As the holidays approach, many of us have children and grandchildren scattered across the continent, if not further afield. In my case, New York, Africa and Dickinson, Texas.
My husband and I were accustomed to being a family of two. It might not have been what we wanted for Christmas, but it was okay. Leon had begun to find travel difficult, and the two of us had created our own traditions, unrelated to flying anywhere.
This year, however, I am a family of one, although I hear frequently from my son and son-in-law.
Small surprise, therefore, that—for me—the holidays loom on the calendar inscribed with a large question mark.
Thanksgiving is the first. Giving thanks for all our blessings—I have so many. The health of my offspring. My life with Hale. Surviving the pandemic year and its isolation. My new book which sold well and his, which sold better. I’m thankful for this column, and for the companionship of my dog. And for this little place where Hale and I lived together for so long.
Most of all, I’m thankful for friends. When one loses a spouse, one begins a long process of discovery. We discover grief, of course; and many things we didn’t know we knew about our husband, so that he continues to live for us in surprising ways. And we discover we have more friends than we realized. Good friends who open their hearts and their doors to us for the most difficult of these holidays.
Much of the time, though, we are on our own. He is no longer there for us to love; he is no longer there to look at us with the love in his face that we found as bright as sunlight, and more constant.
We are alone.
The other night, after midnight, I choked on a piece of soft cheese. I’d spoken to the dog as I was swallowing, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Furious coughing opened a passageway, but it was hours before I felt the crisis had passed.
The main aftereffect, so far, has been a heightened sense of vulnerability. Living in the country is rife with potential for accidents. Our yard is pocked with armadillo excavations. Hale fell several times those past couple of years, but I was here to call for help. If I fell, no one would know. Could I get up?
My friends have urged me to wear an alert button, and I have applied for one. Mindfulness will also help. Paying more attention to things like eating and walking than I am accustomed to.
But the result is a confirmation of time’s passage, the very snake we try to avoid stepping on as the year draws to a close. All those holiday events to which we were once invited kept such thoughts at a respectful distance. Being a generation younger than one’s spouse helped me maintain the illusion of youth far longer than might have been true otherwise.
Now the reality has arrived, and although friends—and distant relatives—certainly help, we are on our own in learning to manage our lives. That’s how it is, at the end of a day, or a year. We are alone, but not necessarily lonely within the constellation of ourselves, of our teeming mind, reflecting on our history of activities and good works, our memories of love in all its varied truth.
We have time ahead of us, right where it has always been. Years, months, days—one day at a time, unrolling. We are alive.
It is, we realize, a beginning.