There Seems to be an Implicit Line

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Tuesday of last week was the fourth anniversary of my late wife’s death. It’s far away enough now that the widening spiral of grief has begun to blur the immediate details of her last breaths and instead to encompass the significance and effects of her life. It’s also – I’m pretty certain this is the universal experience of widowhood – encouraged and permitted the transition from the forlorn state of what-am-I-going-to-do-now? to that of beginning to assess and investigate the possibilities inherent in the unknown, but certainly few years of my own active life still ahead.

There seems to be an implicit line dividing overt grief after the death of an intimate companion of several decades, from coming up for air to look around. The location of that line varies with individuals. Some survivors build little shrines in their homes – illuminated portraits and favorite items of the deceased – and settle into widowhood. Others divest as cleanly as possible of all artifacts and reminders. I keep a few photographs around – on the refrigerator door, beside my desk, over the head of my bed – and a tiny bottle of lavender oil, her favorite scent, with which I’ve infused a folded paper towel layered into a stack of Post-It notes on my desk. It’s amazing how long the aroma remains potent. In sentimental moments, I often breathe through it, close my eyes, and remember happy days and nights that, though now past, linger poignantly.

Before my wife and I met, I lived alone and cooked to please myself, which required very little effort. The menu ran heavily to baked beans, bacon, salt pork, pea soup, and venison. Working, I easily burned as many calories as I took in. After we met, my cooking days were over. But in the past few years I’ve been taking baby steps toward competence. My daughter-in-law is a big help, during our twice-weekly Zoom calls: I can now find the packages of gravy mix at the supermarket. And my omelets, were they but known, would make me famous. My best, popularly called a garbage omelet in fashionable diners, I call Would-You-Like-Egg-With-That? Still, the kitchen without her is a desert, especially with Wolf Blitzer’s “breaking news” in the background.

The big difference around the house and kitchen – both works of genius and her last designs – is the loneliness. However, a few months before she died, I was able to adopt the perfect puppy, who spends 24 hours a day with me when I’m at home. Kiki’s snoozing behind me as I write, in the recliner here in the office, and shortly will begin to tease for our daily walk in the park, where she bounds around the woods joyfully enough for both of us. It’s hard to imagine how quiet and bleak life here would be without her. Still, there’s something important missing. How often I read or hear something, and think, “Oh, wait’ll I tell…oh. She can’t hear me anymore.”

She loved to travel, so we did, as much as we could afford. Her favorite destination was Paris, which I can do without. We celebrated our fiftieth one evening on the top deck of a riverboat, watching the lights of the Eiffel Tower flash madly each hour. She loved Nice and Cannes, which I definitely can do without: traffic, and maddened Frenchmen shaking their fists at me and shouting, “Imbecile!” It was all very romantic – we almost spent a night at the pricey “auberge” where Simone Signoret and Yves Montand once held naughty rendezvous. But over time our travel mishaps became more serious, and her strength began to fail; so we traveled domestically: several times to the Gettysburg battlefield, where I hiked the route of Pickett’s Charge while she drove around to meet me at the Union lines, but somehow never managed to get there. Pickett didn’t, either.

Almost suddenly, it seems, all that excitement and companionship shuddered to a halt. She had to quit driving; her stints in the kitchen became advisory; our dinners for eight or ten folks were but a memory. Then she had to be in a nursing home; and then she was gone.

During the ensuing four years I’ve suspected I may live a while longer. So am I to be for the rest of my life an old widower with a cute little dog? What about senior dating sites? At my age, I’m hardly a hot commodity on paper. But, though missing my once-inexhaustible source of bright ideas, I try to channel her strong suit. Surely in all the years I’ve spent bouncing around since childhood, I must have created and left intact a few valuable resources. That’s, I think, how she would have me think. So I’ve tried it, and, “mirabile dictu,” I believe it’s working!