On Grief

On the first morning of Daylight Savings Time, I woke up to clocks that were all wrong.  For more than thirty years, unspoken, it’s been Adam’s job to adjust them, but along with taking the trash to the curb, and keeping my bike in good working order, this responsibility is now mine. It’s the mundane that smarts the worst. My eyes sting as I haul the garbage cans to the curb, and then back. It is, of course, not the task that brings tears, it is that I am alone, and he is not here, and we will never be in that sweet, mundane place again. Ordinary moments, notable now only for his absence.  

Before losing Adam, I might have been flip if someone had spoken of a similar loss. People die, I might have thought, in a bit too cavalier a way. Having experienced the monumental loss of my parents, I thought I’d navigated grief. I could not know that losing my husband, my partner, would bring another dimension to the gut punch, the literal heartache which accompanies the loss of someone you love, the phantom pain of a severed limb.  

I contemplate my new label “widow”, and when asked to update my demographics at a routine medical visit, I decide to stay married. Some women, I’m told, prefer “surviving spouse,” but to me, it’s all the same. Like the fingerprint of any marriage, this experience is different for everyone. 

The same way I found myself observing mothers and daughters after losing my own mother, I now find myself noticing older couples. I see them walking apart, in a hurry and at different paces, like we often did. I want to alert them that things can change, overnight, and that grasping that familiar hand might not always be possible. Moments that should be savored with all of their complexities. Would I have listened if some knowing soul had alerted me when Adam was healthy, and we were certain of countless tomorrows? Likely not. We learn that fire is hot only after we touch the stove. 

I try to approach this new status logically. I am a mathematician by trade, and logic provides me comfort, but there is really no solution to this problem. Division by zero. There is an element of chaos, the wake of a tornado. Too many pieces to pick up, flung far afield. Irretrievable. And it is dark. This grief is a funny thing. The pall is still with me and yet, I am expected to function. As usual, I take care of the details. I relish the days I share with our kids, enjoy conversation with friends, especially those who knew Adam well. I try to do my job ably, and most times, I still laugh when I am expected to laugh. Grief is private.    

Random rituals helped for a time. For the first year, I checked off every passing week on a small post-it note stuck inside of a kitchen cabinet. Somehow, I could grasp a week without seeing Adam, but nearly 130 weeks have passed, and his absence no longer feels temporary.  

Of course, our marriage wasn’t perfect.  Mostly, Adam called me “sweetheart.” Frequently, and usually affectionately, I called him an idiot. He accepted that title easily, knowing that he was anything but, and he always replied the same way: “Yes, but I’m YOUR idiot”. I relished that ownership, but treated it as an abiding constant, like a beloved sweater always within reach. I miss the badinage.  

My husband’s head for facts perfectly aligned with the gaps in my own knowledge. He’d read the encyclopedia as a child, more than once, and remembered it all. And I trusted that he would always be the keeper of those details—cities we walked, roads traveled, bills paid, chemistry, geography, endless minutiae, and family history I cannot hope to retrieve. Adam never flaunted his knowledge or belittled anyone. If someone misquoted a fact or misstated some detail, he would sit quietly and, later, mention it only to me. 

Adam’s identity was defined by cycling from the time he was a small child. His two-wheeler was his gateway to independence and exploration. He’d taught himself to ride, and he rode hundreds of thousands of miles in his life. Adam rode 100-mile days just months before becoming ill, and it was on a bike ride that he asked me to be his wife. This year, for Mother’s Day, our son tuned up Adam’s favorite bike for me, and lowered the seat to fit my smaller frame. Like sleeping in Adam’s t-shirts, and wrapping myself in his jackets for warmth, I feel close to him when I ride it. 

Tucked away in a tiny plastic bag, I keep a Strawberry Chapstick. His favorite flavor was Cherry, but I guess the Strawberry tube was part of a multi-pack I’d bought for him. I joke that I use it only on special occasions, for fear of using it up. We found it in Adam’s office desk. I remember tasting it on his mouth. We went to his office, numb, only days after he left us. Adam had not been in since the start of the pandemic, and we were determined that no trace of him would be left unclaimed. Like survivors of a natural disaster allowed a brief re-entry into their homes to claim their most important possessions, we packed two boxes of his essence and brought those precious vestiges home with us. I’m sure he would be amused that I have taken to saving snippets of his handwriting, his illegible chicken scrawl. Tangible proof that he existed. 

I still can’t quite grasp the finality of it all, and periodically still wonder when he’ll come home. Even if I cannot see him, how can he really be gone? And how can it be that he won’t be back? Adam’s shoes are still by the door, and I have no immediate plans to find another home for his clothes. My wedding band is still in place. I strain to hear the clang of his bicycle bell as he approaches the driveway or the groan of the garage door as it opens, announcing his return. When I pull into the driveway, every time, I look for him on the porch, reading in his favorite chair, so happy to see me. 

Diagnosed with a malignancy we were assured was manageable, we had a plan. Bone marrow harvesting done, box checked, time to get a little stronger, and then the planned transplant. Oncologists present simple steps to a happy ending, never mentioning that one might trip and fall along the way. Ten years was mentioned, and I clung to that number, optimistically envisioning new and better treatments being born during that timeline. Adam entrusted it all to me: medications, scheduling, doctor consults and insurance machinations, all growing in complexity. His job was to get better, and I was happy to tend to the details. 

In the midst of Covid, when most patients were denied a companion, the hospital personnel sensed our symbiosis, and allowed me to be with him, every day. I could not imagine being anywhere but at his side. When denied bread, one is thrilled to have crumbs.   

If all had gone as expected, a successful transplant would have followed and we’d have moved on with our lives, with a fresh appreciation for each other and all we shared. We both spoke of things we’d come to take for granted with plans to savor them again. On the night we were given his diagnosis, I returned home alone, and begged God to give us just a year or two, or maybe a grandchild together. It didn’t seem unreasonable.  

Instead, just a few months in, things worsened overnight. Like glass shattering, the ten years we’d hoped for became days. Our treatment plans were refocused on providing Adam a comfortable send-off from our home, surrounded by those he loved most. Adam hated being handled by strangers, and I wanted to minister to him alone, with only our children helping. And so we moved mountains to bring him home. I will never forget how he perked up as he entered the living room––gravely ill, but still able to detect the essence of home. 

Bringing Adam home will forever be my most important achievement and, for me, a tremendous comfort. Challenging hospital bureaucracy and accomplishing this with our two children, our finest collaborations, will always be a source of great pride. 

Laser-focused on tending to Adam’s comfort, and ensuring a smooth passage, I did not and could not contemplate the aftermath. 

Marriage interruptus. The life we’d built together collapsed like a house of cards, and now I am floundering. I want to share with him all I’ve learned during his absence––our loss––but of course I can’t. I worry now, if he needs anything, and if he is waiting for me. I would often turn to him, and request a hug. I need his enthusiastic “certainly” now more than ever. I am humbled in his absence.  

I mourn for the loss of all we shared, but oddly, equally for the added intimacy and depth that developed during the countless hours Adam and I spent with clasped hands on his hospital bed. I want to hear more about his childhood, his regrets, and the private and innermost thoughts I suppose a man will only share when he pauses to reflect, and is unsure of how many together days lie ahead. I knew my husband well, but those conversations brought me greater insight into the Adam I loved. I so wanted more.

At day’s end, of course, there is bedtime. 

With Adam’s illness came his request that we turn in at the same time. No quick email first, or one last task to complete. Repose together, spooning with urgency. Weeks before his passing, when we had no idea how little together time remained, I found myself nuzzled in that sweet familiar place where his neck met his shoulder. I gently and instinctively placed my leg over him, a spontaneous move to shield him from the enemy before I could realize the futility of my actions.  

Sometimes I wonder how Adam would be handling this if I’d left first. I imagine Adam biking alone up the long, steep hill to the pastoral spot where he currently rests. I know he would sit with me, call me Sweetheart, talk with me for a while, and cry a little. It would be our quiet time together. I know he would be as lost without me as I am without him. We are not people who move on easily. I close my eyes and kiss the spiky grass on his grave before I leave. It reminds me of his mustache.