I noticed a chip on the corner of the coffee table on the 73rd day. It was a nick about the size of the tip of my thumbnail, on the corner of the table closest to my side of the couch. Pat preferred to sit on the right side, near the floor lamp, so he had better reading light; his eyes started going before mine. I had never seen the chip before. I didn’t remember bumping the table the last time I cleaned, but I didn’t remember the last time I cleaned.
Maybe Charlie hit it with his lacrosse stick.
Charlie had a bad habit of walking through the house after practice without first dropping his bag in the garage. But Charlie had not lived at home in five years.
I stuffed my pencil in my copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and walked to the kitchen. Opening the junk drawer, stuffed with a menagerie of pens, white out, and stray safety pins that we collected over the past 29 years, I searched for the wood-finish stain marker. Pat bought it when we moved his mother’s mahogany bureau from her home into our master bedroom – my master bedroom – after she passed away. He colored in the scratches from her barrettes and the faded acetone-spill stains. If we didn’t look closely, the dresser looked brand new, the imperfections and missing paint almost unnoticeable, like they had never happened. I couldn’t find the marker, and retreated back to my spot on the couch, curling my legs underneath me.
I underlined for the 15th time Didion’s line: “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible.”
My therapist is a 60-year-old woman with box-dyed blonde hair and very kind brown eyes. We met on the 19th day in the small waiting room of her basement office in a large corporate complex. I found Elizabeth online; her Psychology Today profile read: “Elizabeth C: I provide counseling to individuals and couples who are bereaved or who have experienced a loss. I specialize in treating diverse issues in grief and bereavement.”
Grief and bereavement, two terms used interchangeably on condolence cards, synonymous descriptions for the state of life after loss. I always thought bereavement sounded heavier, more laborious.
On the 19th day, she asked me what I wanted out of our time together, and my mouth filled with too many words to string any of them together into a sentence that articulated what the past 18 days felt like. The gold bangles stacked on her wrists clinked together as she shifted her hands from her clipboard to the arm of her chair and back to her clipboard again. Elizabeth had a tiny humidifier in the corner of the office, and its soft hum sounded like the window air conditioner in our master bedroom – my master bedroom.
“I want to feel normal,” I told her.
I didn’t expect life itself to feel normal, but I wanted someone else – someone who studied brains, and emotions, and how people hurt – to tell me that everything happening inside of my head was normal after loss, and it would end. I wanted to be told that the misfiring in my brain would eventually subside, and I wanted assurance that at some point, this jumble of memories, these moments of amnesia followed by throbbing, sore lucidity would pass. I wanted to know how to live ordinarily, in this completely abnormal, unexpected, incomprehensible new life.
During our first session, looking at Elizabeth’s bookshelf, lined with psychology and psychiatry textbooks, I asked her what the clinical difference was between grief and bereavement. She explained that grief can be described as the presence of physical and mental problems after a significant loss: constant thoughts of the person who died, guilt, anger, hostility, and a change in the way one normally acts. Bereavement is the period of time in which grief exists, an extension of grief into a consumptive, perpetual, static existence. Elizabeth said the time spent in bereavement depends on how attached the person was to the person who died, and how much time was spent anticipating the loss.
I talked to Elizabeth about the chip on the 75th day. I told her that my brain’s automatic explanation for the scuff was Charlie’s lacrosse stick, even though Charlie had moved out five years ago when he left for college, and there hadn’t been a lacrosse stick in my living room since. Logically, I understood that at some point in time, perhaps in the past few months, I had hit it, but doing what, I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember what I did, where I went, or who I talked to day by day. The minutes and hours blended together, passively. I didn’t do things; things happened to me.
Telling Elizabeth why I was troubled by my memory’s reaction to seeing the coffee table, I tried to coherently communicate how my grief, or my bereavement, or my grief enveloped in this new existence of bereavement, was taking my understanding of the record of my life and cutting it up into tiny pieces.
The collage of memories that wrote the narrative of the past 58 years of my life swam around my head like the old word magnets on our fridge – my fridge. Charlie went through a phase in the fourth grade, after his teacher picked his poem to read to the class, where he decided he wanted to be a poet. That Christmas, Pat stuck a magnetic poetry kit in his stocking, thrilled that Charlie found an interest in something other than sports. Every morning for a few months, Charlie would stand in front of the fridge with his glass of orange juice, practicing rhyme and impressing Pat with his ability to master the syllabic structure of haikus. The poetry fascination ended after a few months, as most of Charlie’s little obsessions did at that age, and the words remained stuck to our fridge for years. Neither Charlie, nor Pat, nor myself bothered to detangle them and arrange them into anything intelligible.
That’s how the memories existed in my mind, just random assortments of moments and sounds and words that I couldn’t align or contextualize within a timeline. When I looked at the coffee table, my memory reverted five years. Charlie was still home, when Pat was still alive, my life was still comfortably, predictably, uncomplicatedly ordinary.
Elizabeth explained to me on the 75th day that grief can have complex and confusing impacts on the brain’s ability to recall and access memories. Up until that session, we didn’t talk about my life before Pat, because I didn’t know, or just couldn’t remember, what that life looked like.
On the 75th day, she asked me about my first year at Boston College, the year before I met Pat. I couldn’t remember my roommate’s name. She asked me about my high school graduation, and I couldn’t tell her where it was held. She asked me what I ate for lunch the day before, and what I did over the weekend, and each time I tried to scrape up any detail of my existence without Pat, nothing came to the forefront of my thoughts. If it didn’t involve Pat, the memory felt like a blurry sketch that couldn’t come into focus.
On the first day, I learned how the heart of a 62-year-old man can betray the body it keeps alive within a matter of minutes. The doctor explained it all to me, shortly after midnight of the first day, when I sat in the cheap, blue-upholstered chair in the waiting room of the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Maybe I was standing when he started speaking, but I felt the arms of the chair collapsing in on me as he continued.
“Left anterior descending artery.”
“Immediate muscle damage.”
These were facts, indisputable certitudes that a team of doctors and years of research had determined happened inside of Pat’s body. Heart attack is a dramatic name, but when Dr. O’Connor spelled out the clinical process of a heart stopping, the words sounded harsher, harder, and uglier. Dr. O’Connor talked about my husband like he was a cluster of flesh and cells and arteries, a network of systems that at any moment could just decide to stop working.
At Pat’s mother’s open-casket viewing, I overheard a group of her rotary club friends praising the funeral director for a “great job” on her body. Her face was painted in a dark, thick-cement-looking foundation that made her skin appear as if she’d spent the last years of her life out in the real world, with sun and warmth and rain and clouds, instead of in dialysis treatment. The attempt to erase the death from her face made it all the more visible, makeup and powder painting an unrecognizable portrait of someone I didn’t know. She looked indisputably dead to me.
When Dr. O’Connor allowed me to see him, Pat did not look dead. Covered in a thin white sheet, his head facing directly up at the ceiling, eyes closed gently, he didn’t look peaceful, or calm, or restful. I didn’t imagine that his soul had transcended, or gone wherever souls are supposed to go when someone dies. He looked normal. He looked like at any moment, he would twitch in his sleep, a gurgle crawling out of his throat.
Dr. O’Connor left me alone to say “goodbye.” But goodbyes don’t take place when someone is already gone. Goodbye meant I’d hear his garage door opening in a few hours. Goodbye meant he’d be standing over the sink, his back facing me, washing out his French press when I walked through the front door after work. Goodbyes, for the past 29 years, weren’t singular, isolated moments; they were guarantees for future hellos.
On the third day, I did research. I sat in front of my breakfast at my older sister Jane’s kitchen table. She had picked me up from the hospital on the first day, and taken me back to her and her husband’s house, about an hour drive from St. Luke’s. Charlie came in from Boston and slept on Jane’s sleeper sofa, while she made up the bed in the guest room for me, as we prepared for the funeral. I laid on top of the floral comforter for the first few nights, exhausted but not sleeping. On the third day, she heated a muffin from Weis Market’s bakery in the microwave, split it in half, and buttered each side. I didn’t remember, but she said I liked my muffins that way.
I googled “heart attack left anterior descending artery” on my phone, picking the crumbs off the top of the muffin but not putting them to my mouth. The first result was a Healthline article with the headline: “Widowmaker Heart Attack: Definition, Symptoms, Causes.” Pat’s heart attack was caused by a complete blockage of his left anterior descending artery, also known as a chronic total obstruction. The LAD artery carries the fresh, oxygenated blood to the heart. Without this blood, the heart quickly runs out of oxygen, and stops beating within minutes. The official name, an anterior ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction, kills hundreds of thousands of people each year – the most deadly form of cardiac arrest.
A normal, ordinary heart attack might leave 20 percent of an artery unclogged. A normal, ordinary heart attack might not stop the heart completely. But Pat’s was special, extraordinary. Pat’s heart attack killed him – a full blockage, a finite stop, simultaneously ending his life and generating a new, unfamiliar one for me. The widowmaker: death and creation, all the result of a build-up of tissue.
Elizabeth had suggested in our second week together that keeping to one’s routine after the loss of a spouse helps to maintain a sense of normalcy. Eating, sleeping, exercising like one typically does not only keeps the bereaved physically healthy, but supposedly provides the comfort of familiarity and a purpose of living. I attempted to work through the world in the only way I knew how, as if Pat was still there. But the more I tried to keep a routine, the more my fragmented memory of the past ate up my understanding of the present, scrambling my perception of what I knew to be normal. Every morning, I ground beans for two cups of coffee, forgetting that without Pat pouring himself a cup, the French press would be sitting half-full until I went to rinse it out after dinner. I slept on my same side of the bed, hugging the edge, because Pat always spread his legs during his sleep. When the moments of lucidity crept in, and I became aware of the absurdity of what I was doing, the sadness, the hurt, the anger, all of those DSM check marks that Elizabeth said characterized grief, washed over my brain in waves.
One night, maybe the 93rd, or the 103rd day, I wept over the sink, watching the coffee stain the white enamel as it swirled down the garbage disposal from the French press, my murky tears dyed with my mascara freckling the counter. I cried as the moments passed through my mind on a silent film reel — Pat, sitting at the kitchen table, chewing the tip of his pencil eraser as he worked through the jumble, gripping his mug in the other hand; Pat, rubbing my neck as he passed by me at the sink to grab the sugar; Pat, his warm good mornings even at 6 a.m., and his warm arms wrapping around my waist from behind. Some nights, I would wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and instead of returning to my side of our bed, I’d curl up on the floor in tears. I was, then, too unaware of the missing lump underneath the sheets on Pat’s side, too attuned to the emptiness, the chill under the covers, without his warmth heating my side and the rhythm of his breathing lulling me back to sleep. “Normal” parts of life went cold without him. Every mundane aspect of my world felt uncanny, and strange, and scary, like there was something inherently wrong in what I found should’ve been familiar. Instead, they were reminders of the pain – this pain that enveloped all of sadness of being alone, all of the anger at Pat’s heart for not doing what hearts are supposed to do, all of the paralyzing absurdity of a world without him.
On the 250th day, Charlie and I had our first big “First” without Pat. Every August since Charlie was four, the three of us would spend a week up in Cape Cod. One of Pat’s fellow professors in the Amherst English department owned a house in Chatham, right on the southeast tip of the cape, and rented it out to us for a fairly decent rate. At the funeral, he urged that Charlie and I use it whenever we needed to “escape everything.” I smiled at him, thanking him for the gesture, knowing he didn’t understand that Pat lived inside my brain too, not just in our home. We had already planned the trip, and Charlie had requested off work before Pat’s death. Charlie called me a few weeks before the 250th day, and suggested the two of us spend at least a few days at the cape. He said his father wouldn’t have wanted us to miss any good waves.
On the 250th day, Charlie and I piled our things – two beach chairs instead of three, his small duffle bag and my suitcase, and two fishing poles, neatly in the trunk and backseat of his Mazda. We spent the three-hour long drive avoiding the silence left without Pat’s road trip games, and the Jimmy Buffet classics he’d always insist we listen to on a loop. Charlie talked about his job, working as a consultant for a digital marketing agency in Boston, and how he thought his Red Sox were shaping up for the play-offs in the fall, and a new girl he’d gone on a few dates with. He didn’t ask me about me, because he didn’t have to. When he’d come to sleep over the night before we left, he saw the house in the same state, virtually untouched, as it was when he stayed with me for a few days after the funeral. The door to Pat’s office remained closed, and his coffee mugs lined up neatly on the kitchen counter.
When we pulled off Mid Cape Highway through Exit 10 and shot out onto Queen Anne Road, Charlie switched off the air conditioning and rolled down both of our windows, the smell of brackish low tide from the marsh seeping into the car. Without Pat, there was no one to joke “phew, who passed gas?” We drove up the sea-shell driveway to the house, and Charlie took our bags inside while I walked out to the pier in the backyard that hung over the bay. I sat down, swinging my feet over the edge, staring down through the splintered wood at brownish-blue water as the waves lapped against one another. Pat used to come out to the pier every morning on the trip to fish. He’d taught Charlie how to bait a worm, how to cast a line, and how to judge that perfect moment for yanking the pole when the bobber dipped just below the surface.
I felt Charlie coming from behind, before he slipped off his sandals and sat next to me, his legs hanging next to mine. Ever since he was young, Charlie was the protective type. He’d stare at his first goldish he’d won from our church’s fall festival in 2nd grade, tapping the bowl if he thought it was swimming funny, worried it was sick. Whenever Pat or I went to swim in the ocean alone, Charlie would place himself on the edge of the sand right before the water, keeping an eye on us. We didn’t speak as we sat, feeling Pat heavy in the air. Silently, Charlie wrapped his arm around my shoulders, pulling my head into his neck. Those waves of moments in my mind started pouring over me again – Pat standing on this pier, Pat reapplying sun tan lotion every hour, Pat wearing a bucket hat that Charlie and I hated. His warmth, his childlike glee at just existing in the world, buzzed with the mosquitos and burned from the 3 p.m. summer sun. Soon, I was choking on sobs into Charlie’s chest, letting the pressure of his body replace the emptiness I felt without his father, my husband, my Pat. For the first time since he died, I noticed some sense of safety in my son’s arms. His “shhhhs” sounded like Pat’s, when Charlie would cry as a baby.
On the 300th day, I talked to Elizabeth about the last night, the night before the first day. The last night split my life into a chapter with Pat and a chapter without, and erased all of the pages before I’d met him. For almost a year, I’d been visiting Elizabeth weekly. She decided about halfway through that we needed to work towards recalling the memories that I claimed didn’t exist anywhere inside me. I convinced myself that in my new brain, this bereavement brain, those last hours were inaccessible. I could access the first day, at 12:05 a.m., when Dr. O’Connor led me to see Pat, because I didn’t see a dead man. Pat was there. He was in the bed, about to wake up.
“Do you want to try to tell me what you did that day?” Elizabeth asked, ten minutes into our session on the 300th day, her legs crossing over one another as she leaned in closer to me.
“It was normal,” I said.
The day that changed my life and ended Pat’s was not outstanding. It was not memorable. It was simply ordinary. I remembered Didion’s line: “Life changes in the instant, the ordinary instant.”
“I probably went to work, because it was a Tuesday. I go into work at 7:30 instead of 8:30 on Tuesdays.”
“Good, and do you remember anything about being at work?” Elizabeth said, coaching me to go deeper. “Did anything notable happen? A student you talked to? An issue with a printer? Is there any detail you can tell me?”
“I called him.”
The words came out automatically, before I understood what they meant, and before I could recognize the blurry images coming into focus.
“Because Ryan McGowin was going to be on Jeopardy,” I continued, my eyes now closed. “I heard it on the announcements, I called him to say Ryan McGowin was going to be on Jeopardy, so we should watch it.”
When Charlie first moved away to school, Pat and I watched Jeopardy every night for a few months. Without Charlie’s practices and SAT tutoring and lacrosse fundraisers, our empty-nester nights felt empty and long, and Pat liked to prove that he was smarter than all of the contestants. But we had stopped watching for a few weeks, as it was finals season at Amherst. He had been spending most of time up in his study, reading papers and recording grades. I wanted to watch it that night because an old student and former president of the Library Club I supervised, Ryan, would be competing on a special-edition college episode.
“I called up to him because it was starting in five minutes,” I said, as I saw myself walking around my kitchen, cleaning out the crock pot from dinner.
He didn’t answer when I called him, and I waited five minutes to go upstairs. Five minutes of silence, five minutes that swallowed 29 years, five minutes that swallowed the sound of garage door opening, the distinctive rhythm of his feet coming down the steps, the way he said “water” funny, the sigh he released whenever he stood up from his spot on the couch.
“He didn’t answer, and I called again five minutes later when it was starting, and he didn’t answer again, so I went upstairs to get him.”
Elizabeth didn’t talk, and I was now, after 300 days, reaching some neurological precipice that allowed the images of the night to play on the backs of my eyelids as I sat on Elizabeth’s couch, squeezing my eyes shut.
His study was the second to last door on the left of the hallway, past Charlie’s bedroom. The door was cracked as I approached it, and the harsh light from his desk lamp painted a thin white line on the carpeted hallway floor. I pushed open the door and saw his head on his desk, his cheek facing towards the door, eyes closed. I said his name over, and over, and over, attempting to shake him awake.
Pat Pat Pat Pat Pat.
I called 911, and the operator asked me if he was breathing. I screamed that I didn’t know. The operator asked me if he had a pulse. I screamed I didn’t know.
Pat Pat Pat Pat Pat.
I grabbed at his wrists, shoved my middle and forefinger into the side of his neck.
“Ma’am you need to lay him flat and begin compressions. Follow what I say and stay on the line until the ambulance gets there.”
By the time I had moved him onto the floor and positioned him on his back, I heard two ambulances pull into the driveway. I left him there, on the floor, his readers askew on his face, to open the door. Once in the room, they began compressions and hoisted him onto a stretcher, carrying him down the steps, out to the ambulance. I rode in the second of the two to the emergency room at St. Luke’s, screaming.
Pat Pat Pat Pat Pat.
At some moment between the ambulance ride and the moment Dr. O’Connor met me in the waiting room, my brain began its erasure of the sketches of life without Pat. It faded my memories of every moment without him and enhanced the color of everything that contained him. The absence of his warmth made the moments cold, empty, and hollow. The last hours of the last day filed themselves away into a corner of my brain, a corner that I didn’t know existed.
When I opened my eyes, my surroundings, the cream walls of Elizabeth’s office and the small stripes of sun wiggling in through the English basement windows, wrapped me in the present. For the first time in the 300 days that I’d spent floating through life without a clue what was happening to me, I knew exactly where I was.
On the 300th night, I walked into Pat’s office. It had sat undisturbed. Paper clips and sticky notes were strewn across his desk; the case for his readers laid open on the floor. A red pen without its cap sat on a stack of papers, and I picked up the first stapled packet on the pile. It was an essay, folded open to the fourth page. He was teaching “Children’s Literature” at the time, one of his favorite courses.
A student named Matilda had written about the motif of memory in The Giver by Lewis Lowry. The first four pages of her essay were littered with marks from Pat’s red pen, underlined phrases with “yes” written above them, bracketed paragraphs with instructions to “expand more” scribbled in the margins. I flipped through the essay to find where Pat’s pen had stopped, where the tissue and plaque had fully closed the artery, where his face fell into Matilda’s work. I don’t know what I was looking for; maybe an explanation of the five minutes of silence between my call to him and the moment I walked into his office. Maybe I just wanted to know what he was thinking about when his heart stopped. I followed the red ink with my finger, until I found it; he had underlined Matilda’s words: “without memory, one cannot remember pain.”
I took Matilda’s paper from the stack of essays, and stuck it in my nightstand.
I learned there was a distinct difference between my grief and this state of “bereavement” that I had, up until the 300th day, understood to be permanent and unchanging. Grief is reactive; it’s a response to a loss. My memories in the months after Pat’s death were splintered and rearranged and foggy and confusing as a response to losing the only person I had loved, the person whose breathing I had fallen asleep to for 29 years and the person whose footsteps I woke up to every morning. Bereavement is different. It’s active, a constant adaptation to a new world without a person. It’s replacing “ours” with “mys.” It’s feeling Pat’s warmth in places, and people, and items. It’s learning how to fill an unknown emptiness.
I came to disagree with Elizabeth’s explanation: “The time spent in a period of bereavement depends on how attached the person was to the person who died.” Bereavement doesn’t have an ending point, a marked closure, when the new normal stops feeling new and just starts feeling normal, because every day is a first “something” in a new life without that person.
The day after the 300th day was a new first day. That morning, I picked up a wood-stain marker, and colored in the chip in the corner of the coffee table. From Pat’s side of the couch, the scratch was barely noticeable; but my eyes recognized that a piece of the table would always be missing.