I went to see the film: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING this afternoon and thank goodness I decided to go by myself. Who knew that I would be so affected by this story (although in hindsight I guess it might be obvious)? The film is the story of Stephen Hawking–the brilliant scientist who developed ALS (Lou Gehrig disease) early in life–and his incredible wife, Jane. There were so many moments that touched me and reminded me of the years that L was ill and all that he was forced to abandon as his health worsened. The scenes of Jane’s exhaustion and struggles to keep the fight going brought back painful memories of those times when I faltered and just wanted our life back to the way it had been. Hawking’s humor was SO reminiscent of L’s–the one thing everyone mentions when they speak of L is his laugh and how it lit up a room.
There were so many lines in the script that touched me in places both painful and sweet. One of those lines is delivered by a man who comes into their lives having suffered the death of his wife…the line is something about “the tyranny of the empty room.” Is that not IT? The loneliness that waits just behind the door no matter how busy you are?
I have mentioned to some of you that I don’t feel I have cried enough. I have long felt that my true feelings about L’s last days and his death have been walled up behind a dam that seemed to hold. Well, this afternoon that dam cracked and it was a moment that I recognized immediately as not only healthy but absolutely necessary. And so I cried and cried and cried–so much so that as the lights came up I found it necessary to allow the entire rest of the audience to leave (under the pretense of watching the credits) before I could trust myself to stand up and leave. I know that this is a key step forward and the fact that it has come two and a half years after his death is neither here nor there–the point is the dam will not hold forever. And in the flood of those pent-up emotions comes spilling forth the anger and the regret and the fear of not having done enough–of not having taken full advantage of the time we had. But hindsight is, of course, twenty/twenty and as I cull through the memories of our years together this I know for sure (as Oprah would say): I loved and was loved in return and it is that shared love that no dam can hold and no death can silence.
The other day I had coffee with a couple of friends. This is something we do about once a week or so. Sometimes when I go for these meetings I approach it as simply something on my schedule for the day. The truth is that I am jealous of my friends–that they still have life partners and they have children and grandchildren and they approach the coming holidays with plans for large family gatherings and a reason to fix a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. The truth is I miss that and although I get invited to more than one turkey dinner each year it’s not the same…it can never again be the same.
Oh, there is much I can replicate–I can make the dinner with all the trimmings and I can usually find someone to share it with but without L teasing me about my need to make sure the TV is tuned to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and my insistence that ‘that’ Santa is the real deal–without L to pass by the kitchen and praise the delicious smells coming from there– without L sitting beside me or across the table (even when someone else hosts the meal) giving me that smile and our special secret signal to say ‘I love you’ it is not and cannot be the same.
And the truth is that I am so very tired of realizing that, of knowing that I must find new ways and build new memories. And so my days come in three flavors: lousy, doing-the-best-I-can; and thankfully mostly ‘okay.’ And then when I walked out of that coffee meeting with my friends I felt something I so rarely feel: I felt good. I felt happy. I felt at peace with myself in this new world. Our meeting was nothing out of the ordinary–we discussed films and plays and books we’re reading. We solved most of the world’s problems. We laughed and shook our heads at the silly pettiness of much that goes on in politics. But there was something there because later when I mentioned it to my friends they had felt it as well.
So here’s what I’m thinking: I’m thinking there was a 4th person at that coffee and it was L reminding me that (as he so often said in life) “It is what it is” and opening my heart to the incredible gift of friends who care, share and are there.
I have just returned from 10 days in Ireland and as always am counting my blessings that I have the means and opportunity to travel. BUT having the opportunity means that L no longer needs my care and therein lies the trial of travel for me. As the bus made its way from the airport in Shannon to the quaint little village of Ennistymon I saw an incredibly beautiful rainbow–one of several I was to see over the coming days. A firm believer in ‘signs’ I took this to be L smiling down on me and letting me know that he too had made it to Ireland. In the early days of any trip I am usually able to ‘share’ the adventure with L by thinking of him seeing what I am seeing, but as the trip moves on toward its conclusion I become more and more depressed by his absence. As I get better acquainted with my fellow travelers–many of them couples–I miss those shared smiles, the casual holding hands as they walk together down a wooded path, even the occasional and obvious lift of the eyebrow in annoyance or irritation. What is the point, I ask myself, of travel without him to share it with? And so this inner journey of finding my place in the world seems to get more difficult with the passage of time.
And then today–battling a cold I acquired on the way home–I decided to put together an album of the trip. I pulled out all the brochures and postcards and small memorabilia I collected over the ten days. I sorted through nearly 150 photographs I took and had printed. I fingers the small shells a friend found on the ‘strand’ (beach) on our first day and the chopsticks I used as knitting needles when I found wonderful Irish wool but no needles. And I smiled. I could practically hear L laughing and see him shaking his head as he so often did when I did anything that surprised or pleased him. And I knew that he had been there with me all along and even as I walked down those wooded paths he was there–holding my hand.
I was at a play today–I love going to the theater and to films and it’s something I truly do not mind doing alone. Often I prefer it especially since I can’t share it with L. Unexpectedly today was definitely one of those days. The play was not one I am familiar with and I will not name it because in fact the story line was a little too close to real life for L and me. Having admitted in these pages that I feel I have not cried nearly enough let me assure you that tears were falling freely by the time the play ended.
It brought back so many memories of how L and I came together–our first meeting, our first dates, the turbulent year and a half that led up to our marriage. As in the play there were secrets we kept from each other and choices we made and times when we both thought there was no future for us–not really–but stayed in touch any way. And as all of that came flooding back I wanted so much to talk to L about it–to explore those early days from the distance of forty+ years, to hear what he was thinking then, and most of all to marvel at the miracle that over time those early struggles (and they continued into the early years of our marriage) eventually blossomed into a love story without parallel–one that sustains me every day that I am alone.
Isn’t it strange–the things that bring us comfort?
Yesterday at a meeting with my writers’ group we were doing our usual creative exercises. We have a book that gives us ideas such as “The song I still hear in my head…” and that’s the starter. Go! Writer for eight minutes and see what happens. Then we take turns reading our writings aloud and marvel at what different paths we took with the exercise. We laugh a lot and once in a rare while (like yesterday) we shed a tear or two.
Yesterday’s “prompt” was a variation on the old stand-by: if the house was on fire and you could only grab three things from your bookshelf, what would they be? Here’s what I wrote:
If I could keep only three things from my bookshelf I would choose SOPHIE’S CHOICE because it was while reading that story that I saw the clarity and complexity of good writing. I would also take a coffee table book about New York City–a place I love and a place where I always feel at home.
And here I began to struggle–those two things seemed pretty trite as did my motives for choosing them. What else?
Finally I would take a box filled with memories of L–the journal I begged him to write his personal thoughts in (instead of always leaving me written instructions about how to change the furnace filter, etc.); the CD with his voice talking to me–laughing with me–about all the adventures we shared on the trips we took; letters I would write to him (and that he saved) when we fought and were struggling as a couple–letters that promised to do better and that shout how deeply insecure I was about why this man could possibly love me. And if I could write him a letter today what would it say? I would apologize for all the wasted time when the truth I now know is that I was loved beyond my wildest dreams by a man that I adored in return.
Cue the tears that are half sad and half joyous knowing that I had the best and that brings me comfort every day.
Most days I go along with a full schedule and see a calendar with lots of future events and appointments, but every once in awhile in the midst of what appears to me–and others–to be an incredibly busy and satisfying life (sans the presence of L everyone is quick to add) I find myself wondering if this isn’t just some role I’m playing. I have a masters in Theater and am not a bad actress–life has given me plenty of opportunities to rehearse. Is this all just another performance staged for the comfort and benefit of friends and family? I often brush aside compliments about how amazingly well I have handled life without L by saying that I honor his memory by living the full life he wanted for me…and that is in fact true. It is what gets me up in the morning and it’s what keeps me from saying “no” as often as I would usually want to. But there is a part of me that doesn’t truly buy into that.
Recently I was on an airplane on my way to a writer’s conference. I had a good deal to be excited about–a new book deal with a publisher I have been trying to connect with for years, a chance to meet in person with my agent who has also become a dear friend, a chance to visit a city I’ve heard good things about but never visited before. LOTS of good stuff. And yet on that plane ride out of the blue I found myself wondering, “So what?” It is those times that are the worst–those times that creep up on me in silence and then explode across my mind. It is those times that I have no answer for what meaning life has without L in it. It is those times that I know that friends and family and success in my chosen career and meeting new people and having new adventures are my way of putting one foot in front of the other day in and night out.
I am a little over two years into this now and I will proudly and readily admit that I have made incredible positive strides forward in all facets of my life but the bottom line is that I still can’t believe he’s not coming through the door or waiting for my call to hear all about my adventures when I travel or whipping up a batch of his infamous salmon patties to serve me a proper dinner when I get home. When I started this blog I was determined to be completely honest–the good, the bad, the ugly–because it’s all part of the process and my guess is that allowing myself to feel the bad and the ugly is every bit as important in making my way through this as celebrating the good is. So (as my former agent used to say) “Onward!” And as L always said, “It is what it is” and so I go with that.
My decision to move into the city (rather than continue living in the ‘burbs where L and I spent most of our married life) has turned out to be one of the better decisions I have made. From my 6th floor apartment that overlooks a main downtown street plus Lake Michigan I am audience for a passing parade of quirky events that make me smile or raise my curiosity or inspire my creativity. This weekend along I have witnessed the annual ritual that comes with people saving their spots for watching the major fireworks display. Overnight the grassy area across from my building was checker boarded with strips of yellow “caution” tape marking out squares of prime real estate for the viewing that would not happen for another 48 hrs. No one seemed to feel the need to stand guard over their claims and as far as I know no one violated a neighbor’s space by moving the borderlines.
Two nights later I watched in awe as the fireworks display played out. As it turned out I have a front row center viewing spot right from my window. I suspect L had something to do with this since he knows how I love fireworks!!! And then the following morning I took a walk through what just 12 hrs earlier had been “tent” city and saw that although there were some who had left their trash strewn about for the city workers to clean up, a lot of folks had made a real effort in spite of overflowing trash barrels to clean up their space. AND to my total amazement by mid-afternoon thanks to city workers who started at five in the morning everything was back to the beautiful green space that is my daily view from my window.
In the arena of “quirky” there was the morning I was awakened at five or so by somebody playing a beautiful saxophone solo just below my bedroom window and the end of that same day when I fell asleep to the strains of a truly wonderful dance band playing for a wedding reception in the restaurant on the first floor of this building. A few nights later I heard a curious sound around 10:30 at night and looked out my window to see a ‘cherrypicker’ and window washers washing the windows on the building across the street. All of these things might have been annoying to others but for me they were cause for a smile…and smiles were what L wanted for me. I wonder though if he’s also responsible for the spiders who weave their webs on the screens of my windows–there are five of them now–each occupying a different window–each weaving its own intricate pattern. It reminds me of the life I am slowly but surely weaving together now that L is with me only in spirit. It makes me smile because I know that somewhere he is really pleased with how I am coping.
The son of dear friends died this week ending a ten-year battle with brain cancer. The thought that always comes to mind is children are not supposed to die before their parents. Well the hard cold fact is that they do… even forty-something’s like this young man. The challenge then is how to endure. My heart breaks for my friends because in one way I understand that they have begun a new and in many ways more challenging journey. When L was alive and ill and daily getting a little worse there were reprieves of momentary hope–a new medicine perhaps or more good days than bad. But the finality of death will not be denied. A life has ended. A loved one is gone. There are memories to be sure but there are also choices to be made as we confront those memories. Some will bring tears. Some will bring rage and fury at the unfairness of life. Some will bring a smile–perhaps bittersweet but a smile that reminds us that we had the blessing of this loved one and what would our lives have been without that? The days and weeks pass and we might even think we are beginning to heal but then it comes again… the unbearable loneliness, the crushing sadness. This is the journey we are on. Anyone who has ever endured the death of a loved one understands. The bottom line is that time does NOT heal all wounds. With grief the best we may be able to hope for is a stabbing over of the gaping hole in our lives.
Traditionally this is a time to honor those who have “given the full measure of patriotism” having given their lives fighting in the name of our USA. But it is also a time when I can’t help but pause and consider the lives, the gifts, and the memories of those dear to me who are no longer physically with me. I can hardly go a day without something reminding me of some special moment or lesson learned from a loved one whp has died. L, of course, is at the top of that list. But last night I glanced at a collage of family photos and realized that I was blessed to have been nurtured by not one but three ‘mothers’. There was my actual mother–an incredible woman who unfortunately never understood how much she had influenced her children or contributed to the people we became as adults. I recall vividly walking with her one day about the time I was going to get married and I chose that moment to say how much I had learned from her and how thankful I was to be her daughter. She was quiet for a moment and then she said, “I was scared to death every day I spent raising you kids that I would not do a good job.” This woman with her 7th grade education who had taught me that I could dream as big as I dared? This woman who had applauded every boundary I broke through? This woman who gave me my first set of wings?
And then there was my oldest sister–eleven years older than I am she had early on been cast into the role of babysitter and parent stand-in. She married when I was about 10 and soon I became the babysitter for her children. When her husband of quarter century left her for another woman she showed such strength, such courage and such determination to make the best life she could for those children. She went back to school to get a master’s degree while holding a full-time teaching job. She was the family baker — making wonderfully creative decorated cakes for our birthdays. She was also scared to death and lonely and fighting to stay positive in circumstances over which she had no control. A victim of Parkinson’s disease I watched as her life slowly narrowed from a house of her own filled with the things she loved collecting to half of a room in a nursing home where even the furnishings were impersonal (except for little touches like the quilt on her bed and the photos on her window ledge) l and had little to do with her or her life. And in the week that I spent with her as she lay dying I learned that she had created her alternate family in the staff at the home–they told wonderful stories of her humor and her mischievous smile and her sometimes “mom” reprimands.
And finally there was our next door neighbor–a nurse and my mother’s best (and often only) true friend who opened her door and her heart to all of us giving us a place we could go when life at home became difficult. She was not only a surrogate mom to me, she was also a dear friend who taught me a great deal about how to be a friend to others even when that meant my doing all the heavy lifting (as she had to do in her friendship with Mom) to keep the bond secure and alive.
These three women–simple folk from a small hick town who never lived anywhere but there were my mothers and my mentors. Some of the lessons I picked up from watching them were not the best to be sure. There were definitely times especially after L came into my life where I was forced to question their ways and find my own path. But they set me on that path in the first place and holding them in my memory today, I understand that the love that L and I shared and the life we built together began with those three women.
Two years? Feels more like two months. Feels more like yesterday.
As I write this dawn is breaking over Lake Michigan. It rained overnight so the skies are gray and there will be no pink/orange line of light on the horizon as the sun comes up–just a gradual coming of light and morning. The first day of year three on my journey.
Given the fairly massive changes I have made in my life over the last two years I have to accept that indeed time has passed. Those changes–selling our house, buying a condo in Florida and renting an apartment in downtown Milwaukee that overlooks the exact spot on Lake Michigan where L liked to walk and sit to watch sailboats and such–have left me feeling both unsettled and incredibly at peace with the life I am crafting without him. For example the place I own in Florida still feels like a rental–someone else’s place while this apartment where I had spent only a few days before leaving for Florida felt instantly like “home” the minute I walked in a couple of weeks ago. I have realized that it is because here I am surrounded by so much that L and I shared–furnishings, art, even the dishes in the kitchen cabinets. He was never a part of the things I have furnished the Florida place with. In so many ways the two “homes” represent the two parts of my life–a past I treasure and cherish and an uncertain future.
And so I move forward determined to honor L’s life by living mine to the fullest–open to new adventures even as I find comfort and even laughter in our shared past. He is not here physically and yet I feel his spirit walking beside me wherever I go–and that, dear friends of this blog–is something to embrace and celebrate.