There have several instances of interpersonal interactions over the last decade when I have wanted to disappear. I’ve thought to myself, “Ground, please open up and swallow me and leave no trace of my existence, thanks.” Moments in which I feel an odd combination of complete awkwardness, sadness, anger and survival instinct. It happened a lot right after my husband died and I wish I could say I learned how to manage it and deal with it, but I haven’t. I grieved, time went on and it occurred with less frequency. I try to make light of it, as I do most things, my humor serving as my defense mechanism at all times. I jokingly refer to them as Widow Famous moments even though there’s nothing funny about it. When someone on the periphery of my life (or my late husband’s life) confronts me about my husband’s death in a morbidly curious, proprietary, almost accusatory way, that’s when I feel Widow Famous. As if the specific circumstances of my life belong to them because they were remotely connected to us. Mind you, these interactions all lack sensitivity, tact, sympathy and/or empathy. It’s basic and foul.
When it happened at first, I was so overwhelmed by his death and new motherhood to discern what was weird and what wasn’t that it took me time to parse through each exchange and specific set of behaviors. With a newborn, PTSD, grief, sixty pounds of baby weight and all the intricacies of dead spouse paperwork and logistics, I had so much on my plate. It all clicked for me after I had spent some time with someone mildly famous and witnessed the varying degrees of recognition. Most of famous someone’s (FS) fans were deferential, grateful and respectful but there was always a person or two that felt they had ownership over FS, that they owned a piece of him, that his story was part of their story. They would say (and demand) all sorts of things. Those interactions were often awkward but instructive, especially in how FS chose to deal with those vultures. My situation has few similarities on a much much smaller scale. My late husband was a well-liked, handsome young surgeon when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I was two months pregnant with our first child. As I got bigger, he got sicker. I had a baby and buried a husband within two months of one another. When I type it out, I still can’t believe that something so awful actually took place in my life. From the outside, yeah, it looks so sad. A charming couple hit with tragedy in a small community. Hundreds of people showed up to his wake, it was a madhouse. After the funeral, people stopped me at the grocery store, the bank, local fashion shows, charity events, wherever and whenever. Most of the energy was good but some of it was, well, pretty dark.
There are a million ways to respectfully approach someone that has lost a spouse, no matter the circumstances. “I’m so sorry for your loss”, “Please accept my condolences”, “You are in my thoughts”, I’m not religious but even “You’ve been in my prayers” are on the good side of the fence. The specific energy created in an exchange like that is positive, kind, and gives light to the grief-stricken. Even though most times I wanted to be left in my zombie bubble of sadness, those moments helped me get through and meant a lot to me. Then...there are the complete assholes. A certain portion of the population revels in other people’s misery. I have had the misfortune of encountering several people like this and learned valuable lessons from these vultures. The assholery can range from the benign (the interior designer who complained to everyone she could that I was rude to her at my husband’s funeral because I didn’t ask her how she was doing) to the strange (the so-called friend that had me pose for artwork and then named the piece something that reflected personal information about my situation) to the downright evil and calculated (people that pretended to be kind only to pump me for information and circulate it as gossip or the guy that dated me simply because he heard misinformation through a grapevine related to how much money my husband’s estate was worth).
Yesterday, I showed up early to work, changed into my scrubs and made my way to the board. The board is a magnetic dry erase board that has the OR schedule for the day with everyone’s names on magnets, neatly organized as to who is where on any given day. It’s located in the central hallway, away from patients, and even though I get my assignment the day before I always check the board to be sure. I saw my magnet (last name only) in OR 7’s slot. Normally, I get to the OR and get my equipment ready for the day’s cases and then I see the patient after reviewing their chart on the computer. I’m not super chatty that early in the morning, but I nodded a good morning in the direction of the nurse and two surgical techs in the room. One tech was not familiar to me, but I didn’t think twice about it...until she kept looking at me. You know when you just feel someone staring at you? The energy in the room gets wonky, I swear. I made like I didn’t notice and went about my business. As I turned to go evaluate the patient, she walked up to me and said, “Hi, I’m X.” She said her first name only. So, I said, “I’m Georgie,” and tried to keep moving. She cocked her head to one side and said, “What’s your last name?” For a second I thought she was serving me a subpoena. “Uhh, it’s Alavanja, why?” She stuck one hand on her hip and broadened her stance. “Well, I used to work with your husband at Snorter Hospital*. In fact, I did the first case with him when he started there.” That was it. She worked with a now dead guy. Fascinating.
As those words left her mouth, I realized that she was not a sympathizer or a kindness sharer, this was about her and her alone. I wanted to say, “Congratulations, don’t you feel important, that was over twelve years ago!” My actual response was tepid but quick and to the chase. “Oh, ok, cool, I’m going to see the patient.” I wanted to be polite but make it clear I was not about to talk about it. As I walked, I felt my cheeks get hot. Motherfucker! Who the fuck did she think she was? And why was she pretending not to know my last name? The second she looked on the board for her room assignment, she saw my name. Why would she put me on the spot like that? What a dick! Her lack of transparency was annoying. By the time I spoke with the patient, signed the paperwork and headed back, my anger had dissipated. But, the exchange brought back that old feeling inside of me, that I was nothing more than a circus act. That the horror of my life distilled down to petty gossip for graceless opportunists. A feeling that I have to constantly be monitoring my environment and in defensive mode. How many times have I encountered this sort of thing and it’s led to a barrage of questions and random commands:
Are you still in the same house?
Must be so difficult; Is it difficult?
Have you remarried?
Why haven’t you remarried?
You are still young
Do you want to have more kids?
You should have more kids
How old is your son now?
Does he ask about his dad?
You should move on, are you moving on?
Everything happens for a reason (the worst thing to say to anyone ever)
The questions are so unnecessary and downright rude. If you really knew me, you wouldn’t have to ask. If you’re not in my life, don’t ask. I used to answer these questions, foolishly, as if reassuring a nosy stranger would make the story seem less bad than it actually was. Now I cut them off and move on. Fuck that noise, I don’t have time for it. My pain is eternal. No matter how much time has passed and how I’ve moved on and how upbeat I am about my present life, my pain is my silent partner through all of it. It has shaped me, it provides fuel for my path but it is not a commodity. It’s not to be shared, it’s not gossip. It is all mine.
While those old awful feelings were swirling around in me, I heard a voice inside say “Why are you letting this awful human dictate your day?” Good question. She poked at a wound that has scarred over, why the hell was I bothered? I thought long and hard about it. I’m super protective of my past, my husband’s past, our life together, and I’m the one left that can still defend us with honor. When people come at me, the drawbridge goes up, the moat fills with fire-breathing dragons, and I go into demon mode. Come at me with kindness and I’ll reciprocate. Come at me with a negative self-serving agenda and I will withdraw. Verbal evisceration is a choice too, but this ‘take the high road’ thing I’m trying frowns upon telling people to fuck off. I’ve come so far in the last decade. I’m not gonna let one impolite turd set my progress back. So, I started writing. I wrote and wrote, during breaks and lunch, got all the bad juju out of me and let X continue to be the asshole that she is. I wrote about my pain, I wrote how hard it is to revisit it, I wrote long sentences in a chaotic scribble that made no sense to me when I re-read them.
The rest of the day was spent politely ignoring X’s stares, glares, and comments. She gossiped about people’s children, marital status, divorce status, anything and everything all the while pumping herself up. She strutted around that room like a show pony. I decided not to let her have any more of my energy and attention and engrossed myself in my work - both patient-related and writing. My heightened awareness was exhausting, I was emotionally dead when I got home, and my mind was swimming with sad memories. As I sat down to write this, I realized that even though I’ve been through some heavy, fucked up shit, and have a battered heart, I have a level of character and integrity that others can only hope for. It’s gotta be a sad life when you’re a transparent asshole that revels in a (non) connection with a long-dead doctor. I wish a quick death to Widow Fame and increased tact and grace in all my future encounters. May the universe not send me one of those awful people for a very long time.
*Not its real name, although, it would be quite funny if it was.