One True Thing: Background information when reading This Angel on My Chest

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This Angel on My Chest

by Leslie Pietrzyk

This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk X
This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2017, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
One True Thing

Print Review

Each of the chapters in Leslie Pietrzyk's short story collection features a young widow. The emotions the author expresses made me wonder what the author may have experienced herself – that is, which experiences were "true." In researching that question, I came across an article she'd written for Psychology Today, reprinted below, that sheds some light on what she'd been through.

My husband was 37 when he unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack. I was 35. Until then, the only people I had known who died were distant relatives, and I had coped with those deaths by showing up for the funeral appropriately dressed, discreetly crying into a Kleenex, eating ham from the post-funeral buffet, and murmuring to the bereaved, "Let me know if I can do anything." Whew. Then it was the welcome return, back to home and back to my little life.

The days after Robb died were blurry. Mostly I was surrounded by other sad people, as I made decisions and organized the memorial services. I kept myself busy by wrapping my arms around sobbing friends, weighing options of pricey funeral flowers, grabbing meeting time with the over-booked priest, navigating irrevocable decisions with Robb's parents, and on and on. I'm the type of person who writes up long to-do lists anyway, and while a funeral is many, many things, it is also one giant to-do list. My brain sagged into fog and my heart was numb, but with that list in hand, I knew exactly what to do, who to call, what to sign. There was order and control, and while I certainly didn't enjoy those days, I understood them. I could master order and control.

Our friends and family and I spent about ten days in this sad bubble, distanced from the real world. We waited for out-of-town people to arrive. We waited for the church in our town to be available. We waited to pick the perfect place to bury him in a different town. We transferred our sad bubble on to that other town, where we were boiled over into sadness all over again. We organized a memorial service, a funeral, and a burial; we attended post-funeral and post-burial gatherings.

And then.

Then it was almost time for everyone to return back to their homes, back to their little lives.

I was already home, in the house Robb and I had bought, and I didn't really have a little life anymore, but luckily there was another to-do list, another whopper. I needed to write thank you notes to the people who sent flowers and checks to the charity we chose. I needed to pack up Robb's clothes to be donated. Go to the bank and take his name off the accounts. Go to the social security office. Cancel credit cards. Fight with airlines to transfer frequent flier miles. On and on. It was a to-do list that stretched into forever and then some. As long as I followed it, I would know exactly what was next. After all, Robb had traveled extensively for business, on trips of three or even four weeks. I was used to being alone. I even liked being alone, getting to read in bed late into the night, eating popcorn for dinner if I wanted to.

"Let me know if I can do anything," people said to me as they left before the weekend. "I'll be fine," I told them, which is exactly what I'd heard the bereaved say at all the other funerals I'd been to. I put on a stoic smile and added, "I've got lots to do." A few people paused and asked what? What was I going to do? I pointed to the massive list. I mentioned books I was eager to read, lots and lots of books, another whole list, in fact. I would write in my journal. Watch dumb movies. Sleep. I would be sad, obviously, but that was to be expected. I would be fine because, well, hadn't I organized a funeral? There was one woman—Charlotte—who touched my upper arm and repeated back to me, "Read a book?" Each word was like its own separate sentence, filled with meaning I couldn't interpret. I nodded. I didn't know her very well; though she was about my age, she was my husband's boss's wife and mostly we socialized at office parties, exchanging inoffensive chit-chat. "I like to read," I said. My voice felt false and perky.

Her husband tugged at her, and they were gone.

By Friday night, everyone was gone.

Robb was gone.

I needed suddenly to feel cozy, so I pulled on one of Robb's worn, soft T-shirts, then grabbed a novel and slid into bed though it was only seven o'clock. I read the jacket copy, stared at the author's black and white photograph. I scanned the acknowledgements, looking for familiar names. I folded back the paper cover and read the first sentence. I read it again. And again. And again. Then I couldn't read it anymore because I was crying too hard. I cried through half a box of Kleenex. I cried all my mascara onto the pillowcase. I knew I would never open that book again.

The phone rang.

It was Charlotte. "How are you?" she asked.

"I'm not fine," I sobbed.

"I know you're not," she said.

"I need help," I said.

They were three simple words, but I didn't know—until then—how to say them. I did need help—a lot of it—to struggle through the aftermath of Robb's death and to step beyond the comforting shadow of the to-do list. A funeral is many things, including that giant to-do list, but repairing a shattered life is pretty much only one thing: hard work. The paradox is that no one else can do it for you, yet you can't do it alone.

Charlotte told me about the desolate months in high school after her father died, when she refused to admit the pain she felt. That's why now, instead of parroting, "Let me know what I can do," Charlotte said she had two tickets to an upcoming National Geographic lecture about India. Would I go with her?

I paused. With no plans to travel to India, the topic wasn't something I especially wanted to learn about or thought I needed to know. And yet. Instead of insisting I was fine, I said, "Yes."

For the next several months, I accepted all invitations: outdoor country music concerts, sushi, cult British movies, car rides through the night, keeping score at softball league games, "come visit me in New York/the Berkshires/Dallas." People invited me, and I said "yes" and I let them organize, I let them run the to-do lists: they drove or brought all the picnic food or made the reservation. Most times, I ended up places I had never been before, doing things I hadn't thought I needed to do. Most times, behind the constant ache, I felt a glimmer of pleasure…in the event and the new experience, in the idea that someone was taking care of me, in the realization that I could let them.

I would like to say that everyone I knew responded so beautifully, seeing through my strength to offer distractions and provide space for silence or words. But many people are unable to witness sorrow, and I didn't hear from those folks until later, when I could say I was "fine" and (mostly) mean it. I've forgiven them now, years later. Of course I do. I was one of them.

And now. Now I confess that I haven't seen Charlotte for years. That's okay, I think. As I said, we were thrown together only because our husbands worked at the same office once upon a time. But I remember her with immense love for what she taught me: how to accept help, how to give help. I no longer say to the bereaved, "Let me know if you need anything." I say, "Let me do X for you." In these words, I always hear Charlotte's voice reaching across distance and time, finding me.

Originally published in Psychology Today, One True Thing blog . Reprinted with permission from the author and the magazine.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in November 2015, and has been updated for the January 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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