Monday, May 11, 2015

Voices of Experience: The Ring

By Harry Proudfoot

Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity ~ Traditional Wedding Rite

I walked off a cliff yesterday afternoon--and I didn't fall.

Jane didn't want to be buried with her wedding or engagement rings. She insisted I take them off when she died. And I did that. I told her that when she died, I would move my own wedding ring from my left hand to my right after I took her wedding ring off her finger. I didn't do that--until yesterday, the 52 month anniversary of her death.

I've felt that moment coming for a few months now. In February, I listened to a story on the radio in which a woman talked about the decision to take off her wedding ring after her husband's death. Like me, she had not done it immediately. But, eventually, she realized she was no longer the person she had been--and that her ring no longer defined, or even symbolized, who she was. It was time.

The day Jane died I fully intended to move my ring to my right hand. But I got caught up in the notifications and the paperwork--and besides, I told myself, the ring was too small to fit on my right hand; it would need to be resized first. The truth, of course, was I was not ready to stop being married--I was not ready to be a widower.

So the ring stayed where it was for the wake and the funeral--I would make the switch at the cemetery when we left the grave. It didn't happen then either--there had been no time to get the ring resized. At least that is what I told myself. The fact I wore Jane's wedding ring and engagement ring on a chain around my neck for the next several months should tell you all you need to know about the emotional state I was in and why my own ring stayed right where it was.

The only reason I stopped wearing her rings was I was terrified I would break them. Every time I picked up something heavy it crushed the rings into my chest. They live in my safe deposit box now. I know no one will ever wear them again while I am alive. My executor will have to figure out what to do with them--and the rest of Jane's jewelry.

I thought about taking the ring off on our anniversary, on Jane's birthday, on the first anniversary of her death. On the third anniversary of her death, I even went so far as to talk with a jeweler about how long it would take to get the ring resized. Periodically, I would wear the ring on my right pinky, where it fit loosely, just to see if I could bear it. Then it fell off in the back of the car when I was putting some plants in. I thought I had lost it--and realized how unprepared I was for that.

September 2 of last year was our 25th anniversary--the anniversary Jane had always joked we would never get to unless we counted in dog years. I thought, briefly, about making the switch then. But even the month leading up to that date told me what an emotional tsunami the actual day would be. I took a single-serve bottle of champagne to her grave that day. I drank half and poured the rest above where her casket is buried.

Fifty-two is an important number for me for many reasons. It is the number of months between death and rebirth in my religious practice. It is the day of the last readings for the dead because on that day one leaves the garden to become a child again in the physical world.

An earthly marriage may survive death, but it should not survive rebirth. That thought came to me on Monday when I woke up. Perhaps I dreamed it. Perhaps Jane said it to my soul in the night. But I knew wherever it came from, it was true. It made this week, which I already knew was going to be hard, much harder.

On Thursday, I took my ring to the jeweler and left it there. That afternoon, they called me to say my ring was ready. It slid on easily but did not want to come off. I knew then it was the right decision. Eventually, I got it back on my left hand for one final day.

Friday was a dismal day of rain and fog and raw cold. I collected three stones from the yard, placed them in the car with the books for the final readings, my walking stick and my prayer shawl. I picked up the flowers I place on her grave each month. I drove to the cemetery.

In the slow drizzle, I rearranged the Easter flowers, put the new flowers in the cemetery vase I had brought with me, and placed the stones. I donned my shawl and placed my walking stick against the gravestone. I did the formal readings. The pages curled in the dampness.

I set the books aside. I moved my ring from my left ring-finger to my right ring-finger. The drizzle diminished to a mist. I talked with Jane for a few minutes, then left three kisses on the stone above her grave with four "I love you"s. As I turned to leave, a sudden wind came up and slid the shawl gently from my shoulders as Jane said good-bye.

I laughed then. It was so like Jane. She always lightened even the most solemn or difficult moments.

I came home. I worked on some Walking with Jane things, did some reading, watched Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak. My left hand feels funny where my wedding ring lived for 25 years, seven months and eight days. My right hand feels funny because of the unaccustomed weight of that ring. Both hands look funny.

Until yesterday, I was still a husband, for all that Jane was 52 months dead. Today, I am a widower--and the world feels different.

This is not to say that taking off a wedding ring is a magical act that immediately alleviates grief and ends all the emotional difficulties that go with the death of a loved one. I've had to stop several times in writing this because I could no longer see the keyboard or the screen through the tears. I've had to stop other times because the emotions became too strong for words.

I know several people here who have worn their wedding rings far longer than I have and have accepted their widowhood in ways I still haven't. For me, this morning, I see my refusal to move my ring as the symbolic denial of Jane's death that it was. But my life is defined by symbols. I imbue things with symbolic power far beyond human norms. Not everyone does that.

For most people, I think, a ring is a ring and a grave is a grave. For me, Jane's grave is an anchor for my grief. That anchor allows me to function more or less normally in the outside world. When grief threatens to overwhelm me, I can go there in my mind. And when I stand there I can let myself feel the torrent of its soul-shattering force without being shattered by it. Like the Japanese characters in Shogun, Jane's grave became, for a time, a box I could place my grief in when a situation demanded my focussed attention.

I don't deal well with strong emotions, either in myself or others. But I am a very emotional person. I can either find a way to control the release of my emotions or give them full sway and let them destroy me and everyone and everything around me. The result is that I can come across, on first encounter, as cold and distant--almost heartless. Eventually, people begin to understand that cool logic is a coping strategy that makes it possible for me to function.

I surround myself with symbols. In fact, nothing that remains in my life, other than people, escapes evolution into some kind of archetypal symbol with its own purpose. A hat and coat are more than mere protections against sun or cold. My dress coat, for example, is a representation of Jane and my grandfather, both of whom protected me from cold far worse than any winter wind can conjure. When I put it on, I feel their arms embracing me with a different kind of warmth.

Each house plant, each wreath, has a story and a meaning. Its placement in the room or on the door has a purpose that goes beyond the decorative. Giving away even the least used of Jane's clothes was difficult because each was a part of her story--and of our story together.

But a blouse, a plant, a piece of furniture, is not a wedding ring. Over the course of our marriage, my wedding ring never left the finger Jane put it on. Until the morning of her heart surgery, when she had to take it off against the possibility of her hand swelling during surgery, Jane's had never left her finger either. She insisted no one but me would ever take it off--and that morning, I did.

My ring is a simple circle of gold. There is nothing physically fancy or remarkable about it. But Jane put it on my finger, just as I had put hers on her finger. Only she should have taken it off my finger. In her absence, it took me 52 months to figure out how and when and why to do so.

© 2015 by Harry Proudfoot,  Walking with Jane

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