A few nights ago I was running a respectable fever and was utterly miserable. The plates of my skull seemed to shift; fireworks went off behind my eyes; the supply of tissues was exhausted long before my sneezing fits ebbed.
It was a solitary pity party. That is to say, it ranked well below one of my parades of drudgery.
It may be akin to the sound of a tree falling in the woods if there’s no one to hear it; it’s not much of a pity party if one’s whining is all directed inward.
(I considered titling this post in a more blatantly self-pitying way, with the entirely accurate recounting of the night that “I was a Single Helix at a Doubles Party,” but that shall have to wait until another time.)
I was reading a book, foggily, on a febrile verge of the night reader’s sleep Billy Collins has described:
Is there a more gentle way to go into the night
than to follow an endless rope of sentences
and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page
into the first tentative flicker of a dream,
passing out of the bright precincts of attention
like cigarette smoke passing through a window screen?
But this was not so gentle a sleep. I began, finally, to sink into sleep and was startled to full alert by a sensation I have never had before since my husband died. I saw his face, his jawline, the very pores of his skin, from an odd vantage point (above me, yet as if I were looking down at his face), as if he were only inches away, edged by a very bright white light that could not have come from anywhere on that stormy, dark night. It was so vivid an image that I believed I could touch his face even as I knew I couldn’t.
Many people have told me that the first year after losing a spouse is hell.
Nobody told me that the hell would be of an eternal variety (although I suppose that goes without saying, linguistically), though no one who cares about me would have been inclined to do so.
My husband remains omnipresent in my life, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The manner in which he is present during the daylight hours gives me strength in many ways.
But the dark and near-dreaming world is peculiar, and almost invariably painful. It calls me to another Billy Collins poem, about an insomniac ruminating about what I assume to be his boyhood self, trying to recapture something about that former life and a boy who no longer exists:
It makes no difference whether I lie
staring at the ceiling
or pace the living-room floor,
he keeps on making his furious rounds,
little pedaler in his frenzy,
my own worst enemy, my oldest friend.
What is there to do but close my eyes
and watch him circling the night,
schoolboy in an ill-fitting jacket,
leaning forward, his cap on backwards,
wringing the handlebars,
maintaining a certain speed?
Does anything exist at this hour
in this nest of dark rooms
but the spectacle of him
and the hope that before dawn
I can lift out some curious detail
that will carry me off to sleep—
the watch that encircles his pale wrist,
the expandable band,
the tiny hands that keep pointing this way and that.
To call back up this boy’s existence is to seize “some curious detail,” and I am flooded with such details about Jim.
This may be part of why it is so difficult for me to let go of physical objects which remind me of him, and there are very few things which do not. As with an unsurprisingly overwrought female lead in a Russian novel, examining her love’s belongings, “everything seems priceless to her. What is he? she asks, poring over his books, examining the marks left by his thumbnail in the margins . . . .”
There is nothing in our house that does not remind me of my husband, but then there is nothing much elsewhere without such associations. I have to remind myself that I must let things go, in the sense, as our friend reminds me, that “Jim was not about things.” I can still and always carry Jim with me, as the insomniac carries his younger self.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon