Kate Chopin’s husband died in 1883, leaving her with six children. To support them, she started writing. Twenty-one years later, she left an inheritance of insightful tales to us all. In “The Story of an Hour,” the protagonist, Louise Mallard, fine-cuts the usual years-long mourning period following the death of Brently Mallard, her spouse, to sixty minutes. She goes through shock, deep grief, numbness, disorientation, acceptance, self-awareness, discovery, and recovery. When she is finally praying “that life might be long,” rejoining her sister “like a goddess of Victory,” she makes a second discovery about her late husband that kills her. Though without proof, I suspect Chopin was writing from experience, drawing on her own discovery of a private bequest from her husband, exaggerating a moment recognized all too readily by surviving spouses.
Before my husband’s death in March 1996, I thought I knew everything there was to know about him and he about me. We had no secrets. For me, it was true. I gave even the most boring, most trivial, most mundane detail of my day to him every day. He heard my ideas, my activities, my encounters, my cares, my concerns, my life. He saw my joy, my misery, my passion. I had no desire to hide from him.
And I listened to his day, watched his life, held his dreams. He brought his job home to me, exactly as he asked that I bring mine home to him, insisting that he liked for me to work because we then had much to recount over dinner, eaten out so that we could simply sit and talk, caressing each other with words, with interest. I solicited his opinions, and he, mine. He told his sister that he preferred those meals out to my better cooking because we were relaxed and what I said was “fascinating.”
If not at work, we were usually together, having eloped at eighteen, moved halfway across the country from our families at thirty-three, been best friends and completely dependent on each other. We centered our life on our marriage. He knew everything there was to know of me, just as I knew everything to know of him. Or so I thought.
After I suddenly, unexpectedly, irrevocably became a widow, I spent countless hours looking for important papers, his gun, the boat key, automobile records, the beach canopy, and numerous other items he had kept for us. While I numbly searched, I also looked, ridiculously, for something written spelling out his feelings for me. Of course, the evidence of his feelings was there in the house he and I had planned and built only four months before, in the flowers he had planted especially for me, on the canvases he had painted and the story tapes he had recorded for our children and grandchildren, in the completed and in-progress projects he had left for us all. But in my grief, I could not see clearly and looked for more. What I soon turned up was as unexpected and irrevocable as his death. Because he wanted a part of his life secret, I am keeping it that way.
Since Everett’s death, I have talked to other widows about the anguish my discovery still brings me. Chopin’s Louise Mallard discovers intangibles—freedom, joy, victory, and truth—that shatter her illusions and her life, bringing her death. Like her, some widows find intangible truth. One I know faced her husband’s suicide and discovered only then the apparent despair he had not shared and she had not recognized. What I found was tangible truth, and that is more common. Many have told me of finding lovers, letters from or to lovers, empty bank accounts, pornography, drug paraphernalia, liquor bottles, debts, even children, sometimes plunging them from love to hatred.
No matter what particular truth we find, what we all find in common in that truth is the devastation of betrayal. That devastation, made impossible to amend by the death of the one person who could explain, who could answer, who could apologize or deny or recant, is the same no matter how great or small the betrayal appears to others. That devastation blocks recovery. That devastation destroys memories; it destroys the “us” we were.
I think most of us do not see what we discovered as intentionally left to wound us. We see, instead, carelessness and failure: failure to keep the promise to cherish, failure to face the certainty of death, failure to understand that at death all privacy is obliterated when rooms are entered, drawers are opened, notebooks are read, tapes are played, boxes are inspected, hiding places are detected, secrets are disclosed, deception is exposed. Innocent searches for evidence of the relationship uncover hideous evidence of crimes against our trust in that relationship. Whether by intention or not, we are wounded—again. And although that second wound does not usually kill us as it does Louise Mallard, it never completely heals. One daughter said that even though her mother outlived her father many years and remarried after his death to be widowed a second time, her last words were “Why did your father do me that way?”
Perhaps I should not have been surprised to find secrets when death came shockingly sudden, but everyone should be surprised that many surviving spouses find secrets even when death is expected, when days or weeks or months are available for destroying the hideous evidence. How that can be, I don’t know.
In a perfect world of perfect marriages, couples would not have heartrending secrets. That world doesn’t exist. No matter. Even real-world, imperfect marriages should include an obligation to be prepared for death, an obligation to leave as clean a memory as possible, an obligation to leave only a statement of love hidden in a special place. Cruel secrets not shared in life must not be shared after death.