Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | July 30, 2021


Once upon a time in a previous life, I owned and operated a little bakery that specialized in fancy wedding cakes and deluxe desserts for important occasions. This isn’t just reminiscing; I have a point, I swear.

It is always an honor to be included in an important event. Those involved do not take their responsibility lightly. Everyone involved in a major event invests so much to be sure everything goes as well as it possibly can. Each person holds a duty to the greater whole. For my part, I prided myself on making sure my little cog in a crucial wheel ran as smoothly as it possibly could; that I did the best work I could and that my work reflected well on everyone else. At the bakery, we went through many trials about which (rightfully) no one was aware. In my business and in my personal life, I held myself to the highest standard. Too high a standard, some might say: those standards took their inevitable toll. To make sure each order was completed, to surpass the client’s expectation, to deliver on time, with each detail accounted for, we often worked too hard, for too little, under conditions I am embarrassed to report I deemed acceptable. But once I signed up for a job, it was not the client’s problem, nor should it be, that I may have worked all night, or that my carpel tunnel syndrome is acting up, or that my car broke down, or that my child is sick. The show must go on, as they say.

The day my father entered home hospice was the same day I had an order no one else on my staff could complete. I had to work. I couldn’t hand off my job to someone else. I worked through the night so I could be at my parents’ to help set up the house, to support my family, and to be there when my father arrived home from the hospital.

The silent, slow ambulance drove up to the house; my father was gray, listless, immobile on the stretcher as they bumped him through the narrow hallway into his study that was to be his resting place as he prepared to die. The hospice workers unloaded him from the stretcher, gently placed him onto the rented hospital bed in his lovingly appointed study, surrounded by his cluttered desk, his beloved artwork, his jammed Chinese-red painted bookshelves. He curled his wasted body into a ball, faced the wall, and closed his eyes.

It was then that I had to leave to assemble and deliver whatever elaborate cake I had agreed to make for that day. I had to drive away, erase that picture of my dying father from my mind – for the moment – and go to work. I have no memory of the remainder of that day, or the days that followed. I may have forgotten what the cake was, who the client was, but I have never forgotten how I felt that day, and I never will.

It was at that juncture that everything I had worked for professionally for all those years up to that moment was suddenly…not worth it.

My father rallied after that day, for a few months. Afterwards, I kept working, as is my wont. In May 2008, I had quite a number of wedding cakes already booked for the season when we got my husband’s diagnosis of stage four cancer. I had been carrying the weight of the bakery alone for quite some time by then. Jeff had been very ill; now we knew why. He was to start treatment in June, three times a week for twelve weeks to start, with no guarantee of how he might respond to treatment, what the side effects might be, whether he might be hospitalized, whether he would even live long enough to complete the first round. But I had learned one last lesson from my father at his deathbed a few years before, and I wasn’t going to waste it.

There is no job in the world that is worth more than my family, or my physical or mental health. Not only that, but it was obvious that I could not give 100% to my work. I could not be sure I could give the work my best effort at the level my customers had a right to expect. So I called each of the clients who had given me deposits in good faith for their wedding cakes throughout the summer and fall. Whatever very apologetic “family emergency here’s your refund” language I used was good enough for most of them. They were disappointed but understanding, and they wished me and my family well.

But my difficult decision to walk away was not acceptable for one person, who took it personally. This person was very upset that she had to start anew the search for a “reliable” baker for her wedding cake. How dare I cancel with only a few months notice! This person berated me on the phone. “We had a deal!” she shrieked. “Very unprofessional!” It was upsetting; I was very sorry to ruin her day, but her response changed nothing about my decision.

I don’t do that kind of work anymore, and I haven’t thought of this in years. Maybe it is foolish to be suddenly thinking of it again now, when the news is full of G.O.A.T. Simone Biles’ decision to step away from her long-sought goal to represent the U.S. in the 2021 Olympics.

I realize that equating myself and my silly little business with an Olympic level gymnast and QUEEN like Simone Biles is the height of arrogance. Young Ms. Biles has been through so much; she has sacrificed more to be where she is than most of can can contemplate in a lifetime. She risks so much each time she steps up to perform! People can die from doing what she does! To ask her to continue when she doubts her own ability is presumptuous at best, dangerous at worst.

How dare we judge her for knowing whether or not she needs to step away, whether or not she can perform to her own standards and those of her team.

My point is this: We must trust people to make the best decisions for themselves and for those around them. We cannot judge when we do not have all the facts. (Perhaps even when we do. )

Suffice to say that when people make a decision to step away, they likely have a very good reason that has nothing to do with you and your expectations.

Yet again, I am reminded: be kinder than necessary….for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | May 19, 2021

erstwhile anniversary with a dash of bitters

The weirdest little thing happened a while back. David and I were out for a pleasant Sunday drive. In our ramble, we happened to drive past a brown house with the front door and trim painted a soothing, lovely shade of blue-green. The soft accent color, like copper patina, mellowed the mass of brown in such a beautiful way. As I drove past this house with my new husband, my immediate visceral reaction was “Oh, wow, I can’t wait to show Jeff this color combination! He will love this! We can paint Torrey Street like this!”

Jeff’s childhood home, the Torrey Street house where we lived for most of our many years together, was a cape stained a drab dark brown with boring, oil-based-white-painted door and trim. We always (especially me) hated those colors together – at once stark and dull – but we never did change it. We had a little girl, and a demanding small business, and a live-in Grampy – Jeff’s deaf, disconnected dad, who kept wandering off – so although we lived there for decades, and we eventually painted most of the rooms pretty colors to suit our tastes, we never did take the time to make the exterior more our own.

It took a minute to hit me, there in the car with David by my side. But then it hit me hard. Jeff is long gone. Torrey Street is long gone. Since my husband and I sold the Torrey Street house, I’ve lived in three other houses, with two other men. There will be no painting that trim. Of course not. Worlds collide, again.

Although he knows my history all too well, I couldn’t think how to explain this jarring zigzag sensation to David, or why the color combination was so striking to me, and I didn’t quite understand why tears instantly sprang to my eyes, so I kept quiet about it. I held the strange moment silently inside me, cupped inside my ribcage like a precious talisman, fragile as a tiny egg, irreplaceable as trust once broken.

The moment stayed with me, though, and a few days later I went looking for the house again so I could take a picture of it and continue to think about that weird juxtaposition of my lives old and new. But I couldn’t find the house. I’ve NEVER found it. I keep driving around that neighborhood, but I’ve never again seen the same combination, the brown house with the inspiring, beautiful blue-green trim. It’s as if I imagined it. But I didn’t.

A few weeks or months after driving past this mythical house, my sister and I discovered and bought a lakeside house, as a new gathering place for our large extended family. Since the day I signed the contract to buy that house, it’s been kicking my ass HARD that Jeff isn’t here to enjoy this wonderful relaxing new family home. It has been many years since anything has made me this sad for this long. I have learned to try mightily not to compare my old lives with my new, as in the nearly twelve years since Jeff has been gone I’ve been ensnared in that trap more than enough times to know: that way lies only madness, and unnecessary suffering. Life and loss bring pain – but there is pain, and there is suffering, and they are not the same thing.

Jeff would have so loved working and playing on the lake property! My sister’s excellent husband will be doing all the things that my first husband would have so enjoyed. The only sign of Jeff at this new house is a rickety, rotted Adirondack chair that he built at his old York Street furniture shop several lifetimes ago. The chair is brittle, porous, and lichen-encrusted from many winters in my yard. It is unsafe to sit in, basically now a pile of decorative kindling held together with 3” sheetrock screws, but for some reason it was essential for me to bring to this beautiful new place one tangible thing from those decades I spent with my baby’s papa, the love of my life.

The new lake house is stained brown, and the trim is painted an unfortunate mustard-yellow. It didn’t take me long to decide what color to paint the trim! The funny thing is, the lake house wasn’t yet even a twinkle in my eye when I drove by that other, spectral, brown house with the blue-green trim, the one I’ve never seen again.

Some days the notes of my old life and my new life flow together as in a beautiful symphony, and my heart expands, grows softer, more open, able to hold more and more love, free of the trap of judgment and comparing and what-ifs and better and worse. But sometimes inside my heart it’s a clanging, incongruous cacophony of everyone I’ve ever loved, all concurrently plucking at my heartstrings, and somehow I reside at once in every house in which I’ve ever lived. At times, “I contain multitudes” (Walt Whitman), and it makes me feel quite unhinged. Some of my tribe will understand this, and some will not. That’s okay. I wouldn’t wish figuring out all this on my worst enemy, if I had enemies, which I don’t. Life is too short, it turns out, and painful enough without adding to it on purpose.

I realize, as the years continue to spiral out away from the life we shared, my love, that we made a great team. Love is not mere words; love is not static. Love is action; love is service. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

I get it now. You gave me a rare, immeasurable gift that I never valued enough when you were here: unlike other lovers before or since, you gave me something so simple and priceless that I never had need to question – you never gave me a reason to doubt trusting you, and you always, ALWAYS had my back.

I was typity-type-typing something else entirely to honor the 31st wedding anniversary of our nineteen year marriage on May 12- the twelfth one without you here, dear. But this little blue-green vignette, which I’ve held safely inside myself, like a robin’s egg safe in a nest, kept getting in the way of what I thought I wanted to say. It won’t be any surprise to anyone when I say I still love you, and you know I always, always will. Happy anniversary anyway, baby, and thank you for loving me so well, my ever-present, green-eyed, ghost-husband, from your loony, blue, overthinking, remarried, long-widowed-wife.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | April 20, 2021

“loss and its sad math”

When we were kids our father used to read out loud to us the children’s book Time of Wonder, about summer in Maine in a simpler time, which if you don’t know it, you should go find it right now – the illustrations alone will take your breath away – and Dad would always, 100% of the time, choke up when he got to “Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going…”

We kids didn’t understand why that made him cry, every single time, and we would always gleefully make fun of him. He didn’t mind; he would try to explain how that line pulled at his heartstrings and reminded him of his own childhood summers in Maine, but we were young and stupid and didn’t get it or want to try, and it was easier and more fun just to tease him.

But there’s no shame in tears, or feelings – there’s shame only in not being able to be who you are and feel what you feel, and maybe our father taught us that, not in words but simply by not hiding his sentimental tears from us.

Last year when our mother was dying, her five living adult children took turns reading aloud to her (and one another). My brother John was reading Charlotte’s Web, at Mom’s request, and one of us asked him if he would be able to read the ending.

“Oh, sure,” he confidently assured us.
“Really? ‘Cause I always cry at the end during the best of times. Which this is not,” someone commented.
He replied, “I said I could read it. I didn’t say I could read it without crying.”

“…ridiculous, a grown man crying for a spider he’d spun out of the silk thread of invention…”

It is worth it, always worth it, those moments of connection and being fully present and human, even if it does make you cry.

By Sarah Freligh

I’m driving home from school when the radio talk
turns to E. B. White, his birthday, and I exit
the here and now of the freeway at rush hour

travel back into the past, where my mother is reading
to my sister and me the part about Charlotte laying her eggs
and dying, and though this is the fifth time Charlotte

has died, my mother is crying again, and we’re laughing
at her because we know nothing of loss and its sad math,
how every subtraction is exponential, how each grief

multiplies the one preceding it, how the author tried
seventeen times to record the words She died alone
without crying, seventeen takes and a short walk during

which he called himself ridiculous, a grown man crying
for a spider he’d spun out of the silk thread of invention
— wondrous how those words would come back and make

him cry, and, yes, wondrous to hear my mother’s voice
ten years after the day she died — the catch, the rasp,
the gathering up before she could say to us, I’m OK.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | April 11, 2021

mouseholes and other gathering places

When our mother died last year, second, of course, to the primary loss of our matriarch, we five siblings lamented losing our family gathering place.

Mom’s house was the site of so many hilarious laugh-til-you-cry holiday dinners, spectacular grillmaster summer suppers on her patio, uproarious nightcap-fueled board games, and piles of small cousins in what our family affectionately calls “a mousehole” <—mounds of sleeping bags, pillows, much-loved stuffed animals, a tangle of kids playing and sleeping wherever.

Our collective affection for “mouseholes” is only more cemented now: on Mom’s last night, none of us could bear to be away from her (or one another). We all slept in the living room: Mom resting comfortably in her rented hospital bed, all five of us in an adult, room-size “mousehole”, sprawled on various couches and heaps of cushions. A cherished memory. I can sleep in a bed anytime, but I can never replicate that night.

We do hope to recreate at least some of the epic family adventures in the China Lake house we recently bought. By this time next week, Mom’s cheery houseful of belongings will be ensconced in the cozy new lakeside house, a far cry from the large cold metal-walled jam-packed storage unit where her stuff has languished for more than a year, to the tune of $275/month! (And yes, I know it’s nutty logic to buy a house to eliminate the storage unit fee.)

I am a wee bit concerned how Mom’s kittycat Gus will react when I take him to visit the lake house. The place will have all his old smells, and even some (a lot!) of his fur, on Mom’s erstwhile furniture and soft goods. After Mom’s death, when her cat first came to live with me, I made him his own little bed from a sturdy, low, Harry & David pear box, with one of the towels from Mom’s scented linen closet nestled inside, and I put it on the guest room bed near a sunny window. How he loved his bed!

But then one day months later I noticed that the towel was more cat fluff than towel nap, so I washed it. He never went near his bed again. The towel didn’t have those familiar Mom smells on it, so who cares? He has chosen new resting places now. He naps wherever. He can sleep in a bed anytime, but he can never replicate that.

When he smells his old things in a new place, will be be confused? Sad? Happy? Will he search fruitlessly for his mom? I have been accused of anthropomorphizing when I worry about the moods of the cat, but…cats know things, is all. And they’re not saying.

On the plus side, at the lake house, there will be chipmunks. Gus loves to chase chipmunks. Mom used to bemoan the fact that Gus would chase chipmunks through the open door into her house, and then lose interest, leaving the chipmunk free to roam about the house. He doesn’t care about catching them, but he does love the chase. Followed by a nap wherever.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | March 4, 2021

mending as metaphor

My story-teller friend Laura Packer often posts #storyseeds: a short prompt for creativity and imagination. Here’s one: “You are given a needle that can mend and merge anything. You can use it only on things you actually have access to. What will you seal, close, bind, or mend?”

Her friend commented: “To mend: that’s an interesting concept. To me, it implies that you want to return something to its former state, and you never quite do. To heal: to me, that represents a better alternative in that you can heal completely and once you’re healed, you can continue to grow and change, whereas mending, even if successful, makes you less likely to change.”

Laura [professional wordsmith that she is, and oh! did I mention she is also widowed, among other life-changing stories] replies: “I am deliberate in my word choice.”

Naturally I have thoughts: Mending = visible stitches = scars of previous damage. I am okay with that. A friend comments: “I’m confused. Are you on the mend or healed?

Stitching up a wound is not the same as never having been cut. We can go forward, but we’re different afterwards. Another friend: “I appreciate the agency required to mend.” Succinct and true. She adds: “Also I think mending has a very practical air about it that I appreciate. Sometimes it’s restorative, sometimes transformative, but it’s for a useful purpose. Metaphorical or not.”

Yes: To decide this is worth mending.
To gather the necessary materials.
To devote the time required.
To actually do the work.
All these require intention and action.

When I first learned about wabi-sabi, or “flawed beauty”, it changed me. Ironically enough, it was a big step towards healing, at a time that I surely needed some. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that honors authenticity, imperfection, and impermanence, by showing wear, patina, or visible repair. As a broken person at a broken time, it seemed that everything inside me and around me was broken. It was such a valuable idea to understand that a scar can be mended and honored – not to say healed.

And yes, I thought about mending this item better. Matching color thread, invisible stitches. Like it never even happened! But then I just mended the dang jacket. And I am somewhat proud of my handiwork. Not to put too fine a point on it. Metaphorically speaking.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | March 3, 2021

“Oh, look! Platitudes!”

“I’ve lived through worse than this, and so will you.”
These ever-so-helpful words spilled from my mouth, spread like an awful stain.

“Oh, look! Platitudes!” came the instant, bitter retort.

Rightly enough, this brought me up short, made me consider what I had said. It cut me to the quick, but I knew I was wrong. Like most people who utter such beatific nonsense, I had meant to be helpful and supportive, but was, in fact, the exact opposite. In my head, my words made sense. Spoken aloud, echoing out in the air, they were only the hollow jabberings of the clueless.

I know better than this. I know all too well that I can be up to my ass in aphorisms and still be in the depths of despair. Even worse, I know that if someone throws me the kind of leaden life preserver I just tossed out so blithely, my unsolvable problem won’t be any closer to being fixed, and I’ll feel even more alone.

Just that morning I had written to a friend, “I’m so sorry for your loss and for this insult added to such injury. Love is love; pain is pain. Sometimes shutting up is the way to help a grieving friend the most. Not a platitude with “but” tacked onto the end of it.”

This is easier said than done, evidently, despite my best efforts and knowing better. By now everyone has seen this ring theory diagram.

Lovely and simple, it describes the obvious “comfort in, dump out” theory of helping. The problem lies in the center, with larger concentric rings of care around the issue at hand. Those in the outer rings may ONLY help, not make the problem worse. Those in the inner rings ONLY receive care and love, never the added burden of helping those who try to help. The job of those in the outer rings is to offer comfort and succor, or go the hell away. Not offer empty platitudes, not ask nosy questions, not require comforting themselves. You may not be able to make the situation better, much as you may desire, but you may not make it worse.

Link to original article “ How Not To Say The Wrong Thing” here:

If I’m to divine any meaning at all from the everyday tragedies that have befallen me, I must live my life in such a way as to regret nothing of my behavior later. (Or as little as possible? Nobody’s perfect.) Some days all I can see is strife and pain everywhere I look. I must tweak the box, peer through a different lens. I must “look for the helpers”, as advised our great prophet, Fred Rogers. Look for the connections I know are here. I must show up for my life, show up for the people I love, even when it is sad or uncomfortable or scary. I must love with my eyes wide open, with all my heart. I must be kind. When I drop the ball on kindness, as we all do at times, I must pick it up and play on, redoubling my efforts. Sometimes we can offer the most empathy and support by merely showing up, by being willing to sit there in the darkness and mess, knowing there are problems all the love in the world simply cannot solve. Sometimes all we can do is live through it, one horrible breath at a time. Together.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | February 13, 2021

for Mom, one year gone today

Warning: “I cried when I wrote this song; sue me if I play too long.” (-Walter Becker & Donald Fagen, Steely Dan)

Mom was 81 when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Cancer didn’t care that she had quit smoking sometime in the previous century, some 30-odd years before. Well, she had quit a couple of times. The first time was easy, she said. But she had taken up the habit again after two years cigarette-free. She explained that she couldn’t stand to be around “the smell of your father”, steeped for decades in Chesterfield Kings, so she had started smoking again.

“Oh, well, I’ve had a good life,” she sighed, upon hearing the cancer diagnosis. “HOLD UP!” the oncologist protested, raising one hand like a very well-educated crossing guard. “There are treatments…” he went on, and there were, and she did. Hold up, that is. She lived almost four more years with lung cancer, her activities somewhat diminished, but mostly free of pain and cancer’s other troubling symptoms. She did often comment that she felt uneasy about using up valuable resources that could more rightly benefit others who were more “useful to society”, but her doctors and her children were having none of that nonsense.

“You’re matriarching your ass off!” David admiringly told her, at the first Thanksgiving he witnessed her in action, er, inaction. She relaxed in her favorite chair with a cocktail and some “nibbles” as her grown children labored nearby, carving turkey, making gravy, lighting candles. She had set the table days before, arranged the flowers, set out the heirloom silver serving dishes, each one just so as tradition required. “I’m getting better at it!” she replied, and they clinked glasses, or I like to think they did.

“I’ve got to meet this woman!” David had said, months before, when we were first getting to know each other and I had told him some story about my mom. “You’d better hurry up!” I retorted bitterly. She had just received the cancer diagnosis and I wasn’t ready to let her go. As if being “ready” has anything to do with anything.
I had spent years avoiding even the Cancer Center exit of the highway, having spent far too much time there already, years before. Yet here we were, back there again. She knew how it pained me to be going back there, with Mom this time. She hated that I had to drive her there, but I did. Macular degeneration (BOTH kinds!) was robbing her of her sight and her independence, but it could not rob her of her spirit, nor of her lifetime caring for other people.

When we got bad news at the Cancer Center, she hated that it hurt us. Once, when we got good news – “You’re in remission!” – we found ourselves free of the planned treatment regimen and back in her car with a suddenly open afternoon. “Where should we go?” I asked her. “Just drive,” she said. As I steered the car out onto the road, she said softly, “Carrie, I’m sorry that you and Jeff and Anna couldn’t have had this good news.”
“Jaysus, Mom, I’m driving here!” I cried, suddenly blind with tears.

Bad news or good news, what mattered more to her was, “Where would we like to have lunch?” Steamers and chowder on a deck overlooking the harbor? A juicy cheeseburger at a crowded greasy counter? Spicy tacos and an icy margarita? What is it going to be today? Somewhere new? “Oh, goody!”

I was on vacation in Jamaica when I got the phone call. Hospice. I flew home through an epic Eastern-seaboard-wide snowstorm of which I had been blissfully unaware. Through the seven unintended hours in MBJ airport, then the long sleepless night in ATL, through the many delayed and canceled flights, the strung-together itinerary that finally landed me back home in PWM, I hoped and prayed I would get there in time.

But we were to have a bit more time together. ALL together – she had requested all five of her living children to be with her for her last few days. It had been a decade or more since all five of us had been in the same room – and never without the distraction of our spouses, our significant others, our children. For her last days, she brought us together. She, who never asked for anything, asked for that, so oblige her we did, and gladly, gratefully. I was one day into a tropical vacation, a welcome and intricately-planned break from the “cancer caregiver” routine. One sister was about to embark on a long-awaited conference in which she was a presenter, several time zones away. A brother, head of the English department, was preparing for exam week. Did she know, when she asked, what a gift of togetherness she was bestowing on us?

After her own mother had died, kicking and screaming, as well as decrepit, blind, and disagreeable as ever, my mother had a little bit of her “own money”, for the first time in a long time. She decided to take a trip: a guided tour of English flower gardens. She arrived home from the travel agent with a handful of brochures, all bubbly and excited about her plans. My father, a stoic loner and homebody who traveled widely for work, was dubious.
“Am I invited?” he asked politely.
“God, NO! This is MY trip!” said my mother.
“Oh, thank God!” my father breathed a sigh of relief. “The only thing I can imagine I would enjoy less would be a guided tour of–” with a sweeping arm gesture, “–Fabric Stores of The World!”

And so began my mother’s solo exploration of the world. She traveled widely in her later years – most corners of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii; much of Europe; Costa Rica, Africa; Russia. She traveled to visit her far-flung offspring, or generously took us with her, one at a time, when she could pry us away from our own commitments. Even with terminal cancer, she was still talking about where to go next, and which of her children would accompany her. A couple of those trips are still un-taken. Maybe someday we will be able to honor her legacy. The Cape Cod beaches of her childhood? The Montana Bison Range? Another Alaska glacier cruise? Maybe another swim-up bar in Costa Rica like that one she couldn’t stop talking about? Or to the pyramids of Egypt, where she brought home the unwelcome and durable souvenir known as “Cairo Cough”. On her deathbed, she regaled the hospice chaplain with her story of the chimpanzee who climbed in her hotel window in Africa. She was lying on her bed reading while the rest of her party had gone on an afternoon safari. Who had the bigger adventure?

She did love traveling, but her truest love was her family. “It’s all I ever wanted,” she told the chaplain, while we five fifty-something-year-old children sat weeping around her hospital bed in the living room. She was intrigued with Maine’s new Death with Dignity act, which helps people with fewer than six months to live plan their own exit. There are, rightly, several hoops a patient must jump through to qualify for the program. We made an appointment to discuss her Death with Dignity with the required two independent doctors, but when the time came, we couldn’t go through with it. She was too weak; we couldn’t manage the newly-acquired oxygen tank, the transfer from bed to wheelchair to car to another chair to an office, and back. We canceled the appointment. She expressed her disappointment.
“Are you afraid you will regret canceling, three weeks from now?” we asked her. “No, I’m afraid YOU all will regret it!” was her tart reply.

Cancer didn’t kill her. In truth, I don’t know what took her. She had decided, “This isn’t fun anymore,” and a week later she was gone, like I Dream of Jeannie, determinedly crossing her arms, blinking, and making it so.

“If there’s such a thing as A Good Death, she had one,” David keeps saying, and he is right. That last week she let us parent her, finally, after all the parenting – and grandparenting – she did for all those decades. We spooned tiny bites of her favorite lemon sorbet into her dry mouth that waited, poised and ready as a baby bird’s. We gently took the glass from her sleepy hand before it spilled. We read out loud to her and to our siblings gathered there: Julia Child’s My Life in France, Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh. We rubbed lotion on her parched old skin; we held her hand. “This is one of your kids. It hardly matters which one,” I murmured to her, as she lay with her eyes closed while I softly stroked the back of her hand.

“I know which one,” she murmured back.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | February 9, 2021

good boy goodbye

We were talking about the heartbreakingly finite life of dogs. You can probably guess why.

Our hearts are always broken when they go. Sometimes we can see it coming from a long way away. Sometimes…they just go. They are here, and then they are not. No matter how they go, we are left behind, bereft, with a dog-shaped hole in our heart. Only bigger. Much, much bigger.

I’ve sworn again and again: “I am not doing this again. It hurts too much.” We know, when we choose a pet, that we are just setting ourselves up for heartbreak down the road. But that is the price we pay for all that love, all that joy. The joy an animal brings is ALWAYS bigger than the hole. ALWAYS. The joy is bigger than the chewed shoes, the ransacked trash cans, the traumatic and expensive vet visits. Even that last one.

My father taught me to drive extra-attentively around veterinarian offices. Why, Dad? Because people often leave there incoherent with grief, and blinded by their tears, that’s why.

David said, “Dogs should live longer than us; they’re better than us.”
“But then THEY’d have to miss US when WE go,” I countered, and that missing is the worst. Having seen it happen, I know that this is true. I watched our last dog search and search, and question, and search some more. For years. Even though he must have known damn well: master is not coming back.

David and I were talking about heaven. (We two are nonbelievers; please don’t @ me.) But what if heaven is, when you get there, all your dogs are waiting for you?

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | December 25, 2020


Regrettably, I’ve no stockings to fill this year. It is still several hours until dawn on Christmas morning in this, the strangest of years, but I am already up drinking coffee with the cat, listening to the rattle of the wind and rain, waiting for birds to arrive at the birdfeeder like any other day. The birds have no idea it’s Christmas – they don’t know or care that I thought of them and filled their feeders yesterday so they’d have their favorite expensive black oil sunflower seeds for the duration of this storm.

My coffee cup rests on a pretty handmade felt coaster designed and stitched by my sister some years ago, and mailed, along with other riches, from several time zones away to arrive in time for Christmas. I am cozy in a lacy pink camisole and my faithful fleece sweatpants gifted me by my Jimmy Jeff, who’s been gone eleven years and counting, so obviously I’ve been wearing these lovingly-chosen items at least as long. I’m wrapped in a gorgeous jewel-toned throw, a Christmas present from my dear old friend and erstwhile bakery employee C.

The bakery’s been gone even longer than my first husband has. This lovely gift which now has pride of place on my new husband David’s couch has accompanied me from house to house for well over a decade, but still I think of C. thoughtfully selecting it each time I wrap myself in its kitten-soft fringe.

So who are we to assume the gifts we give mean nothing? How are we to know that what we say and do and give won’t be remembered – for better or for worse – long after the saying and the doing and the giving?

Sure, it is the thought that counts, and I’ve often been amazed at how the random pile of thrift-store junk I’ve chosen becomes transformed with pretty paper and ribbon. If there is any joy to Christmas at all, for me it’s because of the gifts I get to bestow on my beloveds rather than what I might receive. There is a lot missing this Christmas, a lot I would wish to change. But here again is another chance to Do Love, Be Love. I will take it, and thank you, and Merry Christmas.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | November 24, 2020


Struggling with Thanksgiving? Me too. Hard times are hard. Approaching holidays always kick my ass up and down the block. It is ever thus, has always been so, even in The Before Times, let alone now, when so many loved ones are missing from our table.

I try, always, to focus on what I DO have to be grateful for, rather than what I WISH I had. I am not always successful at managing my expectations.


Dad had been chronically ill (although good-naturedly so) for a decade or more. In September of his final year, he had an “episode” that sent him suddenly, by ambulance, to the hospital. The doctors said that more of the same could be expected, and diagnosed end-stage emphysema/COPD. They recommended home hospice, as medically nothing more could be done for him. This was a shock to all of us who were there in the room, or maybe just to me, who always hopes things will just keep going on the same as they ever were. Haha, nope.

Dad was almost pathologically anxious, and claimed that smoking “relaxed” him. The fifty-plus years of unfiltered Chesterfield Kings – of which he declared he enjoyed every puff – killed him in the end, no surprise. After a harrowing first few weeks of home hospice, he recovered enough to make peace with most of what concerned him, I guess, in that roundabout Stephens way.

We had many a fine lunch of turkey clubs, crispy fries, and heartfelt conversation in the ensuing autumn months. At one such lunch, I remember, he did not want me to park in the handicapped space in front of The Foreside Tavern because “someone might need it”. (DAD, you are in HOSPICE! I THINK IT’S OKAY FOR YOU TO PARK HERE!)

He knew that Thanksgiving would be his last. He stood at the head of the table to bestow this blessing he had composed to the throngs gathered there. We found his hand-written drafts in his wallet the next week, after he died.

I’m not much for blessings. But I do know that love is all there is; just love, love is the only answer to any question you may have (except for maybe Just Keep Swimming). Every year since, fifteen years without him now and counting, I say this blessing, too.

“Fill our hearts with thankfulness;
fill our souls with grace.
Smile on our celebrations,
and then bless us on our way.”

-Horace Donaldson Stephens, 11-25-2005

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