I currently sleep in the guest room of my house. The other room I used to sleep in—which I have been calling the “hospice room”—is now a more hallowed space. That room was redesigned just prior to death of the woman who had accompanied me through life and parenting for 27 years. We’d only been married for just over six months, due to a five-hour period during which same-sex couples were allowed to marry in Michigan. The death was unanticipated; diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, just one year earlier, had led us to believe we had “years” instead of a year to share our lives together. Once a partner, spouse, and co-parent of two daughters, I must now try on the identity of widow, while existing inside of a house that no longer feels like home.
In the hospice room, the hospital bed is gone, but there are many artifacts put in place for healing purposes. A Buddha statue from Sri Lanka donated by sister for good luck; framed photos of orchids taken by our daughter when we went to the orchid show last year; a print of the magnificent sand hill cranes whose visits to the wetlands of Michigan we witnessed every October.
When I walk through that room I see not the space where my partner and I once slept together, did our nightly roundup of the days events, and watched our favorite television shows. Once I had listened to Nancy whisper “sleep with angels, darlin’” each night before we switched off the lights. Now, I see a kind of vacuous shrine that I don’t wish to disturb.
The hospice room is artful. Our antique mahogany bed is spread with a treasured cover from Nepal, and its geometric purple and green hues are echoed in the pillows and in the lilac paint on the walls. Nancy has left many objects containing memorabilia—cigar boxes, a pewter bowl, an old candy tin. When I am brave enough to look through them, I find weathered photos of her father and grandparents in sepia, small jewelry boxes containing antique rings and pearls, the invitation to her parents’ wedding in 1950, the baby shoes of our daughters. It contains remnants of a life I once was part of.
In the guest room where I sleep, I still feel like a visitor. The room remains the same as when it housed guests, not particularly inviting and disturbingly impersonal. The colors clash: pink curtains, a blue patterned quilt, walls painted a jolting lime green. A large unadorned bed dominates the smallish room. It’s not designed for comfort or charm. But in my current uncomfortable frame of mind, it seems to fit my requirements.
A perennial basket of unfolded laundry resides in the corner of the anonymous space where I now reside. My computer, my refuge, stands ready for my use, although I still can’t find a show I want to watch or a book I want to read. Scanning Facebook, reading through emails, I seek connections to fill the stillness that stretches before me.
The rest of the house is also still alien territory, transformed by the permanent vacancy of one of its occupants. My sprightly teenaged daughter, whose easy laughter hasn’t changed much since toddlerhood, begs me to go upstairs with her at night. She will not go back downstairs again without me, spooked by a house that is devoid of her other mother. She asks me to accompany her to the bathroom at night and in the early dark mornings. She fears that Nancy is somehow here in the house as a ghost, but perhaps not as much as she fears living in a house where Nancy no longer exists.
Nancy’s mother says she cannot bear to visit us in this place, not while the painful memories of her daughter seem to bounce off every surface of the house. But my daughter and I must live in this mourning house, trying to find our way to another kind of home where we can co-exist with what is here and what is not.
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“The Mourning House” was written by Julia Grant. Julia lives, writes, and works in higher education in East Lansing, Michigan. She and her partner, Nancy, were one of the 300+ same-sex couples who were married on March 23, 2014, in Michigan.