Images courtesy of the author
PROLOGUE OR SOME SHIT
Phone calls from people “just calling to say hi” or “just calling to check in” are actually a form of goodbye when you’re dying. When you’re dying, people like to check in especially the people that never used to check in. When you’re dying, people like to say things like, “Everything happens for a reason” and “We had a lot of fun, didn’t we?” The thing about dying is that everybody dies, we all know that, yet somehow nobody expects to die or to have their loved ones die. It’s always a monumental shock. People always say things like, “I can’t believe so-and-so is gone, I mean—I just saw them at the grocery store last week.” Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” says, “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.” My husband was no Sylvia Plath. He did not do it well.
Sometimes I get angry with myself for being mad at my husband for dying, and sometimes I wonder if I could have done it better. For instance, my death would be like one of those movies where you have everything wrapped up before you die, and you make some kind of video that your family members find after you’re gone and the video wraps up your whole life seamlessly and it expresses how you felt about each family member, beautifully and poetically. Everyone is crying and holding hands. The video somehow spans across the future for years to come and says all the right things, so that it’s like you’re not even going to miss birthdays, weddings, or your grandchildren being born. Your family is completely at peace with your goodbye, and everything is somehow okay. And at the end of the little video, it says something like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and your family really buys that shit. I remember the day that I brought home five blank cards from the grocery store and set them by my husband’s recliner on the little wooden side table, “I thought—maybe you want to write a note to each of the kids? I thought these cards were pretty.” He shook his head yes but the cards sat there for months. He never did get around to filling out the cards. I still have them, blank, as a reminder of so many things that weren’t faced or spoken.
I once had an English professor who claimed that she knew someone who knew Sylvia Plath personally, and well, she said that Sylvia Plath didn’t actually want to die the day she breathed in the fumes from her oven. My professor’s friend said that Sylvia thought that her housekeeper would be home that day, at that exact time, and that it was just supposed to be another suicide attempt for attention. She said, “Obviously a suicide attempt gone wrong.” Isn’t that something? Maybe no one is good at dying, not even Sylvia Plath.
“A CLUB YOU DON'T WANT TO BE IN,” AS THEY SAY
When you’re a widow people say things like, “At least he lived X years,” and “At least you got to have X years with your husband,” and “At least your children got X many years with their dad.” The number of years does not actually matter. It’s just what people say. A number that does matter though is how many years you were married. People like to assess how sad they should be for a widow by how many years they were married times how many children were left. And if you’re broke, well, that puts you at the top of widow hierarchy. It’s really an exact formula. People also need to know how the dead spouse dies to assess how sad the situation is. I was thirty-nine when my husband died of esophageal cancer. He left behind five children. One was with me. We would have been married ten years. Now that I’ve mentioned cancer there’s another question that needs to be answered so people can assess how bad they’re willing to feel: Was your husband a smoker? Yes, yes, he was. People normally follow that response up by saying, “So young” or “So sad.” Again, it’s just what people say. They shake their heads as they say it, but what they’re thinking is, the sadness level just fell way down on the widow-hierarchy chart because smoking is a decision. For the record, as a Christmas present to me, my husband had been clean of smoking three years prior to his diagnosis, which was stage four esophageal cancer right off the bat.
IN THE FLESH
My husband, Donnie, was forty-eight when he took his last breath. When living, Donnie had never been accused of wearing a lampshade at a party. He was often referred to as the life of the party. When out and about with Donnie in Vegas, it would not be surprising to have some random person yell across the room, “Shots!”, and Donnie would yell back, “Shots!”, with a hand gesture pretending to take a shot. Donnie was fun and quite a character but he was also warm and sweet. On our first date Donnie bought a beautiful bouquet of flowers and said that he sat outside the restaurant where we were supposed to meet debating whether flowers on a first date seemed desperate. When he finally made the decision to go inside the restaurant with flowers in hand he sat at the bar and ordered a glass of red wine waiting for my arrival. His family later told me that Donnie hated wine, and he had only ordered it to impress me. It worked! We closed that restaurant down talking and laughing. Donnie was a man’s man. He was in construction and came home covered in dirt, he loved to fish and was a huge sports advocate. He loved the Cowboys and the NY Yankees especially. It was a dream of his to see a game at Yankee Stadium. Donnie never turned down a beer or a woman, I would later learn. He was the king of the barbecue grill. He could make anything from breakfast to stuffed peppers on the grill. Every year for my birthday Donnie would grill me bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers. He was someone you could call when you needed help moving or just to shoot the shit with. He was a good dude. I never expected to lose him.
Donnie and I were both raised in Vegas. We were both wild. I often joked and said, “Thank God the two of us met when we both already had children, i.e., responsibility, because young us would have been a hot mess.” When I turned twenty-one, I immediately jumped into the bar and hospitality industry as most Vegas locals do. I cocktailed and bartended at several casinos and nightclubs. At twenty-seven, I found out that I was pregnant by asking the bouncer to walk a couple of doors down from the local bar where I was bartending to get me a pregnancy test. I also asked him for a ham sandwich. Anyway, between pouring “Irish Car Bombs” and “Red-Headed Sluts,” I took a pregnancy test in the PT’s Pub bathroom. The bathroom door was adjacent to the twenty-four-hour Roberto’s Taco Shop door and I pulled my skintight jeans down, held one hand against the side of the stall. The smell of carne asada and booze in my nose as I peed on the thermostat-looking device, which soon confronted me with a pink plus sign or a cross depending on how you look at it. Classy, right?
I met Johnny (my daughter’s dad) while cocktailing at Hush nightclub, a rooftop bar that looked over the Las Vegas strip. He was a bartender and I was a cocktail waitress. When I got promoted to bartender, Johnny was asked to train me. By the time Johnny was presented with this task we were already dating. Like the nightclub that employed us though, we were keeping our relationship hush-hush.
One day I got a phone call from my boss, Big Jon, not to be confused with Johnny. Big Jon who I could barely understand was like someone straight out of a mob movie which is ironic because the location where our nightclub Hush was located had made a notable cameo in the movie Casino, a famous mobster movie, or at least that’s what people say, but anyway, Big Jon called me at home and said, “I need you to come in and work tonight. Actually I need you at the bar every Friday and Saturday.” At first I was ecstatic because those are big moneymaking nights, and then I realized what it meant and I said, “. . . but that’s Johnny’s shift.” Big Jon said, “Yeah, I fired that asshole.” So basically the story goes, I met the father of my child working at a nightclub, I approached him one night and said, “Is it true that Italian men love their mothers, respect their wives, and spoil their mistresses?”, yada yada yada, he trained me to be a bartender, and then I took that motherfucker’s job!
BABY DADDY, CONTINUED
My daughter Isabella (now fifteen) was age two when Donnie came into our lives. They were very close. Shortly after Donnie’s funeral, Bella asked, “If my dad died, would you even go to his funeral?” She paused and stared at me with her big dark eyes and said, “You guys loved each other once, right?” Talk about a loaded question. I wasn’t sure what to say, although I wasn’t completely surprised by her question. At age seven, after watching the movie Cinderella, Bella inquired, “Mom, how can a dream be a wish the heart makes when some people have nightmares?” Let’s just say Bella is a little intense at times.
After much thought, my answer to my daughter’s crazy question was, yes. I decided, yes, and if I was asked to share a story about Johnny at this hypothetical funeral, I would share the following as a testament to his character: Once Johnny applied for a union bartending position at a local hotel and casino, a “mixology” position which was a big deal and a big moneymaking position. The gig was at a resort casino which incorporated entertainment into bartending. The bartenders were expected to have “flair” and to do bar tricks. Tossing bottles and entertaining. The showiness was part of the position. Think Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail, and by using this reference, I just lost all respect from Vegas locals, but you get the point. So Johnny showed up to this group audition, and for whatever reason did not get offered a position. The several bartenders that did get offered the position were asked to come back weekly to work on their “flair.” Johnny being Johnny, he showed up anyway. It took the casino months to figure out that Johnny was just showing up and doing all the work with all the bartenders and not getting paid. Management was so impressed with his insubordination and stubborn determination that they hired him on the spot. Johnny is one of the most stubborn, unmoving assholes that I have ever known, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible.
A story that I wouldn’t share at his funeral is when I was eight months pregnant and we were driving to the hospital to register for my soon-to-be delivery, and Johnny said, “You know, if we don’t work out, I will never pay you child support. If you took money from a man for opening your legs, that would essentially make you a whore, and I can’t stand to think that a whore is having my baby.” Some people say things just because it’s just what people say. This was not one of those cases. His statement was planned with a quick and calculated delivery unlike our daughter growing in my stomach.
Johnny and I brought out the worst in each other. He gave me an amazing gift, my daughter Isabella. To answer my daughter’s question, no, her dad did not love me, nor did he ever, but he loves and adores her. That’s it. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
“And when people say ‘they’re in a better place’ do they mean heaven or do they just mean anywhere but living?”
Bella changed me. It’s a cliché to say that children change you but the moment I saw that pink plus sign—or the blazing, guilt-colored cross whichever way you look at it—staring at me, I changed. With more intuition than thought, I put two weeks’ notice in at PT’s Pub and started to look for a more appropriate job with benefits. I am fully aware that there is a certain type of person that can work in a bar and then go home and be a responsible human, but I’m not one of them, so this was the end of my party-party days and the beginning of my mostly responsible days, which landed me a job in the medical field. After a few years in dermatology and cardiology, I ended up getting a pretty good job in oncology with full benefits. Not bad for a single mom. I worked in oncology for eleven years. I was the person who would go to bat for the patients against the insurance companies. When a doctor said a patient needed a test and the insurance company tried not to pay for it, it was my job to present information and records that showed that the patient did in fact need the test. You would think that if you have cancer and a doctor says that you need a test, you’ll get the test. That’s just not how it works. For eleven years I learned about cancer and how to read reports, and what to say and what to omit when I called insurance companies, so I could present a strong case. I became well versed in oncology, insurance hoops, as they say, and, well, death. I began to notice a certain look in patients as they were approaching their final days. I can only describe it as a worriless stare. I didn’t realize that my experience in oncology would come full circle.
Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.
— Frida Kahlo
The beginning of the end for Donnie involved a slip-n-slide of all things. Old habits die hard and Donnie, now late forties, still liked to throw some beers back. On this particular hot July day Donnie had gone, well, a little more than overboard with some Labatt Blues and decided to show our four-year-old son how a slip-n-slide is “really done.” During this highly entertaining yet cringeworthy show, Donnie managed to knock his front tooth out and ended up going in for an emergency dental procedure. Several weeks and a fake front tooth later Donnie and I were sitting out in our Adirondack chairs discussing his weight loss, which we attributed to a couple of weeks of soft food due to his dental procedure. As our conversation quieted, my gaze drifted to the pond, to the beautiful green trees, to the sky, and back to Donnie. The worriless stare in his eyes jolted me. After a long somber pause, I said, “You need to make a doctor’s appointment today, Donnie, and if you don’t, I'm going to do it for you.” He went to see his general doctor that week. The doctor ordered some scans and blood work. Because of the time I spent working for oncologists, I could tell by the specific blood work and scans that were ordered that the doctor also suspected cancer or at the very least was trying to rule it out. Donnie’s first set of CAT scans took place August 5, 2018. We were told that we would have to make an appointment with the general doctor to discuss the results of the scans, but that I could pick up a copy of the radiology report if I wanted to before the appointment. I don’t think that they expected me to know how to read it. I picked up the paper report alone, went out to my car and tore open the envelope. I skipped down to the most important part, “Impression: Metastatic disease, too much to count.” The metastatic disease was in Donnie’s stomach lining, lungs, liver, and back. I sat in my car alone, crying. I knew from looking at that report that Donnie was already a stage four and that his clock was ticking, but we didn’t get an official cancer diagnosis until almost a month later. Doctors worry about lawsuits and they won’t say someone has cancer until they have a confirmed piece of pathology, which indeed did state that Donnie’s primary location was esophageal cancer that had spread throughout his body. He was officially diagnosed with stage-four esophageal cancer in September 2018, and was told that his diagnosis was terminal. The oncologist prefaced this discussion with, “Well this is very sucky news.”
I am a mother of ducks. It’s a really long story, so I’ll get right to it. Donnie and I married in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Little Chapel of the West. We were both raised in Vegas as I previously mentioned. One late night, and at least four bottles of red wine in, we talked about moving to Central New York, and having more land than house and raising animals. I talked about trading my stilettos in for boots. Donnie talked about fishing more and going to more sporting events, he especially wanted to see the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium. We talked about seasons and what it would be like to have real winters. We talked about packing up our van and just going. Many, many, many Mojave desert sunsets later, we did!
We bought a house in Upstate NY, with a pond in the backyard. My good friend Lisa said, “Why don’t you get ducks?” Many New York chilly sunrises later, we did. We got ducks! When Donnie died, my favorite mallard duck (who I have now renamed Donald after Donnie) chased the caretakers down my driveway and bit one of them on the ass as they were transporting Donnie’s body. This is impressive, because, well, he’s a duck but also because it was a very wintery day. It’s not every day that you see a duck waddle fast and purposeful down an icy driveway slipping, quacking, and chasing men in suits during a snowstorm.
Your clear eye is that absolutely one beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
—Sylvia Plath, “Child”
SO MANY WHYS
Google estimates that there are currently 171,146 English words in use, yet when someone dies we find ourselves not knowing what to say, or worse, repeating phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “they’re in a better place.” I have spoken these words before many times but now that I am a widow these empty platitudes feel patronizing. I can’t help but think, what reason? What is the reason a man should be taken away from his five children in his forties? Furthermore, when my husband was fighting for his life the same people said that they were praying for him. Why? Why do everything-happens-for-a-reasoners pray for Donnie? I mean if one truly believes that everything happens for a reason why bother praying for a different outcome?
And when people say “they’re in a better place” do they mean heaven or do they just mean anywhere but living? Because biblically speaking no one goes to heaven until the resurrection, right? So is the better place the wooden box that the funeral home sold to me for six hundred dollars? In the midst of my grief, have I missed Jesus Christ coming down for his people?
Isn’t there one person out there that could just say something like, this is some straight bullshit. I mean this situation is just fucked. And if the answer is no, why? Why are we so uncomfortable as a society with sadness when sometimes life is sad. We’re a positive-vibes-only kind of society, which basically means don’t bring anything but happiness into my personal space, but I have to ask, why? I wish we were a real-vibes-only society. I wish we could communicate more effectively, especially about death because it’s something that affects us all. But wishes are for fairy tale characters like Cinderella who says a dream is a wish the heart makes which actually turns out to be some people’s nightmare as my seven-year-old once pointed out.
THE FROZEN SECTION
In the grocery store the masses come up to me and ask, “Are you okay, I mean really okay?” They ask with an intense stare, heads tilted, and close bodily proximity. There should be an “Are you okay?” daily quota for widows. It’s just fucking exhausting. One time I fired back, “What the fuck does that even mean? Are you okay? Is anyone okay? We’re all just fucking doing our best, fuck!” Grocery stores are the worst for widows. We’re basically sitting ducks. There is nowhere to hide and there is always some asshole in produce that spots you and feels obligated to ask if you’re okay, so they can report back to the living. “Remember so-and-so whose husband died, well I saw her at Price Chopper looking at artichokes and she said that she’s ‘okay, I mean really okay.’ ”
One of the worst encounters that I had after Donnie died was with a well-intended person that I ran into at the grocery store. Anyway she asked, “How are you and the kids holding up?” I responded with my go-to phrase, “We’re doing the best we can. Taking it day by day.” People normally seem satisfied enough with this response and leave me be. They normally say something like, “That’s all you can do” or “Let me know if you need anything,” and that’s a wrap, but this lady was particularly relentless in what she perceived as do-goodness talk with your local grocery store catch of the day.
She went on about how some relative of a relative she knew had died of cancer and how God works in mysterious ways, and how Donnie’s death was a blessing that was just not revealed to me at this time. She then said, “Cancer is terrible but at least you know what killed your husband and at least he didn’t kill himself.” I stood there, mouth open. My body became as frozen as the Arby’s curly fries and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets that surrounded me. She proceeded, “Can you believe how selfish some people are?” Her hand crossed by my face as she pulled out a red bag of tater tots and placed it in her basket, I still didn’t move or speak. Totally oblivious, she says, “Well dear—it was so good to run into you,” and gives my hand a little pat with her hand that was cold to the touch. She ends with, “Let me know if you need anything, even if it’s just someone to listen.” I nodded no, but she didn’t notice. Only after I could see her body towards the checkout did mine begin to thaw and pump blood again. I left my completely filled grocery cart in the frozen aisle and booked it for the sanctity of my car. This is the day I figured out my grocery app for online pickup. I guess it’s true that they say everything happens for a reason.
“I wondered if when Ted Hughes went to the grocery store, if he was cornered by people saying how selfish Sylvia was for committing suicide.”
THE PRAYER OF JABEZ
Later that evening, sometime after ordering the kids a pizza because I had no food in the house, I took out Donnie’s Bible. The one that I gave to the pastor to read out of at Donnie’s service. The same one that I held close to my body sometimes because it has Donnie’s handwriting in it with certain passages underlined. The same one that I would sometimes bring up to my nose, close my eyes and smell.
I thought about how Donnie once told me that his favorite passage was the Prayer of Jabez. I found the passage in his Bible underlined. I ran over the words with my finger. The passage read, “. . . And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, ‘Oh that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and You would keep me from evil, that I might not cause pain!’ So God granted him what he requested” (Chronicles 4:10). As I look at this underlined passage, I’m filled with sadness and regret because I never asked Donnie what this passage meant to him and more specifically why it was his favorite, another reminder like the blank cards of so many things unfaced and unspoken.
What I can tell you is what the Prayer of Jabez means to the people on Google and it is somewhat perplexing, and the overall gist is horrifying. The consensus is to tread carefully. Proceed with extreme caution when you pray this prayer because this prayer is asking God to expand your territories. It is asking God for change and sometimes the change you’re asking for may be big and uncomfortable which could even result in death.
In grief counseling my therapist frequently recommended talking to your spouse as if they were there. She said, “A lot of widows find this exercise comforting.” She pressed, “Try it. Just go home and sit in front of your spouse’s favorite chair, or a space in your house where you can really envision them being there and just talk to them as if they were alive. Say anything and everything you want or didn’t get to say.” I always thought that this role-playing assignment would feel really silly and dumb, but on this particular night I could actually see Donnie sitting across from me in his blue chair, smirking. So I flipped him the bird and I said, it couldn’t have been any (I emphasized the word ANY)—I mean ANY—other fucking prayer? What’s wrong with, “Love is patient, love is kind”? I rolled my eyes in the direction of his blue chair just like I had done so many times before.
As I read Donnie’s Bible, I thought about the horrid woman at the grocery store. I thought about what audacity she had, and for some reason I thought about Sylvia Plath. I wondered if when Ted Hughes went to the grocery store, if he was cornered by people saying how selfish Sylvia was for committing suicide. And how suicide was the only unforgivable sin. I wondered if Ted Hughes ever walked home after a grocery store encounter and fell to his knees praying that people would spew “everything happens for a reason,” and “she’s in a better place” at him because he couldn’t take one more comment on “selfishness or unforgivable sins.”
I then yearned to know why people say what they say and if there was actually a passage in the Bible about suicide being unforgivable, so I searched and read and searched and read Donnie’s Bible and then after no success, I eventually typed into the Google search engine, “Does the Bible mention suicide as an unforgivable sin?” I was surprised to find out that the answer is no. I mean no. Just no. There is “thou shalt not kill,” which is a forgivable sin according to the Bible. It turns out that suicide being an unforgivable sin is just something people say. Even something I’ve said.
No one in their forties should have to have their diaper changed. I wish that one was really in the Bible. One time, near the end-end, the hospice nurse and I were changing Donnie. Donnie looked up at me innocently and so helplessly with his bright blue eyes fixated on my face, and said, “It’s really like I’m a child again, isn’t it?” I shook my head a little and gave him a half-smile with my eyes watery. His return expression conveyed that he found comfort in my response. I was completely taken back. There was a church that I loved to go to in Vegas. It had a little coffee house in it and people said things like, “It’s okay not to be okay.” That always stuck with me. Anyway, I remember the pastor once saying that the Bible says that the key to happiness is to remain childlike. I hope that passage is actually in the Bible—I’m just not in the mood to search for things that may or may not be there anymore.
Corrie Clements is originally from Las Vegas, Nevada. She currently resides in central New York State with her kids, fur-babies, and beloved duck Donald. This is her first publication. She is currently working on a full-length memoir based on “The Traveling Sausage.” She would like to give a shout-out to her children and muses Ty, Ky, Caity-cat, Bella, and Jacob.