On Saturday, the world will formally say goodbye to Hank – husband to Shannon, father of Ella. Hank was 38. He had cancer.
Twenty-eight years ago this month, my husband Bruce died when his tractor was hit by a train near our farm. Hank and Bruce lived and died differently, but each left behind a daughter and his daughter’s mother.
The days before and the day of Bruce’s funeral felt much like the days this week – cold and windy. The air…damp and heavy. This is one of life’s hardest weeks, the one we feel the sting of the death of a loved one and the ensuing pain of goodbye.
Except for the moments I escaped to nurse Carlene in our bedroom, the bathroom had been my only refuge, the only place people left me alone and I could think for 10 minutes without making decisions about flowers and cemetery plots and caskets. On the day of the funeral, I lingered in the shower longer than usual. I wrapped myself in Bruce’s bathrobe and sat cross-legged on the counter like I always did when Bruce and I got ready for a date or church. He’d shave, I’d put on my makeup, and we’d listen to the radio and talk.
I rubbed foundation on my face and imagined him next to me knotting his tie, something he tried to teach me many times. I turned on the radio and heard the song “I Won’t Hold You Back” by Toto. I sang along until I got to the line, “Now that I’m alone it gives me time, to think about the years that you were mine.”
I stared in the mirror. Even though for three days people were everywhere and would be for more days to come, I was alone. I’d been watched and worried about like I was a fragile girl with a scarlet “W” stitched on her chest, but no one could share this pain with me. I was a new mother who should have been perfecting nursing and bathing her baby daughter and sleeping when she slept, but instead I was eyed and pawed and clung to by grieving masses, people with real grief, but who would go back to their homes where they could ponder this tragedy while I lived it.
It didn’t matter that I felt every bit the obese, nursing, bleeding mother I was. Death came with obligations. No one would understand if I stayed home. I turned off the radio and put on my suit. I walked out of the bathroom with my chin up and eyes dry. I left Carlene with a neighbor and got into my father’s car to ride to the church.
|Bruce and me, April 3, 1982. Bruce died March 22, 1983.|
Dressed in a suit with a thousand sad eyes watching me, I walked down the aisle of the church with my parents behind the pall bearers and my husband’s casket. Almost a year ago to the day, many of those same eyes watched me walk down that same aisle, 40 pounds lighter and holding on to my father’s arm as Bruce waited for me at the altar, tall and handsome, young and vibrant.
Now he lay dead in a casket covered in sprays of lilies, carnations and roses with a small red ribbon attached, scrolled with the word “Daddy.”
Except for a few muffled cries, the mourning congregation was controlled and dignified, and I was, too. I kept myself together through “Children of the Heavenly Father” by staring at Bruce’s casket. I chose the song because I’d introduced Bruce to it a few months earlier when he was looking for something to sing for a solo in church. Bruce could sing a TV commercial and I’d melt. Over the summer I learned to play two of my favorite songs on the piano – “Your Song” by Elton John and “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce – just so he’d sing them to me.
When the hymn ended, the church was quiet except for the sound of one person weeping. It was my father, fully engaged in shoulder shaking, head-in-hands, inconsolable sobbing.
Dad was 6 years old when his father died in 1937, and his mother was 8 months pregnant. It was the middle of the Depression, and like chocolate, grief was a luxury. There were fields to plow and children to raise. The only way my grandmother could deal with her grief was to bury it. She did not allow Grandpa’s name spoken in the house, so my dad, who was named after his father, was called by his middle name.
He’d lost his father and his name, and now his only grandchild was fatherless, too. The man had earned the right to cry.
I imagined liberating my own pain that way or by throwing myself on Bruce’s casket and wailing. But I didn’t want to be known as the woman who lost it at her husband’s funeral. My only emotional emancipation was when I kissed my hand and touched his casket when I thought no one was looking, like I was saying goodbye to a clandestine lover.
Now it is Shannon’s turn to cry, and in the days, months and years to follow, she will raise Ella and remember Hank. Her life will go on and she’ll work and she’ll one day smile, but this week? This week will crawl inside and forever be a part of her.
I love you, Shannon. Peace, my friend.