John was a fantastic cook and he just got better as the years went on. In the very beginning, I would try to help out in the kitchen, but he didn’t really appreciate it and I found it boring. He made every meal for me—breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks—all of it. If he was out of town, or if he would be late, he would call and dictate exactly how to prepare something for me to eat until he could get home to do it for me. He did all the planning, shopping and preparation. The kitchen was his kingdom and he reigned with an iron skillet. We were sweethearts since I was 24, therefore I simply forgot—or never learned—how to prepare any kind of food on my own. Even during our separation, he would call me or come over to be sure I had enough to eat and that it was good food. I had to look up how to scramble eggs in his “Julia Child’s Way To Cook” book. I was, in a word, spoiled. Rotten.
Shortly after his death, I stood in front of the refrigerator, staring at the empty shelves and actually found myself thinking: Why didn’t he leave me anything to eat? The selfish bastard… didn’t he think ahead?
So I have had to learn to cook. I have two advantages, one being that I was used to having good, healthy food which kept me from heading to the KFC every night. And I would putter along after John in the grocery store so I learned good patterns of shopping: buy fresh, buy local, buy what’s seasonally available. That all provides for a good start.
I started a 30-minute-supper club to which I invited friends who could cook to come over and prepare a meal together. The rules were:
- all dishes had to be easy with simple ingredients and no fancy cook’s tricks
- all dishes had to be prepared within 30 minutes or less, something you’d do after work on a long day
- you had to bring your recipe with enough copies for everyone
- they had to be tasty!
I’d invite enough people to get a main dish, side dish, salad and dessert. I would provide wine & other beverages, sparkling conversation and the kitchen/dining room. I’d gather all the recipes together for everyone to take home and each person would show me how their dish was put together.
The dinners have been very fun and absolutely useful. I use T’s salad dressing regularly, have made Teacher Tuna Time (Surviving the First Year) for guests and myself, and RJF’s pork tenderloin whenever I find it on sale. And it gave me a way to gather with friends and have fun. It’s been a while since the last one, I’ll have to schedule one again soon.
My menu is still fairly limited. I can make broiled salmon, broiled chicken breasts, broccoli, green salad, grilled steak, cauliflower, pork tenderloin, roasted red potatoes, sweet potatoes and tomatoes & mozzarella. That’s about the extent of it. But you can go a long way on that. And it all makes great leftovers. Plus, I eat fruit like a jungle animal. I will eat fruit of any kind any time.
All that healthy stuff aside, I will also have a dinner of freshly popped popcorn and a bottle of wine. And make Jello for dessert. Or eat breakfast cereal for dinner. In bed watching TV with the dogs. What’s the point of being single if I can’t do all that.
John would be horrified at the thought.
“I don’t know. How long are you going to drag out that ‘we’re married’ thing?”
There’s variations on this theme, ranging from the blunt “Get over it” to the head-shaking “Why is she still talking about the dead guy”? I suppose these sort of comments come from nervousness on the part of the speaker. They don’t know what to say. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they blurt out this really wrong one. Or they’re trying to mold their world how they need it to be. Or they think if only you’d start dating again, things would be fine. Whatever the cause, it’s going to cause hurt feelings on both sides.
I think others just don’t quite get why it’s still hurting after all this time has gone by. I certainly didn’t understand this before being widowed. Unlike any other loss, this one has been such a profound sea change. It’s not just the grief of losing someone you love—it’s the grief of losing the definition of self you’ve worked so hard to create. You were a wife, a partner, and you looked at the future through that lens. You were entwined in a thousand ways—in bed, financially, sharing a house, chores, meals, vacations… the list goes on. And now all of those are on your shoulders, you’ve got to figure out which to keep, which to carry on, which to drop. On top of grieving.
I feel like a little sea creature that has been through a terrible hurricane, beaten up and tossed up on the land and left in a strange new world. Eventually, the little sea creature figures out the ocean is still there and starts the struggle back to it. That’s where I am.
Another widow pointed out the thought to bear in mind is the storm is now over. Now repairs must be made to all the things that were damaged, broken and destroyed. Now I have to find new things to replace the old things, like the dreams, hopes, and visions for the future and my heart.
The irony is the struggle is not just getting back to the ocean. There’s still storms going on out there—there always has been—and possibly another storm of the same magnitude. Just like the real ocean when I’ll get back into the water and what it will be like when I get back in is completely out of my control. And sometimes, just when I think I’ve made it, the waves toss me way back on to those dunes.
But the ocean is beautiful and necessary and life-affirming. So off I go back again across the sand. It’s been eighteen months since John died. The ocean is a lot closer than it used to be.
It’s a legitimate question. Admit it, you’re curious too. What did John die of? It’s okay. I’d want to know if I were you. It’s usually the first thing people ask. Generally, if people didn’t know his background, I simply say “sepsis after a short procedure” or “pneumonia”. Both of which are true. And honestly I think that’s all people really want to know.
However, it unfortunately tends to opens up in me the need to qualify that simple answer. And for someone to die under the age of 90 from pneumonia, it always makes people want to know more. With his extensive medical history, it seems like his death would have been obvious and not such a surprise, but I just didn’t think he couldn’t also beat this one. It did not occur to me—or to John—until the bitter end, that he had won those earlier battles but we were about to lose the war. I’m fairly certain my audience doesn’t want that much detail. But I’ve caught myself going off far too long answering the question.
What’s difficult about this question is that it’s such a natural question for us to ask one another. Why would any young person die? It’s not in the natural scheme of things. So we want to know. We’re concerned and we’re curious. Totally understandable. We want to know what happened. There’s nothing wrong with that.
About a month or so after John’s death, I was in the bank, transferring some certificates to my name. The bank manager came unglued when he learned that John was my husband. He thought it was my father. To my surprise, he asked question after question, “What happened? Why did he get sick? When did it happen? How old was he?” He seemed genuinely shocked that anyone young could die. I’m not sure which age was his cut-off point for not being horrified. 60? 70? 80? Would it have mattered if it was my father? My brother? I could have thrown him that one as well, but my brother and I did not hold securities jointly. So he didn’t get to be surprised by how young my brother was.
I don’t mind answering the question, even though it’s complex. My brother’s big heart simply gave out one morning, so that was an an easier answer to give when I was asked about his passing. Many young people die of cancer, ALS or other common diseases. Those are also easier to answer.
But I can see that some widows might have a very hard time with the question. What if it was an accident? The natural follow up question to that: What kind of accident? It could be hard to answer, especially for a new widow or if it was a complicated accident. What if it was something even more difficult? Homicide? Suicide? Those then beget even more painful questions and both the widow and questioner get backed into a bad conversation.
I’d think the best way to find out the answer (again, I totally understand wanting to know) is to first say something neutral, like “Oh, I’m so sorry. He was such a young man.” and see what her reaction is. If she’s up to talking about the cause of death, then you’ll probably be able to tell or even just listen. If she’s not, well, either you’re going to remain in the dark or you’ll need to go ask someone else.
Do be gentle with the question, especially at first. Be ready for whatever door you might open up‚ the example being me telling you more than you want to know. Be careful of what you ask for.
And to my fellow widows: know that your friends are not being morbid or trying to make you talk about something you don’t want to. They are genuinely trying to express their concern. If you don’t want to talk about it, make up something neutral and non-committal. Have a convincing easy answer in the bank. “It was a sudden illness.” Then change the subject. “How ’bout them Mariners?” If you’re willing to talk about it, then go right ahead. It’s your call. Do thank them for their concern either way.
Okay, if you’re still curious I’ll give you, Dear Blogreader, the full answer to “What did he die of?” question below. If you don’t want to know, then here’s a link to the New York Times, which is a lot more interesting anyway.
Get comfortable, it’s long.
When you met John, you’d notice he was quite thin. But other than that, even after he needed full crutches and could barely walk, unless you were a medical professional you didn’t really see him as being sick. Or a medical marvel, which he was. He lived his life with a ferocious intensity that overshadowed any physical frailties. He worked a full ten hours the day before he went into the hospital. He was still expecting to get out of the hospital “next week” four days before he died, sending e-mails to colleagues to that effect. He fought until the end and he always wanted to live.
Here’s what was on the death certificate.
a) Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and Sepsis and Acute Renal Failure
b) Sepsis secondary to Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure
Other significant conditions:
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) and Pulmonary Fibrosis and Radiation-induced Fibrosis
Manner of death: Natural
I didn’t have an autopsy done. Why bother? As my brother pointed out, he’d bamboozled the medical community since 1970. Why give up his secrets now?
Here’s more. It doesn’t even mention his most debilitating issue, the degenerative disability based in his spinal cord—radiation-induced lumbosacral plexopathy—that was increasingly painful and destroying his ability to walk. He was in a great deal of pain in the last year or so.
He had the CHF because a severe pneumonia six years earlier put too much strain on his already strained lungs. He needed the ERCP procedure because his liver was heading into certain failure since the main duct was blocked. Turned out it had been blocked twenty five years earlier, during emergency surgery to save his life when he was bleeding out due to a ruptured duodenal-aortic fistula. In that surgery, parts of his stomach, lots of his intestine, his duodenum, and assorted endocrine parts were removed. And as it turned out, they sewed up his primary liver duct into the resectioned gut, which is why his liver went into failure years later which required the ERCP to try to open the duct that set off the sepsis that killed him. The 1983 surgery also caused chronic rapid gastric emptying and severe hypoglycemia that caused diabetic-like symptoms.
Oh, and all this started because he had widely-metastasized testicular cancer in 1970. Back when young men did not have much of a chance of survival. He had mixed tumors, including carcinoma, seminoma, choriocarcinoma and embryonal carcinomas. John was lucky enough to be in Houston, where M.D. Anderson doctors undertook a (then) radical approach to treatment involving multiple chemotherapies—including vinblastine, bleomycin, platinum, cisplatin, fluorouracil, and others I can’t recall. Those chemo treatments in varying forms lasted six years. The heavy cobalt radiation treatments lasted a year. The surgeries included unilateral orchiectomy and nephrectomy, RPLND (retroperitoneal lymph node dissection), including removal of many more lymph nodes reaching up into his neck. All that radiation, all those toxic chemicals, all that surgery. They saved his life but they ultimately killed him… thirty-seven years later.
Got all that? Good lord! No wonder he’s dead.
Did you really want to know all that? Probably not. So now you see my dilemma with the question. It either doesn’t say what happened or it’s far Too Much Information. Next time someone asks, I’ll still say, “Pneumonia”. That’s close enough.
[side note: John’s cancer treatments, in much less intense dosages due to the damaging side-effects, eventually became standard protocol for testicular cancer. John’s survival meant they were on the right track to helping others with this cancer to beat it. In 1970, the chance for survival, let alone complete remission, was next to nothing. Now, it’s considered a treatable cancer if caught in the early stages. Hardly short of miraculous.]
Yes, this gets said to new widows. I’m always temped to answer, “Are you offering some more?”
But that doesn’t get either of us anywhere. Remember, the most likely subtext is, “I know this is a huge change in your life and suddenly your income has dropped by half. I hope that it does not adversely affect you. I hope you’re still secure enough and you don’t have that additional worry hanging over you during this difficult time.” That or they are just nosyparkers scouring for idle gossip.
Good intentions aside, it’s simply not a question to ask. Unless you had that kind of relationship with the couple before one of them died and you would sit around together talking about your respective incomes and savings investment plans. Even then, it’s still not a question you should be asking. My estate lawyer told me hair-raising stories of other widows who discovered their spouses had secret credit cards and accounts maxed out to tens of thousands of dollars. Fascinating, but still none of my business.
I also had more than one neighbor come by the house after John died. (Neighbors, no less. Not even strangers!) I thought to offer condolences. Silly me. After a short while, they pulled out their business cards—they were Realtors! And wanted my listing. It’s like a call went out, “We Have Widow! She’ll be selling soon!” Sadly for them, I had no intention of moving. It’s the equivalent of ambulance chasing—it’s hearse chasing.
In many forms, the question does get asked. Instead of the clever quips I would later come up with (at 3:00 a.m. after the opportunity had long past) I generally answered, “Thank you, I’m doing okay.” I figured that was generic enough and they just wanted to know that I was alright.
It’s not like they’re going to do anything about it. Why give them the satisfaction of gossip. Let them make up their own.
Yes, it’s hard to go through a divorce. Yes, it hurts. But it’s not the same.
This gets said surprisingly often to new widows. The fundamental difference, even if the divorce happened out of the blue and without your approval—you’ve got a live person to be angry at, to rail against, to work out the final details with. While I’m generalizing here and everyone’s situation is different, I expected my marriage to go on. Then, it was over. And I could not even pretend I had options. It. Was. Over.
Let me assure you that John and I did not sail in undisturbed marital seas. We had a rough time of it for several years. John had affairs because like the crow with the shiny thing, he just couldn’t pass up foolish attention and I simply got fed up with it. In fact, I did everything I could to get him to leave. I made him move out of the house and we separated for nearly a year. (While we had deeply painful struggles through this time, we nonetheless spoke every day either on the phone or in person. Always about some trivial thing. We truly loved one another, despite this, well, rather fundamental problem of him having these ridiculous affairs. But that’s another posting.) Ultimately, we chose not to divorce. Or rather, since I’m the survivor here and history belongs to the living, I chose not to divorce him. He clearly wasn’t leaving.
Anyway. We reconciled. We worked hard at it. We loved each other even more for having fought it out and won. And I know not every couple does. Still, even at the worst of times he was there. Now he’s not. It’s not the same at all.
What can you do instead for the widow if you’re the divorcée? Take her out to dinner. Drop by for coffee. Bring her to a party. Get concert tickets and go together. Go for a walk. Invite her into your book group. Set an exercise goal and work together toward it. You know how it feels to be newly single and how hard it can be. Go show her how it isn’t so hard. One single friend of mine came over for dinner and we had a great time learning about making easy dinners for one. Teach her some of your hard-won lessons. Teach her how to be single again.
Just don’t compare how you got there.
My oldest brother died on May 23, 2007, six months before John died. Just out of the blue. Existing one minute, not existing the next. No one saw it coming, most likely least of all him. Turned out his heart just stopped. He was a big man and he did have a big heart in every sense of the word, but we all certainly thought it would be ticking a lot longer than this. He was taking his morning shower and simply. dropped. dead.
There’s no term for “survivor of a sibling” like there is “survivor of a spouse”. Also, no term for what my parents are now. Seems like there should be a word that identifies your new status, “My child has died” or “My sibling has died” in the same way that “widow” now also categorizes me. Odd that there is a word for “divorcee” but nothing to succinctly describe this. Would it all just be too many labels?