“Make a plan,” she said. “Think about what you want to do with the next year of your life.”
I had found her, of all places, on NextDoor. We spoke on the phone, no in-person meetings due to COVID. She agreed to shepherd me through the settling of Dan’s estate. A Barnard graduate like me, a neighbor living only a few buildings away, a lawyer specializing in trusts and estates who also had a PhD in French literature, she seemed like my kind of woman. We went through all the formalities: probate procedure; fees; her responsibilities; mine. I hadn’t expected grief counseling as part of the package.
“Take that class you’ve been thinking about, make sure to exercise, plan a trip – that is if any of us can ever travel again. Begin to imagine the next phase of your life. It will help. I tell this to all of my clients.”
Just one problem, I thought. I had trouble making a plan for lunch. Or dinner. Or anything beyond slogging through the endless “widow’s work.”
Contacting people who needed to know. Answering condolence letters. Paying medical bills. Gathering documents. Filling out official papers. Getting them notarized. Making trips to the post office. Checking tracking numbers. Helping Dan’s sister with a Zoom celebration of life. And always, always, thinking “I cannot do one more thing, I cannot face one more concrete proof that Dan is really and truly gone.”
What did I want to do with the next year of my life? The same things I had been wanting to do in the previous year of my life—the year consumed by cancer, by COVID, by caregiving, by Hospice and, finally — by death, mourning and widow’s work.
I wanted to cook real food and feed someone other than myself. For so long I had put all of my energy into preparing food for Dan in the hope that he could eat it as he progressed – if you can call it that – through the stages of dysphagia. By the end his nutrition was a viscous, odorless, prescription meal injected by an enormous syringe into a tube in his belly. Sitting next to him on the couch, I ate mostly takeout from the local Sweetgreen, if I could manage to eat at all.
I wanted to snuggle my second grandson, born the previous October a continent away, a pandemic baby without physical visits from doting relatives for the first eight months of his life. I wanted Dan to meet him too, to cradle him as he had my first grandson. I would make this happen through an act of magical thinking, assuaging the sting of my loss through the gift of a private reverie as I held the babe, smiling, telling no one of my transformation into my too-soon-dead soulmate. Both boys, I knew, would not remember that there ever was a Papa Dan, just as I would never forget.
I wanted to read. Actual books. My attention span had become so attenuated that finishing a New Yorker article posed an insurmountable challenge. Most of my reading for the past six months had involved researching ways to keep Dan comfortable, to prepare both of us for what might come, to understand what would happen when the body that I have made love to, slept next to, sponge bathed, dressed and undressed betrayed its owner step by inexorable step. I devoted myself to learning the signs in the hope that with that knowledge I would be strong enough to have grace in the moment we both knew was coming, the moment when all would turn cold.
I wanted to write again, to work. A few blog posts had been possible, but my manuscript lay fallow while I tilled the fields of caregiving. Emptying urinals. Salving pressure sores. Suctioning mucus. Monitoring a gaggle of machines. Communicating with the social worker, the hospice nurse, the occupational therapist, the on-call doctor, the home health care agency scheduler, the equipment companies, the spiritual counselor, the funeral director, Dan’s pastoral counselor. So many words spoken, so few written, my lyrical voice drowned out by a cacophony of medical terms and administrative shorthand.
“I think I have PTSD,” I said to my daughter weeks after my husband slipped from this world into – into… what?
“I need to make a plan,” I said to her, but mostly to myself.
I forced myself to cook. To read. To write. To nourish my body, to attend to my soul, to become reacquainted with my intellect, my imagination, my aesthetic sense. To remember a life before this forced hibernation during which who I am and what I want had drifted into restless sleep. I wanted to awaken.
Delving back into my memoir, I allowed myself to forget for hours at a time that I am a widow, that there is still widow’s work to be done. My muse was ready to escape her caul, her rebirth imminent after a nine-month gestation. I was ready for the necessary labor. I rewrote my book summary, suddenly clear-eyed as to my story’s arc, its pace, its ending, where nearly a year before I had been timid, adrift, oarless.
I felt no guilt as I immersed myself in my chapter eleven twelve-year-old’s world. I was free for moments at a time from the hard work of mourning, free to row away from the shoals of sadness into the pristine waters of joy, giddy as just the right word rose to the surface of my consciousness, or when, as if by sorcery, a sentence glistened like the sun’s reflection on the water at dusk. I remembered Beth Kephart’s wise words in wife/daughter/self: a memoir in essays: “Memoir is the life wanting to be transformed. It is the life we have been waiting for.”
“Yes. This is the plan,” I said to myself as my fingers tapped the keys. “This is what I want to do with the next year of my life. And the next, and the next, and for as long as there is.”