Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | April 11, 2018

trigger warning, present tense

My husband Jeff is unwell. For weeks or months or years, I can’t remember; it seems he has always been exhausted, lethargic, snappish, unable to work much, unwilling to rally for family events. I know this isn’t true, it hasn’t always been forever, but sometimes it feels like it.
He gets a bad cold and it lasts all winter. When I can’t find him he is always asleep, dozing in a chair somewhere, head hanging, mouth agape, hands open by his sides, a pose of utter weariness. His symptoms are vague and intermittent. We suspect a food allergy, a lingering infection, a vitamin deficiency. The tasks he used to take upon himself are somehow now mine. The chores he used to do go undone, or done poorly, or halfway. I am tired of it. I secretly feel that he is malingering, settling comfortably into a world in which I do all the work. I work all day, come home and work some more. I am a beast of burden, pulling a dead weight up a lonely hill, earning all the money, doing almost all the labor of family and home and marriage. He doesn’t even seem to notice, let alone appreciate my efforts.
He is older than I am and tells me I am unsympathetic to his simple age-related fatigue. It is true; I am unsympathetic. I am bitchy, mean to him. Snide remarks spring unbidden to my lips, into his ears. I can’t unsay them. I am so tired and annoyed I don’t care. He doesn’t seem to care either. He just turns away and closes his eyes, unwilling to engage, eager for rest, for silence, for oblivion.
I feel he is in a small boat, untethered, drifting out into a still, foggy sea, ebbing away from me. He can’t or won’t make the effort to come back; I can’t reach him to pull him closer to me, back to the shore of our life.
Finally he has agreed to see a doctor. There has been blood work, an ultrasound, a tentative, unclear diagnosis of “lesions”. I look up “lesions” on the internet and see that there are dozens of possible causes, most of which are unremarkable. All we have to do now is get a clear diagnosis, figure out a plan, get some treatment, antibiotics or probiotics or vitamins or SOMETHING, and I will get my husband back. Maybe I will forgive him for being such a negligent slacker. Maybe he will forgive me for being such an unrelenting bitch.
I am with Jeff at the hospital. A CT scan is ordered to look more closely at what the ultrasound has revealed. The doctor has sent him to the ER because it is a fast way to get a CT scan instead of scheduling it weeks out. We have been here for many hours. We have spent the day paging idly through magazines in waiting rooms, more bored than concerned. He dozes on the gurney; I click through channels on the television.
It is getting late. Our daughter, a high school junior, is at some school thing, a play rehearsal or a meeting. She doesn’t know we are here. I want to call my mom and ask her to pick up the kid at school so I can stay with Jeff at the hospital until we get the results of the scan. He does not want to alarm our girl by changing her routine. (This is so Jeff! He does cherish routine, so much more than I do.)
I leave him alone in the small, uncomfortable curtained cubicle with the buzzing flickering florescent light. I pick up Anna at school, drive home with her, and wait. Jeff is alone when he gets the news.
It is after ten.
I am still waiting for his call.
Finally it comes.
I say “What’s up?”
He is oddly reticent.
On the way home he doesn’t want to discuss it. I think this means it is an simple fix, not worth a long discussion. What it really means is he wants to say it only once.
We drive home silently through quiet streets. Clutching the cold steering wheel with both hands, I glance sideways at him, trying to intuit his thoughts through sheer marital osmosis. His eyes shine in the dark car cocoon, inscrutable, staring straight ahead. The white streetlights, the green and red traffic lights reflect in his eyes, scroll over his big glasses. He never speaks until he has fully prepared what he wants to say. He has been my best friend for thirty years, my husband for nearly twenty; I am used to this. I know better than to push him: it annoys us both and it does not work.
At home, Anna is doing homework upstairs in her room. He calls her downstairs, gathers us in the family room. Anna and I are on the couch, Jeff is in the walnut rocking chair, facing us.

“Well, they found out what is wrong with me.”

I lean toward him, hands on my knees, smile encouragingly.
He speaks flatly, no expression in his voice or on his face.

“I have cancer.
Colon. Liver. Lungs.”

Anna starts to cry. Jeff starts to cry. I cover my gaping mouth with both hands like some parody of a woman receiving terrible news. Even my alter ego Worst Case Scenario Girl has not considered this outcome.

Anna immediately, instinctively, silently goes to her father in the rocking chair, climbs into his lap, curls up like a tiny kitten there even though she is already 5’10”. She is big; he is bigger. She nestles herself into a ball on his lap, rests her head on his wide flat chest. She draws her strong sturdy athlete’s legs up into his lap like a toddler would, but her long legs spill over the arms of the chair. Her bare feet graze the floor. His big hands hold her close. They rock together.

All three of us are crying. We cry for hours, we cry all night, we cry forever. It doesn’t help. It changes nothing. Finally we go to bed because what else is there to do. I suppose eventually we sleep.

Years later, I can’t remember my own phone number or what I came into the room for, but this night I remember vividly, all of it.

Jeff has been gone almost nine years now.
Our girl is a grown woman now.
He would be so proud of all she has done, who she has become.
(He knew it all along.)
I have taught myself how to be mostly happy now.
He would be proud of that, too.

I like to think we forgave each other for our human frailties, our imperfections.

This night is always right close by.
It never goes away.
It is all still present tense.



  1. Carolyn,

    Really powerful piece.

    Love, Donna

    Sent from my iPhone



    • Dear Donna, This means A LOT to me, coming from you!! This was an experiment: I just read Three Dog Life, a memoir written in present tense. It all seemed so immediate. I rewrote a short memory into present tense. Other memories of that day came flooding back. For better or for worse.
      Thank you!


  2. Reblogged this on Loss, Grief, Bereavement and Life Transitions Resource Library.

    Liked by 1 person

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