I polished my fingernails with glitter and put on some blue lipstick to go with my first ever Halloween costume. My Mom and Dad were great in so many ways, but we never bought or made Halloween costumes. It wasn’t that we didn’t have fun, but parties were all about holidays and food traditions. So I was already laughing when I went online to find a Halloween costume. Because the party was going to be outdoors, I decided on a costume that was a coat – I became the Mother of Dragons from Game of Thrones, never mind that I didn’t watch the series.The coat with its chain across the front was fun to wear, but the most fun was the wig. I had always wanted to have long blonde hair. My costume brought a lot of laughs from my children and looks of surprise from my neighbors. And I laughed a lot. I became the kind of person who has and wears a Halloween costume.
After I became a widow, I was surprised at my reaction to changing my status on Facebook. I was not yet comfortable referring to myself as widowed. That was one of the dilemmas I faced as a widow that seemed to be minor but was not. Another one was what should my new pair of shoes look like? Should I buy those orange patent leather wedges?
The difficult questions beneath these superficial ones included who was I now that I wasn’t a wife and a caregiver? What was my purpose in life now that my husband of fifty years had died twenty years after receiving a life-giving liver transplant? Did I want another relationship? Did I want to live alone? Why didn’t other widows tell me how devastating the pain of loss would be? How could I express my feelings of loneliness and confusion, and did I even want to?
My pain and loss were followed by new insights, new experiences and new interests, including playing bluegrass music and finding new friends, and fulfillment at being able to fashion the life I now wanted for myself. While every woman’s journey is different, certain experiences are common. Read these essays to discover what I discovered about my new life—that there was life after my husband’s death, and after the pain came comfort and fulfillment.
How to Be a Widow can be purchased where I will be reading: at Spirit Bound Bookstore, Organic Books, Treasure House Books & Gifts, and Bookworks, and also at Amazon.com How to Be a Widow.
UPCOMING READINGS AND BOOK SIGNINGS
Find the venue closest to you and please come!
Sunday, August 4, 2019 – 1:00 p.m., The Rio Grande Center for Spiritual Living, 4374 Alexander Blvd. NE, Suite T, Albuquerque, NM
Sunday, August 25, 2019 — 1:00 – 3:00, Treasure House Books & Gifts, 2012 South Plaza NW, Albuquerque, NM (across the street from Old Town Plaza)
Sunday, September 1, 2019 — 3:00 p.m., Organic Books, 111 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque, NM
Sunday, September 8, 1:00 p.m., private home, Santa Fe, NM. With Mary Kirschner. Call 505-238-6213 for information.
Sunday, September 29, 2019, 3:00 p.m. Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Albuquerque, NM
I am excited to be able to say my new book, How To Be A Widow, is in its final stages of completion!
How To Be A Widow is about the surprising and not so surprising things that change after a spouse dies, and how I coped with both the terrible and the encouraging situations I found myself in. Some experiences were sad, but some were humorous, including becoming a bluegrass fiddle player.
Watch this space for details coming soon.
What can I see ahead of me for the next five years of my life? I can’t just drift. I never have. Barring the unexpected, and knowing when I visualize what I want to be may not happen, there are choices to make. What do I choose?
Faith and confidence or fear?
Beauty or drabness?
Color or grey-scale?
Health and well-being or dis-ease?
Curiosity or boredom?
Service or self-centeredness?
Expansion or contraction?
Gratitude or dissatisfaction?
Motion or stasis?
Love and connection or loneliness?
Abundance and prosperity or poverty of spirit?
Generosity or holding on?
Being in the flow or being stuck?
Love or fear?
We face these choices on a daily basis. I want to remember to choose wisely. Our choices make our life.
You have got to start taking care of yourself. We, your friends, are starting to notice. We wish we could help more.
A lot of us of a certain age think that taking care of ourselves means being selfish. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s the common saying these days to put your own oxygen mask on first. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t be a model for healthy living for those who are taking our time and energy, and more important, we can’t really help them. In the short term, maybe. In the long term, no. And even though our long term is not as long as it used to be, we still have some time left to enjoy life.
Some of you are taking care of ill spouses. Some of you are helping your children. A number of you are doing both! You know who you are. If the people you are helping don’t care if you are taking care of yourself, that is, don’t care if you are eating well, sleeping, relaxing a bit, in short, having a life, then I say you shouldn’t be giving your life to them.
If there’s something inside of you that won’t let you say no, that makes you believe you are not worthy of your own good life, then please get some counseling. You, your best self, is needed by the world. Not you as an exhausted shade of yourself.
I know about this. I use to be one of the biggest martyrs in my family. I could be a martyr about anything, like feeling put upon after inviting family over for a big holiday gathering, or volunteering again and again for one of our homeowners committees because I thought no one else could or would do it and it was all up to me. Or even saying yes to an invitation/obligation when I wasn’t feeling well. I’ve pretty much climbed down from that cross. Nobody really appreciates it anyway.
Of course, like anything else, we make choices. One of my choices during most of the 20 years of taking care of my husband was to try to stay healthy and have a little life of my own. Even though I developed hypertension and got headaches (!) I did take some time for myself. Thank God! I wonder what shape I would have been in if I hadn’t.
If you do not take care of yourself and have the life you know is right for you now, you never will. We don’t have that much time left. Don’t you think you deserve some time to yourself, just to be, just to muse on what has been your life up to this point, just to plan what you want to do until you leave this planet?
Yet, I believe that service is one of our important activities in this lifetime. I also know that most of the women I know have raised their children to the best of their ability, taken care of a spouse or two, and have paid their dues as a member of the human race. Plenty of service there.
I hate seeing you tired and running yourself ragged. You’re not the only person who can do whatever it is you’re doing. Really. If you weren’t there, someone else would take care of things.
We, your friends, love you. We hate to stand by and watch you drift farther away in health and help. Please do what only you can do. Take care of yourself.
A Wise Widow.
While getting ready for houseguests, I found myself scrubbing the tile in the shower. My sister, who lives with me and is six years younger, a fact relevant to this post, went to her yoga class and then was off to practice guitar with her bluegrass group. I was scrubbing the shower.
That prompted me to write this list of things I could be doing that would be more fun. For all of you who need some ideas of how to have fun (like you oldest children out there) feel free to share this list or use the ideas.
Things to do for fun
• read a book
• watch a movie
• go to a movie
• cook something interesting
• bake a cake for someone
• go to the gym
• do water aerobics
• listen to your favorite music from when you were a teen
• listen to beautiful classical music
• play music
• do a crossword puzzle
• do a jigsaw puzzle
• watch a funny tv program
• go to a museum
• go to an art gallery
• write a poem
• paint a painting
• invite friends for a potluck and let them help clean up
• play a game
• go to a yoga class
• do an exercise class on tv
• take a walk with a friend
• play with your dog
• play with your cat
• watch a Nature program on PBS
• knit a hat
• walk in the snow
• make a bucket list, then make plans to do one
• plant an herb garden—inside if it’s cold, outside if it’s warm
• call an old friend just to say hi
• color a mandala or in an adult coloring book
• do some origami
• paint your toenails
• take some pictures with your phone
• do some work with clay
• browse a craft shop for ideas
• write a country western song
Some of these ideas will require you to go out to get supplies. That is part of the fun, and will mean that you must stop doing some boring work like scrubbing shower tiles. Life is more than a clean house (although, if you never clean your house, that can be a good project. More on that later, maybe.).
This post consists of a chapbook of five poems.The first two are about two different dogs we had. The second two are about being with Jim, and the last one is a contemplation on ironing.
Marilyn C. O’Leary
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE OLD DOG
50 YEARS OF MARRIAGE: COFFEE
THE OLD DOG
The old blind dog
picks up one foot at a time
like a trained horse
before reaching the stairs
up, up, up until he finds
a step and climbs to me.
The sweetness of it,
the faith, break my heart.
They had such faith in the world . . . Mary Oliver
Today I’m going to have faith
in the world
yes, faith in love.
Such faith as to be able to be me
–to go about my business
–to live life and be happy.
I remember the stages
my rescue dog went through.
I should have known
she was going to be trouble –
not trouble like bad
but trouble like a handful.
She was afraid–barking, startling
could she see? could she hear?
Stitches on her head
most teeth removed.
But no matter what–
those dark eyes, perfect round nose
curly white fur
the way she jumped through doorways
as if knowing
that the next thing
would be wonderful.
There is not one thing to say about it —
it’s been long
but we can’t think of it ending.
There were the times in Taos with the students,
picking apples, making pies.
There were the kayaks, the bikes, the skis
and the Volkswagen buses.
The dogs, the books, the candles in the patio
with dinners, friends and wine.
Mexico, Italy, Hawaii.
Babies, teenagers, grandparents.
Laughing, eating, being afraid, retreating.
And a time for everything—
the biggest surprise of all—
all that time.
50 YEARS OF MARRIAGE: COFFEE
What if you never died
and every morning
you got up and I put on the coffee or sometimes you did
and we each got our coffee cups
and sat in the living room to watch the sun rise,
What if we did this every day,
When the boys were in high school
and I worried about them leaving home
I comforted myself by saying
What if they never left home,
like the brilliant cousin of mine.
Never left home. Never left home.
Died in his bedroom in his mother’s house in his forties.
Then I think – it’s the nature of things.
They have to go –
I don’t really want them to stay.
But would it be so bad
to have coffee with you every day
for all eternity? It was heaven,
those daily rituals, the luxury of it
the extravagance –
coffee with cream, with you,
In the midst of an economic downturn and
an upcoming presidential election when
things are unsettled and life feels
askew I have a yen to iron
a white broadcloth shirt to smell the clean
fabric, starch, and steam.
My mother had a mangle in our basement
and used to iron sheets, tablecloths, flour
sack dishtowels. She was skilled
on the big roller with the heavy metal plate,
even ironing shirts on it,
first the back, then each side, then each sleeve
and cuff and finally the collar.
The stacks of folded clothes
gave respite to a life that included
an alcoholic father, a miscarriage,
the ups and down of business,
a social system that didn’t fully
admit her despite her clean,
well-decorated home, ability to play golf,
excellent martinis, and elegant
I set up the ironing board,
heat the iron, and take out
the white, wrinkled shirt.
The picture that comes to my mind when I think of the work “widow” is the last scene in the movie Zorba the Greek where shriveled old ladies in black are waiting for one of the other characters to die, and once she breathes her last, they strip her room of all its furnishings and valuables like vultures. I also think about my Nana’s widowed friends who wore black. All of those old women were stiffly corseted, wore their hair pulled back in a bun, and were completely unapproachable. Who wants to be like that?
Where are the widows my age anyway? They seem to disappear. Are they like I was, wanting to join the world of the “single” for a while? Are they grieving and wish they were in a hajib to hide from the world? Or are they simply ignored? If we have so much trouble figuring out our role now and how we fit in, that might be equally hard for our friends and family.
Our society doesn’t have a place for widows. We don’t venerate old people, and most widows are not young. If a young, single woman has little status, how much worse is it for a mature woman whose husband has died. The cult of materialism and sexuality that plagues our teenage daughters with its ubiquitousness has its negative counterpart toward the end of life when we are past the age of bearing children and no longer major consumers or objects of sexuality. As my sister says when I worry about how I look, “No one cares, no one is looking.” Of course, that’s also quite liberating.
Then there’s also the death thing. I have had the experience of mentioning my late husband, or saying that he died, only to see people give me a blank look, look nervous because they don’t know what to say, or walk away. When I mention him it’s related to the conversation in some way, and I’m not sad about it. But that doesn’t seem to matter. It often stops people cold. What do I say now? I think they’re muttering to themselves. Our society is still largely in denial about death. This attitude is unfortunate, because one widow I know mentioned how important it is to her to be able to talk about her husband to others. They are still a part of us, a part of our lives. And we remember them fondly, for the most part. It’s closing a part of us off when we feel that we can’t talk about them.
Society doesn’t want to know about us because they don’t know what to do with us. They might be afraid of us. There’s the stereotype of the widow who’s out to get somebody else’s husband. Whether it’s true or not makes some married women anxious about spending time with a widow, especially if their husband is around. Also, most of us are not big consumers, so we’re not a sales target except for pharmaceuticals. We’re receiving social security; that might frighten or annoy those worried about having enough money left when it’s their turn.
Here’s a bit of anecdotal reality. Some of us take care of grandchildren. Many of us are politically active. Many of us are still in the work force. A lot of us volunteer for community events. We like to hike, swim, play music, and sing.
Maybe there’s a widow counterpart to the Grey Panthers. The Black Widow? I don’t think so. Widowhood is like other issues we’ve had to face. It’s up to us to value ourselves before we can expect others to. Maybe that’s why it drives me crazy when I hear older women titter and laugh at a comment that is serious, or treat themselves as who, me? I’m not important. Or say “sorry” all the time. Sorry for what? Being alive?
It’s time those of us who are widows own it and stand up for our place in society. After all, the definition of widow is factual: it means a woman whose spouse has died and who has not remarried. I can own that. It doesn’t take anything away from us as persons. It’s just an item to check off on a form, and doesn’t mean who we are, how we’re supposed to act, or what value we have. We’re widows. And we’re a thousand other things.
A few weeks ago my friend Karen Driscoll invited me to come to her house to pick peaches. It was a little bit of heaven, as you can see from this poem I wrote when I got home.
Come and pick peaches, she emailed.
Leave the land of email and come to the orchard of peach and apple trees.
Women in long sleeves, long pants.
You will come to a timeless place of women picking peaches.
Start with hugs, then walk to a tree.
You might be distracted at times by two small birds with yellow breasts,
by light white clouds in a New Mexico blue sky.
You will see a tree so covered with deep scarlet-skin peaches you won’t believe they aren’t yet ready to be picked.
You will hear words of ripe, sweet, crunchy, smooth, juicy,
some talk of canning, freezing or pies.
Come to pick full boxes of peaches to take home
to ripen, to cook, to eat.
Come to a morning of heaven.
I believe it’s common to unexpectedly think you see a person you have lost. Today I’m posting a poem a wrote about thinking I saw Jim when I was riding on the bike path. Bicycles were always a part of our family. Jim rode to Sandia Prep when he taught there, then he opened a bicycle and moped shop, and now our son Charlie makes custom built bikes as O’Leary Built Bicycles. https://olearybuiltbicycles.com/ The picture I’m posting here is of one of the first bicycles Charlie made that he gave to Jim.
The Bike Path
Today your memory surprises me, appearing on the bicycle path
past the duck pond, on the way to the South Valley, a perfect double.
You’re in your prime like they told us we would be in heaven.
It’s true for you. You’re at your best.
It’s the muscles in your legs that get me.
I was always attracted to your body.
From the time you were a boy.
Smooth back curving in, strong legs,
your own walk.
I don’t remember the first time I saw you.
I don’t remember a time I didn’t know you.
One day you were in my life.
You appeared, like today on the bike path.
How I romanticize you, but why not.
Why remember the pain, the sickness,
feelings of failure, of loss, of despair,
when you lost weight, when your body
seemed to fail you, when chemo made you sick.
Of course I remember that. But I also remember
the opposite, and it was just as true, just as real.
Even now, when I think I’m alone
I come upon you.