First published 2008 by University of Queensland Press.
I had been meaning to reread this book for quite a while, as I had not looked at it for almost five years.
I originally bought it seven months after becoming a young widow myself, and what a happy day that was. I stumbled upon it in a bookshop in Mount Gambier, where I had gone for my first child-free break, and the title leapt right out at me. I had been 37 years old when my husband died. I wasn’t old. He had left me with four children and an unfinished house which we had been owner-building, so I also liked the sound of the home improvement aspect.
Right next to this book was another widow book, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, so I bought both and was absurdly happy for the rest of the day. In fact that moment still stands in my memory as a high point during those early months.
I read it twice over the next couple of months during the period when I was at rock bottom. My grief-addled brain only detected two stories intertwining in the book, the dying of the husband, and the time after his death when the home improvements were made. This time round, having finally recovered what intellectual function I once had, I detected three strands: the story of John from the first meeting unto death, the story of Virginia from John’s death through all the milestones of widowhood, and the story of the house as it was brought back to life. The transition between the three elements was seamless. I also enjoyed each thread more fully than earlier, having now had some distance from the newly widowed time.
Now every cancer/death/bereavement story is different, but they all have enough in common to make you say “oh yes” and weep at those parts that are all too familiar, especially when you going through similar. Being in the thick of the newly widowed part when I first read it made me hungry for more content relating to the grief and recovery process, but this is not an issue for the general reader. The husband’s story is beautiful and heartbreaking; Elizabeth Lhuede said in her own review that she wanted more of John, which Virginia would have also, had it been possible to alter life’s circumstances.
I enjoyed Virginia’s story and her honesty in describing herself as someone who wanted different things from life than perhaps her peers did, a person whose walls were up until bowled over by the entrance of John in her life. When I read her story it makes me think that we might get along should we ever meet. She gives enough of herself in her book to trick you into thinking you know her a little, and even now I see I am referring to her as ‘Virginia’ rather than ‘Lloyd’. In those dark days, each time I got to the end of the book, I wanted badly to be on that plane to New York with Virginia and not stuck back in Quorn in 2009-10 with my big burden of grief and loss, and I wrote and told her this. Also, when I daydreamed about flying with Virginia to New York, the wish included me telling her my story.
A big problem with young widowhood is that there are precious few people you can really talk to about it, face to face. You quickly become reluctant to burden your friends with your woes, and others who have gone through the same but a bit earlier tend to keep their distance, not wanting to relive that early intense period, which is totally understandable. Fortunately I found some really good support online through Facebook groups, which helped keep me sane.
That is why some of my best friends during this time were grief books, especially the memoirs. They were my lifeline, and I would like to add my own to the collection out there. I have kept a journal since 3 months after Edi died and am still working out whether to do it in journal format like Kate Llewellyn or use the material in a straight memoir. Some of the material is starting to organise itself in my head now, so a memoir may not be out of the question.
A funny thing about the grief monster (as one of my online widsters referred to it), is that when it finally does pack up and leave you it can be kind of lonely. Until it makes a reappearance. My least favourite parts were not nights but mornings – and still are on the odd occasion – wake up feeling like crap, get through the day somehow, and go to bed at relative peace before it all starts again. To reread this book was also a nostalgic experience for those bad old times which memory has blotted out the most painful parts of.
I don’t know whether Virginia has any other books inside her, but I would be glad to read more should she ever write another one.