Copyright 2008, Eve Paludan
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin
To: Claire Mead
From: David Mead, Jr.
We only have a few minutes until mandatory lights out, to rest up for a tough mission tomorrow. So, I send this hasty memo, instead of my usual tome.
I was devastated and shocked to hear of Dad’s death in such a freak accident. I have already asked for bereavement leave, but don’t know if they will grant it. They really need me here right now! That’s all I can disclose.
I only had a couple of hours to digest the tragic news and have only a couple of minutes to say that I know you to be the most resilient person in our family, the one everyone looks to in times of trouble or woe. No matter what happens to a friend or a neighbor or to one of the Meads, you are always there with consolation, suggestions, and above all, your own kind of incredible love.
I just wanted to let you know that now it’s time for me to be your pillar. Lean on me.
Chapter 1: On the Cusp
Claire Mead didn’t have her husband anymore, her children lived abroad, her income was shrinking and she hadn’t shaved her legs all winter. She hadn’t laughed, truly laughed, for months.
She was going broke and still cried much too easily since David, a.k.a. “The Saint,” had died, but suddenly, she realized she had something she had never once had before in her life -- her freedom.
On the first Tuesday of the month, at a coed widowers’ and widows’ meeting of the Romeos (Retired Old Men Eating Out) and the Juliets (Just Us Ladies Into Eating Together) at Tony’s Steakhouse in Pogram Flats, Kansas, Claire’s life began to change for the better, from the first, gingerly-taken bite of all-you-can-eat calf fries, i.e., breaded, deep-fried bovine testicles, to her sudden outburst of tears in the ladies’ room, when Claire realized that she had never gotten around to doing all the things she wanted to do, seeing the places she wanted to see, or truly living the life that she wanted to live. But now, she could. She really, really could.
The realization hit her in the belly like a kick and moved up to her eyes like onions. As hot, wet waterfalls of tears squirted out of her eyes and spilled down her cheeks for even thinking such selfish things after David’s death, Claire realized that now was her time – if she was going to make changes, she needed to start, right now! As a forty-something widow, she did not have her youth nor her beauty, except her shiny, wavy auburn hair and her pearl-white skin; she certainly didn’t have David-the-perfect-husband anymore. The family business, “his” business, was starting to fail and she was certainly alone, with a son fighting a war in Afghanistan and a daughter studying art at the Sorbonne in Paris.
But this wasn’t about David Junior or about Rachel, this was about her now. All about her. It had to be. David was gone forever.
Claire gave one last sob, blew her nose and flushed the toilet at the same time as the lady who peed in the stall next to her. They both exited their stalls at the same time and washed their hands together at the row of pink sinks with faucet handles shaped like steer horns. Claire repaired the damage to her eye makeup with some water and tissues, stealing a look in the mirror at the motivational speaker who had presented a talk at the luncheon and answered the bombarded questions with enthusiasm and humor.
The other woman spoke first, sneaking a peek at her name badge. “Hi Claire.”
“Hi, Ellie. Nice to meet you. Sorry about the sobbing. I loved your talk,” Claire managed.
“Having a good cry from it?” Ellie Peterson asked.
Claire nodded. “There are bad cries and good cries. This was mostly a good cry.”
Ellie patted Claire’s hand. “I’m glad it’s mostly a good cry.” She paused. “Want to come and sit in the ladies’ lounge with me a minute and collect yourself?”
Claire let out a gulping, shuddering breath, which always happened to her at the end of a hard cry. It was an ugly sound and she was appalled that she created it.
“I would love to have you all to myself for a few minutes. Thank you!”
Tony’s Steakhouse was an old-fashioned restaurant from the 60s, with one of those attached lounges adjacent to the ladies’ room. It contained pink satin couches and long mirrors framed by frosted makeup bulbs for makeup repairs, a true no-man’s land. They walked together into the ladies’ lounge.
“What moved you to tears about my speech?” Ellie wanted to know.
“All of it, but especially the story of the widow from Russia who didn’t just survive in her old life, scrabbling out a small existence from potatoes and cabbages, she went to Moscow, got a job she loved, and thrived. I think it hit me close to home, how this woman came into her own after her husband died, how she gave herself permission to recreate her own life, from scratch, with barely any resources. How she became a renowned scientist.”
“Almost everyone likes that success story,” Ellie replied. “Because they can relate to the first part of it and they hope for the second part.”
“I thought it was just so amazing that one day she woke up and started to do everything she longed to do her whole life and most of all, learned to let go of the guilt over it. It wasn’t that she never loved her husband, but she realized, after he was gone, how she neglected to love herself for her entire life.” Claire sighed. “Those were very powerful words for me. I think it just hit me so hard, because I saw a little of myself in your words about her!”
Ellie paused thoughtfully before she answered, making herself comfortable on a pink satin settee, next to Claire. “A lot of women don’t realize how they can let themselves become just an attachment to a man, instead of an individual. She lives her life through his, and they both neglect the parts of her that are crying out for fulfillment. It’s funny, not ha-ha funny, but strange, that we, as women, are raised to believe that fulfillment means doing things for other people. We do it for our husbands, to the letter, we stick up for our kids and go the distance for them no matter what, but when they are all gone, we find the Self, with a capital S, lacking in substance, direction, and fulfillment. Who made up these stupid rules, anyway?”
“Indeed, Ellie. It seems like we do everything for everyone else and then, bang, one split second later, the whole world collapses when a husband dies. I have awakened almost every morning wondering what I am supposed to do now that he is gone and my kids are out of the nest, too. I have asked myself over and over in the past several months, what is my purpose in life?”
Ellie leaned back against the pink satin settee, closing her eyes in thought.
“When all is said and done, there is this emptiness, even a restlessness in what I call “The Good Wife” who is left behind, almost like an orphan.”
“I’ve been feeling that, Ellie. And I’m so tired of it all. I keep asking myself if this is all there is, and I don’t mean I want another man. Not now anyway.”
“It wouldn’t be a bad thing if you thought of another man as part of your healing, the right one anyway.”