Virginia Coleman had five husbands. Not simultaneously, though many suspect an overlap between at least two. These stories get muddled through the years, and the strange details of Virginia’s five husbands, apart from their number, remains obscure.
Virginia grew up the eldest of five children outside Seattle, Washington. I like to think that the number had a special resonance for her. At the age of fifteen she eloped to Alaska with her first husband, Robert Burns (not the poet). Little is known about him. They stayed together long enough to produce one child, a son. Legend has it that when the boy was five months old, Robert went out for a pack cigarettes. He never returned.
Virginia’s second son arrived two years later, followed by a hasty marriage. It’s uncertain if she had divorced the previous husband. At any rate, this second marriage lasted about five minutes. Once again, a late night trip to the corner shop would signal the end to wedded bliss.
A five year gap followed the break up of her second marriage. Virginia struggled to make ends meet, working 9 to 5 at the Five and Dime, five days a week. Then hubby number 3 arrived on the scene.
Little is known of husband number three. Like one in five Americans, he claimed Irish heritage, and was known to enjoy a drink or five. We’ll just call him Rúndiamhair O’Cuig (mystery of five). For all we know Rúndiamhair may have been a swell guy. What is known for certain is that no children blessed the union, the marriage was brief, and he went the way of those that preceded him. Smoking was popular in those days.
Virginia’s luck changed in 1950 when she married fisherman, Waldemar “Lefty” Alho. But eleven years of marriage ended in tragedy when Lefty’s fishing boat capsized five miles off the coast of Alaska. His body was never recovered. With 500 dollars and a broken heart, Virginia returned to her family in Washington. But her matrimonial stories did not end there.
On the fifth day of the fifth month in 1962, Virginia married Charlie, a non-smoker, with a five acre farm in rural Washington. Together they lived happily to the end of their days. And that is the story of Virginia’s five husbands.
Over the last year I’ve found myself ruminating on words left unsaid; on arguments lost or discontinued; on speaking my truth that final time where, in my imagination, that truth is heard and acknowledged. These last words that ricochet inside my skull with their passion and indignation, clogged my thinking, kept me awake at night and barred my path from participating in the present.
My sister was the queen of the last word. When we were children, her defiant stubbornness fascinated and petrified me. It was not a safe household to speak the last word. It was not a family that encouraged rebellion and self-assertion. But for whatever reason, Leslie fearlessly stood her ground. Her courage astounded us all. No amount of punishment (and in our house punishments could turn brutal) dissuaded her from getting that last jibe in — that final sweep before she trotted off, victorious.
It didn’t last though. Puberty, family break-up and repeated trauma knocked her rebellion on its head and that never really changed. The tendency was still there, but she saved her ‘last word’ for softer targets — waiters, shop assistants, customer service agents, and on occasion, me. Like my own frustrated silence, Leslie felt haunted by those words she could not say and by those those fights she could not win. In the years before she died, our phone conversations inevitably cataloged the injustices she’d suffered, the anger that continually bubbled up to the surface in her daily life and the frustration of never quite being able to have her final say.
I spend a lot of time twitter. (Too much). Twitter, where the last word and final say on anything and everything ticks away in an instant. I don’t twitter well and I hold my tongue most of the time. Twitter also triggers me in my most uncomfortable and vulnerable places. My cortisol peaks within seconds at the twitter feed. As in real life, no one really gets in that last word on Twitter. Threads simply die out, only to be replaced with the next thread of circular arguments.
Lately it struck me that my silences are not a surrender, but rather the accumulation of so many last words, spoken again and again, but dismissed by my interlocutor, so that, in the end, my silence is my final word. This was especially true when, three years ago, I ended a long and painfully abusive relationship. One day I simply disappeared and refused to engage with him on any level from that day forward. For whatever reason, the tactic worked, and I’ve had no further bother him. I know that many people are not so lucky, but in that instance, with that person, it worked.
Still, for some time later, I would find myself obsessing on things I did not say and fantasize scenes where I got my final word, confronting him on each and every instance of abuse and violence he’d inflicted on me, then strut away, like my sister in childhood, glorious in my victory. But retrospectively, I had already spent years regularly confronting him, it simply had no impact. It wasn’t a fault in my argument or a failure in articulation, it was just of no interest to him. The only thing he had to lose was me, and as long as I continued to argue with him, he still had me. Silence was my strength and my savior. In silence I had my last word.
Tillie turns eight today. Over the last six weeks , we’ve gone through a health scare with Tillie. It began with a painful sore on her bottom that was not healing, despite two courses of antibiotics. The third trip to the vet revealed a growth just inside her bottom. Her vet suspected a tumour and refered us to a specialist in Cork. Once the referral was made, all we could do was sit and wait.
I’m no better than Tillie at sitting and waiting. The vet had already warned us that colon cancer in dogs carries a pretty grim outcome. My internet searches confirmed this. Most dogs will die within three months of diagnosis, even with surgery and treatment. And those three months are excruciatingly risky and painful for the dog. Large dogs and dogs between the ages of seven and nine make up the majority of those that develop colon cancer. Tillie was just shy of eight. She’s a big girl at thirty-three kilograms. She ticked all the worst boxes. My sweet girl.
Now I am generally a glass-half-empty type of person. Hope terrifies me because, historically, dashed hopes have knocked me hard. Let’s just say, I have issues. Looking at Tillie and thinking to myself ‘This could be our last week together, our last month, three months’ whatever the case — ‘our last time‘ felt tangible and near, inevitable, unavoidable and unbearable. I could not look at her in the present moment without simultaneously seeing her vanish. Anticipatory Grief. I know it well and fall down that rabbit hole so effortlessly, with such familiarity. It’s like my true home. I had to consciously pull my head out of my pre-grieving ass and be present with the living, breathing, loved and lovable, tail-wagging dog standing in front of me, wanting attention, love, contact, and my presence. Tillie was giving me a masterclass in living in the here and now. She deserved and deserves nothing less.
The next week as we waited for her appointment in Cork I probably watched Tillie closer that ever before — I mean really watched her. It was obvious that her bottom was uncomfortable, but her appetite was as good as ever, her eyes were bright and she was as happy, playful and energetic on our walks as ever before. Hope was nudging at me. I’d cuddle her, breathing in her doggy smell and whisper ‘stay with me’ into her fur. But driving to her appointment apprehension had my stomach tied in knots. I couldn’t manage a conversation with my partner at all — my head was full of Tillie.
The specialist looked her over thoroughly. He commented on how well her colour, coat and skin looked. He told us her heart sounded very strong. More hope seeped in. Questions about her history, her general health through the years and her current problems were asked and answered. He told us we could collect her later that day and he’d phone us with her lab results in about a week.
At this point Tillie was on her third course of antibiotics and pain relief. She had to wear a donut collar to keep her from licking the wound, but she was coping really well. She seemed her usual happy, hungry self. My own mood began to shift as well. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I felt very hopeful. I started allowing myself to imagine that she’d be fine and we’d have much more time together. A week later my hopes were confirmed. She doesn’t have cancer, just a nasty infection that will take a bit more time to heal.
A few weeks later and today we celebrate Tillie’s birthday. She started her sixth course of antibiotics today, but the wound is healing nicely. We’ve had atrocious weather all week, so we haven’t had much outdoor adventure time, but Spring will happen and our adventures will begin again. This is our eighth year together. This episode with her illness taught me so much about myself, about my relationship with Tillie and my history and relationship with loss and grief. It’s also taught me about gratitude, love and commitment. Tillie came into my life at a time of enormous loss. She is the baby of my grieving widowhood. She was the new light shining in a dark moment in time. She continued by my side through additional losses — my sister, my father, my two older dogs — the dogs of my marriage and that other life that now seems centuries away from where I am today. Through all of that, Tillie has had that uncanny ability to redirect my attention to the now. The drumming of her tail, the swagger in her gait, her gentle, sleeping snore restore me again and again to the present moment. She is a gift that I very likely do not deserve, but am lucky enough to have anyway. I love her and I’m so grateful that I have more time to continue loving her and making her tail wag.