I am eleven years a widow now. I reread the words I have written in my widowhood and wonder how I ever made it through the pain, the fears and the frozen terror of life in the aftermath of death.
But I did. Sometimes it actually feels contained. The grief. The longing for him alive has been replaced, filled, adjusted. I can attest to rebirth and renewal. They’re not only r & r words.
And then it hits me again. Peter’s mother, twenty-four years a widow, dies at the age of 94. His twin sisters omit Peter’s four sons and his grandson from their mother’s obituary. And if they’ve removed them from the obit, you can imagine what they’ve done with their inheritance. “This brings it all up again,” I say to my mother. “If Peter hadn’t died, it would be so different.” I can almost hear my mother rolling her eyes from the other side of the line, wondering when I am going to eliminate that pointless lament from my repertoire of woes.
Ram Dass says he is “stroked.” He lives a life after his stroke that is forever different. Such is the experience for a woman who is widowed. As women, we become mothers, sisters, daughters. And we are “widowed.” I can almost see the peak at the forehead when I say the word now. The peak that begins the rest of the elaborately complex hood. And when we are widowed we pare apart a union that was once paired. We become singular in our life’s choices.
Should I go back to school, sell my house, move out of this mausoleum of grief, we wonder as widows. Should I quit my job? Do I have a choice? Some of us actually do. We’re the fortunate few.
Eleven years later, I’ve done what fortunate widows and women do. I’ve fed my boys, earned my masters, worked a farm, quit my job, sold my house, fell in love again, fed my boys some more. Through it, I’ve known that my life’s work runs parallel to my life. I have discovered a hood of being a woman that I never imagined wearing but have tailored to fit my life. Being a widow has intersected with being me.
I am a widoe. I’ve softened her with an “e” so that I can wear her name. Bear her existence. That she was I. Peter was gone. I had babies. It was survival for many years. Not enough. Too much. Too many. Too few. When is it not about survival?
But I’m not a refugee widow. Not in the Sudan. Afghanistan. Not fearing my daughter will be raped at the well. Not gathering wood to sell at market. I am a privileged, white-faced, mother of sons whom I watch grow strong like the green winter grasses outside my window. Young ones, older ones, middle-sized ones; I’ve inherited two more in my merger of families with a new mate. Six sons. A grandson too. There’s a hood I can wear more easily.
Unfortunately, motherhood and widowhood are commonly worn together. I founded WidowSpeak, a non-profit that makes visible the lives of widows, and far too commonly, it is only about survival. I work for a neighborhood of widows whom I call my “widows in the hood.” I work for renewal and justice and the strength that we must harness as a community of widows, but most of the stories that come across my desk are desperate. Widows with AIDS, widowed grandmothers raising babies, widows with hungry children. Africa, Indonesia, Iraq, California: some may forage for our children’s next meal; some of us fight for our sons’ inheritance.
Eleven years ago, only four months after Peter died, I signed the papers that removed my mother- in-law’s name from the title of Peter’s and my home. In 1988, Peter’s “ahead of his time” microbrewery had declared bankruptcy and when we bought our home in 1989 we had put it in his mother’s name. We had agreed to pay all the mortgage and property taxes and had. It was mere hours after he had suddenly died, that my mother-in-law had insisted that I change the title of the house. “I want this house out of my name,” she had repeated.
I was thirty-six, the mother of three sons, pregnant with our fourth, working at the local high school and trying to hold it all together; and I was calling loan agents to apply for credit for the first time, so that I could please my mother in law. I tried to assure her that I wasn’t boarding the next plane for a Thai beach, and saddling her with the house, but she was determined. On a cold January morning, the baby’s first kicks fluttering in my belly; I was sitting by myself at the title company, having to gulp back the tears and the morning sickness as they came in waves.
Uncanny that she would be buried, eleven years to the day, that I had signed those papers. Peter had been an eleven, and he had always claimed magic in the number. He was born at eleven minutes after eleven on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In his mother’s eulogy, they said that in her last days she had talked about having not seen Peter for a while and that she was going home to see him again. Peter had been close to his mother. They had shared a special bond. I hope she doesn’t show up at Peter’s home looking for him. That home was sold some years ago. Or maybe showing up to a house of strangers is a good place for her to start knocking. It’s a sad story. But it’s not desperate.
Today, my life and work intersect again. I work for the widow in Chad who relies on the United Nations and private donations from wealthy countries, and miles of bureaucracy, for a plastic tarpaulin to call home. And I also work for the widow who blogs from the attic space of her rented home. Living in Chile, as a child, in the years leading up to Allende’s election, my window to humanity’s collective suffering was opened and only gets wider. When I look at my well-fed children, I cannot forget the children’s gaunt eyes from the gutters of Coya. When I blow my “woe is me widow-whistle,” I renew my pledge to work for widows worldwide. Widows who lose their homes and their children too.
I pledge to blog as the widow I wear. A postmodern widoe, whom I call my PoMoDoe. I’ve been quieting her because I fear my edge, my anger, my bitterness, my myopic singularity. “Who am I to speak for widows?” I question, stuffing my words into my behave box. Today, I realize again, that there are no “ifs” in his story but that there are necessary edges to my story and though I may be able to soften my Doe, I will no longer be able to stuff her.
I have a voice and I will continue to listen for the voices of the widows and their children whose voices have been stripped from them. To be widowed is to become singular, but it doesn’t mean we are alone. It’s 2009. It’s a new year. The numbers add up to eleven. We welcome a new president, of a new generation of Americans, whose mother-in-law, a widow, will be living with her family in the White House. Peter’s mother had been a staunch republican. She had campaigned for Reagan, she was bitterly opposed to immigration and didn’t hold back her thoughts about Americans of color and language. “What are they doing here?” she’d ask with exasperation. “Tell them to go home and learn English,” she’d say about those who were moving into her once only-white neighborhood on the sparkling Marina. There are some beautiful ironies here. The Catholic priest who presided over her service was Pakistani and his lyrical accent was difficult to understand, but he spoke an impeccable English.