My inspiration for this book came from a question I still ask myself and one that many widows have asked me throughout the years:
"I wonder what my husband would think about what I'm doing?'
Thanks to Henry, my unfortunate husband who passes away in this book, we find out exactly what a husband might be thinking about what his widowed wife, Jane, is doing.
I hope you enjoy this first chapter of Wish You Were Here. Any comments on the Catherine Tidd author Facebook page, Widow Chick Facebook page, Catherine Tidd Twitter feed (@catherinetidd), Widow Chick Twitter feed (@widow_chick), or emails you would like to send to any of these accounts would be appreciated.
“No, no, no…you don’t understand,” I said impatiently to the customer service woman who said she was stationed in Connecticut, but who I suspected was actually in India. “I know that my husband’s name is on the account, but I need to get that changed.”
“Well, since it’s your husband’s name on the account, we’ll have to speak to him about it,” said Nancy Bhatnagar with forced patience. “He is the only one who has authorization to change it.”
“I’ve told you and the three other people I talked to before you,” I said, feeling the blood rush to my face and the entire upper part of my body heat up in some sort of customer service-induced hot flash. “You can’t talk to my husband. He died six months ago.”
“I understand that ma’am,” said Nancy. “But he’s the name on the account so if any changes need to be made, we’ll have to have him do it.”
“Well, how do you suggest we do that?” I asked, my voice low and shaking with anger. “Dig him up?”
“How can he give his permission to change the account into my name if he’s dead?”
“Well, I’m not sure.”
“Okay, fine.” I said, suddenly coming up with an idea. “Let’s just cancel the account. Cancel the phone, the cable, and the internet. Then let’s hook them back up in my name and I’ll finally have my name on the caller-ID so I can stop giving everyone a heart attack when I call them and they see his name flash across their phone.”
“That would be fine,” said Nancy.
“Great! What do we need to do?”
“Well, first I need his authorization to cancel the account.”
“Well, first I need his authorization to cancel the account.”
I sat in my cubicle, staring at the phone in my hand for a solid two minutes, hearing the faraway voice of Nancy saying, “Ma’am? Ma’am?” from the receiver. I could feel my office mates trying hard not to look at me, but I knew they were wondering if this was it, if I was finally going to blow. If the calm exterior I had prided myself on for the last six months was finally going to crack its shell so that the crazy woman they all suspected was inside could finally emerge. I think, since I returned to work, they simultaneously feared it and looked forward to it. I know a couple of them were hoping I’d have some grief-induced breakdown and let our department manager, Michelle, finally have it. And while it was tempting the first month I was back, by the time the second month rolled around, I felt like my window of opportunity had passed. And now I was expected to go on acting as normal as I had initially let everyone believe I was.
I felt a hand gently close around mine and someone helping me slowly put the receiver back into its holder.
“Jane? Are you okay?” I could see Emily’s face peering at me through my peripheral vision.
“I’m fine. Fine,” I said as I continued to stare blankly at the gray wall of my office.
“Awww, don’t sweat it,” said Izzy in her raspy I’m-a-smoker-but-I-don’t-tell-my-health-insurance voice. “Emily can get Dan to call them later. He’ll just say he’s Henry and we’ll get the whole thing worked out.”
“That won’t work,” said Emily. “I bet they already have in their notes that he’s dead. She’s called them, like, twenty times to get it changed. Surely someone has noted that somewhere.”
“So?” said Izzy. “We’ll tell them that he’s calling from the Great Beyond and is very disappointed that his caller-ID hasn’t been changed. That’ll give a few of those Hindus a jolt.”
“That’s not funny,” Emily hissed at her. “Sweetie? Are you okay? Want to take a walk around the building with me or something? Get some fresh air?”
“No…no…really. I’m fine,” I said. “I’m going to run to the bathroom for just a minute. Will you cover my phone?”
I was an Event Planner in the Marketing Department at Claron , a company that sold electronic components – or so I had been told. My job, where I planned everything from small golf tournaments with suppliers to sales meetings for the thousands of people who worked selling small electronic parts to manufacturers around the world, meant that I really didn’t need to know exactly what the company did as long as their logo was placed correctly on the hundreds of golf shirts I ordered every year. When I took the job, it sounded like a cushy gig and it took me six months to figure out that Corporate Event Planner actually meant filling out a lot of paperwork, working with “creative” (i.e., unreliable) people, and working with executives to make sure that their food was warm – but not too warm – when they wanted it, the beer that they liked that was only available in a small town in Montana had been flown to wherever they were in the world, and that the coffeemakers worked without a glitch in their Presidential suites when they were in town for a meeting. The one time I forgot to check, when I first started with the company, the President who happened to be staying in that room found his coffee not to his liking upon his arrival. At which point, he calmly walked down to the lobby with it and threw it onto the marble floor.
In the years that I spent working for Claron, I never had a firm grasp on what they did and why and in many ways, given my job…it really didn’t matter that I hadn’t figured it out. To me it seemed like we were just one, big giant middle man and that all it would take was a meeting between our customers (the people who actually made the electronics) and the manufacturers (who made all of the little pieces that made the electronics work) for everyone to suddenly say, “Hey! What in the hell are we paying these yahoos for?”
Claron always seemed to be working on a shoe-string budget, which was strange considering how large and successful the company actually was. The cubicles were old, most of the chairs, once lowered, could never bounce back to a comfortable height, and office supplies were given sparingly. Most employees were paid slightly less than they could have been making at other companies, but since most of the people I worked with had been with Claron for so long, the only reason I could come up with for their indentured servitude was Bagel Fridays.
As an Event Planner, continual budget constraints were a huge headache for me because while most departments envisioned having large and impressive events, with a full bar, band, and expensive giveaway items that would entice more customers to attend…they seemed to want that to happen for around five dollars a person. This constantly put me in the position of being the “bad guy” who did nothing but rain on everyone’s parade and tell them that a light appetizer and a free pen was more realistic, given what they had to spend.
The company was pretty old school in the way they operated, too. One of the many irritating things about the Claron was that the phones were set up so that they would never go to voicemail and would, instead, move from your own personal phone to the rest of the group if it wasn’t answered in a timely manner. This made sense for those people who were working in sales or in some sort of customer service capacity, but for those of us who concentrated on the more internal functions of the company, it really shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, that meant you couldn’t quietly have a breakdown or nurse a hangover while letting calls go to voicemail and, since we didn’t have Caller ID, you also couldn’t avoid a call from someone who was harassing you by asking one of your cubicle mates to grab the phone for you. I could see my co-workers’ bodies get rigid every time they heard the phone ring, worrying that it could be anyone from their mother to the vendor whose invoice they forgot to submit until yesterday.
It also meant that we could never go out to lunch all together and had to ask each other to use the bathroom like five-year-olds.
“You take your time,” Emily said, patting me on the shoulder as I slumped out of our bullpen of desks. “We’ll cover for you.”
I walked slowly through the maze of cubicles, keeping my head down and offering a half smile to the people who dared to say hello to me. Since Henry’s death, most people either tried to pretend like nothing had happened or avoided me altogether, which suited me just fine. In the beginning, it was the people who wanted to have the long, involved conversations about loss, widowhood, and how sad they were when their dog died that just about sent me over the edge. When the subject came up, I could usually distance myself from the conversation in my mind, almost retelling the story of what happened like it had happened to someone else. But every once in a while, someone would say something unexpected and I would feel myself start to tear up, which made both the other person and me uncomfortable.
The people I appreciated the most were the ones who said the perfunctory “I’m so sorry for your loss” and then moved on to ordering windbreakers for their upcoming meeting and never mentioned it again. Of course, there were also the people who were so wrapped up in their own lives they could never seem to absorb what had happened at all.
When I returned to work a week after the funeral, one of the Vice Presidents I occasionally worked with, who prides himself on “knowing” all of the people who work under him (when in reality he probably couldn’t tell you most of their names), slapped me on the back as I was walking down the institutional-looking hallway.
“Enjoy your vacation?” he asked cheerfully.
Without waiting for a reply, he continued on his merry way, greeting people walking by and making fake guns with his fingers like some extra in a bad 1970s movie…leaving me standing there open-mouthed and stunned.
Now, it seemed, the shock had worn off a little for everyone else. Some people were still careful around me, but most acted like they’d either forgotten or they assumed that I was over that silly little dead husband business. But for the most part, I still avoided eye-contact with everyone except the people I knew well. And, after this latest hiccup of trying to solve my caller-ID issue, I knew that this was one of those moments when someone just saying hello to me had the potential to make me more emotional than I was comfortable with in a work environment. So, I made my way to the bathroom, trying my hardest to not draw any attention to myself.
I walked into the empty ladies room and gripped the cold porcelain of the sink, slowly raising my gaze to meet my own in the reflection of the mirror. My hair was longer than it had ever been, falling lank and tired well below my shoulders and had graduated from shiny to greasy because I kept forgetting to buy the shampoo that I normally used and had started lathering in Henry’s old soap in the morning. It seemed to be getting its revenge on me for my abandonment by throwing in a few pieces of kinky gray as if to say, “Oh yeah? Take that, bitch.” I had the beginnings of a zit on my chin (courtesy of the two glasses of Chardonnay I’d had the night before) that I could feel but hadn’t shown up yet, which meant that when it decided to make its grand entrance, it would be a guest on my face for at least a week. In the glow of the fluorescent lighting, my face looked pale which was punctuated by the dark circles under my eyes and when I actually focused those brown eyes in the mirror, the eyes that Henry used to say would change color depending on my mood, it was obvious to me that even though I was present physically,…there seemed to be nothing behind them.
I took a deep breath and turned on the cold water, letting it run over my fingers for a minute and then touched my wet fingertips to my cheeks. I could hear the sound of women’s voices getting louder and louder until finally the door to the ladies room swung open and two of the girls from Human Resources walked in laughing and looking like they were wrapping up their lunch hour. As soon as they spied me, standing at the sink, their laughter abruptly stopped and the discomfort set in.
“Oh…hey, Jane,” said Denise as her friend quickly walked into one of the stalls. “How are you? I’ve been meaning to call you and see if you’d like to go to lunch or something one of these days.”
“Sure,” I said, used to these gestures that would never amount to an actual confirmed invitation. “Why don’t you give me a call when you have a free day?”
“Sounds good,” she said, visibly relieved that I hadn’t asked her to pinpoint a time right at that moment. “I’ll call you.”
She disappeared into the stall and shut it behind her. I could hear her struggling out of her Spanx as I opened the door to the bathroom and made my way out into the hall and back into the gray maze of cubicle walls.
Denise was one of the first people I talked to from the company after Henry died. I don’t know if she picked the short straw or what, but she was the one who called me at home to offer the company’s condolences. And even though she had received some sort of higher education in Human Resources, she was obviously uncomfortable with the situation.
“Jane? This is Denise from Human Resources,” she said, in a very business-like tone two days after Henry’s accident.
“Yes?” I said, so tired at that point I didn’t know it was humanly possible to still function.
“I just wanted to tell you, on behalf of Claron, how sorry we are for your loss,” she said, as if she were reading from a prepared script.
That must have been where the script ended because she suddenly sounded like she didn’t know how to string two words together.
“Yes…well…we just wanted you to know you can take all the time that you need. And that we’ll look forward to seeing you back at work a week from Monday.”
“A week from Monday? As in 9 days?”
“Yes. Since you’ve been with the company for almost five years, you are fortunate enough to receive an entire week of paid bereavement leave.”
“And again…we’re so sorry.”
“I…I heard he went quickly.”
“That’s what they’re telling me.”
“Well, that’s good. That’s good news. That he went quickly.”
“I guess you could look at it that way,” I finally said.
“Well. Okay. Again, we’re so sorry. And we look forward to seeing you back at work on the 19th.”
I hung up the phone, and tried to figure out, with my brain that had turned to cotton at that point, how in the world I was going to function at work in just nine days. I mean, just that morning, my mother caught me before I walked out the door to the funeral home with my old stained college sweatshirt accompanying my nice khaki pants and heels. She had silently taken me by the shoulders and guided me back to my room, where she found an appropriate shirt for the appointment and then picked Kleenex lint out of my hair before she tried to brush it.
Go back to work?
But I didn’t really have a choice. After the funeral and everyone had left - my parents making their way back to Seattle where they were currently living, Henry’s parents heading back to South Carolina saying, “Call us if you need us” because they knew I never would - I found myself suddenly alone in the quiet Houston townhouse Henry and I had lived in for the last few years. When the door had been shut on the final guest, I sat on my couch, my cat, Glenda, looking at me like I should be doing something else, and stared at my surroundings as if I’d never seen them before.
“I’ll give you a week,” I said to myself. “You have a week to just sit here. I’ll forgive you for that. After that, you’re going to get up, go back to work, and get on with your life.”
At first it really wasn’t so bad. Work gave a little shape to my day. Up until that point, I had been witness to how time could slow to a crawl and then speed to a sprint in a pattern I never could figure out. I would find myself wide awake for days at a time, only to crash and burn and sleep for 48 hours straight and still feel exhausted. After that week of literally just sitting – on my bed, on my couch, on the rocker on the back patio – it felt good to get up that Monday morning, take a shower, and know I had some purpose to my day.
“This is it,” I thought my first morning back at work. “Last week, I was a widow. This week, it’s business as usual.”
At least, when I went to work, I had Emily and Izzy. They were my yin and yang, my Ozzy and Harriet. We had all worked together for years and were completely comfortable with each other. In fact, I was the one who got Emily her job in the Marketing department as an Account Manager. She worked with the vendors and other internal departments, putting together ad campaigns for the components we tried to sell. Emily had one of those personalities that got along with just about anyone and a sweet smile that could put an entire room at ease.
Izzy had been there longer than I had and was the department Copywriter, a job she described as the three D’s: Dumbing Down Dull. This meant she had to take whatever part the engineers described to her and explain it in a way that the people purchasing the part would actually understand. The fact that she had this job was ironic considering her talent for vibrant language. She was constantly frustrated at the constraints put upon her by the heads of the department.
“How in the hell am I supposed to describe this switch so that someone’ll buy it?” Izzy would ask us. “They won’t even let me sex it up a little! You know, say something like ‘wouldn’t you like us to turn you on?’ The last time I turned a catchy phrase into Michelle, she looked at me like I was a moron and said, ‘Engineers won’t get this.’ I’m starting to wonder if engineers get anything, if you know what I mean.”
One glance around at the friendly but somewhat geeky workforce that filled the Claron office space…we knew what she meant.
Since Henry’s death, Emily had begun watching me for any improvement or slippage, mother-henning me when I needed it and stepping away with her concerned look when I didn’t. Izzy was my “tell it like it is” girl who never failed to say on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, “This totally sucks” or summing up my situation with a more colorful phrase. I half expected, by the time I returned to my seat after my run-in with my phone company, to find her on the phone, loudly berating yet another customer service person in India on my behalf, explaining the situation in a way that left no room for misunderstanding. But when I got back to my desk, they were both diligently typing away.
“Hey, kiddo,” Emily said, turning around in her swivel chair as I sat down at my desk. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, giving my standard answer because I was too tired to go into why I wasn’t. “I’ll call them again tomorrow. After all…like Scarlett said…’tomorrow is another day.’ Right?”
“Yup,” said Izzy, tearing her eyes away from her computer screen and turning around to face us. “And that bitch would know.”
“Speaking of tomorrow,” said Emily. “It’s Friday. What do you have going on?”
“Oh…I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe go through some more boxes. Try and get rid of some stuff. I’m trying to get organized. Streamline. You know…start moving on.”
“Whatever,” said Izzy dismissing my half-hearted attempt at being positive. “What’s the rush? You can do that any time. Come over to Emily’s for dinner. I’m bringing over a new guy for you all to evaluate.”
“New guy?” I said. “What new guy? What happened to the last one? Didn’t we just turn in our assessment? What was his name…Brian?”
“Didn’t work out,” Izzy said. “There were some things about him that I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand in the long run.”
“Like…did you hear the way he said ‘dinner?’ It sounded like ‘deener.’ I realized after a couple of dates that unless I only ate lunch with him for the rest of my life, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“Geez, Izzy,” said Emily rolling her eyes. “Didn’t you say something like that about the one before him?”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Izzy said, getting defensive. “But I swear that man had the thinnest cheeks ever. It was like listening to a carwash every time he ate something. I know you think I’m crazy, but I swear I could hear him eat ice cream.”
“And you wonder why you’re still single,” said Emily.
“No, I don’t wonder. I know why. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from my mother and her five failed marriages it’s that what annoys you in the first few months of dating will down-right piss you off the first year of marriage. And I don’t have the patience for that.”
“Whatever,” said Emily, turning to me. “What do you say? Come over around 7?”
“Oh…I don’t know…” I said, hesitating. “I know you might not understand this, but it’s kind of hard for me to be around couples sometimes.”
“What couples?” said Izzy. “Sure, Emily and Dan have been married forever and that’s just not natural, but I just met Jeff. We’re not a couple. Come on. We’ll get you properly drunk in the bosom of your closest friends. I swear, since all of this happened with Henry, you haven’t been drinking enough.”
“How do you know?” I asked, feeling the need to defend my assumed sobriety. “I could be getting hammered every night and just not telling you. Would that make you happy?”
“It would be a start,” said Izzy. “Just come over. You have the rest of the weekend to hide out in your sad little widow house all alone.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go. But you have to promise me that if I drink too much, you’ll dump this guy so I’ll never have to see him again. I have the rest of your email addresses to send you apologies the next day. I don’t want to have to add someone else to the list.”
“It’s a deal,” Izzy said, turning back to her computer.
“I’m so glad that you’re coming,” said Emily, giving me her soft smile. “Dan will be so happy to see you.”
I loved Emily too much to disabuse her of that notion, so I just returned her smile, nodded, and turned back to my desk. The truth was, I loved Dan. He was this big, burly, bear of a man who always looked like he needed a haircut. His huge personality and boisterous laugh were the perfect opposite to Emily’s quiet nature. They were one of those couples that you just knew were meant for each other and moved together through life with an ease that I didn’t even know was possible until I met them.
But I knew he had been uncomfortable around me since Henry’s death. I thought I was going to have to adopt a new Indian name: She Who Makes Man Cry. Because every time he saw me, his eyes would tear up a little. We wouldn’t even have to talk. Just my presence was enough to depress him. And even though Dan was one of Henry’s closest friends, I didn’t see him for weeks after the funeral and until one day my battery went dead on my car.
“Call if you need anything,” I had heard over and over again and there were very few people I truly felt I could actually take up on that offer. But Dan and Emily fell into the dependable category. Desperate to find someone to help me and cursing myself for not signing up for AAA like my mother had suggested months earlier, I called to Emily’s cell phone to see if Dan was around.
“Emily,” I said, feeling bad about breaking into their weekend. “Can you send Dan over? My battery is dead.”
“Of course!” She said. “He’d be happy to help.”
Dan spent an hour getting my battery out, buying a new one, and then putting it in, never once looking me in the eye. I don’t know if he ever talked to Emily about his discomfort with me and my new situation but I think she sensed it because for the past few weeks, she had been trying to put together little dinner parties, throwing us all together as if trying to force us into a life that none of us recognized anymore. I did my best to go with the flow when Emily would make plans. After all, it wasn’t like I had anything better to do. But usually, after one of those evenings together, I would go home after being around other couples, look at my empty bed, and just wail at the unfairness of life.
“Think about it,” Izzy said, trying to cheer me up after the funeral when we were talking about my new single status. “You could paint the entire interior of your house pink. You can go out without checking with someone else’s schedule. You can travel wherever you want to go without worrying whether or not someone else is having a good time.”
But that kind of pep talk had no effect on me. Henry and I weren’t the kind of people who fought over frivolous stuff like that. Oh, sure we argued a little, but I really didn’t mind it because the outcome of our fights was usually the right one.
“There is no way in hell I’m spending $2500 on a recliner that has a heated seat,” I said to him when we were looking for furniture as newlyweds.
“You need to look at it as an investment,” he said. “This is something that we’re going to have for years.”
“Well, since it’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, that really doesn’t make me feel better. You would have been better off telling me that it was going to fall apart in a few months and after that I could pick out anything I wanted. And why would you need a heated seat? We live in Houston!”
“But look at the cup holders!” He argued.
“Yeah. Cup holders. Plural. Why does a chair that only fits one person need two cup holders?”
“This is Texas. One for the beer and one for the spit cup.”
We argued in that store for close to an hour – I wanted more of a traditional wingback chair and he wanted some 1980s throwback that would take up at least a third of the space in our living room. We were leaving the store in an angry silence when I spotted it: A traditional wingback-looking chair that reclined. No cup holders. No heater.
Since neither one of us was speaking to the other by then, I just pointed to it. Henry sat in it for a minute and then smiled at me. “Okay. This I can do.”
He would have never admitted that he liked the way that chair looked in our living room just as I would never admit that I loved that it reclined. But I would catch him putting one of our decorative pillows on it before we had company over and he would find me relaxing in it with a book late at night when I couldn’t sleep. That chair was the perfect statement about us: that, alone, neither one of us knew what we truly wanted but together we would always find what the other didn’t even know they needed.
But now I was one. One part of the equation that could never seem to come up with the answer because a principle piece was missing. One side of an argument that would never be solved because the other half was gone. One side of a marriage that could no longer really be called a marriage because you can’t have a marriage of one. I was a single reservation at a restaurant. I was the reason the 15 item line at the grocery store was invented because that’s all one person needs. Widowhood had made me a loner. An outcast in my own life.
Because I only knew how to function as two.