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Authors: John W. Evans

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Young Widower

BOOK: Young Widower
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“A tragic story told with such grace and artistry that the complex exploration of grief is finally revealed as redemptive. The honesty of John Evans’s writing is unfaltering and deeply impressive.”

—Kevin Casey, author of
A State of Mind

“This book brims with unforgettable images and moments, but Evans’s greatest achievement is allowing readers to see his wife, Katie, as he did—not as a saint or as a martyr, but as a passionate and dynamic and flawed woman whom he deeply loved.”

—Justin St. Germain, author of
Son of a Gun

“A riveting and devastating chronicle of the tragedy that brutally ended a life and a marriage, and the aftermath of grief. Told with uncompromising candor and poetic precision,
Young Widower
is an unforgettable memoir of unrelenting beauty.”

—Patricia Engel, author of
It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris

Young Widower

River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize

Series Editors:

Daniel Lehman, Ashland University

Joe Mackall, Ashland University

The River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize is awarded to the best work of literary nonfiction submitted to the annual contest sponsored by
River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative

Young Widower

A Memoir

John W. Evans

University of Nebraska Press | Lincoln and London

© 2014 by John W. Evans

Cover image from

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Evans, John W. (John William), 1977–

Young widower: a memoir / John W. Evans.

pages cm. — (River teeth literary nonfiction prize)

978-0-8032-4952-3 (pbk.: alk. paper)

978-0-8032-5402-2 (epub)

978-0-8032-5403-9 (mobi)

978-0-8032-5401-5 (pdf)

1. Evans, John W. (John William), 1977– 2. Evans, John W. (John William), 1977– —Marriage. 3. Widowers—United States—Biography. 4. Young men—United States—Biography. 5. Widowers—United States—Psychology. 6. Widowhood—United States—Case studies. 7. Wives—Death—Psychological aspects—Case studies. 8. Loss (Psychology)—Case studies.

I. Title.
93 2014

306.88'20973—dc23 2013032472

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

This book is lovingly dedicated to Emma, Chloe, and Chase, in Katie’s memory.

While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, “Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house: And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

—Job, 1:18–19

Do we derive our comfort from the hope that you will hear us?

, 3.10


My thanks to Eavan Boland, Ken Fields, Justin St. Germain, Tarn Wilson, Ben Hubbard, Gail Drewes, Kelly Luce, Stephanie Wooley-Larrea, Thayer Lindner, Katherine Boyle, Michael Creeden, the Stanford Creative Writing Program,
River Teeth
, the University of Nebraska Press, and, above all, Cait.

Portions of this book have been published elsewhere, and I thank the editors for their care, especially Evelyn Somers at the
Missouri Review
and Isaac Fitzgerald at the

Young Widower

How Lives Go On

The year after my wife died, I compulsively watched television. I needed distraction, to be entertained. What I could not stream online or order through the mail I sought out at the local video store. I was living in a suburb of Indianapolis, about a mile from a strip mall where I could rent, in a pinch, midseason discs of
The Wire
The Office
Friday Night Lights
. I got to know the clerks by name, then their shifts, finally their tastes. Once, I tried to make a formal complaint against the corporate headquarters regarding the suspicious and perpetual absence of the fourth-season finale of
Battlestar Galactica
. It seemed unjust that the universe would conspire to deny my knowledge of its fictional origins. I worked up a
good head of steam before leaving, distraught. I went back a few days later, during a different shift.

On my walks to the store, I listened to my wife’s favorite songs. She was a huge country fan, especially mid-’90s radio country: Garth Brooks, the Judds, Randy Travis. As a child she had lived in rural, then exurban Illinois, attended college in central Minnesota. I didn’t particularly like the music, but I enjoyed that it reminded me of her and also how the emotional range of the music never ran too far from the middle. The walks, however long, seemed to go more quickly.

My wife’s death was violent and sensational. She was killed by a wild bear, while we were hiking in the Carpathian Mountains outside of Bucharest, where we had lived and worked for the last year of her life. She was thirty years old.

More than five hundred people attended the wake, held in her hometown. A cantor from the church led a John Denver sing-along, and several people spoke. A large dose of anxiety medication tempers what else I remember of that night. We formed a receiving line at the front door. We shook hands, hugged each other, looked down the line. Many of those arriving were strangers to me. As the night went on, my brother snuck me away to the basement, where someone from the funeral home had set out cookies and punch for the kids.

Numbness is a central feature of my first memories of that year. I learned to pantomime the real emotions I expected to feel, and that I believed were expected of me, until I felt safe with them. In this way I began to grieve. Every few weeks my doctor recommended a new activity: journaling, writing letters to my wife, going for walks in urban areas, getting a part-time job. In successively more direct ways, I engaged with the circumstances of my wife’s death, then with my witnessing of it, and, finally, with her absence in the world.

At night, in my small room off the garage, I wrote out the sequence of my wife’s death over and over. I sought an emotional directness more nuanced and honest than what I could manage in conversations with family and strangers. To anyone who might listen, I tried to express how and why I grieved. In my journal I tried to make sense of my own limitations as a husband and witness. As though I might take a kind of self-cure, I tried again and again to tell myself the end of a story interrupted by my wife’s death.

I have three soft-cover notebooks in which I wrote daily accounts of my life during that year. The journal is a matter of will and record. I wanted to survive grief. I feared I would lose, with time, the intensity of my reactions. A therapist said we were personally and creatively redefining the context of my emotional experience of the world. I said it like this: What next? What now?

One of my part-time jobs was to tutor a high school student for his
exam. His parents were Nigerian. His mother, especially, had high expectations for his performance. Our relationship became cordial, then friendly. Finally, she asked me why I was living in Indiana. I knew how to answer the question in a vague but sufficient manner, enough to satisfy the social obligation while not sharing too much—
I am living with family while I sort out some job opportunities
—but with her I decided to speak frankly. Her response was complete, empathetic, and overwhelming. She said if I lived in Nigeria no one would mistake what I was enduring. In Nigeria there were complete rites of grief, ways of marking oneself to identify the loss; there were familial and social obligations and a period of time during which I would dress one way, speak another, eat a special diet, live in a specific manner and place. I explained that I was an American; our rituals and traditions of grief are private, self-sustained, piecemeal, and, ultimately, individual.

But that wasn’t entirely right. If it was easy to substitute silence for strength, then it was also convenient to imply that certain uncomfortable facts should be declared or announced and so only said once. I should want my grief to end, as unmistakably as my wife’s life had ended. To do so seemed polite, decent, and expected. How long would I live in Indiana?

My wife was born Kathryn Irene Garwood LaPlante. She was named for her maternal grandmother, Kathryn Garwood, and when we married, she took my last name. Kathryn Irene Evans. Katie.

I have in mind a memory from the last year of Katie’s life. We are sitting on the balcony of our gray high-rise post-Communist-bloc apartment, overlooking one part of downtown Bucharest, drinking beer and eating cookies from a shop near her work. Katie is wearing fleece sweatpants and her brother Ed’s red Indiana hoodie, circa 1986. The sweatshirt is frayed around the edges and collar. Her dark brown hair is pulled back. Her skin is bright and pale.

Katie has spent a Saturday morning at the office negotiating aid payments with the Romanian Orthodox Church. She is managing the country’s first
education program—I will say this with great pride when anyone asks—but the church insists on coupling the outreach with an existing domestic violence curriculum and so has doubled her workload while diminishing the impact of both projects. She is telling me about a colleague appointed to her office by the church, who treats the appointment like the sinecure it is. She looks tired.

That afternoon a long line of mourners leads a wooden casket on a horse-drawn cart through a park across the street. We take turns holding our digital camera out over the balcony, trying and failing to capture a close-up of this sprawling, seemingly endless procession. Is it a cultural celebration, a holiday? Is the dead person a dignitary, a celebrity? Are the processors family members? Designated mourners? We know nothing about the rite or its situ
ation, but it is the first time we have seen such an event, so to us the occasion is significant, even romantic for its intrusion. Katie makes a note of it in her journal.

I can keep the memory of that afternoon fresh and at the front of my mind for a short while. I can run it backward and forward, focusing on one aspect, then another. I can take the scene wholesale and imagine watching it from the rooftop of the Athenaeum, on the other side of the park. The Athenaeum, with its domed mural of two thousand years of Roman, then Romanian, history, made into a single narrative. I can make an argument about Katie’s work, the season, the city, our life together that year, that afternoon. Still, something distinct from my initial experience remains uncertain, however well I tell it. To whom am I telling these stories? What need do I have to make any argument?

On the day of her death, Katie will have read every poem I wrote during our time together. Many of those poems tell stories about us: as Peace Corps volunteers in Bangladesh, our families and friends, our work, teaching in Chicago, attending graduate school in Miami, moving for a year to Romania. Katie will have predicted which poems teachers and colleagues will like best. She will have suggested, time and again, that I speak more directly and clearly about experience and avoid petty ornamentation. We will have talked about her favorite poems—B. H. Fairchild’s “The Blue Buick,” Catherine Bowman’s “Spice Night”—as models of the elegant and heartfelt writing we both admire.

A few months after the funeral, in the nature preserve where we scattered Katie’s ashes, I read the parts of “The Blue Buick” that she admired most. “The Blue Buick” is a long narrative tribute to Fairchild’s memory of a young couple whose arrival and stay transform his world and inspire his eventual departure for California. I turn off my phone and sit Indian-style on the ground, self-conscious. It is cold, sunny. The words are hard to distinguish in the glare. I mumble when strangers approach on the path:

She made a kind of smile that wavered at the end.

Life’s been simplified for us. It’s simple now.

But of course she was talking to herself, not me.

And I was thinking, this is it, how lives go on,

this is how it happens, what I do not understand.

I wonder whether this homemade rite honor Katie’s absence or merely expresses my desire to understand it. I am trying not to articulate my grief in crude distinctions: then and now, here and there, she and I. The fact of Katie’s death and her absence. Already Katie is becoming an object of grief, an occasion. I cannot avoid it. The Katie I address in the nature preserve will listen. She must. She is not there.

The morning after Katie died, my brother and sister flew from Chicago and New York to Bucharest. I met them at the airport and felt both ashamed and relieved to cry as they walked out from customs. That afternoon I tried to explain the shame and the relief to a psychiatrist at the embassy. How I had stayed up the whole night next to Katie’s body, knowing she was dead, afraid to sleep. The doctor spoke in clear and simple phrases. We talked to each other in the broadest terms about death, bears, grief, mountains, travel, country music. I did not know this language yet. It was new, confusing, powerful. I tried to tell him a story about Katie, and as I spoke, I heard again her crying for help as she died, and I could not distinguish her voice from my own.

A week after the funeral, I moved to Indiana to live with Ed’s family. I planned my day around their routines and gradually established my own. My two nieces left for their middle school at seven and returned at three. I got out of bed around eight. My nephew, the youngest, had just started kindergarten. Most mornings Ed’s wife, Beth, walked their son to the bus stop. Some mornings,
through the window, I would hear Ed starting his truck. He worked long hours as a contractor, and went rock-climbing every few weeks in Kentucky. Beth worked from home most mornings, but often we talked in the afternoons, ran errands together, and made lunch.

When it turned cold, I bought an electric blanket. My cats did not get along with the family pets, so I closed them into my room. All winter they sat under my desk lamp. In the spring they sat in the windowsill. Ed made bonfires in the side yard. That reminded me of mountains. On Katie’s birthday we flew kites. At Christmas I drove to a friend’s home in Vermont. One weekend I took a whiskey-tasting course at the local liquor store; Katie had liked Johnnie Walker, but I chose Glenmorangie. I took medications intermittently—orange sleeping pills, white anxiety pills. I developed a dry night cough, got strep, bronchitis. I convinced myself I was dying. I called the family doctor and demanded a
screen. The test was negative. He suggested an allergy pill: I was allergic to my cats. He prescribed more sleeping pills.

Late mornings I heated oil in a pan until it smoked, poured in egg substitute to the rim, covered the top with cheese, flipped it, browned the cheese, and smothered the omelet with barbecue sauce. I ground four level tablespoons of Kenyan Special Blend and brewed coffee in a French press, then sat at the kitchen table and read the local paper. One day my name was mentioned in an editorial arguing for the construction of roundabouts to replace suburban traffic lights. I had talked to a woman outside the hardware store next to the franchise coffee shop at the strip mall, where I bought my groceries in the chain supermarket. I walked out from the cul-de-sac, down the street for six blocks, turned to another street, crossed the highway divider, and entered the parking lot. It took forty minutes to walk to the strip mall. It took seven minutes to make breakfast.

Some weekend evenings that first summer, I walked the kids across the state highway to the ice cream parlor. We counted cars,
played games on the sidewalk, and waved at neighbors. We timed our crossing with stoplights at the exit ramps. At the height of rush hour cars would line up seven and eight deep. We ran to the divider, across traffic, and up the embankment. I carried my nephew on my shoulders, so that he could keep pace. We arrived as-the-crow-flies to our destination and chose among forty-odd flavors, then stood at the bright pink-and-blue plastic counters, with double and triple scoops. We walked out into the heat, back across the highway.

On a blog about Katie I tried to say simple, direct things about grief, loss, and absence. I annotated photographs for friends and family. I responded to comments. I posted links to Katie’s favorite songs, movies, and books and asked anyone who might synchronize witness and understanding to fill in the gaps. If there was no consistent perspective from which to render the memory of Katie’s death or to remember the feeling in our marriage, then I could at least wonder earnestly about this quiet and understated observer who hoped he might one day become the ringleader, the unifying presence around which everyone now gathered to remember and grieve for Katie.

Wasn’t Katie still my wife more than someone else’s high school friend or college roommate?

A life that Katie and I had started six years earlier was the beginning of the life I lived now in Indiana. I said it over and over in therapy, but I wasn’t sure there was a continuity at all. In-laws were no longer in-laws. Minor anecdotes anticipated a different life. A home in a city where I had never before lived contained photographs of a childhood Katie, whose ashes were clumped in the soil of her hometown in a different state. I would never again visit the country where she had died. I could make no permanent life anywhere. I wanted no life after our life.

Don’t put the horse before the cart
, the therapist said.
Take it in small pieces, one at a time

BOOK: Young Widower
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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