Yin without Yang

Clearly, it is going to take a while to process all my feelings about my mother’s death. For now, it seems surreal. Even when she and my father lived 600 miles away, even when I did not see them for a year or two, still they were always in my present. Both were an easy phone call or email away. With my Mom’s death all that has changed of course. My father is now a widower. Now he is left to pay the bills and try to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He remains in decent health. Of course, we, his children, hope for many more years of good health and happiness for him.

At 79, he is not quite the man that he was. We see signs that he is losing some of his independence. He still drives a car, but he drives it locally and only during non rush hours. I am grateful because the drivers in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area are unforgiving to someone with aging reflexes. As a consequence in order to come visit us, someone has to drive him here (about 30 miles each way). Today being Thanksgiving, we provided the dinner. My sister Mary drove him over.

Seeing him come in the door to our house – alone – for me drove home the reality of my mother’s death. Yin was without Yang. Yes, death is a natural experience but this seemed decided unnatural. It was exactly two weeks ago today that my mother died. Even if last Thanksgiving my mother had to be helped bodily into our house, that was more natural than seeing my father come through our door without my mother.

My father remains philosophical and pragmatic. He brought with him a number of my mother’s keepsakes, principally a lot of costume jewelry. My wife got to pick through them and retain any items that she wanted. The book I gave to my mother on famous movies stars back in 1974 was returned too. I guess it was on loan. My father said my mother had enjoyed reading it many times. There are still things for him to sort through. Doubtless, many bills will need to be settled. My mother’s possessions are being farmed out to family if possible. The lesser ones are likely to end up at Goodwill. Then there is the matter of her interment. Her body was cremated but her ashes will go in a nearby cemetery. My father still has to pick out the exact plot. He is still a bit puzzled why I would want to attend this last act.

On the surface, my father seems like himself. We played a game of Scrabble (he won). We went for a Thanksgiving walk, a custom in our family so we do not feel so guilty about the feast to come. His mind is still sharp but our Thanksgiving walk came harder to him. I could hear him breathing heavily as we walked.

At our table, he was sometimes the odd man out. Had my mother been with us, there would have at least been someone his own age with whom to discuss things. We tried to keep him engaged but a lot of the conversation simply was not relevant to him. Discussions about TV shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has no relevance in his life. So quite often, he was left alone in his own thoughts. Nevertheless, he seems philosophical about this time of his life. He seems to understand that his time too is nearing an end, and the world belongs to newer generations.

I am glad he has his retirement community. Too much time with my family would probably be a tedious experience for him. However, at Riderwood he has plenty of people in his own age group with whom to chat. These connections are perhaps the most meaningful experience in his life in more than twenty years. Many of the residents at Riderwood also grew up in this area. Consequently, there are endless stories to plumb with residents about the way Washington D.C. used to be sixty or seventy years or so years ago, when he was a young lad.

I hope that he has the time for a late life renaissance. Since he is unencumbered, perhaps he will take Elder Hostel vacations again. Perhaps he will visit distant relatives at times of his own choosing. On the other hand, perhaps he will simply stay at Riderwood where he is so happy, and enjoy time with family when we are in his neighborhood.

Since husbands tend to die before their wives, we are also wondering whether he might start dating again. Riderwood has many widows. A courteous gentleman like himself should be in high demand. Time will probably tell us whether he will even entertain female prospects. None of us wants to see him lonely. Fortunately, he does not appear to be the least bit lonely. He makes his own social life.

I may be projecting, but being spouseless after fifty-five years must be difficult on many levels. The void must be difficult to fully accept and work through. So we watch him with some wariness, sanguine that his last years are likely to be happy ones, but wary nonetheless. Since we live locally, my sister and I are also feeling our way through this change. How can we best support my father during his last years? Right now, we do not know the answers. We want to give him the space he deserves as a grown up in full control of his faculties, but we also want to be ready to step in when needed.

Yes, it does feel surreal. It feels surreal to play Scrabble with my father, to have his mind still so sharp, yet to have my mother irrevocably exiled from our lives. In a way, my mother still lives on. In my desk drawer are two cassettes of conversations with my mother taken some three year ago when she was of sound mind and body. I have yet to transcribe the oral history that I took. I need to. However, right now I cannot work up the courage to listen to the tapes. Her passing is still too near. I too need a little distance in order to gain perspective.

While I mostly feel fine, I sometimes wonder if I am like a soldier suffering from shell shock. Perhaps rather than being at the end of my grieving process, I am just at its beginning.

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