My Essays: February 5, 2015
Note: I am starting a new category on this blog: “My Essays”
I am going to try to write at least one a month–maybe sometimes more if the writing muse strikes…
The other day I drove up my steep drive in Maine and paused in front of the garage door. I wanted to sit quietly for one brief moment to enjoy and reflect on the profound sense of pleasure I was feeling.
Tom Jackson had solved the problem with the overflowing well that was pouring water over the driveway and making a death-trap sheet of slick ice between the garage and the house. PDQ Doors had just fixed the problems with the automatic garage doors, problems friend Gina Caceci and I couldn’t sort out with her on a ladder with a Phillips Head screwdriver and with me holding the ladder, her leg, and a spare light bulb. And Stephen Pennoyer had been at my house for nearly two weeks fixing EVERYTHING inside that needed repairing, painting, or upgrading.
I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a house where everything inside was in tip-top order all at the same time. I smiled to myself, reached for the garage door opener, and…nothing. The gods of chance and mayhem had struck anew.
Since January of 2013, when my husband John died, I have been alone and have carried the responsibility for myself, for my home, and for all my actions and decisions. I have spent these past two years either learning to do all the things that my husband John used to do, or, in finding who can help me do what I cannot. At times this learning curve has been quite steep.
Of course I am not totally alone. I have a warm and loving family, though they live in Charleston, South Carolina. I have a sister who calls frequently from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and fusses at me for not carrying my cell phone every time I go outside to take care of my chickens. (Suppose you fall out there?) I have a sister-in-law and Enright cousins who come to see me from Boston. I have wonderful neighbors who help me with emergencies—like the time last winter when Chris Richmond and his son Carleton helped me bail out a flooding garage. And I have a lot of local and faraway friends whom I enjoy and who spoil me to death.
At some level, I find myself wondering, are we not always “alone,” even if we are married? Are we not all single souls who traverse our lives with differing amounts of connection along the way? Being married does not always mean that all responsibilities get shared. Most marriages, I think, divide up responsibilities. I didn’t help John with repairs or keep our financial books once our sons entered college, and he did not help me shop, cook, garden, or organize the dailyness of our lives.
Perhaps the relationships and responsibilities within a marriage and the subsequent loss of it all contains lessons for us to learn in this life. Perhaps these lessons are part of our work here on earth. It interests me that I am now learning the parts of what John knew, while he never got to learn what I know.
I have never lived on my own until now. I married at twenty-one, so went from my father’s house to marriage and our first apartment. And though I worked for many years at various jobs outside the home, I have never been totally financially responsible for myself. Predictably, my new situation has been scary, but also exhilarating.
I have mostly faced and conquered my worst fears. Our joint hard work of thirty-eight years produced savings that buttress my present life—so long as the stock market does not crash utterly and our banks don’t disappear into a dark night—fears about which I’ve accepted I cannot do anything whatsoever. My health is good, and if it goes south, I can go there too to be with my family. Or, not, for I do love where I live with all my heart and soul. I no longer wake often in the night wondering if I have heard a strange noise or if I smell smoke or if I have left on the oven or iron.
I have set some safety rules. After a bad fall a few days after John died, I determined that I would not get out of bed without turning on the light first. I think it’s wise not to put any pot or pan on the stove unless I am inside the house. (Suppose I fall outside or get distracted?) I concentrate on the stairs or on the winter ice. I am careful in restaurants as I have food allergies that can cause me to pass out. And I am careful with the cord on the electric mower and with the propped-up lid of the chicken coop.
I have learned who my real friends are. Actually, some of these lessons have been surprising. People have disappeared who cannot make the switch from wanting to be with “the Enrights” to wanting to spend some time with just me. Some of these losses have been painful, but not overwhelmingly so as I have realized that this change is common to widowhood. And I will confess that I have let go of some people, too. I am finding that I deeply treasure the peace of my days and have less patience with the cruelty of others. I am finding, too, that doors open even as others shut.
There are many joys to being alone. I can call an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter, a painter, or a gardener whenever I want to without having a pitched marital battle about “doing it yourself” or “emasculating your husband.” I can change anything I want to around the house without the need of coming to consensus. I can read in the middle of the night in my own bed if I wake and want to do so. I can cook and eat what I want when I want. And I am learning to travel by myself and to plan treats for myself when others cannot join me.
This winter, I have been thinking that I have spent much of my life nurturing others in my kinship network and in the greater community. As wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, granddaughter, grandmother, friend, neighbor, and so forth, a chunk of my time has been spent thinking about or doing for others. Suddenly, it seems ok to concentrate on being more nurturing to myself, to further learn who I am on my own outside the responsibilities of those relationships—especially as I never had the early learning of being alone and on my own.
I am not discarding these kinship and communal relationships. But in the stark clearness of both my aloneness and my age (seventy in March), I am deciding to examine where I think I have a relational responsibility a bit more closely. Is help really needed, or do I need to be helpful to try to create meaning in my life? The latter case is not always a healthy place to be.
I hoped, as I examined the garage door opener, that it just needed a new battery. When John was alive, I would have taken it to him and waited for a solution to the problem. Now, I hoped that Radio Shack in Rockland carried the tiny little battery that emerged from the opener. And, a day later, when I got home from Rockland and the opener still did not work, I took out the battery the young man had installed, turned it around, and put it back. Voila! The door shuddered open, the light came on, and once again, everything inside my house and garage was in tip-top shape.
As was I.