Years before my life mate/soul mate died, I wrote a character who grieved for her dead husband. It astonishes me that I got any of the effects of grief right since at the time, I hadn’t a clue what the loss of a mate really did to you, how it turned you inside out and upside down and left you reeling with shock and disbelief, regrets and sorrow. A Spark of Heavenly Fire begins:
Kate Cummings counted backward from one hundred, though she knew it wouldn’t help her sleep. Dead people didn’t slumber, and she hadn’t felt alive for a long time. Not since before Joe’s funeral, anyway.
Three. Two. One. She raised her head, squinted at the illuminated face of the alarm clock, and flopped back against the pillow. Five-fifteen. Six hours of thrashing around in bed. She blinked away the sting in her eyes. All she wanted was one good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask?
One hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-six. . . . A sound startled her awake. A siren’s scream, fading now. She checked the time. Five-thirty. Even if she could doze off again, she’d have to rise in less than an hour. Not worth the effort.
She hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.
This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.
Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.
Later, she explains to a new friend:
“About two weeks after the funeral, I decided to clean Joe’s room. I didn’t feel up to sorting out his things, but I thought I should dust and vacuum in there. I cracked opened the door, as if expecting Joe, or at least his spirit, to inhabit the room. I stepped inside, but seconds later I scrambled out again and slammed the door.
“Memories of all the shameful, petty, inconsiderate things I had done over the years haunted the room, and I couldn’t bear to face my own mean spirit. Too many times I snapped at him or purposely waited a few minutes before going to see what he wanted when he called out. Other times I felt so angry at the way life had treated us, I stomped around the house, slamming doors and kicking furniture. Usually, though, I pounded my pillow, or cried. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I cried, wishing I had a normal life with healthy children to take care of instead of an uncommunicative and disabled man. Sometimes I even hated him for what he had become, as if he chose to get sick. Can you believe that?”
She didn’t pause for a response, but hurried on, wanting to get it all out.
“Worst of all, I realized I was not a strong woman who had shouldered her burden with courage, but a weak woman who lacked generosity of spirit.”
I didn’t have a real door to close — I had to leave our home and come look after my aged father — but there are plenty of doors in my head that I slammed shut. It’s only now, after thirty-four months that I’m able to open them a crack, peek at the ghosts of my ungenerous and petty moments, and understand.
For the most part, I handled the stress of his dying well, but there were times I resented him, even hated him, though now I know it wasn’t he I resented or hated, but his dying. Everything that irked me — his skinniness, his rocking when he stood talking to me (he was so weak, it was the only way he could keep his balance), his inability to carry on a conversation, and his testiness — were all facets of “dying man” not the man himself. To a certain extent, he died long before his last breath. He never blamed me for my resentment because he too hated what he had become. He once admitted he didn’t even recognize himself anymore.
Death does appalling things to people, not just to those who are dying, but to those who have to continue living. Whatever our problems, those last terrible months, we had a chance to reconnect for a few weeks before he died, and I got to say good-bye to the man I love, not just the shadow of that man he had become.
And that is what I will remember — not all the petty secrets I’m gradually bringing out from behind closed doors, but our sweet good-bye.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+