Going to bed at 7:30 was crazy. It wasn’t even dark. But that’s the way they did things at the Home for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Home was an ancient brick building where my brother, sister, and I lived while our parents tried again to work out their problems. On our first night there, I bathed, brushed my teeth, put on nightclothes, and climbed into bed in the hot and stuffy dormitory.
Mrs. Stone, the monitor, shook her finger and said, “No more talking. Just stay quiet and go to sleep.”
“But it’s still light outside,” whined one little girl.
“Shhh.” As Mrs. Stone turned to leave, she stopped to add a warning. “If you get up during the night, don’t drink any water or you’ll wet the bed.” Then she disappeared into her apartment near the bathroom sinks.
Even though I was there with other girls whose families had problems, I felt terribly alone. It was miserable being separated from Dad and Mama and relocated to a strange place. I had pretended it was normal so my little brother and sister wouldn’t be scared. But that evening I couldn’t comfort them because they were in their own dorms. I knew I wouldn’t see them very often, and I already missed them so much I felt sick.
After flopping on top of the stiff sheets, I watched the last of the daylight spill over our beds from the windows. I felt abandoned. What were Mama and Dad doing while I was trying so hard to doze off? Were they arguing again or going to the movies? I got all twitchy, lying there thinking and waiting for cool air to arrive.
I could hear roller rink sounds from several blocks away. The organ was playing “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” and I could hear hundreds of skate wheels humming on the rink floor. The mingling of steel wheels and music in the air hypnotized me. I began to imagine how different things would be if I were a magician. I would soar back to the past and live with Mama and Dad again so we three kids could be cozy under one blanket and go to sleep after dark like normal people. It was not normal for my brother and sister and me to sleep during the daytime, in three different beds, in rooms filled with kids we didn’t know.
When the sun finally quit for the day, a kindhearted breeze wafted through the screens to cool my skin, and I finally drifted into slumber. I dreamed that I was flying with my brother under one arm and my sister under the other, and I was brave enough to fly wherever I wanted without asking permission.
It was fun zipping wherever I wanted to go, though something kept my flights from turning out right. It dawned on me that I had left Bobby and Patty behind, so I made a graceful U-turn back to the Home and into the boys’ window. Bobby was too scared to join me because he had forgotten that I knew how to fly. I grabbed the back of his pajama top anyway and whooshed into the nursery to scoop up Patty, but she was sound asleep. I fluttered above her, calling her name softly so as not to wake the other little kids.
My plan was to float through my parents’ window with Bobby and Patty and say, Surprise! But I didn’t know where they lived or if they remembered who we were. Mama and Dad were always moving. Why couldn’t they stay in one place for a while? It would make flying to them a whole lot easier.
Instead of gliding into my parents’ house, I found myself trapped inside a huge room that was inside another room that was inside another room. I got so airsick that I had to abort the flight.
I awoke tangled in my sheets. It took a while for me to go to sleep again, and then once more I was flying. That time we three kids made it to the great outdoors and were surrounded by blue sky instead of wallpaper. I loved the sensation, so I floated for a long time, holding Patty by her middle finger and Bobby by his thumb and kicking as fast as I could to stay up … until I saw telephone wires ahead. I dove under them and zoomed up, up, and away into wide open space only to find more telephone wires high above the earth.
I never did make it to freedom with my brother and sister that night, but since I didn’t know where freedom was, I decided it was a whole lot easier just to wake up.
In 1997, my husband, Denny, was diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer that started in his lungs and invaded the rest of his body. His symptoms were so dramatic that he had to be hospitalized for ten days before aggressive chemotherapy could even be started. His prognosis was not hopeful, for we learned there was no cure. Our lives were turned upside-down. I felt that two trains had flattened me—one was cancer and the other was Denny’s approaching death.
I spent each day at the hospital and went home each night and shut the windows and howled a wild primal cry that only I could hear as I stood naked under the shower. I knelt at the side of my bed wailing, not knowing what words to say except, “Help us, help us.” But I returned to the hospital daily and wore a brave face and wondered if Denny could tell that my eyes were swollen. If he did, he never mentioned it. He was too busy trying to persuade his bloated limbs to move so he could get out of bed every fifteen minutes to pee. He refused to give up and focused all of his energy on staying alive. I was torn between believing him or the doctors who said that he would be lucky if he had twelve months left to be with us.
And the doctors were right. Denny died on July 9, 1998, almost ten months after he was diagnosed with cancer.
After Denny died, I needed to talk. Since there wasn’t always someone to listen, I started to write on anything that would take the mark of a pencil. That scribbling became my tool for healing. I grieved, I laughed, and I wrote so I wouldn’t forget what it was like. Writing affirmed that I was alive and that my experiences were important. To my surprise, that writing became a vital connection to others who were alone.
Dancing in my Nightgown is a collection of the stories I wrote after Denny’s death. They show how I dealt with the life-altering experience of losing my life partner and what I did to start over. I learned to embrace the rhythms of widowhood, which wasn’t easy, and I finally realized that my old life was over. Nothing would ever be the same again. It took a few years, but I came to view widowhood as an opportunity to find out what I could do on my own.
I had more to learn than most women. I had never been single before. I was barely nineteen when I married Denny, an old man of twenty-three, and I went straight from my parents’ home to my husband’s bed.
After Denny died, I had to find out how to put gasoline in our car. I was not freeway literate nor had I ever used a computer. Income taxes were what other people did, and I’d never paid the bills myself.
When I looked at a billing statement, I didn’t know what a minus sign by the “amount due” meant. Some amounts due were mysteriously higher each month, but I paid them anyway. When I finally called, my cell phone company said I was so far ahead that I didn’t need to pay the bill for at least three months. And the business manager at Mervyn’s said, “Mrs. Auchard, PLEASE stop sending us money.” I felt like Mrs. Stupid.
I’m still learning, and I make big boo-boos every week. But the road to recovery and self-sufficiency has been as filled with laughter, creativity, connection, and transformation as it has tears, self-doubt, and lonely nights. Now I’m doing so well that I sometimes feel guilty. But after suffering a loss, surviving and thriving are imperative for recovery and should be celebrated. I’m more than content. I’m eager to see what happens next…