First appeared in The Chicago Tribune on February 12, 2003 under the title of "Widow takes control of life's steering wheel"
My mother-in-law stoops over her kitchen table and leafs frantically through a large road atlas. After a flurry of page turning she finds the Chicago map and studies it. She writes a tiny, cramped note to herself on a Post-it, which she will soon lose in the sea of Post-its that covers her counters. She does all of this in a rush as if she were about to run out the door and jump in the car this very minute and not two days from now as planned. Everything she has done for the past four days has had this crazed, unfocused look to it. It occurs to me I have not seen her sit down except to eat in the past four days. Not since the day my father-in-law died.
She's looking for driving directions from her home in Michigan to her childhood hometown in central Wisconsin where we will bury my father-in-law. She has surprised us all by announcing she will drive herself there.
The reason she's studying the atlas is that although she has made this trip three or four times a year for the past 30 years, she has not once driven even 1 mile of the 650 mile trip. My father-in-law always drove and she always navigated and as far as I know they never switched places, even when he broke his arm last summer and could barely use his right arm.
At last, satisfied that she knows the route, she starts to close the atlas. But the book, instead of closing, flops open to a different page revealing a small stack of computer-printed sheets with the word, "Mapquest" at the top. She picks them up and examines them and smiles sadly.
"What are those?" I ask
"Oh, maps to North Carolina. Dad was planning a trip there."
My eyes sting and a lump forms in my throat. I find these moments the hardest to bear. The constant reminder of a life interrupted. The doctor's appointment card tacked to the refrigerator. The unopened Fathers' Day gift. This stack of maps for a trip he will never take. He was only 63. It was a stroke. She pulls the sheets out of the atlas and stacks them neatly.
She has spent the past 44 years with her husband and now he is gone. Theirs was an old-fashioned marriage built on the values of 1950s America. Their roles were so rigidly defined by their gender that I was appalled when I first met them. But I came to appreciate how it worked for them. He provided for her financially and she provided for him domestically. He took care of the finances, the cars, the lawn, and he always drove. She made the meals, cleaned, did the laundry and took care of family obligations, including phoning his mother weekly. They loved and admired each other. He made her feel safe and cared for and she made a comfortable home in which he took refuge.
Today, I am having a hard time imagining what her life will look like without him. We all are. I am certain she is too. She studies the stack of maps, then makes a decision.
"I don't have to throw these out now," she says and tucks them back into the atlas.
"No, no," I say reassuringly. "Of course not. You shouldn't throw anything away until you're good and ready."
Throwing things away is a difficult task for my mother-in-law. She is a pack rat. In this kitchen we are surrounded by her usual stacks of newspapers, magazines, bills, junk mail, maps and cardboard UPCs saved for contests and giveaways. The counter is littered with stuff she cannot bring herself to throw away: a toothpick, plastic wrap saved for a second use, a bottle cap, an assortment of plastic containers that cannot be burned in the barrel out back and, somewhat mysteriously, half of the handle of a fly-swatter. No, she should not throw anything of my father-in-law's away until she is good and ready. And that, I think, may be never.
She scoops up the atlas to return it to the stack in the corner, the pile where she keeps phonebooks and maps. As she does, the large cardboard cover separates from the atlas and flutters to the ground. She stoops to pick it up and lays it on the table with a grin.
"Judy," she says pausing for emphasis," He always drove and I always held the atlas. Of course after the atlas got to be a few years old the cover would come off and he'd give me a hard time for being careless."
We both smile as we imagine the conversation. He frequently chastised her for a long list of real or imagined indiscretions. It was sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, but a constant ritual.
"And then, he'd never let me throw the cover away."
Never let me, she says. He was also a man who was used to making rules, both fair and arbitrary, and having them followed by wife and children without question or challenge.
"No, Judy, I don't have to throw anything away until I'm good and ready."
Then she picks up the cover of the atlas, walks across the room and does the most surprising thing I've seen her do in the 20 years I've known her. She looks at me, smiles mischievously, steps on the pedal to open the cover of the wastebasket and drops the atlas cover in.
"And I'm good and ready."
She loved him dearly and passionately for 44 years and she will miss him every day of her life. I've been wondering what things will look like for her without him. But suddenly, I'm not so worried about it.
By Judy ZImmerman