My husband and I went to our favorite restaurant for lunch last week. It has everything we like: a great selection of craft beers, great food, a great patio and most important of all—because we like to sit at the bar—friendly bartenders.
In the middle of conversation, in an unexpected change of subject, David told me that he’d woken up feeling down that morning.
“I’m sorry, honey. That’s unusual for you.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, adding that it was his late wife’s birthday. He’d mentioned a couple of days before that it was coming but I’d forgotten.
“She would have been 77 years old today,” he said almost wistfully.
I was looking at him in profile and saw the muscle in his jaw working to hold back tears just at the moment he spoke those ominous words…”would have been.”
I’d met David 10 days after his wife of 48 years had finally died from complications of a chest-wall tumor, and learned on our first date about how he held back his tears.
We’d gone to the movie biography of Frida Kahlo without knowing that it included her emotion-laden death scene. As Frida called each of her friends and loved-ones to the bedside one by one to say goodbye, David shuddered. His face flushed, his chest heaved and he shuddered.
His was a silent, stoic response to the grief-filled scene in the movie. It was just too close to home, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was “crying,” even though there was no outward sign of the wrenching that was going on inside.
Virtual strangers though we were, I reached out and put my hand on top of his thigh and he reached back covering my hand with his own.
Such quiet grieving can be a problem for those who aren’t as reserved with their own feelings. In fact, it can look like someone who grieves in this way isn’t grieving at all—or worse yet, like they aren’t feeling anything.
But I know better.
I paid attention that day in the Frida Kahlo movie four years ago when David and I had our first date. You can’t sit with your dying wife all by yourself for eight months with no hospice and no family nearby and come away not feeling something. You may be more resolved than otherwise, more accepting of the reality, may have even had the chance to say all the things that needed to be said, but you don’t escape wound-free.
Even if the way you mend those wounds is silently and stoically.
Back at lunch, David got out his phone and showed me the pictures of his wife that their daughter had emailed from Scotland.
“That would have been just before we met,” David said, his hand pointing unsteadily to one of the pictures.
There stood a strikingly beautiful young woman, her stance sure and confident, her shoulders back, her eyes bright and her smile wide.
“Happy Birthday to her,” I whispered into David’s ear. I could feel that he was aching and I didn’t want him to ache. I felt protective of him and, strange as it may sound, told him that I was sad for him that she was gone.
He looked at me, raised his glass, and smiled.
“You’re a warmhearted woman,” he said, and we drank to that.
I don’t know what David’s loss is like for him to the extent that I have never been married for close to 50 years and had to live through a spouse’s death. I do know, however, what it is like through close observation and, in a way it’s like being married to someone who has a crack in their heart. You are aware of the crack, but don’t know when, or even if the heart’s strings will be able to stitch it back together.
All you know is to honor and respect its existence.
In the end, “it’s those heart strings that pull us all closer to each other and touch us straight to the soul.”
When lunch was over and the waitress came to see if we wanted desert, on a whim I ordered chocolate cake.
“You’re not going to have the usual huge, three-scoop hot fudge sundae topped with whipped cream, nuts and extra cherries?” David asked playfully.
We’d had a good time. We laughed and talked and joked with the bartender and when the cake came we gobbled it up.
I teased David that for a guy who doesn’t like chocolate cake he’d eaten more of his fair share.
And then I remembered.
It was M’s birthday.
She loved chocolate cake.
“Happy Birthday to her.”
*Author’s Note: Thank you to Sue Allen for allowing her quote to be used.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Image: Scott Hemenway/Pixoto
Editor: Emily Bartran