May 21st 2008

Memorial Day Weekend: Stiff Upper Lip, Kid

Posted in Helen & Warren, Izzy, Lenore

The Hospice dogs Izzy and Lenore bring a big smile to Warren
The Hospice dogs Izzy and Lenore bring a big smile to Warren.

May 21, 2008 – Cloudy, cool. The role of the photographer is as varied as the writer, but one mission, for me, is to capture moments, images and emotions worth remembering. I love stories in all forms, but I especially love photos that tell stories, as good ones do.  You can get so overwhelmed by the technical trappings of picture-taking that you sometimes forget the point – tell good stories.
Warren’s life is shaped, at the moment by two photos that tell stories, ones that are dear to him. One, on the mantle across from his new Med-Lift chair, shows Helen shortly before her death, lying in the hospital bed. She is smiling, in the way that Helen smiled, right up to her last day. I took that portrait.
The other, taken by Warren about 10 years ago on the couple’s beloved hill up behind the house, captures a healthier Helen,  in her 70′s, sitting in a field of BeeBalm, smiling.
Warren talks to the portrait that I took, because, he says, it is the most recent.  I tell her about my day, and I say “I love you, honey,” and I imagine she waves back and says quietly, ‘I love you, too.”
But he loves the other photo also, and looks at it all the time. “One shows Helen sick,” he says,”the other well.” He calls them the two Helens, and he loves both of them.
Warren had a rough day yesterday, perhaps the worst since Helen’s death, and the first time he called me to talk since she died, rather than wait for my visits. He spent several hours cleaning out her purse, the one she took on all their trips together, across the United States and overseas. “I can’t tell you how many times we would go into that bat – for passports, money, keys, phone listings. We called it the storehouse.” Cleaning it out of her keys, makeup, brushes and other personal affects, and then taking that and other of her belongings to the town dump was the toughest thing he has had to do, he said. “I just can’t tell you how awful that was.”
He and Helen often drove by a pond that had two swans living near it, and for years, the swans seem to have disappeared. Yesterday, he drove by the pond and saw one, and told himself he couldn’t wait to get home and tell Helen. Then he remembered, and felt a wave of sadness.
Warren is very conscious of not complaining, or being self-pitying, so much so that I urged him to permit himself the grief to which is entitled, and which he admits to feeling.
“I know you’re right,” he told me, “but when I feel down, or sad, I just tell myself ‘stiff upper lip, kid,’ and go on with my life. That’s what I was taught to do.”  He was, I am sure, like so many men of his generation.
I know from talking to bereavement counselors and reading about grief that this is common, this notion of a stiff upper lip, of not complaining, of getting on with life. Grief has a life of its own, I am told, and will have its own way. You couldn’t stop it if you wanted to, or bury it for long.
So I say little and I note that Warren looks better than he did yesterday, and is getting some rest and his aching knees have been helped by his Med-Lift chair, which moves upright and helps him get up without bending. And despite the grief, he has so much less work.
This will be his first holiday weekend alone, and he says he has plenty to do, that he intends to spend the holiday weekend cleaning up the house, sorting through Helen’s clothes and possessions, and plotting the historical and preservation work he hope to do in a few weeks.
I told  him I am going to New York City to visit my daughter, but would check in. We have plans to have dinner next week, Warren’s first social excursion outside.
It is hard to leave him for the weekend, but I sense that he is all right, as he puts it, as good as can be expected.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I have two Helens to keep me company, and there is nobody I would rather be with.”