Carolita Johnson | Longreads | December 2019 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)
This essay began very differently a few months ago. I had started writing it at the same time as the previous one in this series, “Till death do us part,” and, just as I observed while writing the fifth one, the very act of writing it resulted in a real-time evolution of my understanding, processing, assessment, and reassessment of what I was writing about, to the point that by the end of the essay, it was obvious I was not the same person who had begun writing it. Just as I’ve changed from the beginning of an essay to the end of it, every few months I look back on my life and think, yet again, how much more like myself I feel. Three years, three months or three pages — it can be a long, slow recovery, or it can happen in shorter but exponentially more intense increments. Recent widows and widowers will either be glad to know, or be dismayed to know that, well, from what I gather, and with luck, it never really ends.
Immediately after my husband Michael died I found myself alone in the house we had been renting from his daughter for the last year and a half. It had been full of his relatives for a week, from the moment he came home to die. Now, it was empty. Empty except for our stuff, and not just our stuff from our life together: preparing for a future that would now never happen, for the six months of treatment and recovery we had expected to live through after his surgery, I’d stocked up on six months’ worth of toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, dish soap — soap and cleaners of every kind — dry goods, anything that was heavy and not available within a mile’s walk for me, since I don’t drive. Now, I felt like a stowaway on an abandoned frigate, floating along aimlessly.
I still had our dog, Hammy, with me, a 14-year-old poodle named after the noir fiction writer, Dashiel Hammett, of the “Thin Man” movies, whose dialogue Michael and I often quoted to each other. Hammy, too, was close to approaching the home stretch of his life, but for now he was there to stand guard while I cried on every floor of the house, with a preference for the one in the kitchen. Have you ever noticed that the kitchen floor is somehow the most suited for letting your knees give out before crumpling to the floor in wretched tears? I recommend it. I suppose it’s because the kitchen is where so much of coupled life happens. That’s where you will have eaten together, had coffee in the morning together, sipped hot lemon water and honey to ward off colds together, cooked for each other. If you’re going to mourn your lost partner, it might as well be in the place where the spirit of your partnership seems to occupy every cupboard, shelf, and drawer.
A friend immediately insisted on “sitting shiva” with me, which, as a modern adaptation (though I’m not religious and am unfamiliar with this Jewish tradition), took the form of bringing me my favorite coffee beverage, a cortado, from my favorite cafe so I wouldn’t have to go outside with my leaky-faucet eyes. This is exactly how the crying began to feel: tears that puzzlingly continued even when I thought I was done crying. I mused that it was as if a pipe were broken inside me and I might need to call some kind of metaphysical plumber soon.