Chatting with Melinda Flannigan breaks my heart. She and I live similar lives-her husband, Freddie, works in Alberta on a 20 and eight rotation- yet somehow her story seems so much more tragic than mine. While I often laugh about and celebrate the lifestyle that allows our family to remain in rural Newfoundland, she is sad-guilty even- much of the time. “When I had to drop Freddie off this last time so he could go away I think it was the hardest time ever,” she says. Freddie will miss their sixth wedding anniversary on July 13th. Blair missed our last two-our 17th and 18th . While we didn’t pay much attention to either one Melinda is genuinely broken hearted. She fills up so often during our chat that I find myself questioning my own reactions as I live the life of an oil patch widow.
“Each time he leaves I think it gets worse. No matter how many times we go through this it never gets any easier,” she tells me. While sometimes I admit the leaving can be tough, for me it’s more the day or so before that things seem the roughest. Instead of becoming sad, I usually turn a little surly. So much to be done around the house and Blair’s gone trouting? Or hanging out down on the wharf? The man might as well be away, I tell myself. And often, I believe it. I step into her raw, emotion-filled shoes for a moment and I feel something so uncomfortable I quickly discard them. My way is better, I decide.
Melinda and I have a few things in common. Our husbands have been working a similar rotation for around the same length of time-just over 16 months. They both held jobs close to home before going back to school to get a trade, one that would put them in high demand in the Alberta Oil Sands- her husband is a third-year pipe fitter, mine a second-year Instrumentation Mechanic. Our husbands both worked away for a longer period of time-mine six and hers three months-before securing rotation work. We both have only children-she an almost five year-old daughter, me an 11 year- old son.
But there are also many differences. I live in an outport, she in an urban centre- Marystown- a place where I thought having an absentee spouse wouldn’t be a huge deal. After all, everything she needs is right at her finger tips. She isn’t nearly as isolated as I am. Right? According to Melinda, those differences only serve to makes things worse. First of all, while I live amongst a group of women living the same life, raising children under similar circumstances, she is the only oil-patch widow in her peer group. “I’m always feeling left out. Isolated. There’s no one I can call on who understands,” she says. She is also close enough to employment opportunities to question, almost on a daily basis, their current lifestyle. Having the shipyard close is a constant reminder of what could be, she tells me. I have twelve years on the 26 year-old Melinda and I wonder how I would have reacted being away from my husband for that long at such a young age. Having a daughter also seems to make a difference. Where our son seems fine, accepting a revolving door daddy as normal, (he is, after all, just like the rest of his buddies) their young daughter, Kalei, cries for her daddy regularly-especially at night. “She wonders why her daddy can’t be home for supper like poppy is, or she’ll ask why so-and so’s daddy is home while hers isn’t.”
“He’s missing so much of our daughters life. So much he isn’t here to see that it kills me emotionally,” she says, crying once more. This time she gets me and I find myself holding back tears of my own. We will soon have a new baby, one who will experience many firsts, firsts my husband could quite possibly miss. I struggle to regain my composure, but this time, she has me. “I call women like us part-time single mom’s. We have to do all the disciplining while at the same time providing our children with enough love, patience and understanding to make up for the parent whose away,” she says.
Melinda does her best, but there is one thing she says she hasn’t quite figured out how to handle. “When Kalei cries for her daddy there seems nothing I can do to ease her pain, so I let her cry, even as my own heart breaks for her and for me,” she says.
While Melinda outlines things she finds the hardest, she also reminds me that our husbands have it worse. “Freddie will try to call when he can, but sometimes with the time difference it can be difficult,” she says. Freddie experiences his own bout of the guilt’s while away, she says. “He’s sad for me, thinking of what I have to deal with alone. He’ll cry on the phone or when he has to leave to catch his flight.”
Before I fall apart, I change the subject. Let’s talk about the money, I prod her, looking for a smile. No doubt, that is a bonus, she says. Still, even that doesn’t quite cut it for her. Three years ago their family lived in a run down apartment. They had no vehicle. Today they own their own home and have a car to drive. “I know you can’t live off nothing, but sometimes I question if it’s really all worth it,” she says.
“When I go to bed each night there’s only an empty feeling. No one to talk to, no one to cuddle with. Do you find that?” she asks.
Part of me wants to tell her that it gets easier, to toughen up, but I can’t. Again I choke up and I have to acknowledge something I’d rather not admit to.
Melinda lives with the hope that her husband might be home working for Kiewit soon. Home for supper each evening after a hard day working at the shipyard. Freddie has already applied. It reminds me to send an application in for Blair-something we haven’t gotten around to doing yet.
Again, I wonder about how hard-hearted I have become. I decide I couldn’t live like Melinda does everyday-so sad with raw emotion. Its not that those same emotions aren’t there; I just choose to ignore them.
A chat with Melinda shows just how close to the surface those feelings really are. And I’m not sure how to quite feel about that.