Nothing is entirely simple or straightforward as some past marital conflicts are revealed to be inscribed in the configuration.
Scattered all over the Internet there are so many sites about bereavement, about dealing with death in all its many different forms, recommendations for helpful things to say to someone recently bereaved and even lists of things not to say. From my experience in the course of this year, I would suggest that the latter list should include unhelpful encouragement to appreciate bureaucracy as a way to “take your mind off it”. Yes, my “widow’s tasks” have kept me busy, required tremendous energy, attention and determination. No, being kept involuntarily busy has not been helpful.
Having to repress thinking about the reality of Peter’s death in order to deal with phone calls and emails, having to repeat to complete strangers over and over again that my husband is dead, has made it that much harder to rid myself of the irrational hope that once I have finally finished all my tasks, he will come home again. Then each step along the way only confirms the finality of his death, and I have to stop and take a deep breath, find my balance again.
With tremendous support and encouragement, I have made great progress in finishing my widow’s tasks and closing Peter’s life. All the deposits have been returned, all his bank accounts closed and customer cards canceled, outstanding bills paid. Even our old car now has Viennese number plates. The only major task I haven’t been able to finish yet is shutting down our server, but even that is very close to completion now. I haven’t been updating this blog, because I am working on a new website for myself to move my domains to a different server, and trying to migrate this WordPress blog to Drupal didn’t work as smoothly as I expected it to, so I’ll have to start again (and maybe this time RTFM). A few days ago, however, I was assured that I don’t have to be finished with the new site before I can move my domains, so I have a bit more breathing space and can post blog entries again, rather than just writing them in my head.
After struggling with “multitasking” for months, however, trying to keep up with my work, move forward with new plans for the workshop, and close Peter’s affairs all at the same time, now I have the feeling I really need a break – but now it’s too late to take one. After ten months of living alone with two cats, it seems I ought to have become accustomed to it by now, and I have, in fact, developed new routines and daily rituals of my own in the meantime. But getting by from one day to the next is still different from gradually realizing that I am likely to go on living alone for at least as many years as Peter and I lived together. That is a long time, a long space of emptiness that I see stretching out before me. Of course, my life is filled with wonderful people of all ages, and I don’t feel essentially lonely. That’s different, though, from being able to share mundane experiences and trivial thoughts at the end of the day, different from feeling understood without having to explain.
Now I’m annoyed with myself for starting to write blog posts again by beginning with a long moan, but maybe this way I can stop moaning internally, so that I can concentrate on finishing my work in time to be able to cope with November. And then there will be space for something else again.
If you had to carry out a series of complex financial transactions, who would you rather work with, a sympathetic, helpful young woman with no inhibitions about making phone calls in the middle of a meeting to gather information about anything she is unsure of, or a busy, important-looking man in a suit, with the attitude that anything he doesn’t already know is not his concern?
The document I had been waiting for for months finally arrived the day before I left for Michigan and Joseph and Emma’s wedding. Since I had been advised that it was coming, I had already made appointments at the bank where Peter had a private account, where I now have one too, and at the bank where we both have business accounts, and I had my list of amounts and bank details for all the people waiting to have their deposits returned ready to go.
Much to my frustration, however, the insurance money I needed to cover the deposits is by no means automatically or simply transferred to Peter’s account, even though it is listed as belonging to his assets. Therefore, there was not enough money in his account to cover the deposits, so I was stymied yet again. By the time I had run around all afternoon collecting information about where and how I had to apply to actually get the insurance money, I had already decided which bank to have it transferred to. By then, though, the banks and all the other offices were closed, so there was nothing more I could do before getting on the plane in the morning.
My plan in May of being able to finish clearing out the workshop before the wedding, so that I could return to make a relatively fresh start and devote attention to my translation work, that plan didn’t work out very well either. Nor did I take into account the effects of jetlag, when I promised people I would be ready to work again in mid-June. I returned on Wednesday, 13 June, and basically slept through until Friday, missing several important dates along the way. And a workweek consisting of only one day is not at all sufficient for meeting deadlines, especially when most of it is spent at the bank trying to sort out international money transfers.
Far from making a “fresh start”, I’m now behind with everything and struggle every day to catch up. When people kindly ask me how I’m doing, if things are calming down, if I’m able to catch my breath and focus on getting on with my own life, I have no idea what to say. The obvious answer is simply: no.
Looking with dismay at the chaos still reigning in Peter’s workshop and office, just before I left for Michigan I realized it was time to admit defeat. I forced myself to sit down and write a call for help, collected email addresses from so many wonderful people who all offered any help they could give, when they sent condolences, added a few from my private email correspondence, and sent out an appeal for “chaos-tamers”. And people responded – generously, creatively, even happily!
Some people with dust allergies or a general lack of enthusiasm for chaos responded that they couldn’t help me in the workshop, but would be happy to go for a drink with me – a much appreciated and often needed offer that I will be happy to accept over the weeks and months to come. Others, who would have liked to help, were busy helping or being helped with similar tasks elsewhere, which I found very reassuring, as it helped me to believe I wasn’t imposing too much on anyone. And on various different days over the past weeks, some twenty people have come to the workshop, bringing all their talents and interests and imagination and different views. They have sorted, discarded, organized, cleaned, washed, shifted, measured things, so that a usable space is actually emerging. Again and again, I had the feeling, this is what an ideal society could look like; this is how it could be in a world that I would be happy to live in – so different from banks and insurance companies and telephone companies and bureaucracy.
What surprised me most was when I realized that what had been Peter’s office is beginning to revert more and more to the appearance it had when I lived in that room, the space I made for myself to live in so many years ago before I met Peter, where he later moved in with me. That reminder that I lived for years by myself before I met Peter was encouraging, motivating, strengthening. Some of the differences are important too, though: in the same place where I had a large old dark brown cupboard that I bought at a flea market, now there is a delightfully authentic retro kitchen cupboard from 1960. It belonged to Peter’s parents when they were first married, and they have contributed it now to furnishing this space and what is to happen here. Especially when I remember how Peter’s parents were not exactly happy about it when he moved in with me and then even announced his intention to marry me, the support and encouragement that I continue to receive from his parents, his sister and her family and all his relatives means so much to me. Over the years, my in-laws have become so very dear to me, and their support and approval is so vitally important. Now every time I look at this kitchen cupboard, it starts to bring tears to my eyes.
Now that I actually have the legal document I needed, I can continue juggling all the bureaucratic tasks that could not be completed before. Now that I finally have access to Peter’s bank account, I can sort out all the bills that still need to be paid, all the business that could not be finished before. Now there is hope that someday I may actually be able to close his account. The chaos in my own office has been tamed now, but not yet domesticated, so I can devote some attention to my own work, but not yet my full attention, even though my own bank account is reminding me that that would be a good thing to do at this point.
Recently a friend asked me what I want, what I need for myself, and without even thinking about it I answered that I just want to sleep and then spend the next day in bed reading. That’s not quite true, though. All I really want is for Peter to come home and finally take over his share of all these annoying tasks that still need to be done. And it’s his turn to clean the kitchen, too. There are days when that almost seems more realistic than being able to sleep and spend the next day in bed reading, but I know I only wish that were true.
“What Peter really wanted to see was the world arranged in happy couples. In remembrance of him, please fall in love, celebrate marriages, birthdays and all possible parties and events, bring little people into the world, laugh with them, play with them and ensure that they always feel loved and protected – as Peter always did; and so he will carry on living in our hearts.”
Someone remarked recently that it seems quite a few people took seriously what I said in my little speech for Peter’s memorial. Of course, the two weddings I attended in the past two weeks were both planned long before Peter’s death, and he had been looking forward to attending both of them. To me it felt wholly inconceivable that he was not present – at least not physically, charismatically, charmingly present as he should have been.
First there was Joseph and Emma’s wedding in Michigan – Joseph, my sister Amy’s son, our first godchild, after Peter and I had just lost the second baby before Christopher was born, and Peter took his responsibilities as a godfather very seriously. Peter never got a chance to meet Emma in person, but I’m sure he would have loved her too. I kept imagining him having a serious talk with his godson about bringing Emma flowers and making sure she always feels appreciated, because Peter was convinced that Amy didn’t have enough flowers in her life and never received anything like the appreciation she deserved from the men in her life. I could imagine Peter keeping watch that Emma didn’t get lost or feel overwhelmed in my large, chaotic family, just as he always watched out for Sara too. I kept waiting for Peter to finally appear somewhere on the edge of the crowd.
Because both Amy and Peter were so conspicuously missing from this wedding, along with beloved grandparents on both sides, Emma and Joseph hung pictures of departed loved ones from the trees in the apple orchard where the ceremony took place. As I had the great honor of leading the ceremony, from where I was standing I could see Peter’s folder fluttering from one of the apple trees, so I was able to feel more peaceful, knowing where he was. And the pain of loss mingles inextricably with the joy of life: it was such a delight to see the cousins together, now all young adults. As Christopher and Jack stood up to be counted among Joseph’s friends, not only his family, each of them smiling his own beautiful, special smile, a fleeting image passed through my mind of a picture of Jack, Joseph and Christopher taken twenty-two years ago in Kemble. They were all dressed in denim overalls, sitting together on the couch at Jim and Sara’s house. Of course, Christopher couldn’t actually sit yet at the age of only seven weeks, but he always looked so happy when Jim propped him up so that he could pretend to be sitting by himself with his big cousins, who were already three and two years old. Now they are young men, each of them finding his own unique path in life, and I feel my heart overflowing with love just thinking of them.
Although it was all too easy to also imagine how irritated Peter would have been with the kind of cock-ups that inevitably happen when one is twenty-something, each one of his nephews, nieces and godchildren always had a very special place in his heart, and I think I enjoyed their company all the more, imagining how much he would have enjoyed them too.
Yesterday, exactly a week and a day after Emma and Joseph’s wedding, Paddy, Seth and I went to another wedding in the countryside outside Linz. About half-way between the joyful party, where they announced their decision to get married, and the actual wedding yesterday, Hari and Simone helped me to cope with Peter’s death and to hold the memorial service for him, and I could never have done it without them. Peter loved these two so much, he was so delighted when they became a couple, his absence yesterday was acutely painful.
Such a beautiful summer day, a meadow filled with happy people and countless children of all ages – a perfect day with very dear friends. I was glad that Paddy and Seth and I were able to go to the wedding together and look after one another. There were so many people from the theater scene there, some that Paddy has made websites for, others that Seth knows from his own involvement in theater productions in Wilhering, and all of them people that I first met through Peter and his love of theater. Over the years, though, they have also become my friends, and I am grateful to Peter for leaving me friends and this special connection to theater that has so enriched our lives.
At dinner I felt quite honored that Oscar insisted on taking Paddy’s seat next to me, leaving Paddy and Seth to play musical chairs for most of the meal. As ever, Oscar is delightful company, especially when he recounted to me with his lovely wicked grin how he subversively elected to eat desert first, before the main meal, thoroughly enjoying the wordplay of “Nachspeise” and “Vorspeise” with all the pleasure that an almost-four-year-old can experience in experimenting with language. And tractors are still of the utmost importance. So Oscar continues to keep the promise he made to me in November to always tell me what is really important.
As enjoyable as it was to see everyone and be able to share in Simone and Hari’s happiness, some time after dinner, Paddy and Seth and I admitted to one another that we were all having a hard time keeping the tears at bay and feeling a bit out of sync with the rest of the wedding guests, so we quietly left early. I was happy to be able to go to the wedding, but also happy to be able to just sit quietly talking with my sons later. I think pain is easier to bear when it is shared, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be shared always and everywhere with everyone.
Next month Paddy and Seth and I plan to go to the opening of this year’s summer theater production in Wilhering, where Peter will no longer be responsible for the lights and locking up and making sure that everyone gets home safely. Nevertheless, he did have those responsibilities for so long that now we are still able to go to Wilhering to appreciate all the talented people we are fortunate enough to know and to spend another enjoyable evening with friends. So Peter’s gift for bringing people together continues to help bear the pain of his absence.
Six months. Tomorrow, Sunday, 13 May, it will be exactly six months since that Sunday in November, when a policeman arrived in the evening to tell me that Peter died when a mountain let him fall that day. Six months since the life I had shared with Peter for twenty-five years came to a sudden, dizzying halt.
There are days when I wish I could go back to those first days and weeks, regain the feeling of urgency and determination that kept me going through the initial shock: I will cope; I will not be defeated by the loss of my love; I will not let the life we shared fall apart; I will hold everything together. And there are days when I wish I could go back to before that day, change the past, make it unhappen.
Some days I vent my anger and frustration on hapless random people on the other end of a phone line, some days I’m angry with Peter and yell at his picture or the marble plaque in the cemetery, some days I just miss Peter, some days I just curl up in a corner and cry, some days I clean the house with tremendous vigor and determination, some days I just cope. Some days I just get on with my life.
In the past few months I have been working more, my own work, my job, the professional work I do to earn my own living. At some point, I realized that I was starting to use my work as a kind of escape from my actual current reality. So many times I found myself concentrating on the words in front of me, immersing myself in the texts and ideas, just as I have done for so many years. Then somewhere in the back of my mind there was a sense that – when I finish this text, I can go out to meet Peter for a drink late in the evening, if I finish this chapter tonight, he’ll come home tomorrow, if I work long hours this week, next Tuesday I can go to the airport with Jörg to pick him up. But no matter how many words I translate, they won’t bring Peter back. He’s not coming home. Ever.
Escaping into work, which is not entirely an escape, because I do, in fact, need to earn my own living, I have become less diligent about keeping up with my “widow’s tasks”. Thanks to the generous help from so many people, the workshop is nearly empty now, many domains have been transferred to other servers, and most of the paperwork that I could do so far has been taken care of. Next Tuesday the boys and I are meeting again with the court-appointed official, so that we can hopefully close the estate at last. Then I will take my list of downpayment amounts and bank details straight to our bank to arrange the money transfers to the people who have been waiting so long. After that I can start working my way through the stack of papers requiring the official authorization that I will hopefully receive on Tuesday. At the moment, I have the feeling there are still many, many things I need to do myself, before I can ask anyone else for more help, but for that reason, I have essentially stopped taking on any more translations this month, because I aim to close my widow’s tasks as far as possible by the end of this month. Then after Joseph and Emma’s wedding in June, I hope to be able to make a fresh start – at least to some extent – when I return.
Six months feels like an eternity, but also like only a brief, fleeting moment at the same time. A long time and a very short time all at once. While tomorrow marks the first half-year since Peter’s death, yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of my father’s death. Fourteen years is a much longer period of time, yet every portion of my experience of my father’s death seems indelibly etched in my mind with such vivid clarity, as though it were only just a moment ago.
Thinking about my father this morning, I was moved to retrieve the folder from the top shelf with the stack of photocopied handwritten pages of the memories he started writing down for us. After his death, I had brought those pages home with me with the intention of transcribing them and making a kind of book for everyone, especially for all of my father’s grandchildren. Over and over, however, I found myself stymied by my father’s idiosyncratic orthography and his peculiar, uniquely personal grammatical constructions: my professional self was unable to literally transcribe his writing, while my grieving-daughter-self was overwhelmed by the vividness of the memories evoked by his very characteristic and achingly familiar writing. Even now, I can still hear his voice when I try to read those pages, but this morning I purposely paged through the different sections to re-read what my father had written about his memories of the death of his brother Burke.
My father was 22, hardly older than Christopher is now, when he received word that his elder brother Burke was in a hospital in San Diego. My father was a sergeant in the Marine Corps at that time, stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, so he used up all his leave visiting Burke, sitting with him in the hospital, playing chess and talking. Although Burke was only two years older than my father and my father’s twin brother, four years older than their youngest brother Pat, he had been the “man of the house” since their father’s departure when he was nine, essentially the only father-figure the brothers really had. Burke had been born with a congenital heart defect, and although surgery was being developed at that time to correct the defect, when Burke underwent surgery at a medical center in San Francisco, it was only the third or fourth time the procedure had been performed there, and it was not successful. He was taken back to his mother’s home in Texas to die. At Easter in 1953, my father was able to take leave again to go and spend time with Burke in San Antonio, and they resumed their chess and checker games. “On Monday, April 6th, the day after Easter, he died. He was laying there in a semi prone position and we were talking for awhile. He said he was a little tired, closed his eyes and quietly died.”
My father never stopped missing Burke. The experience of accompanying his dying brother, however, became a part of the man my father was, a part of his character in the way he could be patient, gentle, accepting, caring. There are indications that Burke and my father probably spoke at great length of all the trouble Burke had managed to get himself into in his short life, his need to guard his younger brothers from a life of sin and vice and make his peace with God as a good Catholic that he had been raised to be. Perhaps that has something to do with how tolerant and non-judgmental my father could be, his understanding that human beings make mistakes in life and need a chance to put things right. If that is so, then one of the things I valued most about my father, what I miss most even now, fourteen years after his death, stems from his loss of his beloved brother.
And so we go on living with death from one generation to the next. There is no comfort in that, and time does not heal the pain. The pain simply becomes part of who we are as we learn to live with it, shaping our character and coloring the way we view the world and live with other people. Fourteen years ago I lost my father, and I am still learning to live with that loss. Six months ago my sons lost their father, but we are all only just barely beginning to learn to live with that loss.
Although the involvement of our entire household last year became a bit intense in the end, Peter and I had worked for Crossing Europe in the background from the very beginning of the festival, and it was something we did together, something that felt important, something that always worked best together. This year both of our names are still in the catalogue, but working on my part alone, I felt incomplete. And during the festival, somehow in the back of my mind I always seemed to be waiting for Peter to show up in the midst of the crowd, always watching for him out of the corner of my eye. Having succumbed to a bad cold the weekend before the festival, which I hadn’t quite recovered from by the opening, didn’t make it any easier to cope, but I still felt strongly motivated to want to continue what Peter and I had started together and to continue it well.
While Peter’s contribution to the festival was network administration in the background, I think it wasn’t just his skill and experience as a network administrator that mattered. What made Peter such a good network administrator was he didn’t look at it primarily as a technical issue: one of the things I always loved best about Peter was the way he cared about people, and he built and managed networks for people he cared about, people he respected, people who need those networks in order to do their own work well. With all his skill and passion and attention to detail, Peter built musical instruments for musicians to play the music he loved; with different skills, but the same passion and attention to detail, he built and maintained network infrastructures for people to use for creating something else. For him, the work he did for Crossing Europe also meant dropping by the office, paying attention to the atmosphere, noticing what might be irritating or distracting for the different members of the team, when they needed to focus on preparing and running the festival. Alongside his incorrigible penchant for trying to keep an eye on everyone’s love-life, Peter was very perceptive of moods, tensions, excitement, and more concerned about the whole team being able to enjoy their work for the festival than about the actual films and subject matter of the festival. He didn’t really care much about the guests either, no matter how important they might be, unless he suspected them of giving any of the staff a hard time.
Working alone at the computer translating the festival catalogue, then the press releases and daily newsletters, I often felt cut off from everyone else, in a way, because I was missing Peter coming in and telling me about what was going on in the office, the general mood and what any individuals might be needing at any given moment. Although Peter and I often disagreed about many things, we were perfectly united in our admiration for the festival director Christine Dollhofer, so the first rule was always: whatever Christine needs, Christine gets. In order to be able to run such a wonderful festival at all, the first thing that Christine needs is an excellent team, where everyone can take care of their specific responsibilities to the best of their abilities. Somewhere behind that team, Peter and I were there to make sure that they had the infrastructure and resources needed to do their jobs with all the support we were able to offer together. What I can offer by myself – without Peter’s generous personality and warm-hearted presence – feels very little now.
The whole Crossing Europe team has been so generous and thoughtful since Peter’s death, inviting me for drinks, taking time to talk, encouraging me, so I wanted to return something of that too. Knowing how hard everyone works in all the service areas, the people who look after the festival guests, I thought I would like to invite a few of those hard-working people for a nice breakfast on my balcony at the start of the festival, but getting sick just before the festival put an end even to that small gesture. I think I’ll have to keep looking for other contributions I might be able to make by myself.
Although I ended up generally feeling very low and slow all week, it was a great delight to have both Christopher and Patrick here for the festival. It was most uplifting to be able to share serious and silly conversations with them, including random outbursts of song when they launched into their ridiculous rendition of “Rainbows and Lollipops” in the middle the restaurant garden, feeling less lonely in their company. Since they have grown up with the festival, they have also grown up with our household rule about Christine, and I am happy to see they take that seriously. Since Paddy didn’t have a film in the program this year, Christine had suggested he could apply for accreditation as a film student, because he really is, even though he is officially enrolled as a student of computer science. I was pleased to hear that Paddy had reservations about that, because he wouldn’t want to take unfair advantage of his parents’ connections, but I was also pleased that he had a festival pass in the end and made good use of it. At the Awards Ceremony Christopher and Leo performed two numbers from their new project together, Broken Sequence, which worked out quite well, and it was reassuring to see Christopher taking over different responsibilities. In the future, Crossing Europe will continue without Peter, but our sons will still be here to take over whatever they might be needed for, and that, at least, is a hopeful thought.
Three birthdays within six weeks has always been something of a challenge in my household, but an enjoyable challenge. This year, of course, it’s different. I think the conventional notion of one year of mourning still makes sense, the idea that one has to go through a whole cycle of seasons experiencing every recurrent event for the first time without a loved one – holidays, anniversaries, the first ice cream in summer, the first snow in winter, birthdays … I also think the number three is significant: after the first three months, the initial shock begins to subside, allowing pain to be felt that would have been unbearable before, but now starts to gradually emerge as the numbness recedes. This year’s birthday season, the first time without Peter, started three months after his death.
Our double-decade son
When Paddy turned ten, he said he was happy to finally be a two-digit person too, a statement that especially delighted Amy, who was happy to point out repeatedly what this indicated about the interesting way her darling nephew’s mind works. As Paddy entered the second decade of his life in February, I found myself remembering when he became a two-digit person and became determined to make the kind of birthday cake for him again that he liked half his lifetime ago. It was probably not a very sensible plan, but I was feeling unhappy about his mother’s failure to provide the one birthday present he actually asked for, the finished jacket that we started sewing together in September, and about his father’s failure to be alive and present to celebrate with a last-minute surprise, as Peter always did best.
The first hurdle to providing an American-style decorated cake with fluffy sweet icing was that the plain cake recipe we had always used was in an American cookbook that has now gone to live in Vienna. I found a recipe for “Amerikanische Biskuitkuchen” in an Austrian cookbook from the 1920s, which seemed promising, even though it calls for more eggs than flour, and proceeded to make an elaborate mess in the kitchen for an entire day. In my mind, I could hear Amy laughing at me (remembering the first time I had to make a birthday cake for Paddy without consulting Amy), pointing out that there is a reason why Americans use packaged mixes for cakes. At the back of my neck, I could feel Peter rolling his eyes, shaking his head and refusing to take any responsibility for cleaning up the mess I was making. I suspect this recipe is also based on the experience of baking cakes in a wood-burning stove, which doesn’t translate well to a modern electrical oven, so it took several hours longer to bake it, but eventually it was finished. Transporting this cake to Vienna without squashing it, especially along with the bulky birthday present of sheets and a blanket I got for Paddy’s beautiful, newly self-built bed, would not have been possible without Seth, but the cake actually arrived in Vienna the next day with minimal damage. Celebrating Paddy’s birthday in Vienna with his wonderful friends felt good, felt right. The cake was probably mostly a sentimental effort on my part, something I needed to do, but Paddy graciously refrained from pointing that out, and I was happy to see him happy.
After my week in Ljubljana, where it felt so good to just be myself for a week, taking a holiday from being Peter’s widow, I returned to Linz with more energy and confidence. Unfortunately, however, I could already see my own birthday looming then. I tried hard to resist the temptation to slide into gloomy self-pity, knowing that for the first time there would be no roses and fresh rolls for me in the morning, but since I had a class at nine that morning, I wouldn’t have had time to enjoy them anyway. Peter’s family was incredibly sweet and generous about making a nice birthday for me the Sunday before my birthday, Paddy and Christopher and our new friend Agnes came from Vienna, Seth came on the tram, and we all went out for lunch together and came home for coffee and Oma’s famous celebratory nut-cake. After my class the next morning, Sophie and George took me out for another nice lunch and then accompanied me to the cemetery. Since Peter didn’t bring me roses this year, I took one to him. While Sophie kindly went to get a candle, because I had stupidly forgotten to bring one again, I enjoyed telling George about Peter, while George made contented little burbling noises in his buggy. As soon as Sophie returned, however, of course George realized that he was absolutely famished and urgently needed to be fed. Immediately! Since it was a bit too chilly to sit outside on a bench in the cemetery, Sophie and I made our way back to the main building as quickly as possible, while George protested the delay with all the vociferous insistence that a person just seven weeks old is capable of. The same cheerful man who had accompanied us, when we took the urn to place it in the niche in November, then cheerfully led the three of us into the same room, where we had met with the officials from the cemetery to discuss Peter’s funeral. It is a comfortable, peaceful room, and sitting in that same room again, this time with Sophie and George, felt good, it felt right.
Since I am fortunate enough to share the same birthday with two friends, the three of us met in the evening at Solaris to celebrate together and spent a comfortable, enjoyable evening with friends who came to join us. There was no need for self-pity at all, because there was no need to feel lonely the whole day, so the next time will be easier. And I didn’t even miss the roses, because I enjoyed bringing them myself for the other two.
Two birthdays successfully passed, one to go: March 28th would have been Peter’s fiftieth birthday. He had been looking forward to it, and after I assured him that I had no intentions whatsoever of organizing another surprise party, as I did for his fortieth birthday, he was enjoying thinking about how he would like to celebrate, all the people he would like to celebrate with, thinking more and more about spreading celebrations across the whole week to fit everyone in. Whenever he started thinking out loud about ending up with a party in a little cabin high in the mountains, I asked him whether he was sure he really wanted to celebrate his fiftieth birthday without me. He always just laughed then and promised that he would organize a helicopter especially to get me up to the mountain cabin.
It was a helicopter that brought my love’s broken body down from the mountains, but his life was left behind. No helicopters for this birthday then. Instead, the boys and I agreed to hold a kind of open house on Peter’s birthday, so that people who are thinking about Peter, missing him, remembering him, can come by any time starting in the afternoon until open end, to share stories, memories, music, tears, laughter and all our different experiences of how life goes on.
Waking up this morning with the thought of seeing lovely friends later today already felt much better than starting the day with a feeling of emptiness. So far, it feels good, feels right, and that is very reassuring.
Every company that sends out bills and is serious about collecting payments due, ought to have at least one staff member who knows what to do in case of the death of a regularly paying customer and can clearly and courteously explain the procedures on the phone. And every other staff member should know who that person is and have their extension readily available. Sadly, frustratingly, in my experience over the past three months, this is almost never the case. Especially with phone companies.
Apparently, the proper procedure with phone companies is supposed to be that one presents a copy of the death certificate to cancel all existing contracts and make a new contract, if the services are still needed by someone else (e.g. our sons). Obtaining this information has involved endless Kafkaesque encounters with an endless number of phone company employees both on the phone and in their gaudy shops in town – because phone companies obviously don’t provide services, they sell products. One company still continued to send stern reprimands to Peter threatening to cut off his phone connection, if he did not immediately pay the last bill along with all the mounting and exorbitant late fees, even after Seth brought them a copy of Peter’s death certificate and wisely insisted on being given confirmation that it had been faxed to the appropriate office. When yet another angry reminder arrived, this time addressed to “Hütmannsberger family”, threatening to turn the matter over to a collection agency, I snapped. When the woman who answered the service desk number told me that I needed to send them a copy of Peter’s death certificate, I started yelling at her, venting all my anger and frustration and threatening on my part to turn the matter over to my lawyer, if this company didn’t stop sending collection letters to the “Hütmannsberger family”, which does not even exist at this address. Seth took the death certificate in again and insisted again on receiving confirmation of receipt. Finally, a letter arrived from this company a few days ago, which started: “Dear Mr. Hütmannsberger, we received your message and offer our sincere condolences for your loss…” Of course, the letter went on from there to list various possibilities for Mr. Hütmannsberger to still use the company’s services (and hence pay them yet more money), even though the contract was canceled due to his death. Despite his lifelong love of telephones, I seriously doubt that Mr. Hütmannsberger will be taking advantage of any of these offers. And I seriously hope that someone somewhere is feeling extremely foolish now, realizing that in all these exchanges, no one ever even bothered to ask my name. I tend to doubt that, however.
Then there was the credit card company that sent a bill for the yearly card fee, even though I had been convinced that they had received notice of Peter’s death from the bank. Apparently not. And although I am aware of the cliche of irate wives accidentally discovering dodgy charges on their husbands’ credit card bills, I don’t think credit card company employees should immediately presume that to be the case. When the first person I got on the phone coldly and brusquely asked, “And who are you?”, I responded with what I hoped was the same callousness, “I’m his widow”. There was a brief moment of silence, then he decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else. Who listened to the reason for my inquiry and decided to put me through to someone else … Does anyone actually believe it is easy to have to explain over and over and over: “I’m calling about the bill you sent to my husband. The reason he hasn’t paid it is that he is dead …”?
Sometimes the people I get on the phone (once I get past the machine-voice instructions and push the right combination of buttons to get through to an actual human being) are courteous, and a few are even capable of speaking in coherent, grammatically correct full sentences. The outcome of all these phone calls is almost invariably the same, however: “Send us an email with the information x, y, z and the documents a, b, c.” Sometimes I can do that, but very often I can’t. Sometimes the reason I can’t is that the requisite information at home when I’m in the office or vice versa. Sometimes it’s because I now have a frustratingly limited, temporary Internet connection in my office, which only works on my laptop, because another telephone company erroneously assured me that I had an Internet connection with my telephone, before I had Peter’s office phone turned off – and my Internet connection with it.
Sometimes the problem is simply that I still haven’t got one of the most frequently requested documents: official legal confirmation that I am authorized to take care of Peter’s business and access his assets as his widow. The reason for this is that now, over three months later, negotiations are still continuing about how much money is owed to the tax office for Peter’s income last year. Are living, thinking, actual human beings to be found in the tax office? In light of the frequent news items about the former Austrian Minister of Finance who “forgot” to pay taxes on part of his income, I’m sure it must be very confusing to work in a tax office, but how hard can it really be? Peter ceased to generate any income at all on 13 November last year, and his “assets” include down-payments for instruments that Peter will no longer be making, which now have to be returned to the people who paid a down-payment for instruments they will not be getting. Having to ask all these lovely people again to be patient sometimes feels harder than having to argue with all the ludicrous phone companies, and it seems so terribly unfair.
As these negotiations drag on and on, too many loose ends are left over, too many things left open. For one thing, we need to re-register the car in Paddy’s name, so that the city administration of Vienna stops sending parking tickets to Peter. For some reason, one was sent last week as a registered letter, which the woman at the post office told me had to be signed for in person. When I explained that that would not be possible, she said she would have to send it back with a note to that effect. Unless there is a Tom Waits fan hiding in the traffic violations department of the city of Vienna, I’m concerned that someone there may take the advice to “never drive a car when you’re dead” more seriously, so I asked Paddy to find the number and call them to see what the problem is. He will probably have to go there to show them the legal document stating that he and Christopher are allowed to drive the car, but at least he has that document.
Next week, however, I’m going to take a break from explaining to strangers on the phone and random office workers that Peter is dead. I’ve been invited to go to the Eclectic Tech Carnival being held in conjunction with the Red Dawns Festival, so I’m going to take a short holiday from being Peter’s widow and go to Ljubljana to just be me for a week. Maybe the tax office and the phone companies and all the other offices will be able to sort themselves out in the meantime. That would be helpful, because I need to be able to stop repeating over and over that my husband is dead, so that I have a chance to come to terms with what that actually means.
Where are you, my love? Whatever has captured your attention elsewhere, it is time to stop and come home and focus now, before things get completely out of hand.
Recently I dreamed that Paddy managed to find his father and bring him back to the workshop, just as I was discussing clearing it out with other people. I turned around and Peter was standing there, looking happy and energetic, slightly embarrassed to have overlooked a situation where he was needed, but ready to jump in and take over and put everything back the way it was supposed to be. As I woke up from the dream, I remembered going to the morgue in Windischgarsten, the feeling of my hand on Peter’s poor, cold head, and the dream and the memory merged.
By the time I had had enough coffee to distinguish which was the wishful dream and which was the real memory, I had the feeling that the dream was just cruel and unnecessary. Then I realized, though, that at some level, I don’t really want to finish taking everything apart, to finally close all of Peter’s affairs and confirm, absolutely and irrevocably, that his life has ended. I have had enough experience of death to know that there are different phases of grief and mourning that alternate, merge, recur over time in spiraling cycles. I keep telling myself now that this experience can help me to accept the current phase: I miss Peter.
No relief, no comfort, no alternatives, no other options: I just miss Peter. I miss teasing him, scolding him, talking with him about my concerns about other people, complaining to him about the unreasonableness of telephone companies, regaling him with descriptions of the complications I have to deal with, sharing with him what I’ve heard from the boys. I miss hearing his voice in the other room, then walking in to ask him whether he is talking to me or just thinking out loud. His usual response was a blink and then the answer “both”, because he could rarely tell the difference. I miss him interrupting me, and I miss being able to say, “It’s your turn to clean out the compost drawer.” I miss his laughter, his silliness, his deplorable sense of time, the warmth of his arms.
Sometimes when I’m missing Peter, I want to talk with the person who always listened to my outbursts of exasperation and was best able to help me understand Peter’s perspective while still sympathizing with mine. I want to talk with Amy. But not only is my husband dead, my sister is too. As much as that hurts, though, there is also something oddly comforting, reassuring in that pain. It is a reminder that, in a sense, I’ve been here before, I know how this works. I remember sitting in the hospital with Christopher going through his cycles of pain and delirium, missing my father so much that when I recall that hospital room now, in my mind I can see my father sitting there with me. I remember the feeling of hitting a wall when I needed to talk to Amy and I couldn’t, the helplessness of feeling that I would never be able to move again beyond or away from that wall, yet somehow it did dissolve. I’ve done this before, I can do it now. I can live with the pain of missing Peter now without fear that I will be trapped in this pain forever.
Of course, every experience of death is different. One thing I wasn’t prepared for at all, even though I theoretically could have been, was the shock of realizing that when Christopher and Paddy come to Linz now, they are not coming home: they come to visit their mother in a house where only their mother lives now. They both live in Vienna, where they are getting on with their own young lives, where they already needed their parents to take a step back and stop meddling before, but when they come in the door now, Peter’s absence is all the more palpable for them. As my children have become young adults, I have become their past, but now I am only a part of their past, and it makes me feel small, insufficient – and very, very lonely.
Fortunately for all of us, I am not dependent on my sons for consolation and companionship. There are still so many, many wonderful people who take time to help me with practical matters and time to just sit and talk with me – my friends, Peter’s friends, our shared friends, even the boys’ friends. People from all different phases of our life help me to craft memories I can live with now, remembering experiences that Peter and I shared, the different crossroads we came to, when we had to choose again and again whether to go on together or take separate paths, what we shared with one another from the work we each did, all the things we were involved in as individuals rather than as a couple, all the things we could only do as a couple – all the major and minor occurrences that make up a relationship of twenty-five years. And with these memories, I will be able to go on living, working, being involved in things that matter, caring about people.
There is an end in sight for my “widow’s tasks”, and there are many reasons for working to reach that end. There are all of Peter’s wonderful customers, who have been so generous, understanding and patient, but that is all the more reason to see that I can return the downpayments to them as quickly as possible for the instruments that Peter will no longer make. There are projects and translations and friends in need of my full attention and energy. There are new and very small human beings in need of an extra person to love them. There is a life I want to live, not just as Peter’s widow, but as myself.
That reassurance, that hope allows me to accept that for right now, I just miss Peter.
There are times – it seems actually most of the time at the moment – when I feel like a little toy figure in need of someone to come along and wind it up to set it in motion again. As my spring winds down, I find myself moving more and more slowly in smaller and smaller circles. There are still so many things I need to do, but each step seems just a bit further than I can manage, and multiple steps seem to make up an insurmountable distance. To answer this email, I need to make that phone call, but first I have to find certain information, and it all seems just a bit more than I can cope with. Sometimes it is easier to just answer the phone and agree to go for a drink with whichever kind person is calling me; sometimes it is too much of an effort to even answer the phone. So I wind down a little bit more.
Kind people keep assuring me that I need to be careful, take it easy, give myself time. From experience I know they are right, and I also know I have to be careful not to take on too much and risk going over the edge again, as I did after Amy’s death, because now Peter isn’t here to help me pick up the pieces and put myself back together. Sometimes I worry, though, that there is a grey area between taking it easy and coming to a complete standstill, incapable of taking any action at all. I’m afraid of missing the boundary within that grey area and coming out on the wrong side.
Yet there are still people who come to give me a hug as soon as they see me, every time I go into town, people who share their memories of Peter with me, others who remind me that I have never been helpless and weak and will not become so now. When the computer seems like a black hole that will suck me in as soon as I turn it on, I keep looking for different approaches, a safe way to sneak up on it. Soon I will have a new bed, a smaller one, just the right size for me and two cats, so it won’t feel empty, and it will come with a lovely soft matress for my aching old bones. Then hopefully I will eventually be able to sleep again and wake up feeling rested.
I just need to keep reminding myself that I am not a toy figure needing to be wound up again. I am a person surrounded and kept safe by so many wonderful people. I need to hold on to the conviction that someday I will be able to take responsibility for other people again – someday, but not yet. For now I can only feel grateful for so much patience and understanding and just keep trying to keep moving.