Robert Frost saw the woods as, “lovely, dark and deep.” I saw the metaphorical woods Greta and I stumbled through in the first year after my husband’s death as black, dank and full of briars.
Dinners, for example, were tough. Greta stayed with me in the dining room, but she is not much of a dinner conversationalist. There’s a reason why they call it “wolfing down” food. Her species learned to eat that way from their wolf cousins.
In 40-odd years of marriage, it had been rare that Ron and I did not eat dinner together. That was the time we shared our day’s activities, exchanged family news and commented on whatever NPR had told us of the world beyond our town. Now the empty chair opposite mine became a thorn, pricking me with a daily reminder—as if I needed a reminder.
Finally, I turned the table 90 degrees from its original position, an action that would make no sense to anyone who is not dealing with the aftermath of death. From a logical standpoint, moving the table changed nothing about the situation. The chair was still empty. I was still having to get used to the idea of eating alone. But somehow, it seemed to help.
Twice a month, I made peanut butter and cheese cracker-wiches, threw an apple or a banana in the car and called it dinner as I drove down through Baltimore County to HopeWell Cancer Support, http://www.hopewellcancersupport.org. Sun bathed the green fields, deer stood at the edges of woods, the road dipped and turned gracefully. It would have been a pleasant drive, given any other circumstances.
Joining a bereavement support group is somewhat like exercising a BATNA—Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, a term used by mediators to help assess positions. If I couldn’t negotiate an agreement with God to bring Ron back even for a short time, which I had not succeeded in doing, and if a legal proceeding between God and me was out of the question, which it was, my BATNA was to get some help figuring out what the point of the remainder of my life was, and whether there was some worthwhile way to live it.
So I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old farmhouse that housed HopeWell, with the line “Up a steep and very narrow staircase. . . .” from the song “At the Ballet” in “A Chorus Line” repeating in my head.
We gathered in a high-ceilinged room with sofas and chairs arranged in an irregular oval around a coffee table. There were tall windows, a candle, and, in summer, usually a visiting insect who had come in under or around the window screens. Karen, the social worker who facilitated the group, lit the candle at the start of each session.
There were usually six of us, which was six too many. There should not be six people in our small corner of the world mourning lives cut short by cancer. Yes, I know. We’re all going to die of something, and we would like to think we’ll be mourned, or at least thought of fondly from time to time. When Ron and I talked about it—which we did only once or twice—we agreed we’d like to go together in an accident, something like a plane crash, preferably on our way back from a wonderful trip. But cancer is a horrible, pain-filled, drugged way to die. Brain tumor patients get a break on the pain, but if they choose to fight the disease, still have to deal with having their bodies invaded by toxic, destructive, flesh-weakening chemicals, with cancer fatigue and the gradual shrinking of their worlds, from their towns to their streets to their homes to their bedrooms.
Couldn’t we all just not wake up one morning?
Even with high ceilings, the room was not large enough to hold the pain. Most of us had lost husbands, wives or life partners, and after years of being half a couple, we had to stumble our way toward being just one. We messed up the income tax, or put it off until we had to ask for extensions. We gave away all our spouse’s clothing, or could not bear to move her personal items from where she last put them down. We threw out some possessions and kept others, without any logic in the keeping or throwing away. We went out with well-meaning friends, but they, of course, were couples and then we felt even more like non-couples. We stayed home, and were unbearably lonely.
Some members of the group who lived alone did not have dogs. I could not imagine driving home after a meeting and walking into a darkened house where there was only silence, no greeter with shining eyes and a waving tail to celebrate your arrival. Yes, Greta would need a walk. But that was a small tradeoff for not having to come home to an empty house.
(c) 2011 by Donna Engle