Sometimes I wail

Sometimes I wail.

I don’t just weep, or cry, or even sob.

I wail.

It’s been a little more than four months since I became a widow. This is new territory for me. I met Rick when I was nearly 40, a never-married mother of one son. Marriage had eluded me. I’d obviously met men, since I was a mother, after all. But the idea of finding the man I’d want to spend my life with – that had proved to be impossible.

Oh, I’d come close. I met one man and fell deeply in love, despite the fact that on our first date he told me he’d be moving across the country. I was 20 and in love, so decided to bet the odds that just maybe he’d stay. In the end, despite his avowed love for me, he moved.

I waited for him to return. I could have followed, but I wanted proof that this was “the one.” After all, knights in shining armor slayed dragons and traveled for years to be reunited with their fair maidens.

My knight found a new damsel and married her.

My son’s father? A nice guy, a guy who loved me. Not a guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, so we parted. He, too, moved across the country and married someone else.

There were others, the ones who wanted me but didn’t hold my interest. And there were the ones I so desperately wanted to want me. As grandma said, they wanted an apple, and I’m an orange. Try as I might, I couldn’t become that apple.

So, as year 40 approached, I was surprised to find a man who not only wanted an orange, he loved oranges, big, round, juicy oranges. As luck would have it – finally! – he fit my 10-point list of what I wanted, too. He was big and muscular, check, check. He was extremely intelligent, check. He was kind and loving, funny and clever, read books, even wrote extremely well, check, check, check, check, check, check.

And, number 10 – he loved me.

So, at 40 years old, I marched down that aisle, wearing a white wedding gown (the nerve!) and had that dream wedding, marrying the man I had waited for: my soulmate, my friend, my lover.

We spent twenty more years in love, the newlywed kind of love, honeymoon love. After twenty years, we still held hands, enjoyed impromptu dances in the kitchen, met each evening on our deck to drink wine and talk about life, love, hopes, dreams. We spent long weekend afternoons lying in bed, listening to the rain, cuddling, laughing, wrestling, and spilling out all the secrets we could share only with each other.

We did everything together: trips, and chores, and errands. We renovated three houses – by hand – together. We traveled across country – loving our car trips because it gave us more time to just be together, exploring new places, doing new things. We were anxiously anticipating those golden years, when I could retire and we could spend more time on beaches, when we’d drive across the few states we missed, and then return to Europe where we’d finish the trip we began a few years ago.

And now he’s dead.

He was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in the autumn of last year. He made it through the chemo, lung and brain radiation, shots, transfusions, low white blood cell counts, low platelet counts, and every other horrific thing that comes with the treatment. In February, they told us he was in remission. We spent five weeks in Florida celebrating, swimming, watching the sunset each evening. We were on our last honeymoon and we lived it and loved and talked and cuddled and just were.

And then the complications began: the tiredness, the pain in his lung, the low sodium levels, the blood clots, the weight loss, the confusion (“Honey, I can’t remember how to send a text message,” said my tech-savvy, web designer husband).

Finally – even though the cancer was supposedly in remission, one of my bright ideas killed him.

Since he was starting to feel stronger and absolutely hated sitting around, I suggested he roll the empty garbage cans back to the house. He was excited to try something so mundane, yet “normal.” He tried. He fell. He broke his hip. Fat embolisms from the femur break invaded his lungs.

Two days and four “code blue” resuscitation attempts later, I was a widow.

A wailing widow.

It all seems like a dream now. The 21 years we had together seem so long ago, yet like yesterday, hence the dreamy quality.

How can it have been so long since we were together, since that night before he died, when I held his hand through the hospital bed railing? When we talked about how all we needed was each other, and to be together? Traveling or doing other things, be damned. Who needs vacations or projects? We don’t need anything but to hold hands and watch TV while he  recuperated for the next six weeks from the hip surgery scheduled for that weekend. We’d just sit next to each other and talk and listen to music and love each other, and then he’d be fine and life would be normal again. After all, the cancer hadn’t returned.

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Yesterday, I wrote an essay, a memoir, about the whole ordeal, from diagnosis to death. I wrote for six hours. I finished, closed my computer, and sat.

And then it began, like a huge rolling wave, up from my gut: the wail.

It started with one quiet tear running down my cheek, then two, then the sob, then grabbing my heart because it felt like it was literally rending in two. Then the sob began to get louder. It became nearly a roar – that’s the best that I can describe it. A roar, a howl, pain that just couldn’t be contained.

I have never been a wailer in my life. I am now. I think it’s the only thing I can do.

It’s winter, so the doors and windows are shut tight. I live alone, so only the cat can be startled. So, I will wail. I will wail until I have no more pain inside me.

I will wail for myself and all I have lost – so quickly, so unfairly. My love, my only love, is no more. He’s relegated to photos and videos. He’s my imaginary friend, the person I talk to as I sit alone in my cocooning chair – the place I have created to feel safe, now that my big, strong protector is gone.

Most nights, and many hours on my empty weekends, I cuddle up in my chair under his favorite blanket, often wearing his sweatshirt or socks, and I talk to him, doze and dream of him. I long for his arms around me, and I cry quietly for all that I’ve lost. It comforts me. It’s how I grieve and experience and release the greatest pain I’ve ever known.

But sometimes, sometimes when it’s too much, when I relive the hours before his death (the defibrillator paddles and my desperate begging for him to live), or I think of all the suffering he endured, or I grieve for some pleasure he will miss, or some way I failed him at the end (I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you) – at those times, I wail, because it’s all I can do to relieve the pain.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at


  1. I can definitely relate to your blog. I had been divorced for 14 years when an old friend contacted me to tell me his wife died of 42 years. Our families met in 1976. We married and had many wonderful years (7 and no 8 was cancer year) just being the two of us. I think when he died in 2013 of SCLC a big part of me died. Just this year (4 years after his death) I have gone from sleeping on the sofa to guest bedroom. He did not die in our bed but I am so lonely there. I’ll be praying for you.

    1. Hello. I’m so sorry for this late response. I’m not my most organized lately and I apologize because I intended to write back the day I read your comment.

      I understand not wanting to sleep in your bed. I spent a few nights sleeping in his chair, then finally moved to the bed. I sleep facing away from his side of the bed and try to pretend that he is there. It doesn’t often work, but I try.

      It is so awful that we both found a man we loved only to lose him. I’m glad you had 7 wonderful years, but we both know that even 70 years wouldn’t have been enough when you find the one you love! Thank you for your prayers. I am sending my love and hope for healing your way.

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