I’m writing this post about being a widow for, and with the permission of, my friend Ashley who became a young widow last year.
Ashley and I became friends haphazardly–we had gone to the same church for years but had never connected until we ran into each other one day at the mall and struck up a conversation—which ended with us deciding to room together in college that fall.
Ashley is what I like to call crazy. I love her but she is crazy. She is epically distractible and shockingly funny and always in trouble. Ashley road to her wedding in a police car–in her wedding dress and veil and no, this wasn’t planned. Ashley rides most places in a police car as far as I can tell. Every time I talk to her, she tells me about another encounter with another crazy small town cop who has no idea what to do with her. She has a warrant out for her arrest–not because she’s done anything so bad, but because she’s done a couple little things (speeding tickets, etc.) and just can’t quite remember to make her court dates. The last time I talked to Ashley, she made me laugh like a hyena with her stories about Uncle Virg and their night out on the town–getting kicked out of the town and an art museum in the same night. Sometimes I think she has to be making these stories up because there is no way anyone could actually have a life this eventful–but then you spend a day with her and know it’s all true.
I, on the other hand, have never been pulled over much less arrested. I’m the quiet type. I would rather stay home and write and create things and mind my own business. So basically when we’re together, I do things I wouldn’t normally do and Ashley stays out of jail–it’s a beautiful thing.
So imagine the two of us–stubborn, sure of ourselves–but with polarizing differences trying to share a tiny dorm room (with two other girls, by the way) while surviving on no sleep, caffeine highs, and the stresses of college life. By the end of the first semester, Ashley had moved across the hall because we just couldn’t deal with each other. We remained friends, but went our separate ways both in college and after. We graduated, married, and started out on life. Ashley and her husband went to Africa then came back and settled in a house they built together in Missouri. My husband and I went to Massachusetts.
Then in August 2010 Ashley’s husband of two years was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was up in Maine and my mom tried calling me all day to let me know. When I found out, it took a minute to actually process what my mom was saying—Ashley’s husband was dead. I was shocked. We were still so young. Ashley was only 25. We had all just gotten married and started on our lives–how could Cliff, at 26, be dead? I remember walking back to my mom-in-laws house and standing in her kitchen while she cooked; she wanted to know if everything was okay and I muttered no and told her my friend’s husband had died and I lost it. I rarely cry but I cried then, right in front of my mom-in-law and she held onto me and prayed right there that everything would be okay–but it couldn’t be okay, Ashley couldn’t be okay. This was the worst thing imaginable and it had happened to somebody I loved.
I was so worried about Ashley. What would she do? Would she make it through this? What do I say and do? “What” was the only question I had and no answer to go with it. I started writing Ashley on Facebook and we reconnected. At one point, I mentioned on Facebook that I was reading “Walden Pond” by Thoreau and Ashley commented on how much Cliff loved Thoreau and how they had always wanted to see Walden Pond. I told Ashley Walden wasn’t far from here and that if she could ever come for a visit, we would spend a day at Walden. That sealed the deal and Ashley flew in for a visit in late April.
I was nervous about her visiting because I didn’t know what to say or not say and didn’t know what she would be like. My sis-in-law and I picked her up at the airport in Boston and we talked a little about our college years and what an adventure it was trying to live together. We rode the train into the city and hung out for a while in Quincy Market. I didn’t exactly mention to Ashley that I had ridden the train into the city from home and there was therefore no place to put her bag so the poor thing had to drag her rolling suitcase all over the cobblestone streets of Boston while my sis-in-law and I laughed ourselves into hysterics watching her–always there to support. The first thing I noticed about Ashley when she got in was that she hadn’t lost her sense of humor; she was telling stories about her family and we were laughing so hard people were turning around glaring at us. The whole time Ashley was in Massachusetts was like that–filled with laughter, fun, memories, craziness suggested by Ashley and carried out by me (I have not before or since stolen anything from a state park)–it was the most fun I had in forever.
I was amazed by how well Ashley was doing. She was laughing and talking openly about Cliff and part of me thought this all must be an act to hide how much pain she was actually in; she’s just laughing and telling stories to distract from the heartache, I thought. But then Ashley and I talked on the phone a couple of days ago and she said something that changed me and my understanding of her and others who have lost loved ones–she said her sense of humor saved her life. She said people probably thinks it’s a little irreverent to be talking and laughing so much after losing her husband, but who are those people to tell her how to respond to and deal with her own heartache?
People always have a script they expect you to follow and when you veer from their expectations, they criticize you for not behaving as you should (or as they think you should). Ashley said people are ready to move on with their lives but expect her to be doom and gloom in order to portray her heartache–otherwise she just must not have loved Cliff enough or must not miss him enough. It’s a double sentence; have your world ripped away from you and then live under the assuming eyes and judgments of others with your every word and action.
I have learned a lot about both life and death from Ashley. I’ve learned that death is undiscriminating. I’ve learned that the thoughts you have and things you do following a death do not always make sense to even you and especially not to other people. Ashley told me about sitting on the bathroom floor crying when the toothpaste ran out because it was the last of the toothpaste she and Cliff had both used. Every end becomes another little death of something you shared. I have learned that it’s ok to talk about the person who died and making that person an unspeakable is one of the worst things you can do because the one who has to go on wants to talk and remember and doesn’t want the person they loved to be something they can’t talk about. I’ve learned it’s okay to laugh and enjoy life after death–that this is a road to healing and survival and not a belittling of the one who is gone. I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a “normal” way to behave after death–that each person must survive and deal with their loss in their own way. I’ve learned not to say, “I’m sure there’s someone else out there for you” because that makes them feel like the one they lost was just wasting time holding a place until someone else comes along. Not to say, “time heals all wounds” because time does nothing. I’ve learned not to put the person on a timeline and expect them to be to at certain place by a certain time. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be mad at or hurt by God after death; I believe God understands.
I’ve learned that death is no laughing matter but sometimes to survive, laughing is all you can do.