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Book Review: A Widow’s Awakening by Maryanne Pope

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In September of 2000, Maryanne Pope, the 32-year old wife of a Calgary police officer, lost her husband, John. While out on his first night’s duty since they had returned from vacation, he answered a call to what appeared to be a break-in, stepped through a false ceiling, and hit his head after falling nine feet. Also 32, he was brain-dead.

The couple had visited Disney World, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, along with other vacation spots of the Western United States. While they had a good time — one Maryanne would remember, as John lay dying, as “awesome” — the reader is at once aware of tensions between the two.

John and Maryanne on Beach
Maryanne, called Adri in her nonfiction novel, A Widow’s Awakening, felt that her husband, called Sam in the book, wanted to be in control of her, and that she always had to be careful not to start a fight with him. She could not accept that he had decided not to bring children into the world, which saddened her immensely. On his side, John/Sam seems to have been frustrated with Maryanne’s procrastination; like many who aspire to writing, she found it difficult to actually sit down and write. That she had to work as a police report typist, she felt, held her back from fulfilling her creativity. John could not understand why she didn’t just write whenever she could.    


John, for his part, also had an ambition; he wanted to become an undercover police agent. He had not yet been able to attain this wish, and that may also have been one of the irritants between them.

Yet, in the odd realm of unknowing, but all-knowing coincidence that can precede unexpected parting through death, Maryanne and John were fortunate. They had a final chance to talk about their issues with each other, and to choose to speak the truth. On their return from the States, they had an argument over whether to do as Maryanne’s mother wished and hold Thanksgiving at their house. Maryanne had agreed; John was angry and didn’t want to, since they both had to work that weekend. That argument sparked a chance for them to talk. Just before he went on his final night’s shift (that last farewell, that we never can know is the last farewell), they exchanged truths and agreed to be more honest and open with each other.

Maryanne must have the details of this final conversation emblazoned on her mind and heart when she wrote A Widow’s Awakening. She told John that her great fear was that she would wake in 20 years to find she had never written anything.

His answer was not soothing: it was one I recognized immediately from my own husband’s response to such statements. It is no doubt similar to one many women are accustomed to hearing, if they are married to purposeful men. He responded that her fear was probably true — but that she must realize that if this happened, she would have created the situation herself; it would be her own decision.

While harsh, his answer was a spur to Maryanne’s determination to write something meaningful. Since it was his last word to Maryanne, whom, in spite of all differences, he clearly admired and loved, it affected her tremendously. He’d often told her he wished he could figure out a way for her to write. “You’re the smartest person I know.”

John went out on patrol that night. When Maryanne arose the next morning, before she learned of John’s fall, she determined to rise early and work on her writing. Tired, hating to face the job she wished she didn’t have to return to, she (not surprisingly) found herself unable to get out of bed early enough to write. She was angry with herself as she went in to her job.

But that morning was the last moment of a normal life of marriage, with all its frustrations and supports, for Maryanne and for John. Though the truth became apparent to Maryanne in the strange slow way people perceive the worst things that can happen to them, John was gone.

When Maryanne/Adri arrived at work, her supervisor told her John had fallen. With her supervisor by her side, she took a call from John’s inspector, and found that John was in the best local trauma unit. Then she began to realize that the “fall” she had envisioned as a broken arm was much more life-altering.

The scenes in the hospital are both fascinating and painful to read because they ring true to a dreamlike state human beings enter when they are in the presence of the unnatural, lengthened state between life and death science has created — life in death, a coma, a body sustained by machines. Maryanne felt that she could feel John squeeze her hand as she held it. Who would not feel that the other is trying to communicate in some way? Who would not do all they could to call back the lover, the father figure — the deeply beloved husband?

While for me, at least, the present-tense writing throughout the book is at times unsettling (really a matter of one’s taste), it is the correct tense in which to describe many moments, such as the ones in the hospital. Maryanne sits with John in shock, fear, misery and the desire to evade the finality of loss. From time to time, especially if she puts her head on his chest, he takes a deep, shuddering breath and seems to react to the contact. Maryanne evidently never had this odd physical reaction fully explained to her, and reading it, I wanted to know more about it. Was it simply a response of the nervous system, or a coincidence, something that would have happened even if she had not touched him?

Or was more than his body responding? Since, as the doctors told her, the white and gray matter of the brain had already mingled — “he’s already gone ” — probably it was just a sense-reaction common to coma patients.

Yet, anyone who has lost someone in this way knows the deep, deep longing for any sign whatsoever from the suddenly lost focus of love. Only the love relationship matters any longer — indeed, the nature of love itself. Any argument, any strife, abruptly vanishes like Prospero’s” cloud-capp’d towers.”

In a purity of feeling known possibly only at one other time, a baby’s birth, we see the real love that is at the core of all the squabbling and making-up we usually call love.

It is the real nature of love that sustains Maryanne through the book, through the year to come — the loss, the pain, the strange discovery that John’s pension (I doubt that ours in the United States are this sensible and generous) and other sources of money, such as insurance, will allow her to live without having to work.

John’s death has bought her the freedom she had just told him she needed to write. He has given her that way to do what she wants to do. And yet, the prize that every writer longs for is at the expense of the life of her beloved husband. This is a source of deep distress for Maryanne, and could only have made the long first year more difficult in many ways. But the creative entity creates, and Maryanne used the time and money well. She produced not only this book, but also many other projects, now available at her site, Pinkgazelle.com. Other women might have simply given up and wallowed in grief and despair.

After a distressing discussion with the hospital’s transplant team as to whether Maryanne would allow John’s organs to be transplanted into dying and ill persons who desperately needed them (she allowed his organs to be used, though not his skin) — after the immense grief of John’s parents combined with the (to his wife) odd rituals of the Greek Orthodox Church such as anointing his body with oil, and after Maryanne’s final farewell to him — John died.

Maryanne felt enraged at John’s Greek Orthodox Christianity, since his faith had refused him the right to be buried in that church unless he married within it — which Maryanne, a Lutheran, would not do. Suddenly, the church changed its mind and agreed to allow Sam/John to be interred under its auspices.This seems to be the moment when anger becomes a tool to help Maryanne/Adri through the strange and terrible time ahead.

There is one odd moment that I am sure happened, but could use more explanation. She states that when speaking to his parents, she had the sense that “one day I will be all right again.” I would have liked to know more about this — how she knew this at that moment. Most likely it was her life force rising to say, “you are not the one who is dying.” As far as the book goes, the phrase seemed to come at an awkward moment, and to take a little of the creative tension out of it. But as this book has just entered its second printing, any such criticism is probably moot. Many people have clearly found A Widow’s Awakening to be a source of support and help to them. The sometimes jokey tone of the book, occasionally a little jarring to someone who is mostly a reader, not a mourner (at the moment), apparently doesn’t detract from this support. In fact, it probably helps.

When John had died, Maryanne went home, to sorrow, confusion, anger, and fear, and that persistent sense many have known, that John was both present and absent. Her brother came to stay with her and look after her. Thoughts spun through her mind. Reading her account of the first night — the first several — I thought it remarkable that she was able to sleep at all without some kind of strong sedation.

It was a pleasure to read that this Canadian family and circle of friends had the sense and unity to make sure that someone was with their sister and daughter, and friend, each night, for quite a long time, till she finally was able to manage on her own. For an American, I am afraid this can be a surprise. Though many families would do this, it may not be something every family, with our busy, business-focused lives, would necessarily feel able to offer for more than a night or two. It becomes clear that her circle of relatives and friends were concerned about her sanity, for good reason.

Very soon, Maryanne found herself thinking all sorts of bizarre thoughts, such as the sudden idea that she was the Second Coming of Christ. She saw signs and portents everywhere and kept thinking she would probably be dead (though not a suicide) in seven months. She had all sorts of thoughts that clearly alarmed some of those to whom she expressed them. Many different ideas do present themselves to the newly bereaved. It is a kind of thinking in some ways outside of space and time, for we try to follow the lost loved one as far as we can.

All sorts of “magical thinking” can also come to the rescue at these times, as though the human psyche needs a special soothing syrup for the loss of a loved one. Or do we actually awaken — to a deeper realization, a farther vision, and the sense that we are greater and more remarkable than we believe?

I think Maryanne was right in a way. She was Jesus for herself; she saved herself through her writing. And, as she states in another passage, “Maybe Sam (John) is Jesus.” For her, he also was. She resurrected herself, and the sense that he was always nearby obviously sustained her.

I wish the names had not been changed; I personally prefer that nonfiction be rooted in the truth as much as possible. Yet one quickly becomes accustomed to the “undercover names.” There are some infelicitous or rough sentences, such as “Snooze was hit” on Maryanne’s alarm clock the third time she balked at getting up and writing on that final morning. One doesn’t wish to spend much time, though, picking over a book that tells so much, so honestly and without leaving out anything — even the wildest thought.

Maryanne/Adri goes as far as she can to the underworld with her lost lover and returns like Persephone when the year turns. She will never be the same, but she has begun to enable herself as a writer; unlike many who would probably be lost to grief, she has chosen to be a creative being to celebrate the life of Sam/John as well as her own true self.

I honor this woman, with whom I have communicated. I can attest that she is remarkably intelligent, as her husband said. She seems to feel somehow liberated from the exigencies of time and space, since they have done their worst. And, she has achieved a great deal other than the not inconsiderable job of writing a book. Twenty percent of the sales from the book go to the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund, which educates the public about workplace safety for  workers in emergency services, and that it is a “shared responsibility.” More information about this important issue is available at jpmf.ca.

There is much more that I could say about this book, but I suggest that if it is of interest to you — if you have recently lost someone, particularly — get A Widow’s Awakening and read it. It is different than many books I have read on this topic in an elusive way; it reveals more and more of the person who wrote it as it goes on. Maryanne says that it is “how I made sense of the unacceptable.” In this way, she also gives the reader an idea of how to do the same, when this becomes necessary.

John apparently realized that Maryanne was, and is, a real writer. She simply needed to have the right set of circumstances in order to let her writing arise. One can’t help but feel this: if only he could be here, in body as well as spirit, to see how well she has done!

I am sure that had he lived, had the financial stability his death provided not been available, she would have become a writer in any case. It sometimes takes more time than we think to fully bloom into the creative life.

A Widow’s Awakening is available at Pinkgazelle.com, or at Amazon.com.

A Widow’s Awakening
Maryanne Pope
Pink Gazelle, 2008 

This review is dedicated to the memory of my brother, William Fiske, 1954-2008, and that of my father, Irving Fiske, 1908-1990.

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About Ladybelle Fiske