‘Everything is different.’ The library where grieving strangers become friends

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

TRENTON — Paul Hilton walks into the library and is greeted by a chorus of women.

“Where were you last week?”

Hilton explains he was at the doctor, but the answer doesn’t really matter. What matters is he was missed. A few months ago, he didn’t know these people.

Now, he is sitting in a conference room at the Trenton Library, and he begins to tear up. Hilton says he thought he heard his wife’s voice recently. It startled him, because she’s been dead for almost five years. Still, he was convinced she was saying his name. He looked around his home for a moment and realized he left his television on.

Kathy Dixon sets her crochet hook down and leans across the table.

“I talk to Roger all the time,” she says of her late husband.

Earlier this year, the U.S. surgeon general said loneliness poses health risks similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. It also increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30%.

The holidays can be especially hard.

At the library, it’s the day before Thanksgiving. The Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio started facilitating meals here every week in March. They are free for adults 60 and older.

Dixon points down the table, past boxes of City Barbeque. Widow, she says. Widow, she repeats. Divorced. Widow. Widow. Divorced.

“It’s not a widows club,” she says. “But sometimes it feels like it.”

In Tennessee, Dixon’s home was too big after her husband died. Six months later, she moved to Butler County to be closer to family. She says it is impossible to explain the way it feels to lose half of your life – half of yourself. Your home feels empty, she says. Especially the bed.

And it is quiet. Too quiet.

“Everything is different,” Hilton agrees.

Dixon points across the table again. These people wouldn’t know each other if not for this weekly meal. Now, some get together every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

‘I miss the sound of a woman’s voice.’

Looking at his phone, a man slides his glasses up to read the definition of a questionable word. His group is playing Boggle.

“I need this one,” says Patty Sullivan.

They play on, share a laugh, and she counts it.

There are a couple dozen people here, which because of the holiday surprises library staff. Ken Wilson, a vice president for Ohio’s Council on Aging, says he’d like to expand this program in other areas. Before the pandemic, he says he underestimated the importance of social interaction.

If she wasn’t here today, one person told Wilson, she would be sitting in front of a TV eating cereal alone.

At another table, the stories are similar. Wanda Woodrey remembers kissing her husband before leaving for the day. When she returned home, he was still in the same position in bed. Woodrey says her husband died 35 years ago. She is 86 now and still misses him every day.

Beth Crout began visiting the library because she needed to get out of her house. She has four adult kids, and three of them live within 5 miles. They visit, but the 98-year-old is still alone most of the time. She says she even lives on a dead-end street.

Crout grew up on a farm in Maryland. She moved around a lot before eventually settling in Ohio after she married her husband.

“One day, he walked out the door and never came back,” she says.

Her husband had stepped outside to pick flowers, she remembers. It was a Sunday, and they were supposed to go to church that evening. Next to a cup of macaroni and cheese at the library, Crout traces the outline of her porch and flower bed.

“This is where he fell,” she says, tapping her finger on the table. “He had two or three flowers in his hand.”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Dixon says the first year without her husband became a fog. Friends didn’t recognize her. She started crocheting to giver her mind something else to focus on.

Today, Dixon and the other women at her table crochet for chemo patients at a nearby hospital. Hilton does not crochet, but he happily watches. He says he can tell you everything about it because of these weekly meals. Dixon shakes her head.

The women tease Hilton and tell him they won’t remember his name when he returns from a trip to Florida. He says he will have to get a name plate.

“Welcome to my Wednesday mornings,” he says. “I just listen, because I miss the sound of a woman’s voice.”

He laughs, and the women laugh too.

But he is not joking.

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