The New York Times
Good Griefby Lolly Winston
Thirty-six-year-old Sophie Stanton desperately wants to be a good widow-a graceful, composed, Jackie Kennedy kind of widow. Alas, she is more of the Jack Daniels kind. Self-medicating with ice cream for breakfast, breaking down at the supermarket, and showing up to work in her bathrobe and bunny slippers-soon she's not only lost her husband, but her job,… See more details below
Thirty-six-year-old Sophie Stanton desperately wants to be a good widow-a graceful, composed, Jackie Kennedy kind of widow. Alas, she is more of the Jack Daniels kind. Self-medicating with ice cream for breakfast, breaking down at the supermarket, and showing up to work in her bathrobe and bunny slippers-soon she's not only lost her husband, but her job, house...and waistline. With humor and chutzpah Sophie leaves town, determined to reinvent her life. But starting over has its hurdles; soon she's involved with a thirteen-year-old who has a fascination with fire, and a handsome actor who inspires a range of feelings she can't cope with-yet.
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Good GriefA Novel
By Lolly Winston
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 Lolly Winston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow can I be a widow? Widows wear horn-rimmed glasses and cardigan sweaters that smell like mothballs and have crepe-paper skin and names like Gladys or Midge and meet with their other widow friends once a week to play pinochle. I'm only thirty-six. I just got used to the idea of being married, only test-drove the words my husband for three years: My husband and I, my husband and I ... after all that time being single!
As we go around the room introducing ourselves at the grief group, my heart drums in my chest. No wonder people fear public speaking more than death or heights or spiders. I rehearse a few lines in my head:
My name is Sophie and I live in San Jose and my husband died. No. My name is Sophie and my husband passed away of Hodgkin's disease, which is a type of cancer young adults get. Oh, but they probably already know that. This group seems up on its diseases.
A silver-haired man whose wife also died of cancer says that now when he gets up in the morning he doesn't have to poach his wife's egg or run her bath, and he doesn't see the point in getting out of bed. He weeps without making a sound, tears quivering in his eyes, then escaping down his unshaven cheeks. He looks at the floor and kneads his sweater in his hands, which are pink and spotted like luncheon meat.
We sit in a circle of folding chairs in a conference room at the hospital, everyone sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups and hugging their coats in their laps. Fluorescent lights buzz overhead. They are bright and cruel, exposing the group's despair: the puffy faces, circles under the eyes like bruised fruit, dampened spirits that no longer want to sing along with the radio. There should be a rule for grief groups: forty-watt bulbs only.
The social worker who leads the group balances a clipboard on her knees and takes notes. She has one tooth that is grayer than the others, like an off-color piano key. Is it dead, hollow? I want to leap up and tap it with my fingernail. Surely she's got dental insurance. Why doesn't she fix that tooth?
My name is Sophie and I've joined the grief group because ... well, because I sort of did a crazy thing. I drove my Honda through our garage door. I was coming home from work one night and- even though my husband has been dead for three months-I honestly thought I would run inside and tell him to turn on the radio because they were playing an old recording of Flip Wilson, whom he just loves. Loved. Ethan had been trying to find a copy of this skit for years, and now here it was on the radio. If I hurried, we could tape it. Then I had the sudden realization that my husband was gone, dead, and the next thing I knew the car was lurching through the door. The wood creaked and crunched as I worked the car into reverse and backed through the splintery hole; then Flip Wilson got to the punch line, "And maybe we have a banana for your monkey!" and the audience roared. My shrink, Dr. Rupert, pointed out later that I could have hurt myself or someone else and insisted I join this group.
The Indian woman sitting next to me lost her twin sister, who was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Her long black braids hang like elegant tassels down the back of her pumpkin-colored sari. She says she and her sister shared a room until they left home, and after that they talked to each other every day on the telephone. Now she dreams that the phone is ringing in the middle of the night. But when she awakens the house is silent; she picks up the phone and no one is there and she can't fall back to sleep and she's exhausted during the day. She hears phones ringing everywhere, in the car, at work, at the store. Now, she shudders and cups her ears with her slender brown fingers. I want to get her number and call her so that when she picks up someone will be on the other end.
Suddenly everyone in the circle is looking at me expectantly, and I wish I'd had a little more time to prepare for the meeting before racing here from work. I can feel my uncooperative curly brown hair puffing in crazy directions, as if it wants to leave the room. On some days it forms silky ringlets, on others Roseanne Roseanna-danna frizz.
"My name is Sophie Stanton and my husband died of cancer three months ago ...," I stammer, tucking my fingers into the curls. My voice sounds loud and warbly in the too bright room. I try to talk and hold in my stomach at the same time, because my slacks are unbuttoned under my sweater to accommodate a waistline swollen from overmedicating with frozen waffles; I think I feel the zipper creeping down my former size six belly. That seems like enough for now, anyway. "Thank you," I add, not wanting to seem unfriendly.
"Thank you, Sophie," the social worker says. Her voice is as high and sweet as a Mouseketeer's.
Maybe later I'll tell the group how I dream about Ethan every night. That he's still alive in the eastern standard time zone and if I fly to New York, I can see him for another three hours. That I'm mixing chocolate and strawberry Ensure into a muddy potion that will restore his hemoglobin. When I wake at three or four in the morning, my nightgown is soaked and stuck to my back and the walls pulse around me. But by the time I get to Dr. Rupert's office, I've sunk into a zombie calm. It's sort of like when you bring your car into the shop and it stops making that troublesome noise.
Dr. Rupert says to keep busy. For the past three months I've been rushing from work to various activities: a book club, a pottery class, volunteer outings for the Audubon Society. We rescued a flock of sandpipers on the beach. Something toxic had leaked from a boat into the water, and the birds reared and stumbled and flapped their wings as we scooped them into crates. I rented a Rototiller and turned over the hard, dry earth at the very back of our yard and planted sunflowers and cosmos that shot straight through the September heat toward the sky. Everyone said how well I was doing, how brave I was.
Then I drove my car through the garage door. "Screw the birds!" I yelled at Dr. Rupert in my session that afternoon. "Screw the books, screw the sunflowers!" He scribbled on his little pad, then told me about this group.
There are fifteen of us in the circle. My eyes scan the sets of feet, counting: two, four, six, eight, ten. Two, four, six, eight, ten. Two, four, six, eight, ten. Thirty feet. Fifteen people. Hush Puppies and Reeboks and penny loafers.
The group meets at the hospital where Ethan died. I haven't been back since his death. But I remember everything about this place. How Ethan lay in bed, gray and speckly as a trout. The smells of rubbing alcohol and canned peas and souring flower arrangements. The patients, wrapped like mummies, being wheeled on gurneys through the halls. The monotone pages over the PA, the operator saying things like "Code five hundred" and "Dr. So-and-So to surgery" as calmly as if she were reporting a spill in aisle six.
Great idea! Let's go back to the hospital once a week. You remember the hospital.
Now everyone is looking at me again, and the social worker is saying something.
"Pardon?" "What did your husband do, Sophie?"
I push my glasses up on my nose (a little problem with oversleeping prevents me from wearing my contact lenses these days) and peer out at the circle of forlorn faces. "He was a software engineer." "I see." She adds that to her yellow pad.
How odd to reduce a person to a job title. While he didn't like sweets, he did eat sugared cereals, I want to tell her. His feet were goofy. A couple of those toes looked like peanuts, really. And what a slob. You would not want to ride in his car, because it smelled like sour milk and you'd be ankle-deep in take-out wrappers and dirty coffee mugs. He loved Jerry Lewis movies. One movie made him laugh so hard that beer shot out of his nose. I fight to suppress a giggle as I think of this. Or maybe it's a scream. A dangerous tickle lurks in the back of my throat, and I check to see how close the door is, in case I need to escape.
"And how did you two meet?"
Unfortunately I am clear on the other side of the room from the door, stranded in this circle of feet. A pair of laid-back Birkenstocks scoffs at my uptight career pumps. I clear my throat.
"While I was visiting college friends here for Thanksgiving." I think of how Ethan sat beside me at dinner, moving someone else's plate to another spot while the person was in the kitchen and wedging himself in beside me. Geez, I thought. Strangely overconfident software geek.
"How nice. Did you date from afar at first, then?" "Yes, we had a long-distance relationship for a year, then I moved here and we lived together for a year and then we married." "Very good."
I feel as if I could have said we were embezzlers and the social worker would have thought that was nice.
A few of the other women are widows, too, but they're older than me. One has white hair and glasses with lenses as big as coasters that magnify her eyes, making them look like pale blue stones underwater.
There's a man whose wife was killed in a car accident on Highway 1, and his ten-year-old daughter is having her first sleep-over party this weekend. She told him this morning that she hated him because he didn't know what Mad Libs are, and she wanted Mad Libs at her party, and why did her mother have to die and not him since he's so stupid? The man's voice speeds up and his Styrofoam cup cracks as he squeezes it. A dribble of coffee leaks onto his khakis. He tells us about the dozen girls coming to sleep in his family room this Saturday night and how he wants to surprise his daughter with an ice-cream cake; he's pretty sure that's what she wants, but his wife didn't leave any notes about the party and he's afraid to ask his daughter because he doesn't want to upset her any more.
"I think she likes mint chocolate chip," he says, looking down, his pink double chin folding over the stiff collar of his white work-shirt, which looks impossibly tight.
I want to squeeze his plump hand and tell him it's going to be all right. I know, because I was thirteen when my mother died in a car accident on her way to work, and my father and I were left to fend for ourselves.
That was my first experience with death, and I wished then that I'd gotten a dress rehearsal with a distant, elderly relative. A great-aunt Dolores whose whiskery kisses I dreaded. The only death experience before my mother was my hamster, George, who somehow got confused and ate all of the cedar chips in his cage. I came home from school to find him lying still as a stuffed animal, his water bottle dripping on his head. But there was a new hamster by that weekend who performed all of the old hamster's tricks: running in his wheel and fidgeting with his apple slice and popping his head through a toilet paper roll.
"The death of a loved one isn't really something you ever get over," the group leader explains, leaning forward in her chair. She wears a fluffy white angora sweater with a cowl neck reaching to her chin, so it looks as though her head is resting on a cloud. "Instead, one morning you wake up and it's not the first thing you think of."
While I know she's right, I can't imagine that this morning will ever come to my house.
By now, everyone in the group is sniffling and honking, and a box of Kleenex is making the rounds. As the gold foil box comes my way, I pull out several tissues and hold the wad in my hand like a bouquet. But I'm the only one in the circle who isn't crying. You don't cry at a scary movie, do you? Dr. Rupert thinks the group will help me move from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance to hope to lingerie to housewares to gift wrap. But it seems the elevator is stuck. For the past three months I've been lodged in the staring-out- the-window-and-burning-toast stage of grief.
Now my cuticles demand my attention. Pick at us, they insist. Yank away. Don't mind the blood. Keep going. At last, a use for Kleenex. As I blot at the blood, the counselor glances my way and says you have to find ways to release your anger.
"Keep a box of garage-sale dishes you don't care about," she suggests. "And break them when you're upset." She says you can lay down a blanket and throw the dishes at the garage, then roll the whole thing up when you're done. She's enthusiastic about how easy this is, as if she's relaying a remarkably simple recipe. It's hard to imagine her stepping on an ant, let alone breaking a service for twelve.
Would it be all right if I threw dishes at my former mother-in-law?
I want to ask the counselor. Marion, Ethan's mother, calls every other day now to insist that she come over and help me pack up Ethan's stuff for Goodwill. I dread the thought of her snoopy paws all over his Frank Zappa CDs and Lakers T-shirts. She'd probably want to chuck his frayed flannel shirts, which I've started sleeping in because they're as soft as moss and smell like Ethan. Marion's house is as neat as a museum. The only trace of the past is one family photo on the baby grand piano. It was taken the day of Ethan's college graduation, and he stands between Marion and Charlie, his father, who died a few months later of a heart attack. Ethan's smiling and the tassel on his graduation cap is airborne, as if it might propel him through the future. Marion looks up at him, bursting with awe.
Marion's always needling me to get ahold of myself. "You have to get back on the horse, dear!" she'll chirp. "Chin up, chin up!" Get-your-act-together euphemisms that say, Look, I'm a widow, too, and now I've lost my only son, but you don't see me driving through my garage door or inhaling pralines and cream out of the carton for break-fast.
I would like to bean Marion with a gravy boat.
Now, even the men are weeping. I'll bet the counselor feels she's making real progress here. I'll bet tears are to a grief counselor what straight teeth are to an orthodontist.
Still, dry eyes for me. Maybe I need the remedial grief group.
Maybe there's a book, The Idiot's Guide to Grief. Or Denial for Dummies.
Maybe this is going to be like ice-skating backward, which I never got the hang of. Or like Girl Scouts, which I got kicked out of for having a poor attitude. I didn't have any badges and wasn't enthusiastic about making my coffee-can camp stove and wouldn't wear that Patty Hearst beret while selling cookies. (It was hot and made your ears itch!) The troop leader, Mrs. Swensen, called my mother to say that I should find an after-school activity I was more enthusiastic about. She didn't know that I had been working on the cooking badge.
Excerpted from Good Grief by Lolly Winston Copyright © 2004 by Lolly Winston. Excerpted by permission.
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