Book excerpt: “Black Widow” by Leslie Gray Streeter

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In this excerpt from her book “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title” (Little, Brown), Palm Beach Post columnist Leslie Gray Streeter recounts the terrible night when her life was turned upside-down, and her unplanned, forced accommodation to the newly-dominant emotion of grief, while juggling a flurry of such responsibilities as choosing a crypt.

Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Susan Spencer’s interview with Leslie Gray Streeter on “CBS Sunday Morning” November 10!


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“Listen, ma’am,” says the very patient paramedic.

He’s just materialized behind me in our dark driveway, where I am on the phone trying to explain to my mother that something very bad is happening to my husband  Scott. I don’t know how long I’ve been out here or how long it took the ambulance to arrive. I can’t even tell you how long the paramedics have been working on my husband, who, through the window, I can see lying face-up on the dining-room floor with determined, helpful men doing chest compressions on him.

Little, Brown

I cannot fully fathom how I got here on this parking lot. All I can tell you is this:  My Scotty, who had not been feeling well for a few days, got up in the middle of the night to pee. He noted that our almost-two-year-old son, Brooks, was still sleeping soundly across the hall and asked if I wanted to make out. I don’t turn down twilight make-outs, I agreed. Then we started kissing until he stopped me – he never stopped me – and said that something was wrong.

I turned on the light and saw Scott’s head shaking, kind of like a blender that keeps rumbling three seconds after you turn it off. I wasn’t really awake yet, so I couldn’t quite understand what was happening, what I could not stop from happening. I can’t tell you how much time passed – thirty seconds or a hundred years – but as quickly as Scott had started shaking, he stopped moving.

“What’s happening?” I half screamed, half pleaded. Scott didn’t answer. All I know is that finally he let out two desperate, involuntary breaths.

Then he didn’t breathe again.

Down the hall, behind them, our baby, Brooks – who I am remembering has a social worker visit planned today, part of the process of our legally trying to adopt him – is hopefully still asleep. He loves firemen and has no idea that there are several in his house right now. That might disappoint him if he finds out, but I’m glad he’s sleeping through it. I wish I were sleeping through it.

“Mommy, I have to go, the paramedic wants to talk to me,” I say to my mother, trying to sound calm and convince her, helpless on the other end of the phone in Little Rock. This looks bad but I want her to believe – I want to believe – that this is an emergency that’s going to turn out okay. Denial is a hell of a drug.

And I can tell by the sweet paramedic’s face that it’s not okay. Nothing is. He takes a deep breath and starts a spiel I can tell he has given too many times.

“We have been working on your husband for a while, and there is no electrical activity in his brain, and we have to do his breathing for him. We’re gonna do all we can do, but you should maybe start calling your family and your spiritual adviser.”

“No electrical activity,” I repeat, as if there weren’t a lot of other important and terrible words and concepts in that sentence. He nods. He knows I don’t know what to do, that my brain is protecting me by not immediately processing what he’s telling me.

“Spiritual adviser,” I continue, and behind the sweet paramedic, my front door swings open and they’re carrying Scott on a stretcher hurriedly to the ambulance. I can’t see his face because it’s covered in a mask, but there are reflections of red and blue lights streaking onto the brick pavers of the driveway. I want to throw up.

Because nobody brings up the damn spiritual adviser if there’s any hope.

Nice Paramedic seems to know I’m not absorbing all of this, but he’s got a job to do, so he also instructs me to call a friend to come and take me to the ER and get someone watch the baby.

“Do not drive,” he says, and I think, I must look a mess. I must be a mess.

I call my friend Lauren and ask her to come with me. I know I have to also get someone to stay with Brooks, who’s still sleeping away, not knowing that the world is disintegrating. I’ve already called my twin sister, Lynne, in Annapolis, and I feel bad for waking her up because there’s nothing she can do right now. All I’m doing is worrying her. I’m afraid we should all be very worried.

I want to run in and grab my baby and jump into the ambulance with my husband but I have to wait for other people, and that makes me angry. This thing – whatever it is – is happening without my permission, and I’m so powerless that I can’t even drive myself to the hospital.

Lauren and her husband get there after what seems like hours but probably isn’t. I pull on a dress and carefully open Brooks’s bedroom door. He’s still asleep. By now it’s like four in the morning and any parent in her right mind wants her toddler to stay that way,  but I have this weird need to pick him up, to hold that little body next to mine and absorb the energy of the one person in this house who doesn’t yet know his father is dying. So I breathe him in one last time and then bring him down the hall, and shove him into Jon’s arms. He wakes up and starts wailing like I’ve broken some spell. I’m crushed – it’s crushing me – but we gotta go.

My Aunt Debbie, the reverend, calls as Lauren drives us to the hospital to find whatever we’re going to find, and she prays over the phone. I try to find some meaning in her words that will magic away what I know is happening. I believe in magic and in God and in miracles. I want a miracle. Please give me a miracle.

When we get out of the car, the parking lot is quiet, dark, and empty. It’s too quiet – I want EMTs to be frantically rushing around, calling all the doctors and nurses and yelling “Stat!” and demanding crucial labs or whatever. I want them to be loud and busy saving Scott’s life. I want there to still be hope.

Inside the sliding doors of the emergency room, a scared-looking man – the desk clerk, maybe – is waiting for us. I don’t like how he’s looking at me.

“Mrs. Zervitz?” he says. I nod. “Okay. Please have a seat in that room,” he says, pointing to a closed door to his right. Oh, s**t.

“That’s not good,” I mumble to Lauren. “That’s the Bad News Room. They didn’t say, Let us take you to your husband or The doctors will be right out to tell you about your husband’s condition. They want to tell me something. Something bad.”

At first, the Bad News Room door won’t open; it’s locked, because there’s a doctor inside charging his phone and maybe taking a nap. I’m glad someone’s getting some downtime! After he scurries out, another doctor, good-looking in a forgettable-TV way, comes in, flanked by a few other people in scrubs and white coats, that maybe they’re students and I wonder if I am part of a very special teaching moment.

“What happened?”  the doctor asks me. He is very upset.

Aren’t you supposed to be telling me that? “Why don’t you tell me what happened?” I say. The doctor pauses, then explains that Scott was not responsive when he was brought in and appears to have had a cardiac event. He had not been breathing on his own, and they could not revive him.

S**t.

“So he’s gone, then,” I say. There, I’ve said it. My voice sounds steadier than my chest feels.

He’s gone. He’s gone.

Some niceties are said; some papers are signed. Someone hands me a plastic Ziploc bag with Scott’s watch, wedding band, and delightfully gaudy gold chain inside.

He needs his watch, I think.

No, he doesn’t, my brain says. It’s okay, sweetheart. You’ll catch up.

leslie-gray-streeter-facebook-244.jpg Leslie Gray Streeter. Facebook

“Here,” says the nice enough salesman, pointing to the crypt on his right, “your loved one would go in first, with his head facing this way. And when it’s time, you would go in headfirst, so your heads and hearts are touching for eternity.”

Umm…thanks?

Nice Enough Salesman is referencing concepts like eternity and togetherness and how, forty or fifty years from now, the body that used to be me can be placed facing what’s left of what used to be Scott.

All I can hear is Your husband is dead. Your husband is dead. Pick a box, your husband is dead.

You’ll forgive me for not thinking clearly right now, because, you know, my husband very recently dropped dead in front of me. And when I say “very recently,” I mean yesterday.

I have to pull myself together and deal with this at some point – well, right now, probably – but what I really want to do is jump on the golf cart from which my mother is nervously watching me and drive us to the nearest bar.

I should be at the Palm Beach Post, the newspaper I write for, finishing a column about the free drinks Scott and I were supposed to have been drinking as research for a cocktail story. That research was supposed to have happened yesterday afternoon, around the time our stunned, sobbing relatives began landing at the airport. We were supposed to be celebrating the job Scott was supposed to start on Monday before picking our adorably goofy baby boy up from day care.

Supposed to doesn’t mean crap.

nstead, I’m here trying to pretend that any scenario that involves my husband in a crypt is at all okay. Having to even think about this crypt instead of free drinks is pissing me off.

“I guess it’s not legal to keep him in a refrigerated travel-trailer in my backyard?” I ask Nice Enough Salesman, who looks startled. The widow’s got jokes! Perhaps this is not the time?

“Unfortunately, no.”

I feel like we’re doing some twisted vaudeville bit – he’s an appliance salesman with a baggy suit and a comically large flower on his lapel trying to talk a dizzy housewife into buying a newfangled washing machine, but she has to wait for her husband’s permission to buy it. The joke – and this is a good one – is that she can’t ask him ’cause, you know … he’s dead.

That isn’t funny at all, is it?

So what I want is for Nice Enough Salesman to give me a minute, because things are kind of f****d up right now. I’m a black Baptist woman planning a Jewish funeral for her white husband, who is supposed to be turning forty-five next month. We are in the middle of finalizing the adoption of the aforementioned sleeping baby, who’s been with us since he was six months old but is still not yet legally ours. I actually just got back from Maryland, the state of all of our births, after one in a series of very stressful legal proceedings to make sure we get to keep him. I’m supposed to be focusing on that, not standing here in this stupid cemetery deciding whether Scott’s body will spend eternity in a fancy wall, or in a hole in the ground in the Jewish section, or in some nondenominational section, so he can be buried with me, his Black Baptist wife. My understanding is that I can’t be buried in the Jewish section, whenever I eventually die. I can’t imagine that’s going to be any time soon, but then again, Scott’s not supposed to be dead, either. So I don’t know what to tell you.

As Nice Enough Salesman continues his sales pitch, I look back over at my mother, who sits several yards away on a golf cart with my twin sister, Lynne, my best friend, Melanie, and Scott’s cousin Kim, whom the black Baptists have brought along for her specific area of expertise – “We need a Jewish person,” I told her that morning when she showed up at our house, in shock but wanting to be useful. When someone you love dies, that’s what you do. You do everything you can to be useful so you don’t have time to remember that someone you love has just died.

My sister and Melanie, both of whom came in from Baltimore very late last night and are running on fumes and stunned adrenaline, are eating out of a bag of chips. Wait, am I hungry? Probably. To date my, mourning diet has consisted of wine, cake, and the taste of last night’s garlicky hummus, which I probably still smell like. Not my problem. I have lost a pound. And, yes, even tragic and disorienting sudden death cannot stop me from weighing myself. I guess I cried off a pound. Is it wrong to be happy about that?

“Thank you for telling me about the crypt,” I say, turning back to the salesman, who seems to have finally finished his pitch, even though the crypt seems super-creepy and there’s no way in hell we’re doing that corpse head-to-head thing. “I know you haven’t mentioned it yet,” I continue because I seem to be expected to keep talking, “but how much do your mausoleums run?”

“We don’t talk about numbers here. We like to keep that for the end,” Nice Enough Salesman says. “Don’t want to overwhelm and confuse you.”

Too late, man!

In the past forty-eight hours, my life – the one that once included a husband and baby and job and was generally awesome – has become a great sparkly clusterf**kI haven’t even figured out how to tell my not-quite-two-year-old that Daddy’s not actually working late. I have not the first effing clue how to even process this huge toxic cloud into which my world has exploded. But I’m pretty sure I can handle a price list.

Nice Enough Salesman is so pleasant that I just smile and get back on the cart. He drives it to a small fenced-in area of grave markers of various shapes and sizes inscribed with an eclectic collection of names and languages – a Korean here, an Irishman over there in the corner, some random WASPs.

“Some Random WASPs. That’s a good band name,” I whisper to Scott, who cannot hear me.

I remember once interviewing a man whose wife had been killed in a hit-and-run maybe six hours before he answered the phone and found an apologetic young reporter on the other end asking him about losing the love of his life. I told him repeatedly how sorry I was, but he stopped me.

“No,” the newly minted widower insisted, “I want people to know who she was, that she wasn’t just some name in an accident report. And if I wait too long, the shock will have worn off, and I won’t be able to do this anymore.” I thought I understood then, when I was single and twenty-four, but here at forty-four, I think that man was a wizard. I don’t know how he formed words and coherent thoughts in that state, but he’s my hero. Somebody’s gotta do this s**t, and since I don’t have staff or a personal secretary, it’s me. And I better do it now before the horribleness sets in and the shock gives way to despair and inertia and I just can’t do anything anymore.

So I get off the cart and grab the bag of chips. It’s probably tacky to be surveying the tranquil garden where my true love will be residing forever while wiping artificial barbecue dust off my fingers. It’ll have to do. Nice Enough Salesman beckons me farther in, explaining that there are available plots in this section. It’s the United Nations of Dead Folks, and therefore depressingly perfect, because Scott and I were an old-person Benetton ad.

Next to the space Scott might be moving into is a large shiny headstone displaying the smiling face of a young black kid. I guess he is maybe fifteen? Was fifteen. I can’t bear it. I look away.

“Hey. Stop dropping chips on the dead people,” my mother hisses from the golf cart. A minute or so later, we head back to the funeral home to make some decisions, because apparently some have to be made, and I seem to be where the sad, s**tty buck stops.

“What do you think?” my mom whispers.

“I think we’re going to go with the garden,” I say. See? I’m making decisions! Getting s**t done! Why, just yesterday, about six hours after I returned home without my husband, we’d picked out the casket – a fine, austere plain pine box – and finalized other stupid funeral details, and I knew that this was only the first toe-dip into an Olympic-size pool of horrible that I was going to have to eventually swim all the way through. I didn’t want to get into that pool. But I had no choice but to wade in, sit there, and smile as some guy walked me through sales packages – effing packages, like we were picking spa services.

So, as distasteful as it is, here we are today, deciding that Scott will be buried in Benetton Village next to a nice black teenager and, one day, me. He will be in a lovely, Jewish-law compliant pine box. There will be punch and finger foods and a montage of photos, some taken just three or four days ago on the beach with our still-clueless boy when we used to be happy and Scott used to be alive.

I liked that life.

I want it back.

But that seems to be the only package they don’t offer here.

From “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title” by Leslie Gray Streeter. Copyright 2019 by Leslie Gray Streeter. Reprinted by permission from Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

       
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