“For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the word never. And it’s really awful. You say the word a hundred times a day but you don’t really know what you’re saying until you’re faced with a real “never again.” Ultimately you always have the illusion that you’re in control of what’s happening; nothing seems definitive…. But when someone that you love dies … well, I can tell you that it really really hurts. It’s like fireworks suddenly burning out in the sky and everything going black. I feel alone, and sick, my heart aches and every movement seems to require a colossal effort.” (Paloma’s journal, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery)
The hurt didn’t set in right away. It couldn’t; I was in shock. It was not possible that Malcolm was dead. Everywhere around me there were signs of his life – his clothes, his artwork, the books he was reading, the unfinished projects. Malcolm is my husband, not was. And yet Malcolm was not there. He lay in a morgue at the hospital waiting for his final trip to the funeral home. I cannot describe the feeling of walking away from the hospital leaving my dead husband behind, knowing that I will never speak with him again.
Family and friends arrived from everywhere to offer support and to help with funeral preparations. I hid in Ron’s house for part of that time, trying to figure out how to send Malcolm off in a way that would honour his tremendous creativity. I couldn’t bring myself to go to the funeral home to discuss options, so Ron went. He came back looking bleak. Nothing seemed to suit Malcolm. Then he remarked that he had seen a plain pine box in the corner and he joked that it looked like something Malcolm had built. That was it. Malcolm would be placed in a pine box and everyone would be given a marker with which to write their final message to him directly on the box. The result was incredible, hilarious and deeply moving. Malcolm lay surrounded by the evidence of the many lives he had touched.
Two days before the funeral Ron asked me if I had written my eulogy. No, I had not. Ron was a warm but stern Scot. His eyebrows alone could quiet an entire classroom. He was a high school English teacher known for his insistence on precise language and clarity of thought. He handed me some paper, a pen and told me to get to it. When he returned an hour or so later he asked again. Yes, I’ve done it.
- May I read it?
I handed it to him. He read it without expression and gave it back to me.
- You can do better than that.
Once an English teacher, always an English teacher. I couldn’t even argue with him. I knew that he was right and once I got over the surprise I wrote a better eulogy.
The pain intensifies
What I discovered is that funerals are very cathartic for friends and family. There is much expression of love and sadness, then there is a celebration of life. Once it’s over, everyone returns to their normal lives. That’s when the hurt really sets in: when you have to face the silence of your house and your life.
My dear friends Andrea and Jeff stayed with me the first week after the funeral. I was such a mess emotionally that I could not function. Jeff tackled Malcolm’s computer and tried to sort out some of the graphic files that would be needed for the upcoming Christmas sales season. Andrea looked into bills and made phone calls. One of those calls was to Revenue Canada to explain that the Goods and Services Tax return would be late but that it would be filed as soon as I could get back on my feet. I don’t know what I would have done without their help.
The next three weeks were spent sitting on the floor of my house crying. The phone rang but I couldn’t move. Ron came by daily; he was as distraught as I was. Together we would alternate between silence, tears and discussions of the senselessness of Malcolm’s loss. There is something terribly wrong about a child dying before the parent Ron would say.
I had virtually stopped eating. Those who know me know that I love food. It mystifies me that some people can forget to eat. How can you forget to eat? No one had ever needed to remind me to eat before. Now they did. Ron pleaded with me to eat something, anything. So I drove to the grocery store, grabbed a cart and walked through the aisles. Nothing made sense. I could not process the visual cues. What was all this stuff? What did I need? It was baffling. I abandoned the cart in the middle of the store and went home empty-handed.
Sleep was elusive despite an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that clung to me. I would sit in bed and stare at Malcolm’s empty space beside me. His books were still on the bedside table and his clothes still hung in our closet. It was inconceivable that he would not be back. And I was haunted by memories of his last days in hospital. Why hadn’t I stayed behind and cancelled the trade show? What on earth was I thinking?
The fog and the incapacity continued for two months. Then, in a moment of clarity, panic set in. I realized for the first time since August 10th that my future had died with Malcolm. Yes I ran the business and yes I helped to generate our products, but he was the engine that drove all else. Without his artwork and his ideas, our business was dead. Someone had just turned off the switch to my income.
The financial challenge
I had a big money problem. Our business had generated very good cash flow but much of it was spent dealing with Malcolm’s illness. We were self-employed and therefore we did not have insurance. Those who think that all health care is free in Canada have clearly not been in our shoes. Every year we spent thousands of dollars on Malcolm’s medical care, not to mention the cost of lost productivity. One step forward, two steps back.
When Malcolm died, I had no financial assistance to fall back on. Cancer patients who have the misfortune of having cancer their entire lives are uninsurable. There was the funeral to pay for and tens of thousands of dollars worth of business liabilities to be addressed, not to mention the mortgage for a house which we had just purchased the year before. I was in a full-blown panic.
I had to get to work to get through the looming Christmas season. Two thirds of our income was generated in that all-important season from October to December. Preparations typically began in July. I had done little since Malcolm had spent most of July and the first ten days of August in hospital. My life revolved around dealing with his quick decline and then his death. If I was going to survive the year, I simply had to get to work.
For the next sixty days I worked 14 hour days and traveled to six cities to ensure the usual Christmas sales. Thankfully Malcolm had already produced the designs for the year and Jeff stepped in to produce all of the graphic files required. The year before Malcolm’s death we had subcontracted all production so I only needed to hire staff as required for preparations and shipments. I made it through my first Christmas season without Malcolm.
It was an awful, joyless time. Customers would come into our booth and laugh uproariously at some of the items, often asking me who creates the products.
- My husband and I do.
- You must have the best marriage!
I would complete the sales and escape into the washroom to cry behind a stall door. When I felt that too much time had passed, I would douse myself with cold water to minimize the swelling around my eyes and return. The season mercifully came to an end.
A new plan
January brought with it a new gloom: thoughts about my future. I could continue to run the business with our existing designs for one, perhaps two years at most but without new material sales would certainly dwindle quickly. Added to that, I had never liked the work. This had been Malcolm’s dream, not mine. It became clear that I would have to reinvent myself and do so quickly.
Close friends had counseled me to follow my interests but I had no idea what my interests were. For the past six years I had focused entirely on my husband’s health and our business. My life revolved around cancer and financial survival. Who knew what I liked or wanted? Certainly not me.
Life was so stressful for me during that time that I felt that my brain would explode from the pressure. I began taking pavement-pounding long walks along my near-deserted road at night, having chats with the Universe and mostly expressing deep anger at my situation. It was during one of those walks that I realized that I needed some time away from this life, time to reconnect with myself to make up for the decade spent in oncology wards. Time to decide what I wanted to be when I grew out of the grief and pain that I was feeling. I decided to complete the year’s worth of business, to sell all the assets including my house and to spend one year traveling around Australia and New Zealand.
Finally, I had a plan. I was still grieving Malcolm’s loss but I began to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, a means of escape. It was at that time that I received a letter from Revenue Canada. They wanted to audit my business.
There must be some mistake, I thought. I called them immediately and asked what this was about. They wanted an audit. Why? I was selected “randomly”. Could this be because I had submitted a couple of returns very late following my husband’s death? No answer. But my husband died and I’m only just starting to catch up on the back log of paperwork now. No response. Are you kidding me? You want to audit me after everything I’ve been through? Have you experienced loss? Do you have any idea what this is like?
- When can we come over to begin the audit?
When hell freezes over.
Anger turned to acceptance and I complied. They came, looked through everything and left saying that they were satisfied. I was numb.
The next twelve months were spent preparing to shed every vestige of my business life. I organized my final Christmas season, I planned the sale of our house, I sold off assets, I gave away all of Malcolm’s art equipment to a local high school. And for the fist time in fourteen months I began to sort through Malcolm’s personal items. It was time.
From Malcolm to Mark
One year later I found myself on another pavement-pounding chat with the Universe. I was lonely. Malcolm had been gone for more than two years and I had finally decided that I was ready to open myself up to the possibility of sharing my life with another man. Everywhere I looked I saw happy couples and it made me yearn for someone to talk to again. But where do you find a great guy when you’re 33? Well-intentioned friends had tried to expose me to single men with disastrous results. Tell me Universe, are all single 30-something men hopeless? The counter to that was that I wasn’t exactly a typical woman. Most 30-something women don’t come to the table with my kind of baggage or unwillingness to put up with frivolity.
The Universe spoke to me very clearly that night: I needed to write down what I was looking for. How could I expect to find that which I sought if I did not have great clarity to begin with? So on September 22, 2000 I wrote a letter to the Universe in which I spelled out the Top 10 attributes I wanted in a new life partner. Since I had the opportunity to start over, I would be very particular.
Two months later Mark came into my life. Or rather, he re-entered my life. Malcolm and Mark had gone to high school together, and Mark had been a client of our business. He had just spent one year traveling in Australia and New Zealand, and he was reconnecting with friends. We went out to dinner and hit it off. My intention was to date casually. He had other plans.
Three weeks into our courtship Mark proposed. It’s ironic that we beseech the Universe for intervention and when it delivers we argue about the details. Another pavement-pounding discussion with the Universe ensued.
- I can’t do it. This is madness.
Why not? You’re ready and so is he. This is what you’ve asked for.
- But he’s not Malcolm.
That’s the idea. You didn’t want another Malcolm. You asked for someone different. You made your list. Mark is perfect for you and you know it.
- I’m not ready for this.
Yes you are. You’re just afraid. That’s understandable but it’s not an excuse.
- But it’s only been three weeks?
And? Malcolm proposed after three days. By that measure Mark has taken his time. And you have been waiting two years to meet Mark.
- I’ve been a bit busy in that time. Surely the first two years after death don’t count.
Stop trying to be the General Manager of the Universe and let things unfold as they will.
- What about Australia and New Zealand?
They’re not going anywhere. They will still be around when you’re ready to visit with Mark.
- Yes but….
The tug-of-war between head and heart continued for four months. Throughout, Mark was patient, understanding and persistent. Fear turned into knowing and finally acceptance.
Sometime during that period our conversation turned to birthdays. I asked Mark about his. He hesitated, knowing what my reaction would be.
- August 10th.
I stared at him. Surely he wouldn’t joke with me about that. He pulled out his driver’s license. August 10th.
Doors close, doors open.
In my book I will fully explore all of the lessons that I learned through the process of becoming a widow, but for the moment I would like to emphasize two points. First, every woman I interview has been through some variation of emotions that I have experienced. Many have been through even more including betrayal which is a particularly difficult emotion with which to deal. Their stories are at times shocking and gut-wrenching. What I’m hoping you’ll take away from these stories is not the emotion but the lessons. It’s impossible to read these women’s stories without being moved, but it’s not enough to simply be touched by the stories. At the very least ask yourself a few “what if” questions and take action.
The final lesson from my story is one of hope. When you get to a point in your life where doors seem to be closing all around you and life begins to feel like a dark shadow, know that somewhere there is an open door. There were moments from 1998 to 2000 when I wondered if I could continue. We all can regardless of the circumstances. The catch is that the open door doesn’t always come in a form that is easily recognizable. Have faith and search. Your open door is waiting.