Tracy Grant Writes About Becoming a Widow and Moving On With Life

The flickering of fluorescents set the author to thinking -- and acting.
The flickering of fluorescents set the author to thinking -- and acting. (Dan Flavin's " 'Monument' For V. Tatlin" (1969-70) -- National Gallery Of Art)
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By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

Today, I changed the four-foot fluorescent light bulbs in the laundry room that have been flickering annoyingly for the past six weeks. I have no idea how long fluorescent bulbs last, but I know that he's been gone almost 18 months, and for months before that he was in no condition to do home repairs, so the bulbs had to have lasted two years, maybe longer.

I didn't buy the unwieldy new bulbs intending to change them myself. The electrician was coming in to solve another lighting woe, and I figured I could ask him to fix the laundry room problem at the same time.

But once the tubes were in the house I thought, "I can do that." I had helped him with the six-foot tubes in his basement workroom, handing the white cylinders up to him while steadying the ladder. I recalled him saying something about how you had to roll them -- either into or out of place. So that's what I did, rolled them until the flickering bulbs died and released into my hands. Then I rolled again until the new tubes clicked, nestled in their electric cradle.

I flicked the switch uncertainly. The lights sputtered and stuttered for a moment before the too-small laundry room with the mismatched washer and dryer was flooded in the harsh, unflattering, too-bright light cast by properly working fluorescent tubes. I carried the old ones out to the garage, destined for the trash, except that I knew that he had touched them, his fingerprints were on them. Part of his enduring connection to me, to our sons. So perhaps they won't make it out to the curb this week or next or for many weeks in the future.

Perhaps after I'm gone and our boys-turned-men are going through the house, they'll find two fluorescent tubes, along with the brush that still contains strands of his strawberry-tinged-with-gray hair, his toothbrush and his experimental chemo drugs. Perhaps they'll know that they are there as testament to the DNA of the father who had once lived here but hadn't for a very long time. Or perhaps they'll think their mother a packrat of the most bizarre sort.

But what I know and what I know he knows is that changing those bulbs was not a quotidian act. It was a sign as bright as that cast by those new tubes -- of coping, of management, of progress, perhaps even of healing.

What is unclear to me is why this simple act -- one that seems almost a setup to a sick joke ("How many widows does it take to change a light bulb?")-- seemed so transformative. I have not spent the past 18 months curled in the fetal position: These light bulbs do not represent my first tentative foray back into the real world.

I learned very quickly that all those tasks that he did around the house -- the ones that I never appreciated or paid much attention to, the ones that I found far less important than the work I did of making meals and volunteering at school, of carpooling and running to doctors' appointments -- still needed to be done, whether he was here or not. So I learned about documenting finances in Quicken and backing up hard drives. I also learned that it's well worth it to pay someone to mow the lawn rather than to do it myself.

And I learned just as quickly that the things you do as a couple, as partners, lovers, parents, still need to be done -- even when the incongruity of just being one threatens to overwhelm. So I flew across country with our sons for the dream family trip to Yellowstone, the trip the four of us were set to leave on when disease struck. And I sat alone in a hospital waiting room while one of those boys had a tumor removed from his ear. Sat and wondered -- only somewhat irrationally -- if the nightmare was beginning anew.

I've dealt with funeral directors, lawyers, accountants, insurance adjusters -- even the IRS. So the act of dealing with flickering fluorescent tubes should have been about as remarked upon as getting out of bed each morning. But there is nothing linear or predictable about grief. A soul does not heal the way a femur does. Sometimes the biggest victories -- the promotion at work, the honor-roll report card -- ring the most hollow because he is not there to share them.

And sometimes the smallest victories become the ones that matter most. God does not send lightning bolts to mark progress on this journey. The message is much more subtle -- delivered, perhaps, in the no longer flickering of a four-foot fluorescent tube.

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