The Rubber Bands Are Back
Life after death.
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Bereavement groups are a clever concept. It’s been three months, four months—enough. Your friends and family don’t want to listen anymore, they want you to cheer up, move on. That’s the phrase—it’s time to move on. But for a lot of us, it’s not. Hence the bereavement group, a weekly date with people who, just like you, want to talk about dead husbands. Or wives—but usually the group is women.
Except now, this group has Frank. He arrived four weeks ago, and since then it’s been very clear there’s a man in the room.
Until Frank, we were six oldish widow women plus Gladys, the forty-something razor- thin always-smiling social worker who leads our sharing sessions. We don’t talk here—we share. So before Frank, we’ve been sharing away: the sadness, the loneliness, the getting-rid-of-the-clothes, the loneliness, the bills, the overwhelming paperwork, the loneliness, burden the children, don’t burden the children, the taxes, the loneliness. Of course six grieving women all sharing takes some adept moderating. Gladys is usually good at interrupting someone conducting a monologue, as in, Frieda, thank you, we’ll come back to that, but other people are waiting to share…
But since Frank joined it’s been like a runaway train—Loretta and Maida telling their stories in detail, stories we women have heard and heard, but Frank hasn’t. All the conversation is directed at him. Here’s Loretta: tell me Frank, do you ever talk to your wife? That’s what I was doing, talking to Richard when I found the rubber bands.
Great. The rubber bands are back. I am trying to behave like a caring, sympathetic adult. After all, why hurt her feelings? But it’s hard to understand how Loretta, a nice enough looking woman with the exception of her inability to get her lipstick only on her lips, doesn’t merely monopolize the conversation, but without embarrassment tells the same stupid story, using the same words, in the same exact sequence: the rubber bands, the closet, the sister-in-law from the first marriage… In my secret heart I’m saying, to use my second mother-in-law’s phrase, please god give me strength.
It’s simply unfair—we only have an hour. My time to talk about myself and my grief, my issues, is being depleted while this seventy-five-year-old woman talks about the rubber bands. I want to tell the group about Louis—how gleeful he was on his deathbed. And yes, I know they’ve heard it before, but still, I want to tell them about it again. And it’s not just me—there are all the others in the group. We’re all sitting, thinking our thoughts, waiting for our turn to talk.
I mean share.
It’s share. We’re waiting to share.
But Loretta keeps going. And there they were, she says. Just lying on the floor of the closet. I mean, Frank, there had to be at least fifty of them. All sizes, all colors, and there was no way they could have gotten there. I was amazed, Frank. Totally amazed. I mean, it was eerie.
Why doesn’t Gladys control Loretta and let another person share?
After Joe, my second husband, died, I felt I didn’t need a bereavement group. I knew Joe was dying, Joe knew he was dying—it’s over, I’m fine, nothing to talk about, just let me get on with my life.
Ten months later, standing in front of an Italian restaurant on Second Avenue, a place Joe and I loved, I was wailing away like a lost child on a crowded beach.
So much for just get on with my life.
I joined a group, and it worked. I had a safe place to cry, and tell the story of Joe’s death, again and again and again. All the members liked hearing it, and I liked hearing their deaths. Like a book club, but different.
So after Louis, died, for the last six months on Monday afternoons, I’ve been going to my community center and sharing with the gang.
We meet in the conference room. It’s a big room, with a pull-down screen for PowerPoint meetings, slick tables arranged in a circle with slick chairs with thin legs that stick in the slick carpet—perfect for younger people who attend PowerPoint meetings but three months ago poor Gail—arthritic, walks with a cane Gail—tried to stand up but her chair legs stuck and she fell and bruised her left cheekbone, her left elbow and her hip. Gladys wanted to call 911, but Gail insisted she was okay, and she was—black and blue and sore for a few weeks, but okay.
Now we’re all careful when we stand up and we make sure our chairs aren’t stuck. And speaking of careful, in this group plus Frank era, Loretta is more carefully dressed—today it’s a black silk shirt, tight white pants and white kitten heels. Pearls. Her hair is freshly blonded and shaped to curve around her face. Of course there’s still the lipstick issue…
I drift. I’m thinking about Louis, how he did his own unique count-down at the end. His birthday was May 16th, and the date, one day before he died, was November 16th. Louis spent his life on Wall Street crunching numbers—and the relevant numbers were these: my second husband died at 72, and poor Alex, my first, at 67.
I was in the visitor’s chair with Louis in his cordoned-off hospital room, the area where the most gravely ill are tended. Or herded. Kind of the same, isn’t it? Louis was resting, flaccid white skin, shallow breathing; it’s hard to die. Now with a grunt, Louis slowly pushed himself up, and removed the oxygen mask, holding it up like a microphone.
I have something to say, he said.
A weak voice, but he was smiling. Okay, kiddo, I said. Go for it.
My dear wife, Louis said, I am happy to inform you that as of today, I, your number three husband, have turned seventy-four and a half! Louis paused for breath. And—Hah!—that makes me your oldest husband. Hah! I have lived longer than all of them. Seventy-four and a half. Hah! Hah!
He gave me his biggest grin (you can imagine Louis at eight, a proud little kid who’s gotten a 100 plus a gold star on his math test). Then with just a little bit of a groan, he lay slowly back down on his pillow and put the oxygen mask back on. Yes, he was dying, but still. Louis was triumphant. He had done it. Seventy-four and a half.
He was smiling as he drifted back to sleep.
I want to tell this to the group.
So Frank, Loretta says, god is my witness, I couldn’t believe it, but there they were again! Maybe 50 of them, different colors different sizes just lying on the floor of our bedroom closet. And I don’t keep rubber bands in the bedroom—I have them in the kitchen, on a doorknob. And Frank, this was the second time. And when I told my sister-in-law Margie, well, she’s not really my sister-in-law, she’s my divorced husband’s sister (right, we know that, Loretta) but she says I’ll always be her sister-in-law (right, you’ve said that, Loretta), anyhow when I told Margie about it she said, of course it’s Richard! He wants you to know he’s watching you. And I said, oh Margie, do you really think so? And she said, what else could it be? He’s sending you a message. And that’s what I’ve started to think, maybe Richard is there, somewhere, still watching over me…
Loretta starts to cry.
We all wait.
Our leader, Gladys, says in a soft voice, this is very hard for you, isn’t it?
Yes, Loretta says, I’m sorry.
I reach into my handbag and pull out a pack of tissues and push them over to Loretta.
She blows her nose. The conversation starts again.
Maida: well, Frank, I don’t know if you feel this way, but I know John is with me, I actually feel him watching me, I even talk to him. Just last night I was talking to him—who gave you permission to leave, you big lug, that’s exactly what I said to him.
She crosses her right leg and swings it back and forth. Maida, too, is carefully dressed, plus she’s done eyeliner and blush. She’s got a blue t-shirt with “Grandma Power” in sequins, and a matching blue skirt. She switches legs, swings her left one back and forth. Frank? She says.
Frank sighs. He’s a big man, six feet tall, overweight. He’s eighty, almost bald; he was married for fifty-five years. For the last three, his wife had ovarian cancer, and finally died two months ago. Frank says: I guess I don’t feel like that. Maybe it’s a man-woman thing, but I—I know she’s gone. I know I’m alone. Everything hurts, wherever I look I see her stuff, her pillow on the couch, her makeup in the bathroom—excuse me, sorry.
He controls himself. But goes on: no, I don’t believe that spooky stuff. Lucy is dead. She’s gone. I don’t have her anymore.
Loretta says, but what about the rubber bands? How do you explain the rubber bands?
I can’t stop myself. Loretta, I say, if Richard is really there why doesn’t he leave you a note? Or a flower? Why is he communicating by throwing rubber bands on your closet floor? It doesn’t make sense.
Gladys is always diplomatic at times like this. Well, this is very interesting, she says. Do the rest of you feel like your departed loved one is still somehow around and watching you?
Loretta is one of the ‘he just dropped dead.’ Her husband went off to buy two bagels for breakfast. A morning like every other, except she got a phone call—Richard dropped dead in the bagel store. She rushed to the hospital, but he had been declared.
The other ‘just dropped deads’ are Maida and Gail—Maida’s husband was sitting at the computer, and stood up, perhaps to answer the phone hanging on a wall nearby, stumbled, cut his head on the desk edge, concussed, and since he took blood thinners, he bled out.
Meanwhile, Maida keeps telling Frank: I was having dinner, with a woman I don’t even like, and the food was awful, and I spent 37 dollars including tip—and while I’m eating, Jerry’s lying there. By the time I got home, there was nothing I could do. I guess this is very different than your experience, Frank, Maida says. After all, you and Lucy knew the end was coming; but for me, it was a total shock.
She smiles at him—a big smile that shows her upper and lower teeth, all of them ringed in black. They’re capped; a cosmetic intervention that happened years ago; now Maida’s gums are retreating.
Frank is wiping his eyes.
Frank, do you want to say something to Maida? Gladys asks.
Frank shakes his head, no.
Maida says, oh Frank, I know how hard this is.
Oh yes, Loretta says, oh it’s very hard, Frank. It’s very sad, very hard. We all know what you’re feeling, you’re among friends and supporters. I’m here for you, Frank.
Gail is the other ‘just dropped dead.’ Her husband, Harry, knew he had cardiac disease. He saw specialist after specialist, was given options, and for whatever reason refused to do anything. Gail keeps asking the group, what could she do? What could she do?
Frank says, I don’t know how I’m going to live. I don’t know how I can keep going without Lucy. All I want to do is cry.
Oh Frank, Maida says. Oh Frank, I understand, I know what you’re going through.
Yes, Loretta says, I know what you’re feeling.
Frank says, I don’t know how you women do it.
Two other women spent years with husbands in slow decay. Three if you count me. Sylvia’s husband fell down a flight of stairs, hit his head, and his brain was never exactly the same. He could just about follow a PG-13 movie plot. As the years went by, he developed what she describes as a little dementia.
Frieda’s husband had bladder cancer. It was treated, went into remission, a few years passed, it came back, he grew weak, they took one final cruise, and then he died. I was sitting by his bed in the hospital, Frieda said. Those machines, monitors, you know, beep beep beep, they were slowing down, I knew he was going, and the thing is, he had that big oxygen mask and the tube down his throat, and tape all over his face—there wasn’t any room. I couldn’t even kiss him to say goodbye.
I’m the only one with three dead husbands. My first two died of cancer, and number three, poor Louis, died of everything. Name it, he had it.
Frank clears his throat. It’s quiet—Frank is going to speak. There’s a respectful hush—this time he’s speaking to me. I hope this isn’t rude, he says, I hope it’s okay to ask—but I just keep wondering—which husband do you miss the most?
Oh, goodness, I say, oh, it’s fine to ask. It’s just that I’ve never thought about it that way. I guess my best answer is—I miss them all. If one of them could come back—any one of them, I would be incredibly happy. If all of them came back it would be a very strange cocktail party…
I think it’s a very funny answer, but it seems no one else does. They wait.
I guess I miss Louis the most, I finally say. There’s something to that song, when I’m not near the one I love, I love the one I’m near… I mean, Louis is my most recent husband, so he’s the one who’s absence I’m most aware of—but I loved them all. I mean, I married them. They were all my favorites.
Gladys says, oh, that was beautiful, thank you for sharing that with us.
I want to tell them about his last day. I got to the hospital, chatted with the nurse who told me, we had a good night.
Louis was lying on his back, peaceful, sleeping, until suddenly he convulsed, shaking the bed, his entire body in wild motion, I’m screaming help! We need help here! And people came running to his curtained space and as suddenly as they began, the convulsions stopped. In the shocked silence, Louis looked up at me blankly and said, was I really flying?
But we only have five more minutes. And Maida is talking on and on about her mother who preferred Maida’s brother, he was the one who went to college, but she was sent to secretarial school… Just because I was a girl, Maida is saying, and girls don’t matter, that’s what it was about for my mother…
Those were his last words; was I really flying?
I love that he thought he was flying.
I hope that was how he felt—that he wasn’t afraid, that he wasn’t scared, that he was flying.
What do I do with this thought?
I want to share it with the group.
I’m afraid our time is up, Gladys says. This was a very productive session. And I look forward to seeing all of you next week. Now, remember, be careful of those chairs everyone.
Does anyone want to go for coffee? Loretta says. Frank?
Judith Lichtendorf is a mom (one perfect son), stepmom (four perfect women), and grandmother to two amazing delightful perfect children. She has studied fiction at the 92nd Street Y, Center for Fiction, and New York State’s summer program in Saratoga Springs. Teachers include Lore Segal, Christopher Sorentino, Phillip Lopate, Rick Moody, Teddy Wayne, and life. Her writing has appeared in Mom Egg Review, Stonecoast Review, and Podium (Untenberg Poetry Center).
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