Just the two of us, in the mid-morning May sun, on the porch of the home he had shared for 20 years with the woman with whom he had shared a marriage thrice that long.
“What do I do now?” asked my father-in-law, in his first full day as a widower.
He was not merely thinking out loud, posing a question more rhetorical than real; he was asking me, looking at me. Me, whose wife was alive and well and busy elsewhere, tending to arrangements.
Perhaps he would have sought an answer from whomever had been at his side at that moment, a year ago this week; and it would be foolish to think he did not ask it of others, later. But it was now, and the two of us. And if I had no concept of life without his daughter, had never thought of it, or dared to imagine it, he knew I had watched my own father grapple with the loss of my mother, two score years earlier.
So I said to my wife’s father, almost apologetically, “I guess the only thing you can do is keep going.” That’s what my dad had chosen to do, I recalled, and what I know my mother expected of him. I was certain it was what my wife’s mother wished of her husband, and I told him so. I allowed, too, that I knew it wouldn’t be easy, not at first, not even with help from three children and their spouses, four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren and their families, and the promise represented by the first great-grandchild. See? Look around — we’re all here for you.
Assuming they are even approximate contemporaries, husbands are not supposed to outlive wives. That is not a cultural norm, a societal abstract, but an actuarial reality. Women live longer than men. (In Arkansas, if you must know, five years longer, on average.) My parents’ lives plainly were the anomaly: ten years older than my mother, my father survived her by almost a quarter-century, and thus defied a second time the science of probability: men whose wives predecease them tend to die sooner than the mortality tables would otherwise predict. (Widows, multiple studies indicate, fare rather better, their life expectancies remaining essentially unchanged.)
Almost three centuries have passed since Samuel Johnson compiled a dictionary of the English language that he used with fine purpose, as in writing of life without his beloved Elizabeth: “He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good and evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless.”
In his first weeks of life without his Jane my father-in-law, Buddy, was indeed suspended and motionless, he as bewildered, as lacerated, as the English lexicographer without his “Tetty,” companion, benefactor, inspiration. Johnson’s pen faltered, his torrent of words ebbed to a trickle, the essays and appraisals deferred in favor of lengthy, soulful laments scribbled in diaries and letters. Not for Buddy the literary approach but the oral tradition; he eschewed baseball games and coffee with friends and choir practice to speak to Jane at gravesite. He still does. But his clock, as did Johnson’s, has begun to keep time again, foretelling not leaden hours descending at sunset but measuring the minutes before a hopeful dawn.
Thirty decades after the ordinarily indefatigable Dr. Johnson reflected on his abrupt aimlessness, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer cut closer to the heart of the husband robbed of his wife by fate: “He would wake from sleep to miss the weight that never depressed the bed next to him, remember in earnest the weight of gestures she never made, long for the un-weight of her un-arm slung over his too real chest, making his widower’s remembrances that much more convincing and the pain that much more real.”
A widower has now experienced his first Mother’s Day without the mother of his children, who, mindful of the occasion, made certain he would not be alone with his convincing remembrances, temptations to pain. Elsewhere are other men at an identical point in life, life without her, with their own memories, as tangible as the things that were hers — their house, his heart.
Father’s Day approaches.