STRAWBERRY JAM – Marilyn Armstrong

I was 46 years old when my homemade strawberry preserves jelled properly.

Probably what broke the barrier was overcoming a longstanding aversion to putting sufficient sugar in the mix. Alternatively, I could have solved the problem by adding tapioca starch or pectin, but I’m a bit of a food snob.

I wanted my preserves made of just fruit and sugar.

The day the preserves came out perfectly was the day my first husband finally died. He had been dying for a long time. It was a Friday, a rare brilliant spring day in New England.

Jeff had been sick for almost a year in what we politely called a coma, but which was actually a vegetative state. Now gone. I had not come to terms with it though I’d had plenty of time. Probably no amount of time would have been enough.

Other than Jeff’s dying, it was a good time for us. Garry and I were happy. We were good together, busy with career and friends.

Yet there was an underlying sadness we could not avoid, the knowledge that death was near.  Happiness and sadness don’t cancel each other out. The good things are not a balance against pain. Feelings aren’t an equation. You can’t add columns of positive and negatives in your life and come up with a number in the middle. In the real world, joy and misery cohabit. We live with both.

Emotions are messy.

My head was a wheel of memories, a slide show carousel. Faces, places, good years, bad. Bittersweet, sad, joyous, funny. Strawberry jam that never jelled.

I married Jeffrey at 18 and thought myself very mature. He was almost 30, but he thought me very mature too. Both of us were wrong.  We muddled through. We were hard triers. When we had no idea what to do, we faked it.

Eventually, we became the people we pretended to be and it turned out, not the people we needed to be.

1965 in the WVHC office

Though we went in different directions, we stayed friends. No matter where on Earth I was, I knew Jeffrey was there for me. We had a better divorce than most marriages.

Decades passed.

Jeff’s health deteriorated. He survived things that should have killed him, so what a shock he should die of the thing that was supposed to extend his life. The heart surgery should have given him years, maybe decades.  When Sue called late on an August evening it upended reality.  His body wasn’t dead, but his brain was. The future world would be without Jeff.

I would never call to tell him something funny that happened, hear his sarcastic, drawling response. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Someone rewrote the script when our backs were turned.

Fall passed and winter too. Jeff remained in a vegetative state. Someone who looked just like him was wearing his body and that shell remained alive through the seasons. We visited. I stayed for weeks to help care for him. Finally, as spring was nearly summer, the piper played. Now, the ashes were scattered.

Just the other day, Garry glimpsed someone in a crowd who looked exactly like Jeff.

24 thoughts on “STRAWBERRY JAM – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. You just keep amazing me….. Yes, and really none of it had anything to do with strawberry jam, except the date!
    It‘s our wedding anniversary today. Hero Husband works in another country. I‘m here, in France….. life is a bitch, often, and in many ways – but it‘s the best we have! I also like that you had a better divorce than many a marriage….

    And after my divorcing first husband, I saw him EVERYWHERE for the longest time – although we were separated already a long while. He was still lingering in my heart and mind although I was so happy and relieved to be separated for good ….. it‘s a ‚funny‘ thing isn‘t it!

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  2. I’m glad your ‘jam’ finally jelled. And having the loss I suffered just recently, I got a bit misty eyed at the mention of death here. I’m glad you two remained friends, even though the fire died and the marriage failed. The tricky bit, as I see it, with jam and with life is learning the correct combination that works for one. Leave a bit out there and add too much here, and you end up with syrupy ‘jam’ and regret. What a lovely tribute.

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    1. I wrote this originally about ten years ago but never published it. I always meant to but didn’t. Finally, it floated to the top and I edited it and thought … “not bad and still relevant.” We’re in a period where many friends are passing. We are just so glad when anyone we care about ISN’T dying. I have one best friend who has been my friend since we were young with little kids … and our little kids are now parents of adult children. We are old enough to be great grandparents, though so far, we aren’t. We keep telling each other “STAY ALIVE. YOU HAVE TO STAY ALIVE.” Between us, we have enough illnesses to fill a couple of medical encyclopediae, but we try to keep going because we promised.

      It does get discouraging. For everyone. You don’t need mental illness to find it hard to trudge on when you’re in poor health, short of money, low on friends and family and have a house that needs work and you can’t pay to get it done. It’s hard. For all of us. Getting old is not for the faint of heart. We all just do the best we can and hope somehow, it gets easier. But frankly, I’m not counting on it.

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  3. I was extremely upset about Jeffrey’s passing. The circumstances didn’t seem right.., just not fair anyway you looked at it. I will miss him, and thank him, for the rest of my days.

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    1. The hospital killed him. It was “legal murder” and they made it impossible to sue them. We could never get him back, but effectively, they got away with murder and that is galling. Somewhere in my brain, it still makes me furious. That they could and did get away with it.

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      1. They “murdered him” because they fucked up. I know this because I was the first one to make it to the hospital. The Resident who fucked up, and it could have happened to anybody who wasn’t the main attending surgeon talked to me. He confessed what happened. He was totally freaking out and for good reason. he was totally honest and basically begged me to not try to use heroic measures. He was brain dead. Sadly I didn’t have that power. The person that eventually took that power and had no right to do it, did just that. I will never forgive that person. And it absolutely wasn’t Marilyn. I buried the memory for many years. I regret it.

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        1. I know. We could never prove anything. I think that was what was the worst part for me. We could have gone to court. But I think none of us had the stomach for a court battle that would have ended up making lawyers rich while gaining nothing. We got caught in a tragedy and we were smart enough to not let it drag us even further down into the depths. It could have been even worse. It was bad. it was ugly. It was painful and it went on a lot longer than it should have, but finally, it did end and we all got to literally hear the piper play and finally breathe again. It’s awful to drag a death on like that.

          It’s a terrible thing to do to everyone involved and she had no right at all to do it. How she managed it I still don’t really understand. And you never understood why I disliked her so much.

          I always wondered if I had stayed and NOT gone to Israel, would have been different?

          Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. Eventually, you realize what happened is what happened. In some parallel world, something else happened. Maybe we’ll get to travel there sometime.

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  4. It happens more than you know. A friend of a friend told me doctors do it all the time to save on taking up space with someone who won’t come back. It is murder and lack of care and where’s that hippocratic oath?

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    1. It was an accident, but it wasn’t really an accident because it shouldn’t have happened. He shouldn’t have been left alone, they shouldn’t have gone into his heart without a heart-lung machine on hand. There were so many shouldn’t haves, it’s mind-boggling. If he had been treated properly, he’d be here still.

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