Sunday, December 6, 2009

Widows Don't Wear Black

Tuesday was my first day at work after a week’s vacation. When I opened my mail, I saw an advertisement that Senator Jean Carnahan would be at Sedalia Book and Toy to sign The Tide Always Comes Back. I had met her during my annual pilgrimages to Washington DC for the Alzheimer’s Association.

On the drive to the bookstore, I scolded myself for giving in to temptation. Hadn’t I spent several hours cataloging more than 250 books in my home library the day before? Didn’t dozens of unread books sit on my shelves? No amount of mental chastisement kept me from being one of the first people in line to buy the former Missouri senator’s book.

Jean became an accidental senator when her husband was elected to that office posthumously. Taking office so soon after her husband’s death in a plane crash, Jean jumped into the challenge of representing her state and didn’t dwell on widowhood. In The Tide Always Comes Back she wrote: “Sure, I’ve checked those marital status boxes on printed forms, but I have never thought of myself as a widow in the traditional sense. For so long, society has identified widows as poor, sniveling souls unable to face the world.”

I read this passage to Brenda, a co-worker who was recently widowed. “I just filled out a form at the doctor’s office and wondered why they needed to know that I was a widow. I almost didn’t mark the box,” she said.

The average widow is fifty-five years old and remains a widow for fourteen years. Seven hundred thousand women are widowed each year. At one time widowhood was a way of life, but modern women do not wear black for a year and enter into a dignified state of mourning. The truth is most widows are back on the job shortly after the funeral. We see strong women reel, fall to their knees, and then bounce back at astonishing speed.

Many people read my blog and do not realize I am a widow. I interject stories about Jim and caregiving so that others may benefit from our experiences. When I think of widows, I remember Jim’s reaction after his Aunt Mary, and then his mother, were widowed. “I think widows are secret gadabouts,” he said. His theory was reinforced when my mother was widowed a few months later.

Not long ago, my mom and Aunt Labetta dropped by work to visit me. Aunt Labetta put her arms on our shoulders and said, “Here we are—three widows.” It’s strange to think of myself as a widow and it’s not easy to identify either of those two active, laughing women as widows. They travel, occasionally make a run to the casino, and play guitars together.

I don’t know any traditional widows. The widows I know are resilient and unafraid of life. Often, death of a loved one reinforces the importance of living life to the fullest. Marriage that lasts until “death do us part” leaves a sense of fulfillment.

The years Jim and I spent together will always be a major part of me. The give and take of marriage, the ups and downs, and Jim’s devastating dementia have shaped my personality and endowed me with a life’s mission. I do not write about Jim and the life of a caregiver due to unrelenting grief. Writing about life helps me heal and gives me hope that my future is full of adventure, excitement, accomplishment, and love.

The traditional widow is a stereotype. Like Senator Carnahan, I do not think of myself as a widow. I think of myself as a woman who was fortunate enough to have enjoyed enduring love, suffered great loss, and rebounded to a full rich life.


Carol Noren Johnson said...

A husband is a gift, not a possession. I have been that widow and then married again. I am going to enjoy every day with my husband and rejoice for the time we have together now. I realize that things will go downhill, but so far the coconut oil is helping.

My current husband with dementia just turned 72 and got that global navigational system from me for his birthday. I am happy that home is programmed there so if he gets lost he can get home.

Like you I am an author. My book just came out.

Cindy said...

Is'nt it funny the labels we sometimes put on ourselves or get from others through life. I have never thought of you as a widow either. My adoptive granma never liked the word either. I know her sister once asked her after my granpa died when she was going to start "dating"? She said she was 68 years old and had no intention. She would always be "married" in her mind to granpa. Once and only once she said. That has stuck with me.