Friday, 29 May 2020

Lessons from Being Widowed

Don't mind the dirt!
As I sit down to write, it is now nearly five weeks since I was widowed.  One day, I might reflect on some of the elements of this past year, but not right now, it's too soon yet - particularly with my husband's funeral being next week.  

But there is something I've been thinking about this morning, as I was on my hands and knees under the utility room counter disconnecting my broken washing machine in preparation for the new one arriving later on.  

Being a widow means many things, but one of those is being forced to learn a whole new skill set.  You see my husband, Chris, was an engineer, immensely capable and clever and very handy in all of the odd jobs around the house.  He could turn his hand, in a pinch, to emergency plumbing, electrical work, building *things* (anything really), DIY, even repairing leaking roofs.  In fact he was so capable, that I was *perfectly* happy to let him get on with it and whenever something needed doing that I deemed to be within his skill set, I would happily leave him to it.  He never showed me how to do these things, but I also never asked.  

Oh don't get me wrong, our relationship was immensely egalitarian and he was just as happy to cook, change nappies and put the kids to bed so I'm not suggesting that this was a "you-he-man, you-do" scenario, but as we often joked among ourselves, I'm the vicar and the wordsmith - I do the words, speeches, writing, talking, passionately fighting for the needs of our disabled son.  I've always managed the finances, making sure the bills were paid, the cleaners and gardeners arranged and many other things besides, but he did the "handyman" type work.  He was good at it, enjoyed it and I never saw any particular reason to question that.  

Until he was diagnosed with cancer and, eventually, after a tortuous ten month battle, lost his life to that dreadful disease.  Of course, because this happened during the COVID-19 lockdown, I can't just resort to employing a local tradesperson for the basic everyday things (don't worry, I am NOT messing with electrics or anything daft!) so if there's something basic that needs to be done, it's me or it doesn't get done.  My lovely gardener and his son very kindly assembled my large steel framed pool so that Adam could play in the warm weather, and they did the basic assembly on the pump but I then realised that the pump needed to be primed, backwashed, filled with appropriate sand etc etc etc.  I took a good long look at the manual and understood *at least* 10% of the diagrams (do those things actually make sense to anyone?  Really?) and then went on YouTube.  Thank goodness for YouTube.  

Today, my pool filter is running smoothly, even though there's one compromised seal that I need to replace (see I know this now!) but I figured it out.  Then my washing machine started to make the most ominous noises and my clothes came out smelling as dirty as they'd gone in.  I used a bottle of washing machine cleaner but it made no difference.  So I thought about it and realised that it might *just about* (by weeks) be inside the warranty but I'd have to wait a fair while to even get a repair appointment and then, if past experience is anything to go by, the technician would hum and rumble over the machine before telling me it needed a new part that he didn't have on his truck, so he'd have to order it and he'd be back in four to six weeks...... (pausing to inhale, I'm out of breath just typing that) That's even without factoring COVID into this scenario and whether or not I'd even be able to get a technician out at all.  In the meantime, our clothes would still smell and I didn't like that idea.

So I sat and thought and decided to buy a new machine as being the more expensive route but likely far quicker - and I was right as I made that decision yesterday and the new machine arrives today.  But at the moment, installation isn't an option as they won't come into your house for infection risk so that means I have to disconnect the old machine and have it ready for them to collect.  Once again, having no idea where the manual was, I turned to good ol'google and found instructions on turning off the water pipe and disconnecting the machine.  It took me a couple of tries to even get the tap on the pipe to turn at all (Chris liked tightening things like that with spanners, even if everyone else might use brute force) but I did it in the end and felt decidedly pleased with myself when the machine was successfully disconnected without so much as a drop of water leaked.

But as I knelt under the utility room counter, I was part way between grumbling that I had to learn to do these things and feeling very pleased with myself that I *had*.  Then I stopped to think about it and wondered, 'why on earth did it take me until Chris's death to make myself learn these things'  After all, he could have taught me at any time. But he didn't offer and I didn't ask; neither one of us ever envisaged a time when this would be necessary.  I mean let's be really blunt here, even if our relationship had failed and we'd divorced, he was a decent enough man that I could have still rung him up and asked for help and he would have come.  But when your husband dies, clearly that is no longer an option.

One thing I've learned from all of this, and I know it's cliche in so many ways, is that there is no such thing as immortal.  Anyone can get sick, anyone can have an accident, anyone can die.  It makes no difference if you're young, strong and healthy, which Chris always had been as a person who used to get one cold a year. It can happen to anyone and it happened to us.

So I guess what I'm saying is this: learn these things while you can.  Ladies, if there is something (anything!) that you automatically ask your spouse or partner to do, next time ask them to show you how.  Men, just the same, if there is something you usually rely on your wife or partner to do, ask them how.  It might cause an argument if one doesn't understand the other's explanation, but believe me, it's still easier than trying to read manuals or watching videos on YouTube once you have to learn it.  And really, it doesn't matter what your partner's skills are and it isn't (and shouldn't be) gender based.  If your wife is the electrician and plumber, get her to show you the basics.  If your husband is the chief cook and bottle washer, get him to show you how.  Make sure that whatever your partner's skill set happens to be, that in a pinch you *could* do it yourself.  

That doesn't have to mean that a relationship can't be formed of one partner who has strengths in a particular area taking responsibility for those things on the whole, it just means you each need to learn how so that you could.  In the old days, it used to be that women rarely managed the finances because the man handled that and it's one of the things we're alert to in the elderly now, but it's so much bigger than that.  By all means, rely on your partner and appreciate their strengths...but learn them yourself too.  

Believe it, it's one heck of a lot easier than trying to read a manual after their death.