Bereaved Spouses/Partners, The Road Less Traveled

Breakin’ Up Is Hard to Do

by Carla Malden

CMphotoWhen you marry your high school sweetheart, you don’t have a lot of practice being dumped.

My first foray into the world of the brokenhearted arrived on a Tuesday morning when I awoke (euphemistically, as I had not slept) to realize that the nightmare of the night before was real. In truth, it had been eleven months of nightmare. And now, on this Tuesday morning, I was a widow.

I had been unusually fortunate in my life. I had never lost anyone closer to me than aged grandparents with whom I shared distant relationships. And now here I was, plunged into the deep end of grief, having never really experienced that dress-rehearsal-for-loss known as the break-up.

As the months passed and I bounced between the supposed stages of grief –leaping over some, lingering in others, churning them all together, one moment to the next — what I consistently felt was dumped. Then the dreams began. Dreams in which my husband, Laurence, had left me for another woman. These dreams allowed me to jab an accusatory finger at him. They allowed me to rail at him. But mostly, they allowed me to be in a relationship with him…still.

It occurred to me — and this may be the salient feature of the grief experience — it occurred to me that I might be losing my mind.

And then I ran into an acquaintance who had lost her husband to cancer, like mine, several years before. Since the last time I had seen her, she had remarried. Her new husband was a widower. This was no coincidence. She explained to me that their marriage worked because they each understood that the other was still in a relationship with someone else.

I’ve never been a fan of all those pop psychologists brow beating us. Work, work, work, they remind us. That’s what it takes for relationships to survive, let alone thrive. Sure, there’s work involved (though I bristle against the earnestness that implies.). But there’s a heftier dose of fun, silliness, and a lot of just plain, quotidian sameness. You need those things, too, if you’re going to be in it for the long haul.

I discover, however, that there is plenty of work involved in this new phase of our relationship, Laurence’s and mine. My husband is more with me than not, like a three-year-old’s imaginary friend. But sometimes I have to coax him out from where he is hiding deep in my psyche, deeper in my heart. I have to still the flurry of activity that I cultivate to pretend that life goes on. I have to be quiet. I have to give the pain of loss free rein. To learn to dance with that pain is the hardest work I have ever had to do.

My way of choreographing that dance was to write Afterimage: A Broken-Hearted Memoir of a Charmed Life. Grief is a fracturing experience. I am sitting across the dinner table from a friend, but what I am really doing is grieving. I am at the symphony, but what I am really doing is grieving. I am at the movies, but what I am really doing is grieving. Writing this book allowed me to be all in one place – body, mind and heart. Though it may have seemed a horrible place to be, it was still a relief to be there, integrated. And with Laurence.

That was my way of figuring out how to negotiate the land of the abandoned., how to build a life around a gaping hole. A productive, fulfilling life that gradually proved to finesse the impossible: to include joy. A life in which I still sometimes think of myself as dumped rather than widowed. We are supposed to be the forever young generation. How could I be a widow when I had never even felt like a grown-up? I am still trying to wrap my mind around this lesson: breaking up is hard to do.

Sometimes I need help — a prop — something I can hold in my hand. I rummage through my husband’s jacket pockets, pulling out half-filled packets of gum and narrow tins of Grether’s black currant pastilles, now artifacts.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, I Google his name as though I were a stalker or a crazed fan. Who will the cyberworld tell me he was? I can track his political contributions, scroll his credits as a filmmaker, and, surrealistically, “Compare Prices” for him. I log onto our account and study the recommendations compiled based on his reading tastes. I scan the sluglines of his morning e-mails in our inbox. Such is modern life. We leave behind these strange technological echoes.

Sometimes I sit in the black sling chair that often cradled my husband’s savaged body in the last few months of his life. It’s a cheap collapsible canvas piece. I have no idea where it came from. But Laurence found it comfortable — something about the way it nestled the curve of his lower back. He sat there, usually listening to music, but sometimes alone with his thoughts and his pain, and stared at the bulletin board on the opposite wall of his home office.

An acquaintance had suggested Laurence print out a picture of Buddha, the healing Buddha to be exact. Laurence did so, pinning a copy the size of a headshot onto that bulletin board. Appropriately serene, sporting a top knot, this fellow is the deep blue of lapis lazuli. He sits cross-legged, Buddha-style predictably, his left hand palm up, holding a bowl of miraculous healing nectar. His right hand is poised on his knee, palm outward, holding a magic plant which cures all diseases. In theory.

Laurence did his best to meditate on this azure companion, to subjugate entreaties for his own health to the health and well-being of others, to generate such deep positive intention that he could cure himself from the inside out. Why not? The outside-in approach was not working. By the time he was spending hour after hour in that chair, we knew what we could not say: the outside-in approach was not going to work, was never going to work.

I’m sure that my husband was better at meditating than I could ever be. He did not have the same internal tick-tick-ticking that I do. But even so, meditating was not really his thing. I imagine that his eyes and mind frequently wandered to the rest of the bulletin board landscape. Now mine do, too. That is what draws me to this chair — all the tidbits of years past, randomly tacked to a rectangle of cork.

On the lower left corner: a postcard Laurence designed as an invitation to a reading of a screenplay we had written. I remember thinking that he was taking too much time perfecting something that would end up in most people’s trash cans. But there it is, a masterpiece of design, capturing the entire script in a series of images. A testament to his innate sense that good enough was never good enough.

Above that, a photograph of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, an icon of Streamline Moderne architecture. Quintessentially L.A. Laurence was an L.A. guy through and through.

A black and white doodle from who-knows-when that covers an entire piece of paper, done with a Rapidograph, I believe. Tiny, intricate squiggles undulating around and back in on themselves, the kind of art produced by speed freaks in the ‘60s.

There’s an original ticket to Woodstock given to us as a gift.

Three postcard-size gouache abstracts Laurence painted many years ago.

A Christmas card crafted by our daughter, Cami, when she was in elementary school. An intricately snipped origami snowflake.

The envelope that had held another card from her, from longer ago, on which “Daddy” is printed in silver glitter.

A flyer Laurence designed for a gig with his middle-age-crazy band, The Lower Companions. “Get out yer rockin’ shoes.”

A picture of King Kong on top of the Empire State Building. When Laurence was a film major in college, he was required to take one acting class. While other budding auteurs performed monologues from Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, Laurence offered a speech from King Kong. Forever after, he loved quoting the line, “The public… bless ‘em.”

There’s a drawing in crayon of three palm trees — Laurence’s fallback doodle; a pencil never at rest in his hand. These are casual, sketchy, nearly a scribble, but strangely capturing the light hitting the trees.

A friendship bracelet Cami wove at camp one year. Chevron stripes of yellow, orange and green, as though she were capturing the sunshine and the grass of the place and presenting them to her Daddy.

There is a postcard from Philippe’s, legendary downtown L.A. home of the French dip sandwich. It was sent by a friend years ago, and, for reasons unknown, survived several moves. The card is battered, its message too smudged to read. It is addressed to Laurence at the apartment he lived in before we lived together. It is so old that under the street address is written simply, Beverly Hills, California. No zip code.

A favorite picture of Cami, age five, that Laurence took in the vacant lot that used to stand across the street from our house. Cami climbed trees there with her Daddy poised below in case of a misstep. We erected a badminton net there summer after summer. It was our own private park. In this picture, Cami stares directly into her Daddy’s lens, her face partially obscured by tree branches.

There is also a business card from Art’s Deli, where “Every Sandwich is a Work of Art.” A beauty shot of a corned beef sandwich, piled inches high, dripping with mustard. Once or twice during the months when Laurence was ill — dying — I’d walk into his office and find him sitting there supposedly communing with the healing Buddha, but more likely communing with the corned beef sandwich. “We’ll go for one of those when you’re all better,” I’d say, and he would nod. That would be a great day.

There is a stack of pages ripped from a steno pad on which Cami drew pictures for her Daddy when he was in the hospital. Now a sophomore in college, her artwork reflected a visual sense of humor much like her father’s. I don’t remember pinning these torn-out sheets to the bulletin board, but I must have as I unpacked the belongings from his hospital bag in the days following his death. So there they are now: a hula girl; fish puckering up for a smooch under the sea; a palm tree reaching high above Los Angeles, a heart floating between the tree and the skyline.

And, in the upper right corner of the bulletin board, a Native American dream catcher. A circular web of straw-colored thread punctuated, off center, with a single malachite bead, and an amber feather dangling from the woven frame. An old colleague of Laurence’s brought it to the memorial. He had, the card informed me, intended to deliver it to Laurence in the months preceding, but never got around to it.

That I do remember removing from its gift box and pinning to the bulletin board, hoping that somehow it was never too late to catch a dream. Of course, only young girls believe that. Girls whose hearts have not been bruised by a break-up. Hearts not yet broken. Not broken at all.

About the Author: Carla Malden graduated Magna Cum Laude from U.C.L.A. with a Bachelor of Arts in English, and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society for her academic achievement.

Malden has been a screenwriter and published author for over twenty years. With her husband and screenwriting partner, Laurence Starkman, she co-wrote and produced the short romantic comedy Whit & Charm, which screened at eight major film festivals and won several awards. She also co-created and wrote a series of Cine Golden Eagle Award winning Art History films.

Raised in Los Angeles, Malden began her career as the assistant to renowned director` Elia Kazan on his final film, The Last Tycoon. She went on to work extensively in motion picture production and development.

Along with her father, Academy Award winning actor Karl Malden, she co-authored his critically acclaimed memoir, When Do I Start?, which was hailed as “a joy to read, written with passionate intensity” and “the best of the bunch.” Booklist remarked, “Carla Malden tells [this] story engagingly and literately.”

Carla Malden lives in Brentwood, California where she is completing her first novel. Her daughter, Cami Starkman, is following in her father’s footsteps and currently attends the American Film Institute. You may contact Carla through her email