Grieving for Blake: a ghostly affair

Persistent readers know that I have been documenting the demise of my ex-husband Blake here at 115journals. I’ve told of his remarkable 8-year survival with stage 4 prostate cancer, and lately his decline as he began to lose his grip on his perch. He passed away last Monday.

We have been divorced for forty years. We were married for only nineteen. We had two children, who are themselves middle-aged now. To protect their interests, I agreed to act as his executor. I knew it was a bad idea, but I wasn’t aware that I would be chief mourner and ghost-whisperer as well.

When it comes to Kubler-Ross’s  seven stages of grief, I’m a rapid cycler.

Saturday, I set up a little altar in the loving spirit of letting him go, or to be precise, getting him to go. He had turned up in Georgia’s bedroom at 5:20 a.m. in his hospital gown, trailing his blue hospital blanket, confused but vividly Blake. A few days later, Georgia’s daughter jumped off the floor and screamed as something brushed past her in a doorway. Admonitions to go to the light, to go find Leyla, his second wife, fell on deaf protoplasm, as did a final plea to go find his pet Sheba Inu.

In my place, his presence was more diffuse and business-like. He has left me to file several years of income tax, as well as deal with Alice, his resident gold-digger. On Saturday, that seemed charmingly chivalrous, so I set up an auxiliary shrine on the dining room table. As a Taoist, I keep a family shrine with pictures of my people, past and present, Kwan Yin, the Mother, Buddha and candles. I put a picture of 23-year-old Blake in his graduation gown, his obit, a book of Rumi poetry, a dozen tea-coloured roses, incense, Kwan Yin, Buddha and lit bees wax candles. It was the Saturday after his passing, the day we would have had his funeral if he hadn’t opted out of such ritual. I read him Tennyson:

Sunset and evening star
and one clear call for me
May there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.

Then I got on with my own taxes.

In the evening, I sat down to finish watching The Girl on the Train on Netflix. I had read the book some time ago, and, although I had forgotten it mostly, I knew I hated all three neurotic women and especially the drunken protagonist, who just wouldn’t let up on her ex’s new wife and may have killed her neighbour. About an hour later, my mood had swung from loving a farewell to dear Blake, to get back here: I’ll kill you myself. For my lovely Blake was every bit as good at gas-lighting as Tom, the husband in the story. We – ex-wife, daughter and step-daughter – had compared notes at dinner one February night when the family had travelled from near and far to say goodbye to papa. And he wasn’t beyond blackening each of our names to the others. Then, of course, there was the question of Alice, his latest triumph, 45-years younger, who wouldn’t let us in to see him without a hissy fit, and who had been helping him work his way through the home equity line of credit at a good fast clip.

I repurposed the altar in the name of love and told Blake to get lost.

So here I am, middle of the night, suddenly awake and sobbing with grief. I knew him longer than anyone still extant. I may have loved him best. I certainly hated him best.

He’s gone. I can’t call him up to lament about one ‘child’ or the other. I can’t depend on his caring as much as me. And no, I can’t tell Blake – whatever – anymore.

He believed death was the absolute end. There was nothing after.

In that case, settle down, Boy.


The Crying Chair

This is the crying chair. It sits in my entrance way on a tiled floor. Good rocking there and tissues at the ready.

I saw it first at Christmas 1960 when I dragged my extremely pregnant body upstairs to my mother-in-law’s attic. She was storing it for a friend, but I could have it to rock the baby, temporary loan.

It was cream colored then. At some point, my husband painted it antique green. (When was the era of antiquing?) During a desperate teachers’ strike, our house became the place for coffee break. Deep winter. Constant arguing. Months of poverty. My two children unschooled as well, of course. To avoid insanity, I carried it down to the basement and stripped the paint off and oiled it. I loved the chair. It saved me.

I rocked my large self in it through most of a dark January 1961. When she arrived, my daughter, like her mother before her, cried. If she had cried for Canada, she would have won the gold. My father slept with his foot out of bed rocking my cradle. I rocked her in the big, comfortable chair.

Her brother arrived a year later. By then his sister was noshing on pureed food, so her colic had cleared up. Anyway her real live doll-brother made her so happy, she didn’t need to cry. He, in turn, was fascinated by her -his own non-stop performance artist/teacher, and calm by nature. Still I rocked them both before bed and at teething time, one on each knee, singing every song I knew including ‘House of the Rising Sun”

Some nights, however, I cried as I sang. Their father taught day school, night school, took night courses and tutored on Sunday. We had dinner together. That was it. A quiet, tasteful time, full of conversation. No. Two babies who needed to be fed while Daddy tried to sort out the evening lesson plan.

I had studied English & Philosophy and Drama. I was the only female survival in the Logic class by third year. I had two years of teaching English under my belt as well as teacher training. I had subdued 50 hormone-ridden grade 10s in a classroom with 48 seats. Now I was washing six dozen cloth diapers twice a week.

I started reciting Shakespeare as I bathed the kids together in the big tub.

Eventually, my husband intervened. “What would you do right now, if you could do anything?” he asked. “Put on my navy suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. “Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I replied. “You want to go back to teaching,” he said.

How could I? It was 1963. My job was to nurture these priceless babies. It just wasn’t done. But before we got up from the grey card table that functioned as our dining surface, we had the plans underway. We would hire a nanna, carefully vetted. I would get a job easily. Populations were booming and my clever husband could stop working all the time. My terror and relief could be soothed only by more rocking those bigger and bigger babies.

The rocking chair went with us to a new house. We were now making almost $12,000 together. It was an ideal place for growing children, a hill, with a flagpole and a martin house, wilderness, gardens, fences and eventually a pool. There were parks galore and a very high cliff above Lake Ontario for risking young lives. Not that we worried. They had bicycles. They had each other.

The rocking chair sat in the corner of the rec room beside the sliding door and in front of the fireplace, which any of the four of us could choose to light. Nanna kept it swept free of ashes.

Then the crying chair came back into its own. I was the one in it. It was 2 a.m., where was my husband?

The chair and I set out on our travels. Sans the others. We moved to Heyworth Ave., to Main St., to Fishleigh Dr., to the town of Zephyr, to Mississauga, to Evans Ave., to Stephen Dr. and back to Mississauga. I can picture where my chair sat in each of these places. All except 3 had my name on the deed. One had my sister’s and two I signed leases for. A good deal of rocking and crying went on in those 40 years.

Meanwhile my ex-husband had lost his much younger wife to cancer. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the same year, 2010. We welcomed him back into the family at Easter 2012. (“Should of stuck with the old girls,” my sister greeted him cheerily.

He and I had lunch last week. A two hour lunch tires out this 82-yr-old retired teacher, but he seemed to want to come to my 14th floor suburban apartment. We did have to talk over a few details concerning his estate. There have been no bad tests recently but…

I pointed out the crying chair. This sent him into a reflective mood. He always cried easily-just maybe not over me. Intimations of mortality can bring that on. He regretted our son had not continued his painting and sculpting. I thought that a youthful art career is like a teen-aged rock band. Most people grow out of it.

Hubby, for example had chosen math and physics, over art. Even got to work with a nuclear reactor. (Is that significant?)

Anyway, grief is always the same, not so much about loss as the f-ups that we regret.

So the chair waits invitingly, inevitably.

Feel free to drop by and cry until you’re done.




The Ex – a love letter

I needed a date the other night, someone who would appreciate a family party and would be willing to drive an hour north into white-out country, late March though it was. Naturally, I called my Ex.

When I was 16, the year that Blake and I met on a Good Friday bicycle hike, the word “ex” hadn’t been invented and had certainly not devolved from meaning ex-husband/wife down to meaning ex-boy/girl friend. Only the rich and scandalous and movie stars got divorced in those days. I can’t even remember whispered adult conversations about divorced people in my home and I always heard the whispered, good stuff.

Blake and I were together for over 25 years before we broke my grandmother’s heart. (My mother had passed on, so my grandmother had to fill the role.) She thanked God that at least my grandfather had not lived to see it. Then divorce began spreading like a nasty disease and she started working hard to keep up.

So my second niece was turning 50. My children and my sister’s are all one year apart – Irish twins, as they say. This niece was the last of the four to reach 50. Initially I phoned her daughter -great niece, that would be – to say sorry, apologies and all that. I got off the phone and had a brainwave. The invitation had been addressed to Joyce and guest. I phoned Blake and he readily agreed to be my date. It would be good to see the family, he said. I cancelled my regrets.

Blake could drive through hell without turning a hair as he proved in Paris, Rome, Athens and on the Autobann when we were married. And although we have been divorced for 36 years, he has come to family gatherings in the last few years. My sister greeted him at that first Easter dinner, “Gee Blake, I didn’t know we were going to get you back.”

It hasn’t always been hearts and flowers. At first when divorce loomed, the kitchen knives lured me, sang siren songs, but both Blake and I have a blood phobia and being a bright guy, he moved out.

Even so, we didn’t fight over the division of property or children. Fifteen and sixteen -year-olds make up their own minds. The rest we divided in half, although I resented being given the cabinet television set, which took 2 men and a boy to move. We didn’t divide my brother’s drug stash in the crawl space because we didn’t know about it and he didn’t know we were selling the house. It’s still there if you look up in the rafters near an air vent or so he claims. But that’s on your head.

Any lingering angst evaporated when Blake’s wife died. No, I didn’t mean it like that. She was a beautiful, vital young woman, as passionate as only the Spanish can be and she was a brilliant cook of Mediterranean food, ambitious and hard-working. She and Blake were coping with the idea that he would go first since he already had a cancer diagnosis. Then she was diagnosed, but the prognosis was good. Not to worry. But in the course of one autumn, she turned very badly for the worse and passed away on the winter solstice.

Our daughter came flying back to aid and comfort her father. Although neither of us had known his wife well, we felt a great out-pouring of love as if she were sending it back from the other side. Blake was perhaps too overwrought to register it. It wasn’t hard to realize that Blake could use support once our daughter left.

We go to movies like August, Osage County, I cook steaks or stew, or we eat out and we talk about politics or current events: ‘what did happen to that airplane’. Julia says it’s just what we did at our own table all those years ago.  We go along with each other for medical appointments, just to have a second set of ears and to decide on treatment if necessary. It’s true that Blake has other companionship as well. Fine with me. She can keep up with him. Being younger. Is there a pattern …. No, no, that’s small minded.

Dressing for this masked ball proved challenging for me, but I pulled together a long sleeveless dress, heavy tights and a black scoop-necked top with long sleeves for a suitably “formal” look. Blake showed up in maroon cords, a blue shirt and the softest grey/blue jacket that invited touch, mine and that of several other women.

We had a charming misunderstanding about our gift of cash. He insisted on being generous. I thought we were dividing what I had ready in half. He thought he was adding to what I had ready.

When we arrived, my niece’s grandchildren greeted us at the door, the boy in a tuxedo,  two girls in long dresses and one in a tutu. Our coats were whisked away and we were provided with masks.

Shortly, thereafter, Blake wished my older niece happy birthday and she thanked him, noting that he was 5 weeks early. “Wrong niece, Blake”, but Blake is forgiven everything. He is the beloved, absent-minded uncle to them and always has been.

It is an interesting venue, the long narrow foyer of an athletic club where the birthday girl works, with a bar and tiny kitchen in the middle and  glassed in squash courts in clear view. There is one baby. Two others have been left at home, to great disappointment. And all those flying beautiful sub-teens. So septuagenarians right down to a one-year-old. In the kitchen is the family chef, birthday girl’s son-in-law, father of 6, churning out nibblies, that the kids pass around, explaining each in detail.

Someone is reported to have said, “It’s nice to see Blake and Joyce back together.” It’s not clear if this was a joke.

Blake and I enjoy a chat with my younger sister, Georgia. They have always liked each other and are not above flirting. Then we try to mingle and find ourselves with the most mono-syllabic fellow in the room. He regards innocuous questions as an invasion of privacy.

Then a remarkable thing happens. Georgia’s ex-husband takes his two daughters – my nieces- aside and tells them he is giving each of them $40,000 from their grandfather’s estate.

It takes me only a minute to slide over to the gift table, unseal the envelope  and pocket my gift money. NO, no. I didn’t do that. Honestly, I didn’t.

Then in general jubilation, the band starts up – Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin – and the dancing begins.

Once upon a time as in the best fairy tales, Blake and I danced. We square danced, we polka-ed, we two-stepped, we jitterbugged, we foxtrotted. Since we parted all those years ago, neither of us has danced. Sixty years later, we dance.




Considering Loss at Thanksgiving

Recently, I lost my usual social group. It’s because of the flood, the basement flood at the tai chi club I attended two or three times a week. It wasn’t even a very deep flood, not what others in my town experienced that July 8th when the heavens opened, but deep enough to cause a flowering of mould or noxious fungi. Initially, it smelled like charred wood. When no one else seemed to smell it, I knew I was in trouble. A blinding headache confirmed my suspicion. I withdrew. I raised an alarm. This was a health hazard, I said. The contractor who dealt with the building agreed. The rug had to be pulled up and the floor treated with anti-fungal cleaner.

It is now three months later. The rug is still there and so is the over-growth of fungus.

I tried visiting a month ago. As soon as I walked in the door, I got light-headed. Surely, I would adapt. Half an hour later, I kept saying I had to go because my head was aching, but I seemed incapable of taking myself out the door. Walking toward my car, I knew it was the beginning of the end. On Friday, I turned in my key. The instructor who took it asked me how long it takes me to get to the club I now attend.

It is true that I am now going to another location of the same outfit, half an hour closer than the mouldy one, a spacious, airy building that brings to mind Hemingway’s “clean, well lighted place”. But it lacks the 50 or so familiar faces I used to gab to and the four good friends I had made there.

There is a good deal of self-pity involved. I had been going to that club for eleven years and was instrumental in its membership expansion, in upgrading the building and in fund-raising. Every so often, I am given public credit for this. Don’t want it. Want a de-fungused basement.

Give that up, Joyce. You did it. Now it’s done. Have the grace not to snivel.

So I took Magic Erasers into the new club and scrubbed the baseboards before class. I talk to absolutely everyone who will give me the time of day. I take food in for potluck lunches. There’s got to be a pony under this pile of — fungus.

In other news: the cottage I love is being sold. We will not be able to rent it next year. A beloved house in Southern California is being lost to bankruptcy, a loss which reminds me of an earlier loss that I spoke of in my post about The Great Gatsby.

Worst of all and no joking matter, a young relative is dying. I do not claim that this will actually be my loss, because I am peripheral. It is, nevertheless, a source of grief, all the more because it reminds me that I very nearly lost someone much closer.

Roots are being torn up. I pulled two fat carrots out of a garden a few days ago. They are destined to join parsnips and turnip in a mash-up tomorrow. Heat, butter, nutmeg and sea salt will transform them into a mouth-watering Thanksgiving delight. (A Canuckian Thanksgiving) And I know that these changes are also transformative, but, like the carrots, I don’t yet see what we are becoming. I catch glimpses – a new home for one of us among mountain pines, my renewed friendship with my ex-husband after 30 years estrangement and various spiritual books assure me that the young man is about to be changed into “something rich and rare”.

Blake has observed that if we had stayed together in that house under the hill, skimming the leaves out of the pool and feeding the birds outside the patio door, we would be stodgy and rigid. He doesn’t add “whereas we are flexible, large-minded and open-hearted”. But of course we silently believe we have made a transformation of that order.

So for that change, at least, I am grateful.