My husband died this year. I buried him after watching him waste away with lung cancer.
It was only eight months after he was diagnosed. Eight months in a fifteen year relationship, a relationship that brought two children into the world, a shared house we loved, a kitchen renovation, and plenty of arguments about the colour of the paint on the walls, and just who was in charge of cleaning the toilet.
And now, here I am, raising two girls, nine and 12, watching one get ready for high school and the other struggling with her six times tables, and it’s me in charge of cleaning the toilet, and the colour of the walls don’t seem quite so important as they once did.
In days gone past, ‘the olden days’, as my nine year old calls anything before her birth, I would have worn black for a year. I would have been taken in by some charitable institution, and made to sew. I guess.
But I have a job and (thankfully) a controllable mortgage. In many respects, I’m lucky – he left no debts, no inescapable death duties remain to be paid, no mountain of medical bills.
There are many, many single mothers doing it tougher than I am.
And yet, the black widow’s weeds and the gruel call to me, mocking my economic independence and my social freedom. There is such a sadness in all of this, that a black crepe veil makes sense, and such a vulnerability, that a widow’s handkerchief seems vital.
There once was a template for this.
But I have no black dress, no arm bands, no uniform.
How do you do widowhood? I don’t even know how to be single anymore, after so many years of coupledom. People respond to me differently now. Sometimes I feel like a vessel of broken hopes and dreams, and I know that people stop and think for a moment ‘thank God it’s not me.’ I know this because I’ve thought the same thing of others.
Sometimes people ask me how I am. ‘How are you?’ That emphasis gives it away – it’s not a polite conversation starter. They also ask how I’m doing, usually with a shoulder rub.
There are days I tell them that I’m doing well, and I see a slight disappointment flicker across their face – they have prepared themselves for a widow talk, and I have refused to participate. And I feel like shrugging my shoulders and telling them that I have no tears left today. Come back tomorrow.
And there are other days when my friends ask after me in a casual way, and get on with conversation about their kids, my kids, school lunches, whatever, and I feel one step behind them, and I want to scream ‘we can’t talk about this, because he’s gone.’
If this sounds selfish, it’s because it is. There’s something terribly self-centred about grief, and I mean that literally – you focus on the very centre of yourself, or the centre that was there before he died.
You’re forever looking for it, because it doesn’t seem possible that it crumbled before your very eyes. You seem to miss what’s happening in the rest of the world because you’re out of kilter with it. You miss the kindness people want to give you, and you miss how difficult life gets for other people because nothing seems as big as this.
And quite possibly, nothing is this big, but you’ve lost your perspective, so it’s very hard to tell.
Since he died, I’ve been looking for my place in the world. First thing, I’m a mother. I love them more than anything – these scarred and scared little girls, with their sense of humour and sense of self mostly intact.
They exhaust me, but what children don’t exhaust their parent(s)? I know I can’t get them through this completely unscathed, but every day, I try to keep them safe and happy. And they’re doing well, most of the time.
I don’t know how you get over such sadness without the school run every morning. For me, they are everything. I try to hold them tight, but not too tight.
I‘m also a single woman, and navigating that is difficult. I used to be a lot more flirtatious than I am now, because I don’t want to send off the wrong signals, and I know that the men in my life – friends, work colleagues, don’t want to send them either. It’s exhausting.
It’s also lonely going to bed alone every night and then waking up alone. Sometimes I take one of the kids to bed, or one of our cats, but it’s obviously not quite the same.
I work for a living, and I worry about money, mainly because I’ve never been the breadwinner before. My head knows we’re alright, but our potential poverty often keeps me up at night.
I once thought that if something this bad ever happened to me, I’d take to my bed for six months, but it turns out that I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Before this, I didn’t understand how grief can propel you forward – chasing you, pushing you. I’ve achieved more in my career since he died than I ever have before. I’m obsessed by work, finding it hard to stop late into the night. Maybe this is repression, but I think it’s been good for me – ticking things off my to-do list, the achievements, the growing CV.
Conversely, ever since he died, I haven’t been able to make a cake. Forgotten ingredients; misread temperatures; incorrect tin sizes: I’ve done it all. I’ve cried over apple crumbles and banana cakes and chocolate logs, and I’ve given up.
But I have friends who bake so beautifully, and when you’re a widow, there’s always someone offering you brownies.
I may not like it, but I am a widow. It’s not the only thing that I am, but right now it’s the main thing. Without the gruel, without the mourning dress, I don’t know quite how to do it. But I’m doing it anyway.
*Mourning woman drawing on page one by Vincent Van Gogh.
*Front page image oil on canvas by Marcello Ferrada-Noli.
*Sophie Townsend’s first novel, Misconceptions, was published by Random House in 2007. She has also made a number of radio features for ABC Radio National, including the Walkley nominated ‘Cancer as a Battleground.’ Sophie lives in the Sydney suburb of Glebe with her two daughters and their two mad cats.