FICTION: How to be a widow; a survival guide by Emily Kay Goodman

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Whatever you do, don’t leave the hospital. When your partner is near death’s door, it is imperative that you stay by his side. People might offer to ‘give you a break’ or ‘let you get some rest’ because they feel it is the Right Thing To Do. But those same people will look at you with cocked heads and narrowed eyes when you didn’t happen to be there when he actually takes his last breath. They know that you wanted to be there, so for God’s sake, don’t emphatically say that you wanted to be there. Then you get the ‘lady doth protest too much’ face and nervous glances. They know the hospital called to let you know he was fading, finally. You can tell them you ran out of petrol if it’s true. Then they will grin ruefully at your dippy-headedness and tell you that perhaps it’s for the best and that it wasn’t meant to be.

Definitely don’t say then, how much it kills you that you missed it. That you forgot about the tank of petrol because your head was so vacant from days of sentry at his side and so consumed by anxiety that you couldn’t even decide which umbrella to bring that day. Don’t tell them that you had to leave to make sure that his papers were in order because he’d asked you to check. They don’t want to know that you were worried about money. That you had to transfer money from your joint savings so you could continue to buy the cheap plastic-wrapped sandwiches in the hospital cafe and that you were panicked about hiring a hospice nurse. Don’t tell them that underneath the dippy-headed hope that the tank of petrol would last, was the hope that you wouldn’t have to pay for it to be filled up that day because you also had to pay for the water and the gas to heat your empty home. Whatever you do don’t tell them you didn’t get any rest because there was no conceivable way you might in that rickety old house without him in it. Don’t let them see the anguish. Most of ‘them’ are your children.

Don’t look at the body. When the hospital staff find you in a ball after you slid down the wall, the closest wall you could find when they told you you’d missed it, don’t say yes. Don’t say yes I’d like to see him. The reason I say this is because it’s too much. It’s a very strange and terrible thing seeing no life left in someone whose life was so entwined with your own, it makes you feel half dead.

Don’t look at his feet, the lifeless toes only good for tagging now, when those toenails had driven you mad when they got too long, which they inevitably did, and scratched at your calves when he affectionally toe-stroked you in bed. Don’t notice that no one in the hospital cut those toenails. It’ll make you feel like he was undernourished, that he wasn’t cared for.

Don’t let yourself long for those dead toes.

When you have pulled yourself together, don’t forget to go and ask what happened and who helped him. Thank them. It will do you good to know later, when the questions stab at your brain in your sleep, waking you up, making you toss and turn and seek cooler pillow to please God please get back to sleep. While you’re at it, don’t get up in the darkness and wander through the house touching your fingertips on the light-switches, the bannisters, the toaster buttons, trying somehow to trace his touch in absentia; it doesn’t help your insomnia.

When they tell you it was the kidneys, “The kidneys?” ask. Ask, because the kidneys are complicated, and you will only be half listening, but it’s important because it was nobody’s fault and it’s just the way the kidneys behave under such conditions. Tell them thanks, let them tell you they did as much as they could. Perhaps take their name so you can send them a card later when you need to do something for someone else again.

Go and collect his belongings, but don’t smell them. Really, there is no other sense that brings the dead as close to the living as their particular smell. His clothes and jewellery — including the wedding band — will be in a reused plastic bag. The staff at this juncture might give you a leaflet on coping with grief. Don’t put it in the rustling bag with his items, put it in your coat pocket. It will help to have it close at hand when you collapse in Tesco later that day (you will be so famished). They might also give you a pamphlet on arranging things with the coroner. You’ll need this one too as there’s not a lot of general knowledge you can apply. You have to know the specifics, like in a tax return, to fill in the right things on a form. It’s a laborious process, but it keeps you busy. The coroner might be the kindest person you meet in a while because he understands that pity is too fucking tragic for you.

Do tell the people who visit that you’re bearing up, that you’re tired but managing to find some peace. Don’t tell them it was for the best. There was no way he could have suffered, he just sighed and sunk into death like a weighted kitten. It’s important to maintain a sense of humour, but not if it makes people squirm.

When they offer it, welcome the food. They will bring pies and big vats of hot pot. Don’t tell them you can’t eat it, that you’re used to very white sandwiches. That he did the best shepherds pie, and that each family has their own particular tweak on that recipe, or that you’re terribly sorry now that he never wrote it down, his secret ingredient. Or that he loved to announce that he was cooking of an evening, a treat.

“April in Paris, my April in Paris,” he would sing as he dashed in Worcester sauce (if your name is April).

“Give over,” you would say, laughing inwardly, because he could only cook one meal. Don’t tell your visitors everything tastes of cardboard anyway. Thank them graciously, because they are trying to help, and don’t want to fail. Close the door on them and try to hug your own heart through your ribcage.

Certainly, avoid getting drunk. Even when you’re used to a bit of wine, now you won’t be able to hold it. Don’t ring up your children and then hang up because their voice when they said, “Hello” was so familiar to you, the old you, that you feel like you’re on the other side of toughened glass yelling across at the person you were. Instead, ask after the grandchildren; their news will be so tiny and insignificant that it will make your grief drop away for an instant. A new tooth! Well done, Daisy.

Don’t let this make you feel guilty. He would want you to move on, to take some time and get through it. When your daughter asks if you’ve had a glass, be honest, or the whole gaggle will be around vigilantly ridding the house, and giving you lectures and making cups of tea, endless cups of tea. Don’t drink the whisky he was keeping for next years’ Pearl Anniversary toast — seaweedy, he said, for a joke — and then ring the girl that brings you your eye drops from the pharmacy because you think she’ll understand. She won’t.

Do go down to the local. Maybe let the fellas in there know you’re up for a bit of distraction but if Ron buys you a half, leave before the Irish fiddlers start. Take heart that although this feels pathetic, that it’s better than staying in all night watching Take Me Out on the telly. Go home and watch Take Me Out. Get cross at the futility of it all and throw your slipper at Paddy McGuiness and wonder where all this anger is coming from. Laugh, laugh until your sides hurt. Beg Paddy’s forgiveness and actually sleep for a full night. Later, months down the line, Ron might try and kiss you by the cigarette machine, he could taste of mint and beer. Who knows, you might like it.

Don’t look at your finances until after the funeral. Give all executor details to a lawyer, pretend you can’t hear the phone when he rings. He had a way, your Derrick, and wanted some unusual things for his send off. It’ll take you a while to find the particular version of Nat King Cole he wanted. To locate the brand of golf ball to hide in his sock so that he could play on in heaven (by cheating, you realise).

The undertaker might be younger than your youngest son but don’t let it get in the way. He will be a consummate professional. Suggest he grows out his hair (in a maternal way). Take the apricot he offers you in the meeting room. The slip of juice on your chin will make you both giggle like school girls. Don’t be surprised that all of the staff at the crematorium will be careful with your wishes, and you will find more people to be grateful for. Take more names. Send more cards. Don’t do the food for the wake. Let someone else worry about the cucumbers.

After a few months, let the kids take you away on holiday. Your daughter might mention that you’ve lost weight, and try to not so subtly make sure you eat. Hide your sleeping pills. Don’t tell her the cottage reminds you of the one you and Derrick had stayed in Mevagissey before she was born. Let her talk about Dad. Let them all come to you with their private peculiarities of loss. They’re clamouring. Realise they brought you here as much for themselves as for you, and although they’re all adults now, that they need you still. Try to mother them the way they want you to. Try to find moments of tenderness with each of them when you’re alone together. They all need you so differently. Breathe, finally. Smile when you see them all getting along so nicely.

Don’t fret about money anymore. Check the life insurance policy, finally. Check the probate is accepted and try to work out how many years you might live now. Another ten? Twenty, thirty perhaps? Pat yourself, check your flesh for life.

Apply for a job in Tesco’s but don’t go to the interview. Remember how they all looked at you when you fell over by the milk. Feel like a skeleton. Look like a skeleton. Put on your wedding dress and sit in it for all of Monday afternoon. Take it off when you catch a glimpse in the hall mirror and try to recollect who you were before nineteen-eighty-three. Remember your perm, remember Callum Greig’s white trousers, remember your pimples. Go to the pub after removing your wedding dress, and ring, kiss Ron by the cigarette machine.

Phone your old colleague, the woman you worked with at the paper. Ask if anyone still uses copy editors. Tell her it’s been a while, ask if she still writes. She will offer to send you her book, self-published. Look at the portrait Derrick painted of you when you first met while you twiddle the phone cord. Realise he had a talent, unresolved maybe. Make the conversation all about you, make the receiver hot with your ear blood. Hang up. Look at the portrait and see the way he must have seen you, then. Cock your head, think about getting a dog.

Realise that you can’t drink yourself into an early grave, like him. Jab your fingers into your back where you think your kidneys might be. Realise that the gout bouts and golf holidays went in tandem. Realise that you were exhausted after years of tiptoeing around his subtle but pervasive problem. Don’t ask yourself why you never addressed it outright. Think, at least it wasn’t diabetes, limbs crumbling off like charcoal. Take all the bottles in the house to the Tesco recycling centre. Hope that no one recognises you. Realise you’re relieved, a little. Relieved not to be concerned for someone really, at all, anymore. Your children are big and worldly. They have good friends, kindly partners. They’re capable. They’re robust. They only sometimes drop in, needing essentials.

Realise you’re more than just essentials. Hire a cleaner, despite the expense, feel exhilarated. Write to your old boss, put the feelers out. Book a flight to San Francisco. While you’re there, be inspired to help other people in your situation. Write a survival guide for widows, self-publish.


Emily Kay Goodman


Emily Kay Goodman holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa. Her short stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted for the Wells Literature Festival Short Story Competition and A3 Review monthly contest and longlisted for the Bristol Prize. She works as a freelance writer and runs the Goodman Madhouse of Toddlers in Somerset.
If you enjoyed How to be a widow; a survival guide leave a comment and let Emily know.

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