The moment my husband of 33 years left for a yearlong fellowship in D.C., things began to go wrong. The dog got deathly sick. Squirrels ate a hole in the ceiling. The kitchen island started wobbling.
All that fall I thought of my husband in his rented apartment with nothing to fix, the new Tibetan carpet he insisted he needed, and the first quilt I’d ever made lying over his couch. While I paid the bills, taught at the university, took the dying dog to the vet and slept in an empty bed, my middle-aged women friends said they were jealous of my opportunity to be on my own. I, though, noticed whitehaired women shopping alone in the grocery store and couples walking hand in hand. I was lonely.
My husband called me at home every day. Perfunctory-feeling calls to say he was doing well. He didn’t want to hear about the dog or the ceiling. He wanted to talk about his new card at the Library of Congress and what the Senate was debating. He wanted to name people he’d seen at the Capitol. I came down with tendinitis in my right arm.
When I visited him the first time, he told me he had an event to go to and wouldn’t be able to have dinner with me.
“I think I’ll find something to do on my own,” I said. “Otherwise I’ll feel sad knitting on the couch. Wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t knit,” he said.
During the second visit, he told me over a glass of wine that he wished he could disappear. He didn’t mean death, he assured me, but that he wanted a permanent vacation. I said I understood that need.
“You are not my problem,” he said to my tearful face as he undid his tie one evening when I’d asked, again, what was wrong. He refused to say anything more except that he hadn’t figured everything out. I wondered what “everything” meant. I feared the unholy breaking inside us. Bone against dream. The conversation didn’t go further because I couldn’t bring myself to ask anything more. I wanted him to say something to resuscitate us. I wanted him to speak about the deep rivers below the floorboards of our lives. I wanted him to sing something before our voices forgot the song. But I was left with silence.
In March my birthday arrived without a card or present. It was the first time that had ever happened. I tried not to care. At home, I ate out with friends and admired the flowers and cards sent by our sons. I read my horoscope that told me to stop expecting things to be the way they “should.” That didn’t help the panics that started to arrive each night around midnight, or the insomnia. I left yellow sticky notes around the house so I wouldn’t forget the basics: exercise, return phone calls, walk the dog.
Later that spring we flew together to Peru for a friend’s wedding. My husband was cordial but distant. Once in a while he held my hand on the plane, but then he would let it go as if he had changed his mind suddenly. At the wedding he drank too much, talked to everyone but me about politics and possible law school, then slept on his side of the bed as though clinging to an exit. Three days into our stay at a beach, I awoke in the middle of the night feeling feverish and violently ill. I vomited for hours, sicker than I’d ever been in my life. From the bathroom, I called his name but he didn’t answer.
That morning, when I finally fell back to sleep, I dreamed about narrow path ways that went nowhere, then about new clothes that didn’t fit. Nap after nap, I visited foreign countries and studied for a test I knew I’d fail. I dreamed about banks being robbed. We will get caught, I said, because people always do.
Two weeks later he flew home from D.C. for a weekend visit, saying we had lots to talk about. He sat in the rocking chair by the bed and sipped coffee, while I lay in bed like we’d done a million Saturday mornings before. I leaned back on my pillow to listen.
“It’s another woman,” he said finally, as casually as if talking about the need for a new kitchen faucet. A calm silence came first, then shock, freezing my posture on the bed. My mind traveled back to the past and forward to the future at the same time. He reached over to hug me as though his announcement would be okay with the familiar touch of our bodies. But his unmoored words had already shaken down the smoke along the plumb line of our lives. I did my best to step through the fog that suddenly engulfed me.
Later the tears came, slowly at first, then wildly while I ran down the street, tripping over my feet, my lungs sucking in thin air. Surges of sharp sorrow cut through me and hardened inside while I leaned against a church wall, my body rocking like a child who no longer understood the world.
I dreamed that first night of a t-shirt with the word “attachment” written across it, then wondered in the morning what to do with that word now that he was gone. I blew out heavy breaths like I was trying to rekindle a fire across a room. Later that week I said over the phone that this wasn’t fair.
“What isn’t fair?” he asked.
“This,” I said.
“Life isn’t fair,” he said.
That night I awoke like a wounded animal trying to get comfortable, then rested on the floor pounding the empty air. I lifted myself up on all fours twisting and turning as though I were in labor and had to deliver an enormous baby. I screamed until I couldn’t. Then my mouth froze in silence with questions that I feared would never be answered.
When he returned from D.C. for good, he moved into his own apartment, and I drove by like a broken adolescent. We met to talk over coffee, and he told me he was still with that woman, that he wanted a divorce and to sell the house. He hoped I would not ask for money. I was surprised that I was surprised, and realized that I’d been holding the book open, waiting for the nightmare to end and for him to come home. I noticed he wasn’t wearing his wedding ring, and when I asked he said he wasn’t living like a married man. I was in mourning, I said. I was sitting shiva with no one there but myself.
At Yom Kippur that fall, i sat alone in the synagogue’s balcony that overlooked a crowd of families and generations. I couldn’t help but notice children with their parents, babies on grandparents’ laps, husbands with their arms around their wives. Fasting was making me voraciously hungry. My breath seemed to slip, its sound like small stale whispers. For a moment I felt angels in the sanctuary, then the terror of being alive. When the cantor, dressed in her white kittel, otherwise worn for weddings, chanted the ancient melancholy notes of loss and forgiveness, I swore I saw a wave of grief swell across the congregation like a solid mist of tears. Kol Nidre penetrated my bones with every note, every pause, every shift of the cantor’s voice. I felt certainty peeling from my ribs.
The rabbi spoke about private and public mourning, the need to give and receive forgiveness, the gates of heaven that would close by the end of this holiest of days. I sat and fully listened, trying once again to make sense of everything I’d once trusted. Later, as my hunger made me feel lightheaded and my arguments with life multiplied, Yizkor, the service for the dead, began. It was then that I felt my right hand reach over to my left, and I slipped off my wedding ring without any prior thought or plan. I studied its three shades of gold twisted together, I traced the pink, yellow and white, and thought of how we’d chosen this metaphor — for braided lives, believing we’d be together forever. Now I felt pieces of matter coming apart in my hands. I placed the ring gently in my pocket and wondered about the mysterious ways of the universe. Among the mourners, I longed to understand the boundaries of self, to understand safety. I wanted to believe, as the rabbi insisted, that new life would come. I wanted to believe I could endure.
Against the backdrop of familiar chanted prayers, I realized I was not the first, nor last, to know sorrow. When it came to deaths, there was often no fairness, no explanation. Death’s wind was forceful and old and wild with sorrowful melody. It would come to all of us. And life would keep changing, would carry on. As I walked to my house after the services, I knew this as I’d not really ever known it before.
I paused in the early autumn sunshine with its dappled light coming through transfiguring trees, and considered the passing of this small civilization my husband and I had created. The bright blue sky mocked the language of endings, the laments of new knowledge. I turned the key in the door thinking about the sukkah we would soon build to peer through the overhead boughs of our impermanent homes. I thought about how it is — that each year we sit there faithfully looking up, trying to embrace the stars.
Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter: The Roads in and out of War, University of Iowa Press. She teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology.