Some time ago, when Larry died, I was searching for some direction, certain that there was a book that might give me some guidance about how to grieve. Well. How to survive the initial stages of grief. Back when I was in college, I had a math professor who taught in a fashion that made it easy to learn. We’ve all had teachers like that. They speak our language. It’s not a universal thing – people learn in different ways – but this man taught in a way that made things clear to me. So you can imagine how glad and relieved I was to find a book, written by that same professor, about grief. (If you’re searching: It’s called When Your Lover Dies, by Dr. Robert C. Brigham. You’re welcome.)
The book was such an easy read for me. I’d known both Dr. & Mrs.-also-Dr. Brigham, and they’d played instrumental roles in my life, for different reasons. They both held my deep respect and admiration. So the book made sense. The players were known to me. I didn’t have to put a face to the names, they were faces from my own memories. And Dr. Brigham continued to teach me, through those words.
One admonition he makes in the book – and there are not many! Mostly, it’s reassurance that whatever way you’re grieving is the right way to grieve and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. But there are a few strong suggestions. Agree to stay alive for five years. (That may seem odd to those of you who’ve not lost a spouse. But for those of us who have, we frequently just want to die and keep being with that one true love.) Don’t let the naysayers get you down. And accept every invitation.
Accept every invitation. If you’re anything like me at all, you love social events, make lunch plans, dinner plans, plans for outings, get togethers, all the time. And then as each one rolls around, you have a whole list of reasons for cancelling, staying in pajamas, raiding the fridge and lolling around in front of the TV/PC/book instead. I’ll go next time. Do I HAVE to go? I don’t feel so good, is that a fever, a tickle in my throat? Sigh. I have to put on all those clothes and shoes and I’m just going to be late anyway, I should just cancel. What’s that about, I wonder? But I do it every single time, whether I’m looking forward to it or not. And it’s not just since I’m a widow, Larry and I did the same thing. There’d be that glance at the clock, at each other, feet up in recliners sitting around in our pajamas, and the heavy sigh of well ok and then off to get ready. It’s not like we didn’t enjoy ourselves once we were out. We always did. We were animated and chatty all the way back home about what a great time we had and already making more plans for a repeat, but man, once we were back in pajamas, mmmm sweet ennui.
Meanwhile. Accept every invitation. Because Dr. Brigham said it was a good idea, because I understand the allure of pajama-clad cancellations, and because I trust Brigham better than I trust myself in the middle of what one gal called ‘hot grief’.
And I was invited, publicly, to attend church this Sunday morning. And I accepted, publicly, announcing my arrival time. So there I was.
And don’t think I didn’t have a whole litany of reasons to cancel when I woke up this morning! I overslept (and had a mere three hours to prepare). I was having a bad hair day (what else is new). I didn’t have anything handy for breakfast food (pay no attention to the fact I don’t ordinarily eat breakfast). My favorite pants are in the laundry (the whole closet full of too many pairs of pants, notwithstanding). I didn’t have a purse to match my new outfit (oh for pete’s sake yes I actually did think that, even though 1. I don’t ever think that, 2. I pick one purse and carry it for months, and 3. it actually matched just fine). When I got to the purse thing, it was such a pitiful excuse that I gave up, and returned to Dr. Brigham’s admonition to accept every invitation.
Checking myself about eight times in the mirror, I texted the folks who invited me and said I was on my way. I figured no matter what else happened, tomorrow would be Monday, right?
Hopping in my car and realizing oh great now I really AM going to be late, I was coming down off the mountain when I saw my neighbor, Stony, walking his dog down the dirt road. Stony takes a bit of describing. So does his dog. Stony looks for all the world like ZZ Top meets mountain man. Skinny as a rail, long beard, hat shadowing his eyes, and a bit bent at the shoulders, he epitomizes these Appalachian hills for me. He’s not old, as a matter of fact I think he’s younger than me, but he’s a figure of the ages, and appears to carry the weight of the world. He was in his best jeans, and a clean plaid shirt, and held one thumb aloft, in hopes of a ride.
Stony’s dog, Cujo, used to terrify me. He’s tried to eat me before. Like a snack. I have run from that dog. I have been petrified by that dog. I have been rescued from that dog. I freakin hated that dog. He scared me to death. But I have lived here a long time, and the dog with Stony posed no threat this morning. I haven’t seen either of them in years, and while Stony remains timeless and unchanged, that old dog was ancient. His patchy fur was gray-tipped, his head hung low, and every step was painfully managed. And, atypically, he was on a leash. I slowed to a stop and put my window down.
Now this man is a gentleman. He is unworldly and a little sketchy, mostly unkempt and moves slowly, but he is unfailingly polite and kind. He would blush and stammer and deny the word gentleman. But it’s in there, bone marrow deep. Maybe it’s just the manners born of a kind heart, but it’s there. So when I said, “Good morning, stranger!” to this fellow I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and this dog who hasn’t aged well, he looked up with a smile, tip-o-the-hat, and called me ma’am and asked if perhaps I could give him and his old dog a ride down to the church.
Well. If that isn’t confirmation that I was heading in the right direction, I don’t know what was. “Of course,” said I, and we got poor old Cujo loaded into the car at Stony’s feet and off we went. I explained that I was going to have to hurry when we got there, because I was expected and I was late, and the most awful thing to me was when Stony took that to mean I didn’t want to be seen with him. I did my best to assure him that I wanted him to come sit beside me as soon as he had Cujo unloaded and tied in front of the church where he planned to leave the dog during the service. And he said, “Oh no ma’am, you probably sit right up front and I’ll be all the way in the back.” We left it at that and I left them making their slow way across the parking lot while I tried to gain entry to the church just as the service was beginning.
There are three different doorways from the parking lot. Good grief. I wasn’t expecting confusion before I even got inside. This was a challenge. I went back to Stony (who was maybe ten feet from the car by now) and said, “Which door do you go in?” and he chuckled and said the front door. I took off in the general direction, but got sidetracked when I spotted a woman inside double doors at a table of bulletins. That looked promising. I popped inside and asked her, “This is my first time here, how do I get inside?” and with a wide smile, she pointed up a hallway, and I trotted that way.
Surprise. I came out via the transept, into a room of filled pews and the immediately visible seats were directly in front of me. I sat. In the very front row. This was not my plan, people. But there I was. I couldn’t exactly excuse myself and make my way to the back. But I was supremely envious of Stony right that moment, surely tucked into the back row, beside a door. I felt my color rise, spotted the folks who invited me up in the choir seats, and tried to make myself inconspicuous. I had no bulletin, no knowledge of how the service would proceed, and was thoroughly a fish out of water.
It didn’t take long for Ken and Beth to see me there, from their seats in the choir right smack in front of me, and for Beth to see my dilemma and come hand me a bulletin so I could keep up. And it also didn’t take long for me to start realizing that I was quite comfortable in this place, that there was a sense of welcome I don’t usually find in new surroundings, and I was enjoying this young pastor and her enthusiasm. And the choir was quite small, but beautifully balanced and blessedly on key. I could pick out the individual voices but only with effort. This is the way a choir should sound. I was enchanted. The sermon seemed quite short to me, although it wasn’t actually, it was just that the pastor held my interest the entire time. Folks made a point of greeting me, a stranger, when the time came for that. And afterward, Ken brought Pastor Ann over to say hello, and introduced me to his mother, and I was able to really feel a sense not only of welcome, but also of belonging. I am pretty happy about all that. After a nice visit following the service, I headed back out to my car to make my way home.
And as soon as I turned up my road, there was Stony, inching along with Cujo, bent over his dog in encouragement. I pulled up and told Stony that we should give that dog a ride home. We got him into the car again, and as I drove up to Stony’s house, he told me he’d already dug a grave for the dog. He’s a serious man, and clearly devoted to this dog. I got out of the car when we arrived, and we got the dog out, and Stony said, “You like tomaters?” To which I replied I certainly do. And we walked over to the front of the house where tomatoes climbed twine tied from ground stakes up to the gutters of the house. Stony carefully chose the ripest most perfect tomatoes for me, and handed them to me with care, and sent me home with my bounty and heartfelt thanks for the ride.
I told him next time, we are going to sit together in the front row, and stir up a little talk in this small town. I think he liked that. He shook my hand and thanked me again for the ride. He told me he wouldn’t need a ride for his companion, though, because Cujo wouldn’t be going to another church service. And he turned to help the dog across his threshold.