The art of widowhood

As young boys growing up in a small town, my friends and I used to attend almost every funeral in the community.  We would climb the highest tomb and from there observe the unchanging patterns of grief. We wondered who would wail the most, and who would pass out.  We took note of the words in which the sense of loss was  publicly revealed.  From these bits of data, we would try to imagine who was dearest, who felt most guilty, and who was least loved among the mourners.

Looking back, I now realize that those days were my first introduction to the sociology of everyday life.  I sensed even then that grieving seemed to follow a certain form, and to be governed by social expectations.  But it was only when my father’s mother died that I actually experienced the numerous do’s and don’ts of dying and grieving.  My conclusion is that behavior in the face of death is possibly one of the most strictly regulated of all human actions.

It was these thoughts that came back to me when my mother-in-law Letty Constantino began planning for her 80th birthday, which is today. We, her children, all wanted her to have a memorable celebration, a coming-out party that would equal the fullness of her 18th birthday. She agreed that she deserved one, but being a child of her generation, she also felt awkward about having a birthday bash seven months after the death of her husband Renato.  It’s not even a year yet, she said.

Ding would have wanted you to have one, we assured her.  It wasn’t difficult to persuade her to set aside guilt in the name of a full celebration of the wonders of life even after the passing of a loved one.  She knew that another phase in her life had just begun.  She refused to wither, to be overcome by grief, and to be terrorized by the thought of living alone.

She had been her husband’s devoted spouse and intellectual partner for over half a century.  She organized her household so that it would be completely congenial to her husband’s demanding intellectual work.  She gave up her own aspiration to be a concert pianist so that she could be his all-round assistant, editor, adviser, and consultant, besides being wife and mother to his children.  In her heart she knew that her husband had an important mission to fulfill, to write a narrative of the Filipino nation so that the succeeding generations may not forget to live in self-respect, and she felt privileged to be his collaborator in this task.

It has always been the misfortune of women in our society that even the most outstanding achievers among them can often find recognition only in the reflected light of their husbands’ work.  Renato wanted his wife to bask in her own personal achievements.  He made her coauthor of the book “The Continuing Past”, the second volume of the history project.  While serving as editor of his newspaper columns, Letty wrote her own concise weekly commentaries on current issues, her own column for schoolteachers.  She continues to do this today, mailing these essays regularly to teachers of all levels who belong to a national network she organized more than a decade ago.

At eighty, most people would stay home, counting their money or awaiting death.  At the end of their lives, they revisit their resentments, feeling sorry for themselves for the wrong choices they made and the opportunities they missed.  Not Letty.  She is determined to remain happy, to continue living, working and having fun “till that green evening when our death begins”.

She started celebrating a week ago, with her aerobics group from the Rotary Club of San Miguel.  From the Amoranto Stadium which they fill with their laughter and rhythm every morning, they proceeded to a nearby restaurant for a sumptuous breakfast, followed by a dance exhibition and games.  Then a birthday cake was brought in, and Ming’s friends spoke affectionately of a woman they have always regarded as their teacher.

Tonight, another set of friends and relatives will gather to celebrate with her.  Her grandchildren have prepared a video presentation of the most important episodes in her life.  There will be a short program, and plenty of time for eating and dancing.  It is a homecoming of sorts. She has asked two grandchildren living abroad to come home just for this occasion.

I was not aware that birthday celebrations could span four weeks until I saw the plan of action.  Her intention is to recognize and thank each of the “communities” that have been part of her life.  So, instead of one grand party, she has arranged to have separate gatherings that would permit her to relish the company of every one of them.  The third party is meant primarily for her “walker” friends, people she has walked with every morning for nearly three decades.  It is a ballroom dancing party, complete with DI’s.  Ming has admonished us to polish our dancing steps so that we would not look so uncivilized or antisocial before her friends.

The fourth week is for us, her children; she’s treating us to a short vacation in a nice Palawan resort.  It’s the first time we are doing this since the death of Ding.  We used to worry that such occasions might only emphasize for her the absence of her lifelong partner.  But we really shouldn’t.

This is a widow who mourned deeply and privately, but emerged quickly from her grief.  I saw her cry only once, at the hospitaI where Renato died.  I am almost certain she had made a pact with her late husband, that they would free one another from the social expectations of prolonged mourning.  Upon his death, she re-arranged and re-modeled the conjugal room in which they shared their lives.

She now lives alone, but she is not alone.


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