My Life Closed Twice: Surviving a Double Loss
“Life goes on,” “You have to move forward,” “Don’t do anything for a year.” These were some of the platitudes I heard from well-meaning people trying to help me to get on with a life that had changed so abruptly. For the first week, I was sheltered, pitied and catered to. Then, like a bird pushed out of the nest by its mother, I was on my own. While emotionally I was trying to absorb the loss of my loved ones, I could not postpone the unaccustomed tasks related to their deaths. Making funeral arrangements was just the beginning. I suddenly controlled my finances, my house, my income, my future. I had to incorporate all of this into my new life as an unmarried woman. I always saw myself as an independent person, a free spirit. As a young adult, while preparing myself for my ultimate goal, to become a wife, I engaged in many endeavors that taught me how to fend for myself. I traveled alone, managed money, supported myself in a strange city and thrived on challenge. Looking at my past through the prism of my current status, I see aspects of my behavior that foreshadowed the ability I now need to survive.
After college graduation, I went to Europe by myself for three months which was daring at the time, although I didn’t realize it then. Transatlantic phone calls required making an advance reservation and were so expensive they were for emergencies only. Credit cards were non-existent. The money I left home with had to last. I traveled, without advance reservations, sometimes alone, occasionally with Americans I met along the way.
I started my journey on a chartered flight for students, mostly male engineers on a summer exchange program. In Amsterdam, I spent a few days with people I met on the plane before our paths diverged. One of the women and I met up again, by agreement, on the French Riviera where we spent a few days before traveling together to Italy. We heard that the American Embassy in Rome threw a party on the Fourth of July, by invitation only. A few weeks ahead we each wrote to the embassy requesting an invitation, to be sent to the American Express office in Rome. To my amazement, a beautifully engraved invitation awaited each of us when we arrived in Rome. From the bottom of my suitcase, I found a fresh white blouse that I paired with a skirt and brand new Italian sandals.
The reception was held outdoors on the spacious grounds of the embassy. A band played American music. Grilled hamburgers and hot dogs were a treat after a month of inexpensive European food. The Americans gathered were the greatest number of my countrymen I had seen or would see in one place for three months.
I had many such experiences traveling independently. I slept overnight on wooden slat seats in a third class train carriage in Italy with a pair of honeymooners, danced the waltz with a prince in Vienna, was serenaded by a gondolier in Venice and loved every minute of it. As Americans, we were welcomed wherever we went, even by the French. It was all a big adventure for a girl from a factory town in Connecticut. In later years, when I have felt apprehensive about traveling alone, I think of the 22 year old who got off a train in Paris, found a comfortable hotel room on the Left Bank for $2.00 a night and strolled down the Champs-Elysées as if she were in heaven, which she was.
Returning home after my stay in Europe, I spent two years as a single woman in New York negotiating the life of the big city. Needing to find a job quickly, I went to all the large insurance companies, which offered the best prospects for a well-paying job. The first company gave me a test that included English and math. The English was no problem but I had difficulty with some of the math questions. I memorized the questions I missed and my boyfriend, a skilled mathematician, told me how to do them. The next company gave the same test. By the time I got to the third company, I too was a mathematician. Within two weeks, a large insurance company offered me a job as an underwriting clerk in the group underwriting department.
The job was all math. I worked in a large room filled with gray metal desks, each with a Monroe calculator the size of a microwave oven. All day long, I punched numbers into the calculator using a large spread sheet, a real paper spread sheet, as I figured health insurance rates for client companies in the Midwest. I multiplied numbers and inserted them into little cells on the spreadsheet. They had to balance, top to bottom and left to right. The function, if it is done at all now, would probably take 10 minutes on a computer for each case. For the longer cases, or if I made an error, it sometimes took days.
On a crisp fall Saturday, I went to one of New York’s best stores to buy a dress with money I had saved. I chose a straightforward New York black wool dress, so stylish, and so different from my tired college wardrobe that I couldn’t bear to take it off. I asked the saleslady to cut off the tags and I wore it out of the store, carrying my old clothes in the store’s shopping bag. I felt so sophisticated walking down Fifth Avenue in my black dress swinging the prestigious shopping bag although it only contained old clothes. I wore the dress a few weeks later on my first date with the man who would become my husband.
During the early months of my bereavement, I believed I was living within the protective circle of many prayers. Numerous people had offered to pray for me, from the nuns at a college where I once worked who had some credibility in this area, to friends who, as far as I knew, were far removed from any religion. “You are in my prayers,” they wrote on their condolence cards. When I met them on the street or in the supermarket, they said their prayers were with me. I used these prayers as vouchers. When I needed a parking space or hoped for a normal mammogram, I reminded God of all the prayers that well-wishers had said for me. “Please help me out here,” I said to God and frequently my prayers were answered. I needed my vouchers to move me forward. I still had business to attend to.
"Subconsciously, a wife figures her husband may die before her, but hardly in his fifties. A mother expects, and certainly hopes, to die before her child. So what happens to a woman who without warning loses her husband on a Friday and her son the next day? Can she even stand up? Does her heart darken for good? Will she distrust the entire world? Does she want to die? And while we’re at it--where did her husband put the will? All these questions are answered in Sandra Schocket’s stunning--in both senses--memoir My Life Closed Twice. Rapt to the end, I came upon a sentence that continues to resonate in me: 'If I live out my statistically granted 78 years, I see my life dividing into three segments that will resemble a bell curve--23 years single, 34 years married, 21 years widowed.' This is what it is to be grown up. It is reality. It is grace."
--Maggie Strong, author of Mainstay: For the Well Spouse of the Chronically Ill.