I just looked at the clock on the wall of our living room: Catherine died exactly 48 hours ago.
This morning, our regular market day, I was fully prepared to stay in bed. All day.
“How would you feel if I asked Uncle Mike to bring us our regular things from the Farmers’ Market?”, I asked Oliver.
“Why?”, he replied.
“Because a lot of people would want to hug us, or shake our hand, and tell us they’re sorry for our loss…,” I told him.
“But that would be comforting for us,” he replied, “like it was at Palliative Care.”
So we went to the Farmers’ Market.
And a lot of people did want to hug us, or shake our hand, and tell us they’re sorry for our loss. And it was comforting. And weird. And awkward. And comforting.
I’m learning a lot about grief, and I’m also learning a lot about how different people react to the look of grief in me. Some people are overwhelmed; you get a sense that they’d run in the opposite direction if they possibly could. Other people open up their hearts in a way that is awe-inspiring; they are pure beacons of light. I have found that it’s impossible to predict who falls into which category based on anything else that I know about them previously. But I have been gifted with a look into some very kind pairs of eyes today.
I also realized today that I kind of have the upper hand: I’ve had five years to prepare for this, including the recent three weeks of off and on crying at Catherine’s bedside. This doesn’t mean it’s easy for me, but at least I got a chance to prepare.
Oliver decided that the right way to deal with the news of Catherine’s death was to simply say, flat out, to anyone he met this morning at the market, “my mother died!”
As you can imagine, some people, especially those who didn’t really know Catherine at all, got rather flummoxed when he did this. I must admit to taking a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing it happen: for once, Oliver has the upper hand, when his autistically guided directness hits the euphemism-laced traditions of talking about death.
But, at the same time, I felt for those he confronted with the news.
I’ve come to realize that almost everything I’ve seen reflected in the popular culture about losing a spouse is, at least to some degree, true. I can be brought to tears by the sight of a tube of Burt’s Bees lip balm. Or by replaying the moment of Catherine’s death in my head. Or by suddenly realizing this morning that I’m a thing called a “single father.” I am Tom Hanks on that houseboat in Seattle.
Many people have written to thank me for writing about Catherine, and her cancer, and her time in palliative care, and her death. To be honest, it’s not something that was optional for me: I had to write to be able to process it all. What may have appeared to be a public service has been actually quite selfish.
I’ve learned in the last 48 hours that I can’t outrun grief through writing, though: it has its own rules and schedules, and, despite my delusions to the contrary, you can’t write an essay and earn an exemption. But I am finding that you can earn some extra credit.
Beyond the Farmers’ Market, and eating, and doing the laundry, and helping Oliver through a mountain of data processing related to letting people know about Catherine through various means, most of my energy has been spent on organizing the celebration of life for Catherine that we’ll hold on Monday.
Catherine’s Uncle Jim asked me tonight at supper whether moving to Prince Edward Island was the right decision: I told him that if the last 48 hours were any gauge then the answer was definitely yes.
People I’ve asked to speak about Catherine have all agreed without hesitation. People I’ve asked to play a tune have all enthusiastically said yes. We will have food, coffee and tea, examples of art by Catherine, and about Catherine. It seems that if this Island knows how to do one thing really really well, it’s to help families when someone dies. We didn’t know that in 1993 when we landed here; it’s a wonderful surprise to discover.
Another wonderful surprise to discover is that I really, truly, did love Catherine. One way to deal with impending loss is to pretend that the loss is not a loss at all: if I never loved Catherine, then when she died I wouldn’t have to be sad.
The mind, under duress, is capable of great feats of subterfuge.
But, man oh man, did I ever love that woman.
To write that, to realize that, opens me to a mountain of sadness that, right now, seems infinitely high. But the upside—the permission to admit the strength and depth of my feelings for her—that’s something I cannot do without.
If only I understood in grade 9 English class, when first confronted with Shakespeare, what I am coming to understand now: it all would have made way, way more sense.
So I will keep writing. And keep feeling. And keep listening to Oliver when he tells me it’s important to keep going.