As the frenzy of tributes to Tim Russert begins to calm down, I find myself thinking more of his widow, Maureen Orth, and their son, Luke Russert. I know the frenzy has been good for them, as will the wake today and the funeral and memorial service on Wednesday. It's the busyness that will get them through this week. The hard part comes when the busyness stops.
I remember clearly the immediate days and weeks after Howard's sudden death. The shock lingered, like an echo. It would go and come and go. It would take the form of acceptance and then just as suddenly turn to disbelief. The worst parts were the troughs of unbearable loss. The yearning would shatter me. I'd collapse at night, exhausted by my grief, and then wake in the morning, momentarily refreshed, until it hit -- this was not going away. My life would be forever changed. It was real. He was gone. No matter what I did or thought or hoped or cried for, he was gone. The emptiness was tangible. It was an abyss. The solid foundation of my existence had collapsed beneath my feet. I was in free fall. Beside me was a five-year-old boy, who was shattered in a different way, and his strange questions and innocent grief compounded mine. He didn't understand what happened. He had little boy questions. "Can we die, too, and be with Daddy?" I'd compose myself to be his rock at bedtime, and then he would cry and I would come apart again. When he was finally asleep, I would go to "our" bedroom and sit on the edge of the bed and stare, still as a stone. Fogged in. Or I would get in the shower, crumpled in a ball on its porcelain floor, and sob under the cleansing wash of water.
The jags of crying came like rogue waves. I cried so hard. The tears came from my head, my stomach, my feet, my fingers. I've never known such purging. Then, remarkably, I'd be better.
There were responsibilities to face: finding money to live on, the bureaucratic red tape of death, my full-time job at CNN, being handed my husband's business, the IRS, the simple maintenance of our existence. These were reality and, facing them alone, they overwhelmed. At the low points I thought it would be easiest to pull the curtains in my bedroom and stay in the darkness; not try to regain equilibrium in the world out there, not try to keep going. But that wasn't in my nature, and I had a little boy who needed me to get up each day and survive. Finding my way in the world was cruel, unfair, painful. There were kindnesses, but there were more rude awakenings. I was vulnerable and clueless. I yearned for a strong shoulder, to be held by a man, protected, pampered and rescued, even kissed, but he wasn't there.
For a while I coasted on my past life. I was a bird that had been shot out of the sky, still in forward motion, unaware my wings had no more flight in them. I couldn't see the coming fall to earth.
Friends were good and helpful and critically important. They were my distraction, my crutch, my therapy. The best ones never dropped me. I felt still married for the longest time. In my mind I was a married woman whose husband simply wasn't present. The married friends kept me in the club for a while, but it's hard work, and slowly they pulled away. I'd become a "one" and that upsets the balance. It's just a fact. When it hits that you're really no longer one of them, the moment is profound. With a young child I still had the daytime playdates, the weeknight "girls' night out," the birthday parties and school events, but the weekends were like being shot into outer space. Silence. The phone stopped ringing at 6 p.m. Friday and didn't sound again until Monday at 10 a.m. That's when I rejoined the club, but on a limited membership.
I've often thought about what's served as a defining symbol of "life after" the loss of my husband. I have one, but it's peculiar. It's that moment on a Friday or Saturday night when I'm walking alone or walking the dog and stop to cross at the corner and there's a car at the stop sign, and in it is a man and woman, husband and wife, a couple, dressed for a party or dinner out, and they are alone together and often silent, but it's a very married, connected, secure and smug moment, and I can taste it and smell it and feel it and want it back so badly. Within me, it's a wisp of madness. And then they drive on and I cross the street and snap out of it. But hey. We move on. We survive. I got this email yesterday out of the blue from a woman who worked with me at CNN: "I remember when your husband died and I remember seeing you in the Bureau one day afterwards. You were very sad and looked empty. I felt for you. You look beautiful and happy in all of your pictures now! Good for you!!"
I hope that's true.