Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Solo Means You’re the Star


You never expect it to happen. People say this as cameras zoom into their shocked faces: "In an instant, my life changed." The earthquake, the car accident, the drive-by, the overdose, the proverbial hit-by-a-truck. We say "live for now, it could all end tomorrow." Yet life goes on, decades pass, and you never expect it to happen to you.

It happened.
In the last days of 2008, my husband of twenty-two years died. Suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably, horribly, in a foreign place, in front of me and our 16-year-old daughter. And in an instant, the space-time continuum shifted. My life changed.

Headline, perhaps: "Man plucked from steady university life to advise president of a mid-sized African nation dies in exotic rain forest of unknown causes -- with his wife and child at his side."

Or, in exactly 50 words: Bill was living part-time in Madagascar, advising that nation's president on leadership and communication. Annie and I joined him for Christmas vacation. We traveled to a rain forest where he got sick and, after we evacuated across a stormy bay in a small boat to a clinic with no doctor, he died.

Most simply: "Adventurous man suffers adventurous death."

There are elements of this story so bizarre that it sounds like an airport paperback: an African coup, a large blue sapphire, strange death in a distant rain forest, presidential condolences, diplomatic escorts, a welded-shut zinc coffin, a man late for his own funeral. Even as I lay in the fetal position in my bed, mouth encrusted with cold sores, lungs unable to catch a full breath, the storyteller in me rubbed her hands together and thought, "What a story. What a story!"

Perhaps it's that writer-brain that got me through, seeing the narrative arc, the absurdity in the tragic, filing the details of his death and what happened after.

But I'm more interested in exploring the ordinary story within. The aftermath of sudden death on a relatively young widow and her teenaged daughter. The months of learning to live without him. The guilt of living well without him. What it means to raise a teenager alone. And how, now unmarried, I'm becoming the woman I always wanted to be.

In this story, it's not my glamorous husband with the larger-than-life death who takes center stage. In this story, I'm the star.

During the first year grief flattens everything, fogs and clarifies, warps time. The universe becomes a place of beauty and possibility, a place of unbearable darkness. Everything feels brittle and epic.

Even when a man dies with a trust and a will, there's so much to sort and settle, and there was only me to do it. Endless forms to fill out, faxes to send. Social security. House refinance. Money in, money out. Small settlements all told, it amounted to less than a year of his income.

How did I manage? Friends. Family. Love. Food, walks, hugs, talks, tears. I managed. Through the bureaucracy and terrors and insomnia, the choking, blinding waves of grief. Amidst the pain was huge joy in discovering so much love in the world. People around me formed a giant net, and I couldn't fall.

I'd always thought that writing was essential, creativity the blood in my veins, that I'd be, perhaps, like Joan Didion, chronicling my journey through grief. And yet, the first nine months, I couldn't write, except a few blog entries, a few eulogies.

Late at night I dashed off a few unedited missives. People needed to know how we were doing, so I wrote it down. Other than that, nothing. In my version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, writing wasn't a necessity compared to food, shelter, figuring out money, how I'd take care of my daughter, and how I'd live through the pain.

When I finally began to write again, it was different. I have a theater background, but I'd left that behind when I began to write seriously. For years I'd thought longingly about community theater; the camaraderie, the absorbing rehearsals, the giddiness of audience reaction, the instant feedback for creative work. And I'd done some solo performance, was a peripheral member of the San Francisco indie theater community.

So with deadlines and collaborators, I began to bring the shattered pieces of my life into a kaleidoscope, a full-length solo performance piece about his death and the aftermath.

And so the rest of the first year passed. Slowly the world stopped rocking. On the day of Bill's Yahrzeit, the first anniversary of his death, I woke up and something was different. Clarity. Relief. I had passed through something big, and come out the other side.

Now I need to figure out what's on that other side.

Bill and I were together a long time, and there were times in our relationship when I imagined -- even wished -- he was gone. To see who I would be without him. Now, post-shock, post-guilt (mostly), I get to answer that question.

It means small things: Do I like that blend of coffee? Do I even like coffee?

It means big things: Where do I want to live? Do I want to have lovers or a boyfriend or a husband again? Do I want to stay up late or wake early? How much of me is me, and how much is/was a reflection of his strong personality? Is widowhood freedom, or its own kind of trap?

This column will explore what it means to be widowed at age 48 after a twenty-two year relationship/marriage. To be the only parent of a teenager making her first moves towards leaving home. To take the first steps towards a career as a solo performing artist: one woman, one stage, telling my story. Writing this column is a return and a continuation and something new. It makes sense because writing is what I do; post-crisis, it is the blood in my veins. Yes, performance gives me the community and camaraderie I crave, but writing a column gives me the opportunity to connect with you, a wider audience. And to really explore the question of what it means to be solo.

Join me as I find out.

Ericka Lutz is an author, solo performer, and teacher. Her seven non-fiction books include On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting, and her fiction/creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous books, anthologies, and journals. Ericka teaches writing at U.C. Berkeley. She also provides private coaching on writing and writing process to writers and organizations. Her full-length solo show, “A Widow’s To-Do List,” is currently in development in San Francisco. For information on upcoming performances, visit Ericka’s website.

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Gasp. As for the last sentence . . . invitation accepted.
Thank you for taking us with you on your journey. I held my breath throughout this read, and then almost applauded when you talked about Bill's Yahrzeit, and then the clarity that settled in. You are an inspiration.
I'm deeply grateful to you to writing of your experience through this time - or, grateful seems like the closest word to what I mean. I'm a fan.
I echo another commenter--it seems I was holding my breath the entire time. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
Thank you for staying, and for coming back.
Thank you for wanting to connect with the wider audience and I look forward to following this column as you explore. There is so much public focus on the one who died that those of us left behind struggle quietly to figure out how we have changed, who we are now and what we do next. Several times reading this column I was jumping in my seat to say "yes! that's it!"
So happy you're back, Ericka. This is lovely and heartbreaking.
Ericka, you are a wonderful writer and I have been waiting for an update since I learned about the death of your husband. Although we don't know each other personally, you have been in my thoughts ever since. Good luck with your new endeavors!
Brava, mama!!
Your words are so honest. I'm looking forward to reading more about your discoveries.
Stunning. This moved me so much. And I'm really glad that you're writing again and hope that - as it has served me - your writing can help you on this other side of life.
Best wishes on these latest post-tragedy endeavors. You are very honest and very talented, and we are pleased you are sharing those qualities as you continue your creative endeavors and as you support solo your beloved daughter entering adulthood.
Ericka, I knew when I first met you when we danced with Heather that you were something unique and special; so raw, sultry, smart, & sassy. I saw your first performance and it left me spellbound and wanting more. You are so talented, expressive and alive.
I'm so honored by your comments, and so excited to be doing this! Thank you.
Erika--I wish you luck and good energy as you continue on the journey you didn't choose but the one that you have to sustain. This was a courageous and honest piece. I look forward to reading more. We met briefly at Own Your Story; now I can connect a name, a face and a passionate story. Thank you for writing this. Wendy Breuer
Thank you for this wrenching, thoughtful, moving piece. I look forward to following you.
So beautiful, Ericka. Thank you for inviting us on your journey.
In an "instant my life changed" I kissed my husband good bye at 7am, he took our son to school, came home not feeling well and at 9:30am he dropped dead in the shower. Do you ever get past"WTF" "How could this have happened." I'm not sure--but I do know writing, talking, and continuing my relationship with my husband has kept me falling apart and enabled me to hold my 14 year old together. It is a solo journey especially late at night as you hug a bathrobe...burying your face trying to catch a smell....sad is so hard but we are thriving through it with friends and family.I am go grateful to the friend who sent me the link to your post and I am so grateful to you for writing it. Thank you.
Ericka, Wow... so thankful to be reading your brave words on the pages of LM again. You are an inspiration. I have heard nothing but rave reviews of your show -- and sincerely hope to make it to a future performance! Best wishes, ~Sarah
Katybeth -- I know those nights. Sending support to join the support of your friends and family. Keep writing it, too. xo Ericka
I am crying. This is so beautiful, Ericka. I would expect no less from you. I look forward to reading many more of these insightful columns. Katie
Ericka, this was so moving, heartbreaking, honest and beautiful. I had to sit with this for several days before deciding what to say. Thank you.
Oh hell to the yeah, Ericka - I've been awaiting this chronicle, and look forward to the day when I get the part that comes with a program in my hand.
Ericka, So good to see you back on the page and to hear your voice--clean crisp sentences punctuated by a powerful emotional palatte. Anne Lamott, look at Ericka Lutz is back on the court! Wishing you success in everything! Davina
In the vast internet neighborhood I always find other single mothers - ones who've experienced tragedies, albeit different ones from mine. Always good to know you're out there. I'm over here, waving.
I will read in depth later but just want to say that I celebrate the voice and the community and the idea of honestly sharing one's truths...why we all blog in various places whether artist/writer or artist;writer or artist-writer-performer or whatever it is called...
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