Year later, time to start making difficult choices

As oldest in a tribe of 12 children, my mother never hesitated to express her opinions. So when her own mother — my beloved Boubby the Philosopher — passed away, she quickly announced: “I’m the matriarch of this family now.” Nobody disputed her.
When my father died, 50 years ago, she made her pronouncement as shiva came to an end: “We Jews got this psychologically right. At the beginning of the week, I needed all that company. But by the end, I just wanted everyone to go away and leave me alone.”
Nobody disputed her on that observation, either.
Not then. But I do, now. The end of shiva for my husband found me broken. I wanted all the people who had come and gone to come back, put their arms around me again, and say that everything would be all right.
That didn’t happen. I’ve learned since that shiva makes time stand still, and it’s the mourner who must rewind and reset the clock afterward.
This coming Sunday, one year to the day since Fred’s passing, will see the unveiling of his memorial stone. During these past 12 months, many people have told me how agonizingly important the first “alone” year is.
“Don’t make any major decisions until it’s over,” some have said. “Getting through the first of everything — birthdays, holidays, the wedding anniversary — that’s the hardest,” I’ve heard from others. “Things will gradually get better” has been the sentiment most often expressed.
In this now-ending year, I haven’t made any major decisions. I’ve gotten through all those “firsts,” most of them all by myself. Have things gradually gotten better? I can’t say, but I know they are very different. I also know that these past 12 months have been filled with contrasts and ironies, because somehow they have managed to go by both quickly and slowly at the same time.
When my father died, my mother found it necessary to announce to me: “You are half-an-orphan now.” But when she died, I didn’t feel that I had become a whole orphan so much as finally — at my already advanced age — a whole, independent adult. Those parental ties that long direct thoughts and behaviors keep tugging until the parents are gone, when a survivor can, and must, finally decide freely which to keep and which to cut loose. Twins, especially identical ones, have told me the same about their womb-mates: “You are never your own person until your ‘other’ either marries or dies.”
I’ve found much in all those perceived truths that apply just as well to widowhood. What to retain and what to discard are first approached by assessing physical items; later, however, it’s more important to confront “possessions” you cannot see or touch:  Attitudes. Plans. Dreams.
All are suddenly subject to assessment. Do I want to renew memberships in the same organizations? Support the same charities? Attend the same entertainments?  Visualize future fulfillment of all those past “someday we should”s that we’d often discussed together, when those “somedays” now exist only for me?
My world has contracted since I lost my husband. When a parent dies, you go to the funeral, sit shiva, then pick up those physical items and intangible values you want to keep and take them back home to your own life. When a spouse dies, you go to the funeral, sit shiva, but are already at home, facing important decisions about your own life: What to keep, and what to discard?  Making these choices has limited my sphere of activity during this first long/short year; my need to make them will probably continue until my own passing.
Unveiling Fred’s marker will also be another marker along the road of life now being marked out for me. I am not a matriarch; I make no pronouncements. Instead, I am quietly praying for strength, patience and growing understanding as my second year begins.

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  1. Bob Cooper

    Dear Harriet, I just finished reading your column and I wanted you to know that it will get easier as the years pass. I still think of Carolyn daily, but I’m able to remember only happy times. Keep your great disposition and you’ll do fine. Love, Bob C.

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