When The Firsts Just Keep Coming

by Sarah Kilch Gaffney
Originally Published: 

$108.63. That’s how much the last check I wrote was for.

My daughter had fallen asleep on the way home from preschool, and I carried her into the living room and let her snooze in the big red armchair while I took care of some pre-dinner tasks. I started a load of laundry, played fetch with the dogs, and then sat down at the desk in my bedroom to pay some bills. First, a credit card bill; next, the receipt for a propane fill-up that had been tucked into the handle of my storm door.

I wrote out the amount, noted my account number at the top, and then tore the check along the perforation as I had done so many hundreds of times. It was the last check in the book. I paused; check #1300 wavered in my hand.

I had known this day would come.

I opened a drawer and pulled out the little cardboard box. I set the new book of checks in front of me, #1301 in the top right corner, my name alone in the top left. Check #1300 was the last one I would ever write with my late husband’s name on it.

Six months before my husband died, when things had started to go downhill for the last time but none of us really knew how soon he would be gone, I reordered return address labels. They were light blue with a little tree design on the right-hand side, a design theme we’d been using for years.

A better deal purchased in bulk, I foolishly ordered two sets. My brain just wasn’t there yet. I should have edited them to The Gaffneys instead of Steve & Sarah, but the thought didn’t even occur to me until much, much later. By then it was too late, and I was left with a massive stack of return address labels that no longer reflected my reality in any way.

I continued to use the labels after his death, but only on bills and the like. I didn’t want to upset anyone by sending mail from a dead man. I got used to seeing mail arrive in his name day after day, but knew it would be an unwelcome shock for everyone else. And yet I held on to them, pulling the sheets out a few times a month for the impersonal envelopes, but never for the birthday cards, letters, thank you notes.

After I saw the stack of checks with just my name in the upper left corner, I lost it a little: over how pivotal something as mundane as a checkbook had become, and over yet another reminder of what was gone.

I finished paying the bills, adhered those pretty blue labels, and then set one sheet aside for the plastic bin in the basement where I keep all sorts of necessary mementos from my former life. I then put the rest of the sheets in the recycling, and instead of anguish, I felt okay. I was sad, but okay. It had been 15 months; I had checked off one more milestone in the long line of many that keeps every widow company.

The “firsts” of widowhood go on long after the first year and the first holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. They appear in bursts, both predictable and unexpected all at once, like the first blooms of spring breaking through the snow.

I have stopped trying to anticipate triggers, and I have stopped judging myself for my reactions. I am now at peace with the emotional fluctuation of grief, and I’m grateful that I have given myself permission to grieve in any way needed, even if it means crying over checks and holding on to a single address label sheet.

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