Trying to paint a ceiling with a broken elbow


Another first time: on Sunday morning I took myself to the emergency room at the hospital all by my lonesome. If there were tears in my eyes, it was because of the pain, not because there was a young couple ahead of me, where the man was pushing his wife around in a wheelchair, taking care of her and taking care of the formalities at the same time …

Since the project for this weekend was to clear out the old computer room, paint it, and refurnish it as an all-purpose workroom, I expected bruises, cuts, and scrapes. I seem to have thin skin (or something), because I bruise and bleed easily, so shifting a large quantity of large and cumbersome physical objects was inevitably going to leave physical traces. However, I certainly did not expect to stupidly trip over a friend’s foot trying to find our way into IKEA, and unlike Arthur Dent, when I went flying I unfortunately did not forget to hit the ground. At first I thought I was just a bit rattled, no damage to be concerned about, so we just continued as planned, although I was more than usually irritated that IKEA didn’t even have the shelves in stock that I needed, resulting in a major obstacle to my plan of finishing everything before the end of the weekend – only the first obstacle, as it turned out.

Almost empty

Almost empty

Since Laura and Becky had done an amazing job of clearing everything out of the computer room Friday evening (and so quickly that we had plenty of time to drink a bottle of wine together on the balcony afterward), and Otmar and I had lugged the rest of the furniture down to the cellar in the morning, when I returned from the unsatisfactory and unsuccessful trip to IKEA, three people had almost finished painting all the walls of the room. All that was left was the ceiling, so my delightful nephew Dominik stayed to help me finish that. Unfortunately, we started seriously running out of the specially mixed paint I had bought (“porcelain white”), before we had finished more than about a third of the ceiling. Since I still had some other white paint left, we decided to mix a little of that in, figuring it would be ok if the ceiling was a bit lighter than the walls. About that time, I was becoming increasingly aware of pain and realizing that I could not stretch out my left arm, so I just wanted to get finished. Dominik heroically kept up with me, standing on the ladder with a paint brush to fill in the gaps I was leaving behind with my increasingly erratic swipes with the roller on a telescope handle, and it was starting to get dark, so it looked ok.



In the morning light, after pain kept me awake much of the night, it looked anything but ok. The ceiling was a blotchy mess and there were white blotches around the top of the walls, where I had bumped into them with the roller. Had I been able to move my left arm, I would have started painting again to at least try to make it look plausibly even, but there was nothing I could do about it by myself, so I just sat down and cried. Then I started dithering about whether I should go to the hospital to have my elbow looked at or not. Since I haven’t had to go to the emergency room since before Peter died (which is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose), I didn’t even know the “protocol”: Should I tell someone (two friends later said yes, I should have told them), ask someone to keep me company, call a taxi? Or should I just quietly get on a bus and go there, since there was nothing wrong with my legs? I wasn’t even sure I knew how to get there, since Peter always took me in the car, but I looked that up and it was easy.

Once I returned from the hospital with a bandaged elbow and the prescribed pain pills, I started sending out SOS messages, beginning with whining to Christopher that I wanted him to make calls for me, because it’s even harder to ask for help when I’m in pain. By the time I had warmed up a frozen pizza to eat before taking a pain pill, Leo arrived and other people started responding. And what started out as a miserable, hopeless day just got better and better. Although it seems a waste of talent to ask a gifted graffiti artist to just paint a room white, Leo did a brilliant job of fixing the ceiling and hiding my blotches. After we removed the newspaper from the floor and mopped it (which hurt enough to convince me to just give instructions and not try to help after that), Leo and Benji brought the pieces of the old desk back up from the cellar and reassembled parts of it to fit exactly the way Katja had said it would fit (obviously, Katja knows what she’s talking about: she is an architect and understands spaces and how physical objects fit in them, so her plan for the room is working perfectly). They brought the white sofa over from the former boys’ room and assembled the available bits of the shelves – and the room was transformed. In the evening, Laura, Susanne and Elke took over absolutely the most helpful and useful task they could have done: they hung up my beloved pictures in the new workroom and then proceeded to rearrange and re-hang all the pictures in the flat. Despite all the piles of stuff that still needs to be sorted, now I just walk around seeing pictures that make me happy.

There is a reason for all of this: it’s time to start the next experiment in shared living space.

When I was young, “married with children” was certainly not the life I ever envisioned for myself, so for nearly twenty-five years I was repeatedly surprised to find myself in exactly that living situation. On the whole, I think it was a successful experiment, but it’s finished now. My children are grown, my husband is dead, so “married with children” is no longer my life. Now I have a different life. And the next step in that different life is that I will be sharing my living space with two new people. Over the summer I became acquainted with the woman who directed the theater production that took place beneath my office window, and consequently she and her little son will be moving in with me to start a “three-generation flat-share”.

As I have been sorting through over twenty years of accumulated stuff all day (things I can sort using mostly my right arm and sitting quietly in one place), I’m finding it surprisingly easy to discard things I really don’t need to keep, easier than I had imagined. That “sudden halt” feeling that results from spending time in a hospital waiting room and leads to (usually necessary) reflection reminds me that it’s better to take time for what is really important, that I can’t (and shouldn’t!) do everything alone, and also suggests that it’s easier to let go of things for a positive reason: in order to make room for two new people in my life.

And to start with, instead of a dingy old computer room, thanks to wonderful, helpful friends, we now have a bright, beautiful workroom.

New workroom

New workroom


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Thinking about changing spaces again


A clear sign that a building is alive and lived in, I believe, is when the spaces keep changing. All the time the boys were growing up, our flat was always changing to accommodate their needs and ours – even though I often felt (and complained loudly) that my needs were taken too little into consideration. The more drastic changes started after the boys both finished school, although they kindly left me a little time to catch up. First Christopher moved to Vienna in October 2010, and Paddy turned what had been “the boys’ room” into his own space, where he lived while doing his “service to society” (alternative to military service in Austria). Then in September 2011, just two months before Peter died, Paddy moved to Vienna too, leaving me with a not-quite-empty room full of memories.

Empty space left after Paddy moved to Vienna

And the spaces keep changing …

After Peter died, my attempts to turn the former boys’ room – or now simply “the front room” – into a writing/sewing room for myself had to be put on hold again, because it was more urgent and necessary to change the bedroom. Little by little, though, I have been taking over the whole flat for myself, and I am very happy living here, where I feel safe, comfortable and content, even though I don’t really spend much time at home. Since the mortgage was paid off the summer before Peter died, my widow’s pension now covers my housing costs. This is what makes it possible for me to afford to run the Workshop in the Main Square as my own private project, thus avoiding all bureaucratic regulations and restrictions, but it also means I couldn’t afford to move, even if I wanted to.

But does it actually make sense for an old widow living alone with two cats to occupy a four-room flat that used to be sufficient living space for a family of four + friends, when there are so many people urgently in need of affordable living space?

That question bothers me, and it keeps coming into my mind, especially every time I hear of people, particularly young families or single mothers, desperately searching for a place to live. Recently, though, it came up again in a completely different context and tied into other worrying questions as well.

I'm still working on taking this one over for myself.

I’m still working on taking this one over for myself.

On one of the blogs I follow („The Polished Widow„), I was startled to read recently that another widow who blogs about her experience married again earlier this year. She is a very young widow with a young child, and it was beautiful and touching to read about how she balances remembering her late husband and going on with her life now with her new husband, but what startled me was the way I suddenly felt old as I read that. Marrying again or rearranging my life with a new relationship is not an option I can imagine for myself, but do I really want to continue on for the rest of my life in this comfortable arrangement of living alone with two cats, keeping everyone else at a safe distance? Isn’t this exactly what makes me old?

As I have always been interested in different forms of community, in different ways of people living together or sharing resources and responsibilities, one obvious change that suggests itself is that I could share my living space. The possibilities for finding “flat-mates”, perhaps of different ages, from different situations, are virtually endless, and there is much that I find appealing about the idea. At the same time, however, I also find the idea quite daunting for a number of reasons as well.

First of all, where would I put all my books to make room for another person? Books have always occupied a significant amount of space everywhere I’ve lived, even more so since Peter first moved in with me after we met through our shared love of books and reading. It’s not just the books, though. Every room in this flat is filled with memories – along with the many objects that go with them. To what extent would I have to limit myself, constrain myself to the here and now to make room for someone else? Could I even do that, and would I want to if I could? Which memories, objects, spaces do I need to cling to, in order to be able to hold on to a sense of “this is me, this is my life”? Or which of them just hold me down, tie me to the past so that I am not free to live in the here and now?

Maybe it is still too soon to start trying out experiments in communal living now, but when will it be too late? If I feel too timid or insecure to embark on any significant changes in the way I live now, I’m afraid it won’t be long before I really am just an old woman too set in my ways to be able to open up my mind to anything new.

In the meantime, however, I really do enjoy being able to share space at least temporarily, both in the Workshop and at home. Being able to welcome guests, provide beds for “visiting firemen” (the phrase the Shanahans always used for visitors from out of town), hand over a key to friends and young people looking after my cats so that they can make themselves comfortable while I’m away: all of that gives me great pleasure – I just have to keep thinking now about whether it is enough.


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Family Resemblances

From the time he was born, people have always remarked on how much Christopher looks like Peter, and it has always annoyed me. When Christopher was little and I got tired of the same old jokes about the almost comical resemblance, I learned to respond with remarks like “Right, Papa on the outside, Mama on the inside”, but it wasn’t entirely true and it made no difference. When I took Christopher to city hall to get his own Austrian passport, I took Peter’s passport along with all the other documents, because the boys were both listed in it as his children. After checking the application, the documents and Christopher’s passport photo, the official opened Peter’s passport, looked at the picture and burst out laughing. I just sighed and said, “I assume you need no further proof that this man is indeed the father of this child.” She just chuckled and assured me that was clear enough.

Since Peter’s death, I often have the feeling that this situation has become even more exacerbated, less of a joking matter now. So often now, people who are missing Peter look at Christopher and their eyes go soft as they murmur, “Just like Peter!” Sometimes I feel as though I have to defend Christopher, point out again and again that he is not Peter, he is not “just like” Peter, he is Christopher – wholly and entirely himself. Christopher, however, generous and kind as he has always been, responds much more graciously, but also so politely that I can only guess how he feels about it.

John Derieg, 7 January 1930 - 11 May 1998. This picture is presumably from the mid-1950s.

My father at about the same age that Christopher is now – just minus the beard.

If I am quite honest, however, I have to admit that my irritation is not motivated solely by a desire to protect Christopher from projections and expectations that could burden or limit him. There is also an element of something else in it – something I’ll call jealousy, for lack of a better word. Other people see Peter in Christopher, because they knew Peter, yet when I look at Christopher, I see so much of my own father, which no one else can see, because no one else knew my father, who died sixteen years ago. I’m convinced that Christopher has my father’s eyes and his lovely dark hair, but more than that I feel that Christopher has much of my father’s temperament or character, and they certainly would have shared many interests, if they had had more time together. Sometimes I’ve felt that it seems so unfair that my father did not live long enough to see his grandchildren grow up. He would have enjoyed all seven of them so much. But at other times it can be comforting to feel that Christopher gives me a little bit of my father back again.

That being the case, I think what irritates me about the emphasis on the physical resemblance between Peter and Christopher is that it seems to obscure other connections, influences, similarities. While Christopher undoubtedly bears a visible resemblance to his father, Paddy has Peter’s keen sense of hearing and love of music, a very special bond that only the two of them shared. Sometimes I wish more people could see how much Paddy resembles Peter in different ways, affirm the strong connection between them and perhaps have a little more understanding for the loss that Paddy lives with.

Amy in conversation with Paddy some years ago. In one of the pictures my goddaughter-in-law shared, Amy's granddaughter is making the same face.

Amy in conversation with Paddy some years ago. In one of the pictures my goddaughter-in-law shared, Amy’s granddaughter is making the same face.

There is a reason why I have been thinking about this for several days now. A few days ago, my dear goddaughter-in-law posted new pictures of her adorable baby to Facebook. Along with the feeling of longing to hold my sister’s grandchild again, I had a feeling almost of shock as I gazed at the lovely pictures, because all I could see was a resemblance to Amy – Amy’s expressions, her gestures, her smile, her eyes … I had to force myself to refrain from commenting on each and every picture. Of course, seeing that resemblance unleashed a flood of memories and opened up that carefully guarded hole in my heart where I keep the pain of missing Amy, the ache of loss, the bottomless well of unspoken words from all the things I have needed to talk about with her since she died.

But when does it become annoying, limiting, oppressive to keep noting a perceived family resemblance? Is it something only I see because I miss Amy, the same way that people who are missing Peter look at Christopher and sigh, “Just like Peter”? I know there are other people in Evelyn’s life who love her and need her to belong to their lives as well, so I don’t want to impose my need to find traces of my sister.

Where does one draw the line between sharing memories and imposing them? At some point, children must surely have a certain right to choose whom they wish to be associated with or not. I am acutely aware of my own need to keep memories alive of loved ones now dead, but sometimes I think I need to remind myself not to forget loved ones still living while remembering the dead. To be able to learn to live with loss, you have to be among the living and fully alive.


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Establishing new traditions

When something happens for the third time, does that make it a tradition?

I don’t even know now how it happened, but when Peter died two years ago, the house immediately started filling up with people – so many dear and kind friends, so many young people who had spent time as children or teenagers here, Peter’s friends, my friends, the boys’ friends, our friends. They took care of cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping, organizing; they took care of us. By the end of that November, of course, everyone had to return to their own lives, and I started learning to live quietly by myself with (at first) one cat.
When Christmas came only a few weeks later, it seemed, after Paddy brought the second cat, Hester, as a Christmas present for me and Ginevra, the house started filling up with people again. After our traditional Austrian Christmas with Peter’s family on the 24th, starting since then with a visit to the cemetery together, what used to be our somewhat chaotic English-speaking Christmas on the 25th became a gathering of friends – and it felt so good. That first Christmas without Peter turned out to be so enjoyable that everyone came back again last year, and that was so enjoyable too that we did it again this year. Being able to open up my house and turn over my kitchen to any friends who feel like cooking and gathering here feels like such a privilege, an amazing gift for which I am deeply grateful.

Just sitting there on Christmas day, surrounded by lovely people having all kinds of conversations, I thought again about how incredibly fortunate I am, especially to have so many wonderful young women in my life. As I have often said, as an old feminist I initially felt a bit disappointed to find myself the mother of two sons, but I learned fairly quickly that it is actually much better to have sons who get along well with girls. As my sons started bringing girls into my life, I was able to enjoy their company, appreciate their views, delight in all their accomplishments – yet without any of the tensions, conflicts and mutual disappointments that mothers and daughters so often have to deal with. And this happy advantage still continues. Some time ago, one of Christopher’s friends gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received, when she announced that one day she would have to marry Christopher so that she could have me as her mother-in-law. I promised her that she didn’t have to marry him, I would be pleased to be able to keep in her my life in any case. Since then I have been growing a circle of “quasi daughters-in-law” with or without a relationship to one of my sons. All these intelligent, interesting, thinking, creative young women, who have come into my life, inspire and encourage me and give me hope. Of course, not all of the young people I have come to depend on are women: my life also includes thoughtful, caring, generous young men – including my sons.
After Peter died, I would not have imagined that I would end up enjoying Christmas this much. It still amazes me, but it is a new tradition I would like to continue now. I’m not quite sure how it might work next year, since Christopher, Paddy, Agnes and I plan to be in Albuquerque then, but since I will need someone to look after my cats, I’m thinking I’ll probably just leave my key here and let what ever happens happen. Somehow there is something very appealing about the thought of all these lovely people gathering at my house even if I’m not there. It is reassuring to imagine that my house is simply a good place to be.

A house full of people

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Someday, in some distant future, I like to think that a time may come, when November won’t hurt. It seems hard to imagine that now, but it’s what I like to tell myself.

Returning to Linz the day before the second anniversary of Peter’s death seemed like a good idea when I booked my flight months ago, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite think that plan all the way through. Two years ago I was wholly and completely incapable of remembering any dates or times, so I was grateful for the notes posted for me in the hallway, telling me where I needed to go and when, notes I could simply read out whenever anyone called to ask about the memorial. Two years ago I could not remember that the memorial for Peter would be held on 22 November, that on 28 November we would take the urn with his ashes to the niche I had picked out for both of us. Now it feels as though I will never, ever be able to forget those dates again.

I had made plans for 13 November ahead of time, the same comforting, reassuring plan as last year: going to the cemetery together in the afternoon, a nice dinner with family and friends at Gelbes Krokodil, eventually ending up in Solaris, of course, with Paddy, Agnes, Christopher and more friends. That worked. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was how hard it would hit me in the days after that, the whole flood of memories of exactly what I was doing at this time two years ago. For the past two weeks I’ve had the feeling there is gray film constantly running in my head, replaying memories on top of or behind everything else I’m doing or thinking in the present.

Actually, though, it might even be considered encouraging that I was so unprepared for that unexpected flood of memories. It means they don’t otherwise dominate my life. It means there is space now, two years later, in my life, in my mind, in my heart to reflect on and remember what happened, what was, what is no more. It means I can stop to feel sad now, because I’m not constantly struggling to just somehow keep going.

On 14 November, the day after the second anniversary of Peter’s death, I finally transferred the last installment to pay his income taxes, for which I am deeply grateful to Peter’s parents, because I could not have done it without their generous help. The only thing left now is the last instrument Peter started and Claudia Unterkogler finished, which is only waiting for a case to be made for it so it can be delivered. Then I am finished. I have completed all my “widow’s tasks”.

My “widow’s tasks”, dealing with “death & taxes & telephone companies”, all the many, many “first times” – sometimes the first year felt like the longest year of my life. It seemed interminable, insurmountable. As the first year spilled over into the second year, as my “widow’s tasks” finally became fewer, less urgent, less daunting, it was time to take up the next challenge of “rearranging my life” without Peter. It was also time to stop needing so much help and support and start taking care of other people again. It was time to get back to work and to earning my living again. New projects, new people, new interests also new low points, new disappointments, new loneliness.

So many years ago, I found the symbolism of the threefold goddess fascinating and encouraging. The three figures of the goddess with their respective colors – white for the Maid, red for the Mother, black for the Crone – stand for different phases of life, but not in a linear progression: like the changing seasons, there are different times in life, where the focus shifts, responsibilities and efforts change, the light is different. White is for those periods in life, when a freedom from ties and responsibilities is needed to reach a goal, to grow and change, a time of light and clarity, not uncaring, but unfettered. Red is for periods of caring, loving, nourishing, protecting, gathering in, a time of strong energy and strong bonds, like a flame with all its capacities for warming and for destroying as well. Black is the time of winter, like the black branches of trees that had to let their leaves fall, in order to survive the cold and the snow. Letting go, taking down, taking leave, retreating, death. And there can be no life without death, in all its many forms and manifestations, physical, emotional, global, personal.

Looking back, I would say that the first year of my life without Peter was red, the second was black.

Now my color is white.

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Five years.

Five years ago at the end of August, Peter and I were packing for a weekend at a spa out in the country. We had been there before, and we expected to spend a relaxing few days just lying naked on the comfortable lounges in the quiet sauna garden reading novels, so we packed more books than clothes. On our way to the spa, we stopped for coffee with dear friends and met a brand new person for the first time. That newborn person, who was to become Peter’s youngest godchild, is meanwhile about to start his last year at kindergarten as one of the important big kids ready to start school next year. He is an expert on tractors and screwdrivers, and he is learning to tie his own shoes.

While Peter and I were looking forward to just getting away for a few days in Austria, Amy was making similar plans in Michigan, and we had been exchanging messages about how much we were looking forward to it. She said she just needed a break too, she really needed a break. The short break that Peter and I took was good, enjoyable, restful. Whatever happened that weekend, though, that was not the case for Amy.

Two days after our return, I went to a meeting to discuss a paper I had been working on with a small group. I felt we were making good progress and I was happy and excited to discuss it. But then, in the middle of the discussion, my phone rang and I saw that it was Peter calling me. Normally I would never answer my phone in the middle of a meeting, but Peter would normally never call me in the middle of a meeting either. As soon as I heard his voice, it sent a chill down my spine. Peter just said, “You need to come home. Now. Your brother called. Something happened. It’s not your mother.” In the middle of the discussion, I quickly packed up my bag, murmured something about having to go, and started running.

The meeting that night was held in a pleasant little courtyard attached to an art space. I’ve tried to return several times since then, but it still feels oppressive and uncomfortable. No matter what else is happening there, I just feel the large tree, looming like a malignant presence, and no matter what anyone else is saying, all I hear is Peter’s voice in my head: “You need to come home …”. When I leave, I still feel an overwhelming urge to start running, as I did that night five years ago – running, sobbing, calling Amy’s name out loud like a mad woman…

Five years ago, when Amy made the determined decision to end her life, she radically changed mine too. I am not the same person I was before she walked into her garage and turned on the motor of her car. None of us are.

One learns to live with a traumatic and painful change, as one learns to live with a deep scar, an artificial hip or a prosthetic limb. What always surprises me, though, is that there are so many of us. Whenever I talk about Amy with other people, they often tell me their stories too. I would never have imagined that there are so many, many people living with the self-chosen death of someone close to them. Sometimes when I see groups of people standing around or just walking down the street, I find myself picturing the invisible scars, artificial hips or prosthetic limbs they have learned to live with, and I am reminded of one of my favorite posts on Twitter:

“Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”


A beautiful place to spend eternity

A beautiful place to spend eternity:
Remembering Amy Derieg Boehms
3 November 1966 – 2 September 2008



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Sisters by the DanubeThere is a word for it. There is actually a “technical” term that I have come across on the various websites about grief and mourning and bereavement that I read. It is a recognized psychological phenomenon, this unexpected and sudden feeling of disorientation, when something triggers a feeling of grief completely out of the blue, often long after you think you have learned to come to terms with loss. I can’t think of the word right now, though, because that is what I experienced this morning.

Even though I really ought to be at the alternative 1st May demo today, at some point I decided I just need a day off, and a public holiday in the middle of the week seemed like a good excuse. Feeling unusually unpressured when I got up, while I was making coffee I started absent-mindedly scrolling through Twitter, and a link that someone had posted caught my attention. It was a link to a beautiful series of photos of four sisters, taken every year from 1975 to 2010. Actually, I love to see sisters together, whether in pictures or in person. That always has a kind of bitter-sweet feeling to it, because it makes me miss my sister, but at the same time there is something tremendously comforting about seeing that other sisters can still be together. I love to see my mother-in-law with her sister: it invariably brings tears to my eyes as it reminds me that my sister and I will never be old women together, but at the same time it gives me great pleasure to watch the two of them turning into young girls again together, as they quickly fall into patterns of behavior from the course of their whole lifetime.

Perhaps it was the time frame of this photo series, perhaps it’s just this time of year or the fact that I have been thinking so much of Amy lately, but this morning it suddenly hit me, an inconsolable sense of loss and grief. Instead of doing any of the other things I had planned to do today at home, I found myself pouring over old pictures of Amy and me together. Sisters.

As it is the first day of May, I am reminded of that May four years ago, six months after Amy’s death, when it first really started sinking in that she really was dead, and I would never see her or hear from her or hug her again – a feeling I found most aptly expressed on yet another website:

by Donald Hall
Somewhere in California

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

I have also been thinking so much of her since I heard the good news that my godson and goddaughter-in-law are expecting a baby in early November, which means that around her 47th birthday this year, my sister would have become a grandmother. Since Amy is no longer here to welcome this first grandchild, I fully intend to do my best to stand in for her, which means I have a lot of work to do in order to be able to afford to go to Michigan by late October. I was with her when her son was born, and when Christopher was born she came to Austria, a determined young single mother on her own with a very small child and a very large suitcase. Then the two of us set out together with a two-year-old and a newborn to have fun doing tourist things, joining forces to pretend to ignore the appalled looks and disapproving comments from older women along the way. So no matter what it takes, I have to go to Michigan.

Big sister, little sisterSisters. Amy was my little sister. I loved her from the day she was born to the day she died, and I love her still in my heart. As ever, mourning for Amy allows the ghost of regret to escape that has haunted me since she died: I should have gone to stay with her when I realized what a hard time she was going through. Perhaps one of the hardest things about grieving is learning to accept that we cannot change the past, and it has taken me tremendous effort to learn to keep that particular ghost at bay. Of course it returned this morning, but it feels encouraging that this ghost no longer has the power to hurt me as it once did. I didn’t go to Michigan then – for so many different reasons – but blaming myself for not being able to help her would be disrespectful to Amy. That’s not what I promised her when I stood there stroking the arm of her lifeless body in the funeral home.

We cannot change the past, but neither can it be taken from us. I had a sister, and that was good. There will never be another picture taken of the two of us together, but I can still enjoy looking at pictures of other sisters together and being reminded of my sister and our past together.Amy and me

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What is hard about being a widow now

As my sons have heard (probably far too many times by now), among all the many websites I have found that deal with bereavement and grief, one day I found one with a kind of list of many different types of bereavement and associated grief, with beautiful, sensitive descriptions of the different kinds of experiences. Reading through these descriptions, I started mentally checking off all the experiences I have already gone through, even including miscarriage and my own near-death experience with the ruptured tubal pregnancy, and by the time I got to the end, I realized that I had checked off every single description – with one exception: I have not had to cope with the death of one of the children I have given birth to. With that realization, I suddenly froze with terror, starting to wonder whether that is something I still have to face, as though I cannot be “finished” until I have covered the entire list. That is not a fear I can live with, not a possibility I can even begin to imagine facing: that would break me now. This sudden terror was immediately followed that the realization that this is exactly what Peter’s parents are going through. They have lost their child. My parents-in-law are coping with this terrible loss with such inspiring grace and dignity, yet sometimes I feel it will break my heart just having to watch them. But we have cried together, again and again, held on tight to one another, and promised one another, we can only do this together. Most recently, my beloved mother-in-law, holding on tight to my hands, tears streaming down her face, told me, “We are family, we just have to stick together.” All the past conflicts, arguments, differences of opinion and world view no longer matter, not at all. We have to do this together, because it is the only way we can do it.

I have to admit, however, that after one year and three months, I am really, really tired of being a widow. And it is not getting easier.

Sometimes I take a detour on my way to work in the morning. Instead of walking across the bridge, I get on the bus that leaves from below my balcony. All the way across Urfahr, this bus picks up older, old, and elderly women, and then we all get off together at the stop across from the cemetery. On weekday mornings, the No. 33 bus turns into a “widow’s bus”. I don’t know why the other widows take this bus, but when I go to the cemetery, apart from lighting candles, removing old leaves, and generally tidying Peter’s niche, I usually just go there to complain. I look at the plain marble plaque with his name, his date of birth, and the date of his death, and I just feel incensed and reproachfully demand, “How could you just fall off a mountain and leave me to deal with this mess alone?” Then a little more tidying, checking for signs that the neighbor’s widow has been there recently, and it’s ok. I can get back on the bus that takes me to the tram that takes me to my office, and I can just get on with it.

Sometimes I try to frame what’s hard now about being a widow in a broader context. Everyone I know is constantly under pressure: too many people living under precarious conditions, struggling to keep up with all the major and minor responsibilities, from childcare to deadlines to health problems to taxes to project proposals for funding to economic justice and political activism. Even as I type, I know that an amazing group of people is shivering from the cold in a church in Vienna, where they have been on hunger strike to demand basic human rights – human rights that are denied to them, simply because they are refugees, and Austrian politics can’t deal with anything but unquestioning gratitude from anyone not born here. And I feel stupid and useless, because I feel too tired, too lonely, too overwhelmed to find any energy to even write letters of support or go to solidarity demos.

What happens when everyone feels that way? What is left, if no one has enough energy left, after just getting by from one day to the next, to reach out to other people? What if the only people who can cope with everyday life are the ones who choose to only look out for themselves, all the purportedly “self-made”, “self-reliant” men and women, who look down on anyone who has not done well for themselves?

Peter and I were a good team, I think. We were by no means an ideally romantic couple who fell in love and found our soul-mates. He often complained that I was so unromantic, just as I often teased him about being a hopelessly cliched romantic; he rolled his eyes at my repeated assertion that “romantic love” is just a capitalist fairy-tale that keeps people unhappy so that they are better consumers, and in response I just stroked his beard and kissed him. He frequently brought me roses, just because he thought I needed them, and I smoothed the back of his hair when he looked silly, held him when he felt upset, insecure or – for him – dangerously vulnerable. It wasn’t that kind of “romantic love” that kept us together, but rather our shared convictions about the kind of world we wanted to live in and the work entailed in making that kind of world.

The hard part about being a widow now is that I have not lost those convictions, I have lost the partner who shared them – who also shared all the minor and major responsibilities of everyday life to create enough free space to be able to work on making the kind of world we wanted to live in together. Now I not only have to figure it out by myself, I have no one to talk it through with. And no one is here to do the laundry or wash the dishes while I write or gather information or go to the meetings I would attend, if only I were not so exhausted.

Eventually I will figure it out, I’m certain that I will. But right now, the process of trying to figure it all out just feels like hard, hard work.

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Rearranging my life

Getting through the first year without Peter felt like a goal, something worth working to achieve. By the end of November, though, having reached the end of the first year without Peter, somehow I felt almost cheated that there was no reward, no feeling of achievement, nothing. I had somehow expected life to feel easier after the first year, but it didn’t. On the contrary, December felt like a long, uphill battle for no discernible reason.

Setting up and opening the “new” workshop, the Werkstatt am Hauptplatz, was an important goal, and it was absolutely worth the effort, but it did indeed require a tremendous effort. When November was followed by December, and I realized it was time to think about Christmas, it felt like more than I could possibly cope with. When the notice came from the tax office with the schedule of payments to cover Peter’s income tax from 2011 by the end of the next year, it nearly defeated me. Then finally I realized my mistake: somehow I had unconsciously assumed that now everything could return to “normal”, and that I could prepare for Christmas as I had always done in the past, but that is, in fact, no longer possible. As much as Peter always complained about the disruptiveness of Christmas, we still shared responsibility for preparations. We shared ideas about presents and divided up both errands and costs, but that only works with two people. It came as a shock to realize that I can no longer afford to do Christmas the same way that Peter and I did it together in the past, but by then it was too late. I had already spent too much money even before I received the notice from the tax office, and it was too late to come up with an alternative plan.

As I felt disappointed, apprehensive, under pressure to keep up with work, even more so because of the urgency of needing the money, the stress started to manifest itself physically. At some point I realized that if Peter were here, he would have noticed that I was becoming increasingly irritable and unreasonably grumpy, but he would also have noticed that I was limping and made a connection. Admittedly, it invariably irritated Peter that he always had to tell me when I was in pain and start nagging me to do something about it, but at least I could always rely on him to do so. Theoretically, I know that taking the attitude toward physical pain that if it’s not fatal, I can live with it, is neither healthy nor sensible. Putting that theoretical knowledge into practice, however, is definitely not one of my strong points. But without Peter now, even that is solely and entirely up to me. I have to rearrange my life, my whole life, in all the minor and major points. I have to readjust my thinking, my expectations, my daily routines and all my coping mechanisms. How did I miss that part, while I was just concentrating on getting through the first year?

On the Saturday before Christmas I lost the plot. When Seth came in and found me in tears, he went straight into action, throwing Christopher out of bed and getting Paddy on the phone at the same time. While pain had kept me awake all night, I had convinced myself that all my efforts were a waste of time and energy, nobody was interested in Christmas, they were just going along with it to humor me, so Seth’s efforts to motivate Christopher and Paddy to get involved only seemed to confirm those misgivings. In the end I fled to the workshop to set everything up for “#twichteln”, the Christmas party of the Linz Twitter community. That was probably the right course of action, since the party turned out so well, which helped me to feel considerably less incompetent. While I was in the workshop, Seth and Christopher went out to buy a tree, set it up in the living room and brought up all the boxes from the cellar. Then on Sunday Azra came, and she and Christopher and I decorated the tree, hung up the stockings (including the two new ones I had made for Azra and Agnes), and set out other Christmas decorations. Azra was so sweet about listening to all my stories about each of the ornaments and where all the decorations had come from, that I started to feel much better. I was touched to hear Christopher telling Azra about Bean, my grandmother, as though he had actually known her, although telling Azra about Amy made me feel a bit sad, because I am increasingly realizing how much they would have had to say to one another. Because I am not Amy and because of the ways we were very different, now I can only tell Azra what she is missing. And consequent to Seth’s efforts, I learned that, far from having lost interest because he wanted to do his own Christmas celebration, Paddy had been working very hard to surprise me, which was why I hadn’t heard from him. I felt like a complete fool then, thoroughly ashamed of myself for making such a fuss.

Once the tree was decorated and presents started being placed under it, Hester seemed to revert to her early kitten-hood and insisted on hiding under the tree behind the other presents, just as she had done a year ago, when Paddy first brought her to me.

Then after all of my misgivings and worries and unhappiness, because I felt that what I had to offer was too meager and stretched, and no one wanted it anyway, it all turned out well after all. Christmas Eve with Peter’s family felt gentle, warm, enjoyable, and I felt contentedly certain that my attempts to express affection and care for his family would have made Peter happy. Then watching everyone open gifts from one another on Christmas day at my house, I felt deeply touched by the thoughtfulness so abundantly evident in both giving and receiving. Among all the other presents, I saw there was an envelope under the tree with my name on it. An invitation to a nice personally cooked dinner in Vienna? A concert or a play? Announcement of a CD not yet released or some other kind of promise? When I opened the envelope, I found this sheet of paper inside:

While I was still blinking, Paddy ran into the other room and came back with a guitar – a new guitar for me.

I have never had another guitar, other than the one given to me for my twelfth birthday. It gave me great pleasure then, opened up other possibilities for me when I learned to play with the folk mass group at church as a teenager. It has accompanied me everywhere since then, proved to be quite useful when I was a religion teacher in Innsbruck, and got me some of the best rides during my hitch-hiking days. Although I think a few old photos do exist of Peter and me playing the guitar together, for the most part I just left it up to him, because he played much better than I did, and later Paddy learned to play much better than Peter ever did. At least, however, I can claim credit for having taught the boys the first few chords on the guitar, but I don’t think they found “The Crawdad Song” amusing after the age of about four. Recently, I started trying to play again, because with no more musicians living here, now I have to make my own music again. After the first attempts were a bit frustrating, I asked Paddy to tune it for me, which helped a little, but my poor old guitar is so battered and worn now that not even Paddy can make it really sound good.

With the new guitar, along with Paddy’s suggestions about where to find chords for more interesting songs than the ones I used to play for my pupils in Innsbruck, I have the feeling that some of my confidence is returning. My fingers have grown soft, of course, my fingernails too long, but I can change that. At least my fingers remember now where they belong on the strings. The cats are clearly not impressed with my attempts to sing again, but they are happy to sit in the lovely new soft case while I work on it. With neither Peter nor Amy here to roll their eyes, it is tempting to indulge in a more extensive metaphorical interpretation of the new guitar: I have to rearrange my life now, not just for a year, but indefinitely. Maintaining the workshop and paying Peter’s income tax at the same time is a huge challenge, but I lived alone on very, very little money for a long time before I met Peter. I can do it again, but that doesn’t mean that I can just pick up where I left off more than twenty years ago. I need to relearn old skills, but acquire new skills and also new resources at the same time. I need to abandon certain habits and work on things that I could afford to not be good at for so many years. I need to learn to seek advice from people with different skills and other experience, and follow it. There is no specific goal, no finish-line, no set time frame, and there will be no prize or reward for achievement. This is simply my life now without Peter.

But when I think of all the people there are in my life who matter, I know I have a good life, and it is worth the effort.

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Remembering Peter

As arbitrary and artificial as conventional measures of time are, we have passed through a full cycle now, all four seasons, all the recurrent annual events and anniversaries, all the things that can happen within the space that we count as one year: tomorrow it will be exactly one year since Peter died.

One year without Peter.

In the course of this year, there are important things that Peter has missed. He missed meeting George, who was born in January, and he missed being here to have important conversations with George’s father, because having important conversations about how to be a father was always Peter’s job. He missed meeting Agnes again as the wonderful grown-up woman she has become from the bright-eyed child we met so many years ago. He missed meeting Azra, and he missed being here to be a good role model for Seth and give him advice when he needs it (whether he knows he needs it or not). Peter missed the release of Jub Jub, he missed The Beauty Queen of Leenane, he never got to hear Paradicso, and he missed the first ever performance of The Patrick Derieg Orchestra. He missed Joseph and Emma’s wedding, and he missed Hari and Simone’s wedding. He missed countless opportunities to throw a raging fit over Christopher’s rather chaotic travels through the US. He missed innumerable chances to give Paddy instructions about the proper way to make useful contacts. He missed Oscar turning four and Moritz becoming an excellent climber. He missed perfect Autumn days in the mountains and bright summer days for swimming in the Danube. He missed all of that and more – and he has been missed. His absence has been a constant presence.

It is not only the specific date – 13th November – that is noted on his death certificate and his marble plaque in the cemetery, it’s this time of year that evokes memories. When Christopher posted in October that it had been a year since the release of Lilacs Out of the Dead Ground, I remembered going to the release party with Peter, how happy he was, bursting with pleasure that his son had realized a dream he understood, because the album was released on the Tonträger label. And then I remembered that the next time Christopher played in Linz, I went to the concert with a friend and her sister, because Peter was already up in the mountains at Prielschutzhaus – and it hit me hard that Peter and Christopher had only missed each other by a few hours, because it was perfectly normal for Peter to be eager to set off and for Christopher to be late getting to Linz. Twenty-four hours later, it felt as though nothing could ever be “normal” again. When Christopher came to Linz to play a small concert on 1st November this year, we both had a kind of deja-vu feeling. I tried hard not to stand in the first row, but there wasn’t really much room to move, so I tried to at least hide a little behind Leo’s shoulder. I was rather proud of myself that I managed to listen to “Whatever We Had” without tears, but I noticed that Christopher was avoiding looking in my direction. I was grateful that he was able to stay a few days in Linz then, that he didn’t have to go back to Vienna immediately and leave me alone with my memories and my worries. We spent what would have been Amy’s 46th birthday together, mostly struggling to get the new web site for the workshop online. After four years, it seems I am able to stop having to take a day off on Amy’s birthday, even though I was still acutely conscious of the date.

Over the past few weeks, it seems that many people are having similar experiences. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and gently ask, “It’s about a year now, isn’t it?” And they tell me their stories of how they heard the terrible news of Peter’s death, what they were doing, how they felt, what they thought With every story I hear, I feel deeply touched again by the wealth of human kindness. This time last year

On the weekend, I absolutely did not want to be at home alone, so the timing was perfect for Paradicso to play a concert in Vienna and invite “The Patrick Derieg Orchestra” (i.e. Paddy and Agnes) to perform too. It was a good time to go to Vienna and I was grateful for the opportunity. All evening, of course, I kept imagining how Peter would have hated the crowded, smokey venue, but how he would have been about to explode with nervousness for Paddy, yet still bursting with pride at how well Paddy plays the guitar, but also, of course, with a long list of instructions about how to behave on stage. But now, after that weekend exactly a year ago, all of Peter’s loveable idiosyncrasies remain only a memory, his reactions to be imagined, but no longer experienced – unchanging now, immutable.

Tomorrow evening, after we go to the cemetery together with Peter’s parents and his sister, a table is reserved for us at Gelbes Krokodil. That feels right. That is where we have always gone for special occasions, starting from the party for Christopher’s baptism twenty-two years ago, when Krokodil hadn’t even officially opened yet, through all the birthdays and anniversaries, celebrating graduation, publications, new orders, and sometimes just because it seemed like a good idea. So the 13th of November now becomes historicized, a special occasion, a time for gathering and sharing good food and good company.

Then we will go upstairs to Solaris, which seems equally appropriate. That’s where Peter and I always met after working late, went for a drink after the cinema, found one another after long, busy days with other people. It’s where I’ve always gone in the past four years when I need to not be alone, and it feels safe, comfortable, familiar.

Elsewhere in the world, people with instruments that Peter made will be meeting to play music together. People that this date is meaningful for will tell one another their stories again, and the stories become a part of memories, told again and passed on.

Peter Hütmannsberger, 28 March 1962 - 13 November 2011

And Peter will be remembered.


Veröffentlicht unter General, Peter | 2 Kommentare