It is a small, almost exclusive club: Widows-R-Us. There is only one, grisly requirement for membership: your husband must be dead. If you re-marry, you can stay in the club, because once you are a widow, you are always a widow.
I was the founder and sole member for over ten years. Then a friend’s husband died on their kitchen floor from a bee sting. Our casual friendship deepened into a best friendship, given our now unseverable bond. My friend brought in a woman who had become her friend about the same time. We had not known each other before, but now we shared the kinship of sorrow and loss. Her husband had died from a long battle with leukemia a few years after mine. Now we were three.
Another friend lost her husband a few years later, not to the cancer he had beaten but to an infection that could not be controlled given his weakened auto-immune system. Then we were four.
All these husbands had been relatively young; mine was the youngest at 35. None was older than 50. We were not traditional widows, we had been married for only 10 or 15 or 20 years. We had young children or teenagers, Social Security was nowhere on our horizon, we were still making mortgage payments and saving for college. We did not fit in with traditional widows’ groups; we were the age of the children of those widows. We forged on alone, coming together from time to time, for bagels on Saturday morning, movies on Friday night, and late night phone calls when it all seemed too much to bear.
One of us remarried, one became engaged to a high school sweetheart, one has not dated and I waited until I was 50 to commence my decade of marathon dating. Eventually, my own mom joined our merry band of mourners when my dad died at 76. I could always get Mom to laugh by referring to us as “the Merry Widows.”
At 58, I decided to go on a dating hiatus. I started to reconnect with my inner self. I became a regular at Monday and Thursday early morning services. There I met a woman who was saying Kaddish for her recently deceased husband. They had been married for 30 years when he died suddenly, shortly after his retirement. We became good friends, sharing the bonds of religion and common tragedy. And our group expanded again.
Recently, we attended together the funeral of a 97-year old gentleman from our shul. He and his wife had been married for 52 years. There seemed to be less grief and more joy at this funeral than any other I had attended. The deceased had been joking and singing until a week before his death from pneumonia. He left life the same way he had lived it: on his own terms. While we both felt a deep sense of loss for this sweet man, it was difficult to mourn.
Now, his widow attends services on Thursday mornings, catching a ride with another couple who are members of our shul. She is tiny, frail, well into her late 80’s. We sit near her so that we can say the Mourner’s Kaddish along with her. We support the newest and oldest member of our sorority of sorrow; it’s what we do.
Last week, I mentioned at the breakfast we share at shul after services , that I was heading to the Social Security office in Schenectady to sign up for Surviving Spouse benefits since I was fast approaching 60. If you are a widow or a widower, you can collect the Social Security benefits due your deceased husband or wife when you turn 60, you don’t have to wait until 62. You can then collect your own benefits, if they are greater, when you turn 62.
My friend and another woman, who it turns out, lost her first husband to divorce then death, both walked me through the process. “Go to Glens Falls,” they said, “it is much cleaner and safer than Schenectady and is about the same distance from Saratoga Springs. They are very helpful there and you will be in and out in no time.” The woman whose husband died after their divorce then told me something I had not known: if you qualify for surviving spouse benefits at 60 (or 50 if you are disabled) and begin collecting the benefits, you will not lose them even if you re-marry. Damn. Maybe I will have to start dating again!
After an hour-long interview, I left with a packet of papers, including my enrollment in Social Security. Starting on May 24, one month after my 60th birthday, I will receive a handsome benefit from the government based upon my late husband’s earnings. It made me sad to think of how hard he had worked to build his law practice, only to die in the middle of his most profitable year. I had been the major bread-winner in our family during the ten years of our marriage.
“Don’t worry,” I would tease him, “I plan to retire when I am 55. My salary will have topped out by then. You can still work, though, since you will be making more than me in your successful law practice. I expect you to support me in the manner to which I plan to become accustomed.” We would both laugh at my prediction.
I smiled into the sun that was breaking through the clouds as I drove home from Glens Falls last Thursday. As I had “threatened,” my dear, departed husband was now taking care of me once again. And I smiled, too, because my new “widow” friends had steered me in the right direction and I would share the information I had gathered with the other members of our club. It’s what we do.