When My Husband Died I Was Lost For Words

There was a policeman at my door asking me to identify myself. He looked serious. It was a bright sunny day in July and I was feeling at peace with the world.

Did I have a husband named Richard?

“Well, yes, but everyone calls him Dick,” I said. “His dinner’s in the oven right now.”

He frowned. “I’m sorry to tell you that your husband …” he began – at this most inopportune time, an old joke ran through my head: A tactless policeman asks a woman if she is the Widow Brown and she says she isn’t a widow and he says “Well, you are now.” I had even laughed – “… died suddenly on the golf course,” the officer concluded.

“Pinch me,” I said when he finished. “This doesn’t feel real. It’s not like he’d been sick.”

He took a step back. “Go turn off the oven,” he said.

I went slowly to the kitchen. Of course he couldn’t pinch me, I thought. That would be common assault. I switched the oven off. Maybe there was some mistake.

The policeman was still standing in the living room, frowning.

“Can I go see him?” I asked.

“I’ll drive you,” he said with a look of relief. “Is there anyone you should call?”

“Not right now,” I said as we left the house. He held open the cruiser door and I got in the passenger seat, chattering away as though silence between us would be a bad thing.

“He loved that old course the city built on the dump site,” I babbled. “He started caddying when he was 10 and now he’s 76…” We talked golf till we reached the course, which was full of puddles. I stopped talking as he manoeuvred his big car around the slippery cart paths.

Ahead of us, on the third hole, I could see the manager and another man who introduced himself as a detective. My husband’s body was lying peacefully on the grass. Then I realized that this was the exact hole he had designated for his ashes someday. “Since it already has all my balls,” he would say.

I identified the body, hugged the manager and shook hands with the detective. Then I went home to start on a mountain of social protocol and paperwork that began like snowfall and avalanched to take over every waking hour.

Dick had just watched the PBS series Cosmos. “I can hardly wait to go!” he’d said. I’d heard his cosmology talk before – that we were in eternity right now (otherwise it wouldn’t be eternal, he’d say) – and that there weren’t just those two arbitrary places where organized religion says we go when we die, but millions of universes and solar systems to explore.

By now I could probably repeat this scientific take on the afterlife in my sleep. So when people began the usual expression “Sorry you lost your husband,” I’d say quickly: “Oh, he’s not lost. I know where he is. The cosmos, you see …” And they’d nod, nervously.

“Sorry to hear about your husband,” they’d say more often, leaving out the loss part after perhaps having heard how I respond.

“Nobody’s been glad yet,” I’d say shortly.

No matter how I tried to remember to just say a simple “thanks,” it wouldn’t come.

Never having been a hugger, sudden arms being thrown around me without warning were even worse. While I knew the intent was kindly, I hadn’t had any time to practise responding.

I was not sorry that he hadn’t suffered; that he’d gotten to go where he always longed to be; that he’d died in the place he most loved, with people who loved him back.

If I went to pieces, as so many probably well-intentioned souls predicted, that would simply be self-pity. I could only be happy for Dick, so I set about getting on with all the things with which we had been involved – the list of friends to notify, the 12-step study we’d led together – nervously looking over my shoulder for potential huggers as I did so.

About a week ago, a man we knew approached me. “How’s your husband?” he asked.

“Dead,” I said, as usual. Then I caught myself. Remember? You were going to try to do this better. “My husband died about a month ago,” I added.

“And your dog?” he inquired anxiously, as though there was some connection.

“Our dog died several years ago?” I said, confused.

“Oh, that poor dog,” he said. Then he walked away.

I smiled. He wasn’t any better at this than I was.

I promised myself and loudly proclaimed that I would never say “Sorry to hear about your husband” to anyone again. Instead, I would tell an anecdote about him, or make an observation or offer a remembrance.

Right after that, I ran into a woman who had been a caregiver for her elderly father and had listened to me talk about how hard it was not to turn to the usual phrases when the subject came up.

“My father just died,” she told me.

And I spat out the words automatically: “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said, giving her an unasked-for hug. Right away, by the look on her face, I could see we both remembered what I had solemnly vowed not to do. With my arms still around her, we both began to laugh.

Rose DeShaw lives in Kingston.

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