It’s a tough balancing act when an artist enters the realm of grief, especially when it’s a true story. Suppose that the real lesson of life is that it’s a logically sequenced collection of losses: innocence, money, possessions, or (in the case of this book) partners we chose for our life who suddenly slip away by design or the random chaos of the universe. Is the fact that we choose to testify about our stories of loss the first step to irrelevancy? The question is not about “why” we are telling the story. That doesn’t need to be asked. The question should be who are we to tell the story and what new elements to the universal feeling will we add to the literature of grief? If our memoir won’t realistically detail and provide a new element to this narrative, how should it serve the reader?
Jonathan Santlofer‘s The Widower’s Notebook is a heartbreaking, profound, deep examination of the process of mourning. What do you do when you find your spouse struggling to breathe? Paramedics come. They do their job, but (as many who have experienced this will understand) time spirals and collapses. What transpires might last only minutes but that doesn’t matter. Death will come on its own terms. Santlofer wastes no time in reminding us that random chaos is how the story begins. But this is by no means to be seen as the key factor in his relationship with his wife Joy, their 40-year marriage and complete connection as young people to the very end. There are no glossy covers to this story.
There’s a sweet mood that permeates the opening stages of this memoir, and Santlofer wisely distributes it evenly from beginning to end. He and Joy had met as undergrad art students at Boston University. Already, the observations are as delicately captured in words as in the handful of black and white illustrations Santlofer includes at various points in the book:
“I remember… her… adorable pug nose and freckles… her perfect teeth… beautiful hands, long tapered fingers and surprisingly long nails, unlike other art school girls…”
Santlofer imagines he and his wife adding their own elements to the long list of great literary couples like Hammett and Hellman, Didion and Dunne. The perfect life in the art world past then jumps to the death scene, a surreal world and a final glimpse of Joy on the stretcher as she’s wheeled into the emergency room. The seconds appear “…like frames of a silent movie…” and the reader can hear things click, see the scratchy frames, the close-up of shocked and desperate faces. Was she always perceived as the pragmatic partner who balanced out his more artistic tendencies? We learn early that she had been working on a manuscript about 400 years of food history in New York City. All loss leaves a residue, and the initial sense of what to do with Joy’s work in the immediate aftermath of her death is deeply felt.
Grief has no absolute starting point and follows no logical rules. We meet Santlofer’s daughter, there to be with her father and together they will go through the experience of loss. What’s so remarkable about Santlofer’s work from the early stages and throughout is his sense of clarity. He writes that in the early stages after Joy’s death, “…I could not act, I could not ask for help, I did none of the things that one is supposed to do.” Here is where he starts one of the major themes in this book. How does a man grieve? How should a man grieve? He writes:
“…I was in control, holding my feelings in, not asking anyone for help, busy constructing and wearing my masks of normality…”
He asks himself if he’s doing a good job grieving. He experiences grief in waves. Again, he notes the distortion of time during the grieving experience. He’d ignored the loss of his father 30 years ago, and (as experience dictates) you can’t do that for long and expect stability. The next loss will only be that much more staggering. For Santlofer, the loss of his wife was particularly deeply felt:
“The great thing about living with another artist is that you don’t have to explain yourself or the fact that you want / need time alone to pursue your work. It is a given.”
The Widower’s Notebook is not just about artist grieving, or a father grieving for his daughter experiencing the loss of her mother. It challenges the very notion that men do not (or should not) write books about grief. Through writing his notebook, Santlofer “…came to see that the expectations for grieving men as opposed to grieving women… are very different.” He seems to see here that visually drawing his wife is easier “…because drawing is abstract… you can’t really draw something until you stop identifying it.”
Grief through the lens of the visual artist in general and Santlofer in particular is what raises this memoir far above similar narratives. He notes, understandably, that “Grief is chaotic; art is order.” He continues: “Artists are perpetually engaged in the act of fixing their broken worlds and this has been the case with me for most of my life…” Again, what separates this book from so many others in the genre is that Santlofer isn’t asking for more than just for us to follow his journey. If he writes it chaotically, within the initial throes of grief, the narrative will fall apart. He goes back to teaching a mere two weeks after Joy’s death, as scheduled. “I am no stranger to reinvention…” he writes. “The old me, the coupled me, no longer exists…”
How do we deal with photographs of our loved one while grieving? For Santlofer, photos are static. Drawing are built organically, from the brain through the hand and on the page. In that respect, it seems, they are more authentic and offer a greater chance at emotional connection. Grief comes with too many major literal injuries as well, and Santlofer illustrates those. He drops paintings, trips, hits his head, gets knocked unconscious and twists his foot. The image of Joy’s face seems to vanish, and he cannot listen to any type of music.
The Widower’s Notebook is written in small doses that provide some profound insights, and few are as successful as Chapter 25, “Good and Bad Friends”. People who had been friends before your loss are missing in action when you need them most, and Santlofer asks: “So how does one begin to repair or forgive people who were simply not there in your darkest hours of need?” This is all too familiar to those of us who have suffered profound loss. The person enduring grief feels that their emotions short-circuited and for a while they may be dangerously hypersensitive and imbalanced. What people need to understand is perfectly and succinctly expressed by Santlofer by the end of this chapter:
“The facts is, losing one’s partner is an unsolicited litmus test. Some friends pass the test beautifully and others fail.”
How do we operate after the first year anniversary of our loved one’s death? How do we re-animate ourselves not just as widowers but simply as single men? Santlofer does a lot of thinking and wondering here, and the narrative is refreshingly honest. He questions why single people (let alone widowers) are often unwelcome in coupled social groups:
“…because they represent a theoretical threat: the idea that the newly single can do anything they want… something that threatens the basic notion of coupledom.”
There are random assignations, commingling, and connections as a means to an end, as another step in the process, and we know enough to understand that this too shall pass. We all find different ways of taking ownership of our actions during times of grief and transition from one world to another. Santlofer understands (and expresses to friends at a dinner party) what he perceives as grief from a male perspective:
“…I am constantly told to stop grieving, to get on with my life, to get laid, to find happiness, to remarry. I add that women are not only allowed to grieve openly, but are supposed to…”
Some of the best grief narratives, like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, look at loss from a woman’s point of view and expand universally. They embrace through a particular gender perspective and through the process they welcome everybody. What do we see in The Widower’s Story that we can take to heart? Is it restrictive because of its relative novelty of a widower telling his story? Again, Santlofer succeeds through some basic and heartfelt truths:
“Grief is two-pronged: to get past it is to move on, a good thing; to get over it, to forget your grief and your former life and all that is attached to it, is impossibly sad.”
Santlofer’s The Widower’s Notebook is a graceful and profound whisper of a memoir that works through its sheer force of will and survival instincts. As a tribute to his wife’s life force, his daughter’s survival instincts, and an affirmation of experiences only those close to this type of loss will understand, its importance is immeasurable. Santlofer is in the grief, of the recovery, yet he miraculously manages to carefully and kindly welcome us all into this club. You won’t really know the pain until it comes, and a memoir like The Widower’s Notebook reminds us that the experience is equal parts distinctly universal and remarkably unique.