John’s 55th birthday. He never expected to make it to 50, let alone to 53, so each passing year beyond that auspicious number was a miracle and astonishment.
September 15 will be our nineteenth wedding anniversary. November 3 would have been my brother’s 57th birthday. And November 11 marks the second year John has been gone and I have been the Practical Widow.
I don’t dread the arrival of the dates nearly as much as I did the first year. I braced for them as if a hurricane was arriving and I guess in a way it was. But each day ticked by like all the others, I was sadder than usual but each day came and went. Those days were sharp reminders of what had happened the year before.
This year, I’m more melancholy. Rather than the oppressive grief of the first year, I’m experiencing a lot more of the smaller moments. Perhaps I’m just less weighed down and can see them now, whereas before I was overwhelmed just getting through each day. It’s the tiny passing changes that are so hard now. John would have liked the new fence I put up in the back yard. He would hate it that I’ve etched huge scratches on the side of my brand new car because it’s a little too big for the garage. He would have liked the new stop light at Greenlake Way and the one on to Aurora southbound, because it’s easier to turn left during busy times. (Not that anything ever stopped him from driving way too fast and bitching about the other crappy drivers.) He would be so proud of Harry and what a gorgeous sweet dog he’s grown into and what good friends he and Betty are. Jim would have enjoyed the Cleveland Cavalier’s run for the championship and he would have been terribly proud of me going to graduate school.
My birthday is November 13, two days after John’s death anniversary. I suppose that will always hang over the date. I’m happy to be reminded I’m alive each year and I feel obliged to live a full life on John and Jim’s behalf. So I keep trying.
For each date, I do work hard at planning something meaningful. For our wedding anniversary, I take myself to the Mariners ball game and buy the best seat I can find, which is easier both when you are buying just one seat and when the Mariners are the worst team in baseball. It’s like a date with a ghost, but it’s where I’d rather spend the day. For the birthdays, I’ve planned long hikes with the dogs, it’s lovely and it gets me out without having to force social behavior.
When I was anticipating the first anniversary of John’s death, a Jewish friend suggested following the Jewish tradition of a gravestone unveiling. It was an excellent idea, especially since we had planned to bury some of John’s ashes next to his mother and father in Texas. His brother and I spent months planning a small memorial at the grave side and a Texan-sized barbecue at the family home afterward. It gave me something to look forward to that was meaningful and significant for that day, gathered together those who cared about John and let us all sit around in a much more relaxed atmosphere than the funeral and tell tall tales about him. It was the perfect solution.
I must say however, it was thoughtful of John to die on a national holiday, which gives me a day off each year to think of my own fallen veteran.
To continue my oceanic metaphor, I was reflecting back on when the tide of grief started to turn, or better put, when the undertow stopped drowning me. A loss of this magnitude is so ridiculously out of control, it turns your every moment into turmoil. And the place where you turn for comfort—your home, your family—is what’s most undone. When does that all come back under your control?
Well, let me just set the record straight and say, I have no idea. I thought, like so many other life events, that I would get over it, time would heal the wounds, things would be better, and all those things we say to one another in our helplessness to fix this sorrow. What I’m finding is that none of it is true. There is no better, there is no healing, there is no over it. But…
I can say that I do not feel the bone-crushing weight I was carrying last year. I don’t know if its because I’m stronger or the weight is lighter, and honestly I don’t really care which it is. I am glad that it’s lighter, however it got that way. Here’s some things that are easier: I can come back home to the house alone and find it the place warmly welcoming again. I am able to do house projects that make me feel good, even if I have no one to share them with. I look forward to my next day, and not just because I can get back to bed and escape into sleep. I like listening to music again and can finally concentrate enough to read a whole book. Little things, but they’re making a difference.
So better isn’t better, it’s seeing the world through new eyes and finding how lovely it still is. The healing isn’t really healing. It’s more about being at peace with the wound. I didn’t wake up one day and realize, oh I don’t feel so bad anymore. It was more about looking practical widowhood in the eye and thinking, ok, I can take this one tiny step forward into a life I didn’t ask for but got anyway.
I’m stuck with it any way you look at it, so here goes.
The wedding ring issue. What to do, what to do?
John wore a ring that we bought together, engraved with our initials and the date of our marriage. At some point in the ICU he was puffed up with fluids. One of his marvelous nurses suggested that he take it off while he still could, since she would have to cut it off otherwise. I don’t think he ever removed his ring, even during his idiotic affairs. I slipped it on my own finger, since we didn’t want to lose it—and there it remained for quite some time.
It’s a dilemma to know what to do with the rings. I didn’t remove my wedding ring for a good long time, in fact for nearly a year. I experimented with putting different rings in place of my engagement ring, although I had also done that when John was still alive. Around the date of our wedding anniversary, I bought myself a strong gold necklace and put his ring on that, along with a gold charm of the Space Needle and a gold charm of the state of Texas given to me many years ago by a dear friend. The three symbolize the journey of our life together—we met in Texas, we parted in Seattle. At the same time, I shifted my own wedding ring—which had been my grandmother’s, engraved with their initials and their wedding date in 1918—to my right hand and it feels right there.
The other day, I was chatting with a widow friend who had celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary in October of 2008. Her husband died in March of 2009. Three weeks later, she was playing bridge with some friends when one suddenly said, “Oh, I’m so pleased to see you’re still wearing your wedding rings!” Three weeks after he died, following fifty years of marriage. For heaven’s sake. Was she supposed to take them off the minute he died? What for? To signify her single-hood? To catch herself another man? Just because she wasn’t technically “married” any longer? I’m certain that the rings were the last thing on her mind, but even if they weren’t, she can wear whatever jewelry she wants, widowed or not. And that particular jewelry, symbolism aside, had been on her hand for fifty years, longer in the case of the engagement ring! I’m sure it didn’t even cross her mind until someone pointed it out. That’s a shame.
Another friend had divorced her philandering husband and flung her rings from the deck of a Washington State Ferry into Puget Sound. Sounds cathartic, doesn’t it? She was, of course, smart enough to remove the diamonds first. I think there’s a certain anger toward the symbolism of the rings which happens in divorce but isn’t there in the case of widowhood. I was certainly disgusted at the rings when John was the one doing the philandering. I can understand wanting to fling them into the deepest, coldest water I could find.
But as it is, I still wear rings on my left ring finger. I just like it. Partly, it reminds me of the idea of being married and everything that meant. Symbolically, like a nun. But truthfully, I have several lovely rings and only have two fingers they fit. One of them is the traditional wedding ring finger. So there you go. If you want to know my status, well, don’t be afraid to ask. But you should know what the answer is: I’m a widow. I’m no longer married. And I wear lots of rings.
UPDATE: July 2009—Oddly, I’ve developed some arthritis in the middle joint of my left pinky finger. Many years ago, I sliced the side of it open on some glass and had restoration surgery done on it, which has probably accellerated the inevitable arthritis I’ll be getting in all my joints. But the joint has become somewhat sensitive and was rubbing against the ring I was wearing on my wedding-ring-finger. Therefore: I had to remove the ring. Perhaps a sign of some kind? A goose from beyond to remove the symbolism? Just getting old and creaky? Who’s to say. At any rate, I’m now ringless on my left hand and my joints feel better.
If you’ve lost your partner, there’s a Being The Widow category. Here, I ruminate on coping with death and loss and share all kinds of things about being single again in Newly Single? Surprise! And something I wish I had known more about when I was newly widowed was things people say to you. I would have appreciated bracing for a few of the doozies. (They really happen!) I might have been more open to the depth of feeling hidden behind the words.
If your friend has become widowed, there’s a Being The Widow’s Friend category. And there’s the Top Ten Things Not To Say To A New Widow, hopefully providing perspective on both sides of the death fence. Look around and see what resonates with you.
Everything here is written in the straight man/woman marriage, feminine form, such as “she”, “widow” and “husband”. You can alter it however best fits your needs. John and I did not have children, so I don’t speak to being a newly-alone parent. I can’t even imagine what that’s about. If you are, I hope you’ll start a blog for those like you, or add some thoughts in here.
Most importantly please, if you’re in too much anguish or feel so overwhelmed you can’t go on—seek professional help immediately. It really does help to talk to the pros to get you through the darkest times. Believe me, I’m no professional anything. Honestly, this is what I am and when you get down to it, anyone can do that. Go to the ones who know how to help: talk with your doctor, clergyman, therapist, support group… whatever gets you through.
Or join in and blog alongside me. There’s plenty of room. Let’s try to help one another.
—The Practical Widow
John’s death was relatively sudden. Not as quick as a heart attack or accident but not as prolonged as terminal cancer either. He went into the hospital on October 30 and was dead by November 11. Through that week and a half, each day was harder to bear than the one before. I barely had the ability to make it from the hospital back to the house in once piece. Every iota of my being was sharply focused on the crisis at hand. So I was unable to function on any kind of normal level. Here’s some things that helped me get through the final days.
If you’re facing a medical crisis like this, go military: Make yourself the Commander-in-Chief and focus on your war. Everyone’s crucial in a successful army, from officers to privates. I had a tremendous staff of friends who rallied around. Making one friend the primary contact meant that I could funnel updates through her and I didn’t have to repeat the whole story over and over. One friend coordinated food deliveries. One was in charge of helping me to leave the hospital periodically, if only to walk around the block, getting fresh air and some exercise each day. Yet another neighbor helped care for the dogs and the house, ensuring all was well and looked after. And still another friend handled my work load, informing clients and finishing up tasks I left half-completed. I could not have gotten through without my army of support.
It helps if your officers are good at prioritizing and presenting decisions for you to make. You don’t want to have to answer to a million little details. On that same note, prioritize items yourself. Be clear about what you need. Generally speaking, and in the following order, it’s getting food and sleep for yourself, being sure your house and animals are safe (I don’t have children, that’s a different kettle of fish), and taking care of your job and work duties. Unless it’s critical and it’s going to cause genuine long-term damage, go ahead and let things slide. Allow your friends to work how they need to work. If your friends and family make some wrong decisions in their attempts to help, let it go for now. You can always fix things later. You’ll have time.
Regarding phone calls: During these weeks, I would wake up very early, around 5:00 a.m. to get to the hospital in time to share breakfast with John and to be there for morning rounds. I spent all day at the hospital, late into the night and sometimes even longer, depending on what was going on. So when I was able to stumble home I desperately needed to sleep. I grabbed sleep where I could, usually at odd hours, sometimes in the day or evenings. Well-meaning friends calling to check in would often be met with my panicked, half-asleep response as the ringing phone woke me in terror, thinking it was the hospital. Mail is better. E-mail is helpful and I could not only check it at 3:00 a.m. but I could also broadcast major news as needed. Funneling phone calls to a designated friend allowed people to be able to check in when they were able and messages to be passed to me when I could receive them. Remember too that many hospitals do not allow cell phones in the ICU areas so making or receiving calls can be difficult.
Mail. E-mail and snail mail. Write and send cards. They’re appreciated. But please remember. Until the moment death happens—the person is very much alive. If you know the situation is dire and terminal, probably not a good idea to send a “Get Well Soon” card. But a Thinking of You is always good. I was able to read e-mails and cards aloud to John and he loved them. One friend wrote long e-mails about the restaurants she had been to, since she knew John was a foodie. In the last week, he couldn’t speak because of the oxygen but he would scribble notes of thanks back to me.
Drop off books and magazines. Medical crises often involve long stretches of nothing with bursts of intense activity. Getting books or magazines that were easy to pickup and put down was very much appreciated. I like graphic novels, so those were good and I didn’t have to think much when I read them. John loved baseball, so I would read aloud to him from baseball books and that helped to pass time as well as something he very much enjoyed. One friend even brought over Mad magazine, which was fun and silly. Think airport reading—books that don’t require a lot of thought or attention but are lightly distracting from the task at hand.
My friend S. put together a care basket for me that included basic necessities such as facial cleanser, moisturizer, Emergen-C, good green tea, protein bars and the like. It was wonderful. It came in its own basket, so I could tuck it out of the way in the hospital room, and it gave me a way to freshen up that was easy and quick. Believe me, you need it after intense stretches in the hospital.
Long distance? That’s a tough one, it hurts to be so far and feel so helpless. But as long as your friend in crisis is covered with local help, you’ll have plenty to do as time goes by, just try to stay in touch and react appropriately. My amazing friend from my home town helped my mother attend John’s funeral. She also stepped in to manage immediate family needs.
After John’s death, a dear friend from across the country was there the very next day, staying with local friends, helping with day to day necessities and generally managing the flood of household chaos that came during those days. Just having her present to lean on, knowing she would handle anything that came my way and that she would quietly take care of me, was a reminder that I did not have to bear this alone. Others visited a month or so after the funeral was over, which was an invaluable reminder of ongoing friendship.
At the end, when it was obvious John would not survive this battle, I was lucky enough to be able to call in my own General Patton, my avenging angel: my stalwart brother who materialized the moment I needed him most and carried me through the darkest of days. I know I am extraordinarily blessed to have that in my life. There’s only one of him… but I hope you all have someone who can be there for you.