You will have to take my word on this: we loved each other. We were married to other people, we fell in love, and finally we were together and then married, for thirty years. We both expected Bill to die first; I was twenty-seven years old and he was fifty-four when we met, and through all of those years, even from the beginning, I told myself that I could live with his absence because our love would carry me the way a wave carries the light of the sun. It would not be the way it was when my younger son Aaron died at age nine in a bicycle accident — the floor of the earth, the vault of the heavens untimely opened and all of us swallowed whole. Bill’s death would be timely, and it was, in the end. He was eighty-five and failing, his body done, though he was sorry to have to go.
During Bill’s last six months, after he’d been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I did not think about what I would do, how it would be, “after.” I tried to, at first, but it maddened me, so I followed Bill’s lead, as I so often had: I ignored the fact of our separate paths and stayed as much as I could in the well-worn, comfortable track we had forged over the years. After all, when it happened, he would still be with me in ways that counted. Our consummate mutual trust, our knowing each other in inexpressible and sometimes inexplicable ways, our not being alone even when apart — these would hold, I was certain, and would keep me safe. I imagined myself in a sort of beatific state, clothed not in widow’s weeds, but in light, a noncorporeal manifestation of our marriage.
I trusted this belief, even in Bill’s last days, as we lay together, often awake, my body curved to his back, my arms above his head in an arc, because the weight of them on his shoulders was too much. I trusted it as he took the little spoonfuls of morphine; I trusted it as his body cooled and finally stopped. I trusted it in the first weeks after his passing, when I wept and then wailed, like a widow in an old Greek movie, and even when I quit wailing, and finally stopped weeping, and fell silently into sleep curled against a pillow, my arms arced above my head.
I was surprised by the relentless crying, but it was not until the second year that I realized I’d been wrong about love and light carrying me forward through an emotionally blissful life. I missed Bill. Though I sometimes sensed him waiting for me at home, or coming in from the yard while I was making dinner, every time, he was not there, did not come in. He kept on not coming back; he keeps on not coming back. He does not feel present to me, in spite of occasional moments when memory sparks into brief flame, as though he were here. And as his physical presence fades, so does the palpability of our love: it does not feel present to me. Untested by day and deprived of touch by night, it, like Bill, has become a memory.
Even before Bill died, our mattress was in need of replacement. The weight of our bodies had pressed valleys into our respective sides, an almost imperceptible spine, like that of an incipient mountain, rising between the two. Often as we slept we fell back into those cradles, half waking now and then to regain the middle ground, a leg or arm extending over the ridge, a hand or foot making contact. When Bill was on the other side, I did not notice the stress of the mattress on my back, the ache perhaps relieved or even prevented by the warmth of our paired sleeping. With Bill gone, I could not find a place to lie that did not hurt. I tried sleeping on his side, and sleeping in the middle, and turning the mattress over and around. Nothing worked. For four years, nothing worked. Finally I decided it was time for change. I went to the furniture store. The old bed was king-size. By switching to a queen, I could get a better mattress for the money and have more space in the modest bedroom.
I decided not to think about it much, about the symbolism of the gesture, the release of the marriage bed, the decision to purchase one better suited to one person, and I chose a good mattress, one that would last, and had the new bed delivered and the old one spirited away. I made up the new one with the too-big king-size sheets, and then I lay on it on my back, right in the middle, then turned over on my belly and stretched out my arms. I could reach both sides at the same time with my hands, able to encompass the breadth of the bed. I arose and stood at the foot and looked at it. No cradles. No room for ghosts. I was proud of myself. It was my bed now, not ours.
It remains inexplicable to me that we can finally become happy again after someone we love has died. Yet there I stood at the end of my bed, a scant four years out, feeling happy. Was this not betrayal? It does not help to say that the dead are gone and do not care. The problem of grief is never with them; it is with us, with those who remain. Like the bed we lie in, it is ours.
I like living alone. This was a surprise to me. I had never lived alone until Bill died. I married for the first time at nineteen, and when I divorced at twenty-nine I had my children with me, and then Bill and I were together. And my life now is neither lonely nor dull. I have family and friends who love me and whose company I enjoy. My older son and my daughter-in-law and granddaughter live close by, and I am with them almost every day. I have good work to do, in my writing and my job. Sometimes I fear that I prefer to live alone and even prefer to be alone in my bed. Other times I fear that the desire to lie in bed with a man, naked together in thought and deed, will forever light the corner, a melancholy lamp.
Perhaps I have not waited long enough for love to rise above grief. Perhaps I am doing something wrong, not trusting the love, not letting it illuminate the room. Perhaps I want too much. Most people, I think, never have, even once, the kind of love we had. Why shouldn’t I be happy that I did? Satisfied?
I am not satisfied. I want to be crazy in love again with someone who is crazy about me. I watch other couples who are in love like this. In the parking lot one day at the university where I teach, I sat in my car and wept as I watched a married couple, teachers nearing retirement, get out of their car and walk next to each other up to the building. I wept for myself; I wept for them. I have a widower friend who said, when I called him to tell him about Bill, “Oh, my dear, I am so sorry. But I can tell you that in two years you will have only sweet memories.”
I have dreams sometimes about my son Aaron, and now about Bill. I awake from having been with them. At first I am comforted; then I am angry. Dreams are a cruel game, reminding me of what I had, and then of what I do not have. That is the thing about death: we are left with only memories, pale reflections of something that no longer exists. This statement reveals a bitterness that bubbles up but does not linger. That is the thing about grief: the path from the moment of impact to the season of peace is neither straight nor predictable, and doubling back seems inevitable. Although the dreams are bittersweet, I am glad I have them.
The most brutal experience for me after Bill died was the ritual presentation of the death certificate. I went around town taking Bill’s name off our mutual accounts: electricity, telephone, mortgage, banking, savings, retirement, car license. At every turn I had to present a certified copy of proof of death. The people I dealt with were always kind, but in each instance I had to say out loud, “My husband has passed away,” and hand over the paperwork. They’d photocopy it and give it back to me, and I would take my proof back to the car and put it in a little case on the seat beside me, where I kept it because I’d learned that I needed it often, at places I’d thought it would not matter. Once I was even required to close our joint account and open a new one in my name alone. Though I resented this, the experience turned in my favor: I filled in the application form, and my choices for marital status were “single,” “married,” or “divorced.” “I’m widowed,” I said to the clerk. She did not know what to say, and neither did I. I left the item blank.
Widowed, I thought as I returned to my car, proof of my status in my hand. I am a widow. I wondered why I had not thought of it before. In that moment I was returned to a relationship with my husband in the eyes of society, if not in my bed. I was pleased. Not long after that, I had occasion to go on a shopping spree. I bought new shirts and tops, bright colors, suggestive silks, scooped necklines. “From the ‘Widow Steps Out’ collection,” I said to my companions, and thought that Bill would have been pleased. I thought about this, too, after I bought my new bed: “The Widow Gives up Her Bed of Sorrow.” And although I know this is not always true, I do sleep easily and well on the new mattress. Sometimes I sleep near one edge, just to prove to myself that this is not a single bed, that there is room for possibilities. And sometimes I still turn and face Bill’s side and pull a pillow close against my chest and belly and pelvis, or I lift my arms in an arc above my head. And I say, “Goodnight, Bill,” and I let love carry me down into the brief respite of dreams.