You are the salt of the earth
If the salt has lost its savor, wherewith
shall it be salted?
She was driving home on a Friday night
suddenly he slumped forward in the passenger seat
and in mid-sentence he was gone I pulled over,
I called 911, I begged him, talk to me, talk to me!
Every move is sad and hard to make
the only positive distraction for her is work
her friends make sure she’s not alone during the week,
rattling around in that enormous house I’m numb,
I’m on automatic pilot, I still can’t talk
He was closing the summer house and didn’t want help
The fridge was full of food for Thanksgiving
her pie was cooling on the rack any minute his key
would be turning in the lock
I called the caretaker and told him to look
everywhere, even up in the attic
He was in the kitchen, he’d had a stroke
He couldn’t come to reunion, he was much too sick to travel
his students came to visit from around the world
the hospice people took wonderful care
the children were there at the very end
I was with him that day from the moment he opened his eyes
to the moment death closed them
no matter how prepared you are
you’re never ready
Imagine your best friend the father of your children
arm clasped around your shoulders protecting
you from harm imagine the great love
of your life your perfect chef your audience
weak and wasted
hand reaching beyond but not really holding on
Imagine having everything that mattered
imagine it gone
She sits in the front pew, frail and dignified
under her black hat surrounded by relatives neighbors strangers
She takes the shovel in her shaking hands and throws earth
into the grave she takes the ashes from the box
and casts them into the ocean
she lets waves of talk wash over her at the shiva
She eats everything chocolate she can get her hands on
she has no appetite she can’t keep anything down
She remembers how beautiful he was
in his forties, with his wasp waist
and washboard chest she remembers
picking bits of blue lint out of his perfect navel
she remembers the velvet tip of his penis
the sounds he made and the tenderness
afterward, curled around her before falling asleep
even in his last years they didn’t stop
She still subscribes, but her symphony seats
have been changed to the keyboard side:
I couldn’t bear to see all those people
who remembered me with Tom Once
over dinner I told her, of course he loved you!
how could you doubt it?
and she burst into tears, But he died!
She’s living the hermit life, surrounded by
memorials and thinking in half an hour he’ll be
home, pull into the driveway, call at the usual time
She hasn’t touched her room she’s left it like a shrine
I am standing still while a tornado is ripping through my body
She’s in the market buying tomatoes, she’s
in a meeting about sewer districts, she sees him lying
on the hospital gurney, she sees
his golf clubs leaning against the wall
and falls on her knees
Grief takes sadness to new heights and throws it off the cliff.
Grief is as big and as whole as love,
it is a new tenant in your heart with a long lease
Every move is sad and hard to manage
Getting out of bed in the morning is a tremendous effort
I weep uncontrollably only to myself,
when I speak to him it’s in the present tense
painful as it is, I now prefer loneliness to chatter
After he died, I became invisible.
I hate this! meaning the single room,
the oxygen tank the potty chair
the blowsy social worker in a nylon smock
with untweezed chin and flyaway hair,
and all those meals alone—-I hate this!
I want to be with Don
Don’t say he had a full life what a mercy he didn’t suffer longer
don’t tell us our memories will comfort us
don’t insist we’ll get over it and move on and meet someone.
Our grief mirrors our love.
Tell a widow that what she is going through
strikes terror into your heart.
Tell a widow you have much to learn from her when she’s ready
Sometimes my grief overwhelms me. Last week
it occurred to me that I couldn’t go back to my husband
or to the past Then, when I’m feeling better,
missing him so badly is actually reassuring—-
how could I move on without feeling his impact on my life?
She’s sitting at home instead of going out by herself
she’s at their cabin every weekend with the grandchildren
she’s obsessed with her research, staying all night in the lab
4 the widows’ handbook
she’s making soft sculptures bigger than life-size
She has given up looking for a job,
she says work doesn’t matter, it has to be worthwhile
and come to her, and she must be the right person to do it
She says, if I don’t want to do something nobody can make me
She dyes her hair a color not found in nature
she says next year she’s going to retire
She says, after all the time she spent taking care of him
she deserves a rest. She too may die.
And then again, maybe not
Originally published in Jacqueline Lapidus and Lise Menn (eds.), The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival (Kent State University Press, 2014). Reprinted by permission of the author. Read an interview with Jacqueline here.
Grateful acknowledgment and loving thanks to all the women whose words and experiences inspired and contributed to this poem along with mine: Christine, Cynthia, Genevieve, Harriet, Jacquie, Judy, Laura, Lee, Margaret, Martha, Natalie, Paula and Sheila. — Jaqueline Lapidus