My husband’s heart is weary. It has decided to sit down and slowly expire. His heart tried to make a violent, sudden exit from the world last year, but after twenty minutes coding, three ambulance rides, a life flight, two stent operations, a stroke, eight days in the ICU, two on the cardiac floor, and nine in a rehabilitation center, my husband returned home. “A big fat heart attack” the doctor said to explain that 100 percent of his left anterior descending artery was blocked. A widowmaker, they call it.
Widow maker. Dave’s heart attack didn’t make me a widow, but it made me a widow in the making. Instead of the sudden piercing loss of my man — no warning, no opportunity to prepare — I am now on a slow march to widowhood. It is the brick wall ahead blocking my view. It is the tether that binds dread from my gut to my heart. It is the reluctance to face the day that keeps me in bed until the late morning hours.
The off-the-grid house we built to retire in sits on fourteen remote acres in rural Oregon, but it may as well be two hundred acres. Nestled on a small parcel carved out of fallow farmland, the closest neighbor is half a mile away. I can go for days seeing no one, speaking to no one other than my husband. It suits me. I find human beings a bit annoying. Demanding. Irritations I feel guilty feeling irritated about. You might say I’m not a people person. You’d be right. With the exception of Dave, the only human on the planet whose company feels as easy to me as solitude.
Dave likes to say we built our entire house around the view from my clawfoot tub. It’s partially true. His purist engineering plan was to maximize solar power exposure and situate the house at an angle exactly forty-five degrees west of true north. I fought like hell against that idea because it eliminated the best views. I won. One of the things I love about Dave: He knows when to let me win, even when it goes against the logic of his practical, engineering mind.
I look out the wall of windows in our living room and watch my man walk across our field, his familiar gait, the old-man tendency to kick his legs out from the knees instead of using his glutes. His still-broad shoulders hold a remnant of his strength, the strength he used to create this place from bare ground, a functioning enclave with our own water, power, and pond. He seems to be deep in thought down some esoteric rabbit hole where his thoughts live, pondering the metaphysical nature of the universe or contemplating the evolution of consciousness. I get out my phone, record his progress toward the house, thinking this might be the last time he walks across that field.
I wonder if I will ever get inured to this new reality and stop speculating that every mundane activity might be the last: Dave bringing me a cup of coffee and cream in the morning as soon as he hears me moving about. Sitting next to him on the couch, watching TV, as his large warm hand snakes across the cushion to rest beneath my thigh. Walking the dog. Laughing at the dog. Most poignantly, a hug; listening to him breathe in his sleep; burying my nose in his neck to inhale his comforting scent. Each moment a memory I bank against possible widowhood.
We were hopeful that a new heart stent or two would remedy the symptoms Dave’s been experiencing lately: shortness of breath, lethargy, an overwhelming urge to lay down and nap no matter how much sleep he gets. An angiogram dashed those hopes. It appears the only solution for his condition is open heart bypass surgery, which of course carries some risk. But we’ve beaten the odds before. Statistical odds, that is, for a second marriage with a blended family, four teenagers between us: his two boys, my two girls. Marriages like ours have a 70 percent failure rate. Except it turns out we have a high tolerance for frustrated discomfort, hard work, and a mutual loathing of divorce. We’ve been together 28 years.
Maybe we can beat the odds again.
My clawfoot waits for me beneath a large window with a deep ledge, deep enough to hold anything and everything I might need for my bathing ritual. From the tub, I have a view of unimpeded sky, fields flowing into the future. Clouds drift by, telling stories. Sometimes wind wails around the corner of the house. Sometimes mosquitoes congregate on the other side of the windowpane, clamoring to get at my steaming blood. The window frames Tygh Ridge, a fold mountain that over centuries has taken on the appearance of a herd of sleeping elephants draped across the horizon, velvety mounds of earth softened by time.
“Widow” is an archaic form of relict, a geological structure that remains after other elements have altered or wasted away. In ecology, it’s a species that lives on in isolation, a remnant.
The only safe place to let my thoughts touch down on what life without Dave might look like is in the embrace of this porcelain cradle. I wonder how widowhood will alter me, what remnant of myself will remain after my husband is gone, what shape my form will make against the earth.
We have a funky cabin in the woods. Rainforest, really. It sits above a roaring stream, surrounded by 200-foot-tall Douglas fir trees. Dave makes sure I have a suitable soaking tub everywhere we live, with enough hot water to attain the desired 109-degree temperature. At the cabin, that requires three hot water heaters. The tub lives outside on the deck. I lay back in the steaming water and look up through the encircling trees that create a lacy network of green against the sky. The lower branches die for lack of sunlight, lose their needles, turn thick and nubbly with lichen and moss. They could fall at any time, plunge a hundred feet and pierce whatever is beneath. They’re called widowmakers.
It drives Dave crazy that I won’t let him hire a logger to cut the dead branches off. I like the natural danger of the forest, the diametrical quality of awe: overwhelming beauty and ever-present risk. I find it stimulating and soothing at the same time. Life in a heightened sensory state. The state I now live in.
But there’s a limit to sustaining precariousness. It can turn to despair.
When I finally do get out of bed so we can walk the dog — who is waiting more or less patiently — I dawdle while getting ready. If I take long enough, Dave will sit down at the piano and play. He’s a composer, and his music breaks my heart. He can play a Beatles tune in a way that wrings tears from your soul. Even when you’re not sad. His strong fingers beat a drum-like rhythm on the keys, but out of that rhythm he evokes the most ethereal, searing melodies.
It’s a form of self-torture, deliberately waiting for him to play, to feel my heart wrung out one more time, like the irresistible compulsion to rub the tip of your tongue over a raw, stinging canker sore, the urge to push your thumb into a bruise to see if it still responds with a dull ache of bluish pain.
I rarely cry, but it has become a challenge to keep that true. My heart is a full-to-the-brim tub. I step into my emotions slowly, carefully, so no tears slip over the edge, attempt to keep the area around my heart dry and tidy. Presentable.
I haven’t written much since the heart attack. Dave, on the other hand — who took up writing as a hobby at my suggestion — spends hours every morning exploring his thoughts and compiling them in a book he’s been working on for several years. He’s diligent to the point of obsession; I’m flakey to the point of fraudulence. Sometimes I wonder if his diligence is due to a creeping sense of urgency.
I recently discovered that “widow” is also a printing term for the solitary sentence or word that carries over to the last page, the only type to face all that white space alone.
After all this time of melding myself with another person, will widowhood leave me bereft, my life reduced to useless tatters? I hope, instead, that all the years of practicing adaptability in order to make a life together has given me the strength to write a new story on that blank page.