By Mark Liebenow.
I can’t take the damn lethargy today, and rather than drag around the house on my day off grieving my wife, and feeling bone-assed sorry for myself, I try something new. I haven’t done anything new since she died nine months ago.
Driving to Lake Merritt in Oakland, I sit on a bench, and give myself permission to enjoy the warm sunshine. I still feel guilty if I enjoy anything that Evelyn no longer can, like I’m betraying her by not wearing hair shirts and eating gruel. It sounds illogical, but not much makes sense when someone you loved with all your being is ripped away. She was only in her forties.
Evelyn used to come here on her lunch breaks, and being here helps me feel close to her. Normally Northern California is rainy and cold in early January, but today the sun is out and it’s in the seventies. I lean back and watch the world stroll by in its urban variety, and remember how it feels to smile.
Two young boys chase each other around the palm trees, playing hooky from school. An older man dances as he jogs along to music on his iPod. A woman in a black and yellow dashiki walks by looking proud, and several mothers with young children point out the palm trees, seagulls, and the mallard ducks. The mothers remind me of Ev’s compassion. Although we had no children, she took care of her friends like a mother — sending notes of encouragement when they didn’t get the job they wanted, talking to them on the phone late at night when they were depressed, and going to console them when a parent died.
Like a madonna, Evelyn opened her heart in compassion for others, and she physically suffered as she helped them deal with their despair. She brought people hope like the Black madonnas of Eastern Europe who root the deity’s love into the rich, fertile loam of the earth. The Orthodox madonnas of smoky icons and shrines where pilgrims light candles to honor their courage. The Amish madonnas who lift their long skirts to kneel down and play with the children in the grass on my right.
On this date in religious history known as Epiphany, January 6, a Jewish madonna, who recently gave birth to a cosmic son, welcomed wise travelers from afar, and finally understood the prophesied sorrow that would come to her. It’s as if love’s light can only be let out in measured amounts, light that has to pierce flesh before it touches the world’s darkness. Her nine months of preparation gave birth to a new life. When is mine going to begin?
The afternoon glimmers in the sunshine on the lake as Buddhist madonnas paddle by in the form of ducks, preparing their young for the enlightenment of flight.
Walking on the path along the shore, I move through Gypsy madonnas in tie-dyed skirts, who are singing and swaying to the rhythm of earth. Prayer bells ring on cords tied loosely around their ankles and waists, and when they invite me to dance, for a time I do.
My wife was a singing madonna who helped others cope with the transitions of dying and death — Giff from AIDS, her father two years later, and friends who lost mothers, brothers, and spouses. But deaths always hit her hard, and she found it increasingly difficult to drive down country roads because of all the dead animals along the side. Then our friend Dan, a teacher who was breaking down the barriers of racism and sexism with his students, disappeared while on vacation in Greece. His body was found on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, knifed to death for his passport, and Evelyn was broken in a way that did not heal.
Nine months in, grief hangs around and doesn’t seem interested in leaving. I have no dreams left, no visions for the future that excite me. What pulled me through the hardness of years working retail were the small things that Evelyn would do — getting up in her nightgown to see me off for opening shifts at 5 a.m., then going back to bed, buying an almond bearclaw from the Bit of Ireland Bakery for the afternoon, or putting a beer in the fridge for closing shifts when I came home at 1 a.m. She brought warmth and compassion into a world that too often is indifferent to suffering.
Her hope in the unseen still strengthens me. It’s the only reason I hang on.
Mark Liebenow’s writings on grief have been published or are forthcoming in journals like The Manifest-Station, Modern Loss, Refuge in Grief, Open to Hope, The Citron Review, River Teeth, Chautauqua, and Under the Sun. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. His essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His grief website is http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com.