A Reflection – or Two – on Widowhood

solitary_by_chibbitsuki
Solitary by Chibbitsuki

For the record: widowhood is the pits.

I can say this with some authority, having inhabited this strange new realm for roughly two months now. And though I concede probably 90% of the widows of the world – more, if you count Syria, Afghanistan, Mozambique, etc – are way worse off than I, still I can feel pretty pitiful about it with very little effort at all. Because:

No matter how independent you might have been for how long – and in six wearying years as a caregiver I have surely gotten used to flying solo – there is a weird stigma thing one now feels, as if an indelible W had been surreptitiously stamped onto one’s forehead. Accented by a gray veil that is technically invisible, but all-enveloping. The status is distinctly different from being single, or divorced, on both of which I can also speak with authority. Singlehood and divorce imply a chosen freedom, an aura of devil-may-care, if you will. Unless one all but takes out an ad proclaiming I don’t want this! I need a partner! (been there done that too, I’m afraid) the solo by choice can have a pretty good time doing exactly as he or she pleases.

Widowhood, on the other hand, is the Great Unchosen. (Well, unless you do in an unloved spouse with an axe or something, and choose to spend your widowhood in the penitentiary.)

It is like being suddenly halved. The other side of the bed is too vast and cold; the placemat on the left too perpetually vacant. The ability to spread out the New York Times without knocking over the adjacent morning coffee does not compensate for the darkness spoken by that empty space. Half of you reads the paper and sips coffee; the other half of you waits in vain for commentary on today’s breaking news or for the request for another piece of toast. The toaster isn’t even half functional any more; it only grudgingly accepts the new reality. Doors

Widowhood is forever opening doors onto sadness. Occasional doors open to rooms full of people who feel sorry for you. They’re only being kind, but still. Many doors open into areas of couplehood where you no longer belong. And who can predict how many zillion times you open the door on coming home, calling out greeting and overflowing with tales that can no longer be told — because who can tell tales into a void?

The world shifts and resettles. Life goes on. Widowhood – even for the young, who lose husbands to stupid wars or senseless tragedies – is likely forever, since we females have an unnerving habit of outliving the males of the species. One adjusts, explores new avenues of finding joy.

But it’s still the pits.

The Joys (and Angst) of Housing Choices

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What is it about the term “adult living” that seems so, well, one-foot-in-the-grave to me? Being surely one foot in the grave myself, if one chooses to look at actuarial tables which I do not, you’d think my opinionated mind might be pried slightly more open.

It’s a dilemma. Not whether one is polite and knowledgeable about adult living communities urban or suburban, but how to differentiate — and ultimately make choices among — the often bewildering assortment of housing communities and choices targeting everyone over 50 (and increasingly even below.)

I gave a talk at Rossmoor earlier today, a serene and bucolic adult living/retirement community about 25 miles and 40 degrees from San Francisco. This is no lie; it was 58 in the fog when I left home, 98 in the sun when I arrived. Rossmoor is full of recreational amenities: golf and tennis, choirs and bridge clubs and book groups. You cannot live there unless you are (or are formally attached to someone who is) 55 or older, and if you’re 18 or under you can’t hang around for more than 3 weeks. Rossmoor has its own mildly bewildering housing choices: congregate living, condos, co-ops and big houses on lush lots. It is ranked among the top such senior adult communities in the country and they are everywhere.

Add to these the growing varieties of aging-in-place groups (think Beacon Hill Village in Boston) and the truly bewildering assortment of assisted living facilities. The latter include simple rentals, detached cottages and elegant high rises; you can pay fixed or varying fees, or you can turn over your total estate (if it’s a large one) in return for a promise that you’ll be cared for in style throughout whatever infirmity or affliction arises and unto the grave.

Our friend Berta, widowed not many years ago, made the (possible) mistake of mentioning to her children that the responsibilities of maintaining her tidy, comfortable home were becoming onerous at times. This set off a frenzy of activity among her very active progeny, 3/4 of whom live in far-flung states. In addition to tackling the task of clearing out (“I had to grab a few things I wanted that were about to get thrown away…”) they came up with an assortment of possibilities for the mother whose comfort and well being they value above all else: condos and co-ops and a variety of retirement homes near their own homes, most at price tags more than daunting to someone who grew up in the Depression. Berta hopes to stay put. Most of us do, many of us can’t, and there’s the rub.