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“Til death us do part.” Couples hearing that phrase during the wedding ceremony rarely ponder its philosophical implications. Why should they? They’re thinking of beginnings, not endings. To them it signifies the solemnity of their vows to stay together until one or the other might die. It would be rare for either a bride or groom to consider what might happen beyond death.
A widow or widower, however, might insist that death doesn’t always sever a couple completely, especially if the couple had been married for many years. Aspects of a relationship can linger for many years in the life of the partner left behind. I know this is so because I am the surviving spouse of a long partnership--and, on some level, I am still one half of an intermarried couple.
My husband, Steve, and I were married for almost twenty-five years before he died in April 2003. His religious background was a veritable grab bag of faiths. His mother was born into the Mormon Church and his biological father was a Quaker. His stepfather, who raised Steve from the age of two, was Presbyterian. Ostensibly to find some neutral ground, Steve and his brothers were raised as Episcopalians. (This didn’t stop him from attending a Catholic high school.)
I come from a Jewish family (with some Catholic antecedents) but knew comparatively little about Jewish customs beyond the basics known to almost anyone who grew up in a Jewish-flavored city such as New York. But despite our apparent differences, Steve and I had very similar theological views. We both believed in God (though not necessarily the one depicted in the Bible) but were both open to diverse spiritual paths. So whatever variances we may have had arising from our intermarried status were ones of custom and not belief.
In the early years of our marriage, I worked for several Jewish schools where I taught the Hebrew language. Because at the time being able to speak Hebrew was the extent of my Judaic knowledge, I began a self-study program on Jewish tradition, culture, and history, and ultimately became head of the Judaic Studies department in a small day school. The community was very insular, so I had to “walk the walk and talk the talk” even when I wasn’t involved in school business or activities. Having a Christmas tree or wreath, or other Christian symbol in my home would have been considered unacceptable for someone in my position.
In truth, once I was in that environment, I really didn’t want to display a Christmas tree or any other symbol that conflicted with what I was teaching. Not only because I felt it compromised my job, but also because I thought it betrayed a commitment to the principles to which I was devoting my professional life. And so, while Steve, I, and Jenny, our daughter, did celebrate Christmas with relatives, we didn’t have a tree of our own. Steve didn’t seem to mind. He even remarked that he was happy to do without the expense.
But in the mid-nineties he suffered a minor stroke and subsequently developed a seizure disorder. He was quite ill for several months. Perhaps because of a new sense of vulnerability, he expressed a longing to experience the sort of Christmas he’d celebrated as child. That was all I needed to hear. I bought a Christmas tree (with all the trimmings) and that year we “did Christmas” in a big way. My daughter Jenny, who’d been begging for a tree for years, was delighted, and from that time up until just before Steve died, Christmas became an anticipated family celebration. (By that time, I was no longer working at the day school. I had been deemed, “not Jewish enough” by several board members, and was encouraged to leave the position. But that’s another story.)
Steve’s delight during our Christmas celebrations was apparent. It was a tossup as to what was brighter--his face or the brightly decorated tree he took such pains to set up in our living room. I was suddenly aware that despite his overt acquiescence to do without Christmas for so many years, he had felt deprived on a deeper level. I was ashamed that I had been blind to this and had put my own considerations before his needs. I tried to “make up” for the lost years in other ways--not only at Christmas but also during Easter. He also expressed an interest in attending an occasional church service, something he had not done since I knew him. (His delinquent church attendance antedated his meeting me.) I encouraged him and whenever he went, I accompanied him.
He was very happy with the change in our family customs. I could see he felt more “at home,” in his own home. He never reproached me for his having missed so much for so many years--but I reproached myself.
I think this regret evolved into remorse after Steve died. Before Steve was ill, we both had talked about the sort of final arrangements we each wished to have. He spoke of having an old-fashioned Irish wake--and expressed a strong desire to have someone to sing, “Amazing Grace”--either at the funeral or the wake.
As Steve’s wife--and because I am a singer--I decided it should be me who sang. I delivered a powerful if tearful rendition of that enduring Christian hymn both at the funeral and at the memorial wake I had in our home afterwards. I did not sit shiva. I did not cover the mirrors in my home. I did not wear the torn, black badge often worn by Jewish mourners.
I did not say Kaddish or any other Jewish prayer either at a synagogue or at home. I didn’t not perform these rituals out of any sort of protest. I just felt that if by chance Steve might be “looking down” to see how I was honoring his memory, I didn’t want him to see anything that would have been alien or incomprehensible to him. I felt he had missed out on many of his own traditions during the early years of our marriage and that by mourning him according to his own customs, I was making amends in some way. I also discovered that I was actually much more comfortable with the mourning observances I had chosen. I think I would have felt a fraud had I done anything else.
During the almost two years that have passed since Steve’s death, I still feel his presence, especially during holiday celebrations. My daughter Jenny, who is autistic, has moved into a group home, but she returns to our family home for the holidays, and I make certain our festivities retain the same level of importance they had when Steve was alive. It was Steve’s custom to dress up as Santa. This pleased Jenny greatly and during our first Christmas without Steve, she asked if “Santa would be coming to say hello again.” I was sorely tempted to tell her Santa stopped making personal appearances and that he would e-mail her instead. After all, playing Santa had been Steve’s idea, not mine. But before I told Jenny Santa was too busy this year, I could hear Steve admonishing me, saying, “Come on. If she can still believe in the magic of Santa, don’t ruin it for her. Just do it. I would.” So I did.
Several years ago, because he knew I love to sing, Steve suggested I join a local church choir, one we’d heard several times and very much admired. He said if I joined, he might be tempted to join, too.
I never got around to making inquiries about the choir when he was alive--but I did sign up for it a few months ago. I enjoy it very much and am inspired by some of the music we sing. I like to think that Steve is singing along beside me, unseen, keeping his promise to follow my lead and join up.
I know I am not unique. Widows and widowers do a variety of things to keep the presence of a beloved spouse from disappearing entirely. Some create shrines, others wear a dead partner’s clothing--still others visit psychics and attend seances. I have adopted his customs--at least, some of them--and made them my own. They not only give me a measure of comfort, they affirm Steve’s lasting influence on my life, which, for me, is a personal memorial I will very likely continue to maintain.