Monday, December 21, 2009
She was standing outside her gate – just the way she’d been half an hour ago, when my mother and I left for our evening walk.
I wondered if she had ever looked into the world of sad bitterness in the droop of her shoulders and her pulled-down mouth. I couldn’t see her face at the time but I know that look very well – now that I am writing about it I realise that I’ve perhaps never looked at her very well. But I know that look. Five women of my acquaintance have been widowed in the last six years. And if you knew them you would know that they’re five different stories of womanhood and five different stories of widowhood. Whether a woman loves her husband or not, when he dies, she discovers new depths to pain. And ever so much room for hate.
That is what it is – bitterness masquerading as loss undergone by a poor widow. And it is sad, for no person should have to live with themselves so filled with bitterness. She once was a young sister grieving the death of an older sibling, a woman marrying her brother-in-law to look after her sister's children, a very nervous bride, a newly-wed, an expectant mother-to-be, a proud mother-in-law...she’s been a thousand things, but now, all that’s left of her is a seething mass of rage and bitterness. It is not the loss of a dearly beloved husband, nor the pain of a mother - watching with anxious eyes her youngest son on the threshold of manhood who's destined to go through the rites of passage without a father’s stern eye on him. It is the frustration of being trapped, of being a woman. Not because she’s a widow and is now supposed to restrict her movements, lower her voice and spend her days in the service of the Lord. But, because she doesn’t know who she is, now that she isn’t a wife anymore.
In fact, it's been a long time since she knew who she is. So, it is even more frightening for her to have to face the question now, at her age. But the saddest part is she doesn’t even think about being frustrated or lost. She just knows that she is frightened. And she is mad at everyone who is not.
She’s sad and lonely and lost; nearly at the end of the road, and wishing desperately she won’t lose her way – for she’s not used to finding her own way. Or her feet. Oh there are plenty of people keeping an eye on her, looking after her needs and ready to provide for her a shelter. But she’s lost the one person who could share with her the fear of impending death. Or, the one person who, like her, was a little confused with the music and manners of today, who couldn’t eye a laptop without grave misgivings, and who didn’t understand where they had been while this city changed beyond recognition. She lost a companion.
Maybe she didn’t love him – not the way I used to think all wives would love their husbands. But then, like most wives - at least around me - she probably tried her best. After all, it must be hard work trying to love husbands when one doesn’t have the words to talk about childbirth, contraception or chauvinism. And she belongs to that generation for which the three defined a woman’s life - whether those were talked about or not. (Yes, I know the 3 still do, for more women than I like to think) She was never seen as a person, only a wee woman; but you know what’s the cruellest fact of her life? The same chauvinistic religiosity that conditioned her womanhood to find salvation in serving everything male, also ensured that though forever denied a life of her own, she’d never be free of a terrible, haunting fear of death. Afterlife, you see. And hell. And damnation.
So, day in and day out, she lives with this fear and this sense of utter loneliness. And she couldn’t share it with anyone if she was paid a million per word – because they managed to fully wipe out all that in her voice which made her put herself first. If she wished to survive she had to submit. She had to let go of her consciousness as a woman, a desperately hurting woman. . .the consciousness of having been wronged, controlled and manipulated. She just knows intense excruciating pain – she doesn’t know where it comes from, how long she’s suffered or who to blame for it. Yet, she is not a fool for fearing death you know – if life is this crushing and horrifying, who wouldn’t be smart enough to fear afterlife? Which the highest authorities in our respective cultures assure us can make the sturdiest of us cry out for mercy?
Oh, she’s so not a fool. She is a smart woman who knows what her past can tell her about her future. Because she is this woman who never knew fulfillment or happiness on her terms, or the full-blown joy of loving and being loved without conditions. She never knew that a husband could cook, or wash clothes, or take a crying baby from her tired arms and kiss away her tears...or that no matter how old or fat she became, his eyes would always seek her. And yet he not only betrayed her and left her alone, she also has to bear the pain of pretending that she’s devastated by his death. When she’s only devastated by her own life and all those who claimed to love her.