The question I am asking myself these days is: Am I moving into a manic stage of this journey or is this just the way I need to handle moving forward with life on my own?
Here’s what the last month has brought my way–I had a book deadline on the first of October. A few days before that I was walking with a friend along the shores of Lake Michigan. I mentioned that when I returned from Florida in the spring I was considering selling the home L and I shared for the last four years of his life and renting a smaller apartment closer to downtown. L and I always talked of living downtown closer to plays and ballgames and friends but because of his lung disease it was no more than a pipedream. My friend–who has lived downtown for some time now–urged me to put my name on the waiting list for an apartment in her building. “Even if you decide not to take it at least you’ll have the opportunity to make that decision.” It sounded like a reasonable first step.
Long story cutting to the chase: there was no waiting list; there was a sweet little apartment perfect for one person and facing Lake Michigan and the sunrise. I protested that there was no way I could finish my book, put my house on the market, pack up and move to the apartment and pack up for my stay in Florida in the time available. But then I did not sleep for two days unable to get the apartment out of my mind and by the weekend I had signed a lease, listed the house and begun the incredible adventure called “downsizing” in a serious way! And yes, I met the deadline for the book.
I have been here now for about a month–actually moved in and began staying here as “home” a week ago and the truth is that it feels right. I even think L gave it his stamp of approval for when the movers were bringing in the furnishings a gift edition of GONE WITH THE WIND that I have no idea how I could have overlooked in packing up the rest of the DVDs, CDs and such stored in that credenza fell out. L had given me that our first Christmas after we were married knowing it was not only one of my favorite films but also would remind me of the time I took him to see it (his first time–my fifth) at a theater in Chicago and when the intermission came with Scarlett raising her fists to the heavens vowing never to be hungry again, L thought that was the end of the picture. How we laughed about that over the years!
And so while life does feel a bit chaotic these days the one thing I know for sure is that I am living the life that L wanted so much for me to live–to not sit around, but to travel and do things that we could not do together because of his health. The truth is that when I make a move like this–or even something much smaller in scope–I feel that I am honoring not only his memory but the love he had for me. No, not everyone is as blessed as I am to have choices such as those I have made BUT everyone who has experienced the death of a loved one does have a choice about how best to honor that person’s life…and the love shared during that life. Take care. Anna
In the early days of my journey I was consumed with loneliness especially from around four in the afternoon until I went to bed. Those, of course, were prime times with L–times when we would share the events of our day, times when we would discuss our tomorrows, times when it was just us. In the first year I realize now that I tried hard to fill in those empty hours by taking long walks, waiting/hoping for friends to call and offer some impromptu activity, watching hours and hours and hours of mindless television, and aimlessly pacing through the rooms we had shared. I had a lot of suppressed anger in those times–not specifically directed at any individual–especially not L who I knew would have done anything he could not to leave me–but at the unfairness of it all. For one thing he was a far better friend to our circle of friends than I could ever hope to be. I labeled myself “sloppy seconds” in the friendship department and was always touched and amazed by the countless gestures of love and outreach that came my way. I felt I didn’t deserve such kindness–and yes in my worst moments I suspected such gestures were little more than pity which of course I resented.
But lately…lately I have deliberately taken action to get out into situations that give me the opportunity to interact with new people–people who did not know me as part of a couple. And not to paraphrase Sally Field too often but I found out that “they liked me–they really liked ME.” And slow to get it as I am it finally dawned on me that the friends L and I have had for decades also “like me–really like ME.” These days I am more relaxed around people–those I have just met and those I have known for more than half my life. These days I struggle fewer evenings being alone–I have learned that the more I believe that L is with me, the more I feel his presence and his encouragement and his love. Oh, do not think I have even come close to licking this grief thing–but I can see progress–I am getting better at this.
A few days ago it occurred to me that for those of us whose spouse suffered a long and often painful end–perhaps months or as in my case (and perhaps yours), years– there is one small compensation in living on: I realized that I no longer worry all the time or walk through my days waiting for the other shoe to drop or sleep with one ear open for a possible change in breathing or a fall or other catastrophe. Not that I wouldn’t cut off a vital body part to have him back for an hour or a day, but there is that release of responsibility.
Then just a couple of days later I developed some “a-typical” (the doctor’s terminology) symptoms that lasted through one night and into the morning. Alone as I am (without children or other family nearby) and ingrained with a need not to “bother” anyone (although I am blessed with wonderful friends and neighbors), I could not decide what to do. Finally I told myself the choice was: either sit and worry and hope symptoms that had last several hours would simply go away or get myself to a walk-in clinic and find out what was going on. I chose Door #2. Foolishly I drove myself to a walk-in clinic where I found that my description of what was going on was taken VERY seriously. Long story short I went directly from there to the ER at the nearby hospital and this time the clinic doctor gave me HER choice: either go in an ambulance or call someone to come and take me. She was clearly upset that I had elected to drive myself to her clinic! I called my sister-in-law.
Long story short–I was in hospital for 2 nights and 3 days; they ran tests, drew blood (every 4 hrs), scheduled a stress test and eventually sent me home without really identifying the root of the problem,. The symptoms improved by the end of that first day and did not return. I came away with a solid baseline of test results that told me whatever my problem was it was not a cardiac issue–that was certainly good news given a strong family history of heart disease. I also came away with a connection to a cardiologist–a specialist I should have added to my team of doctors well before now. And–should those same symptoms reappear, at least I can be fairly certain the problem is not with my heart.
But the real pony in this one is that as news spread friends came…and kept coming and calling and checking in. I was not alone. Mentally I knew that I could have called any one of them, but emotionally I had not yet accepted that their need to be there for me was more than being there because L had asked them to be. I had not yet accepted that they wanted to be there because it was ME. And when I came home (again with my sister-in-law seeing me safely back) I got out of the car and there on the grass at my feet was a beautiful bird feather–as has been the case on a numbers of occasions when I have learned one more lesson in this journey.
Recently I spent a few lovely late summer days with friends in northern Wisconsin. L and I made many happy memories up there–hiking, fishing, eating!! I had not gone fishing since his death but found it’s a little like riding a bike–it all comes back. L used to tease me about my side-arm method of casting and he was clearly stunned when I put bait (worms or leeches) on the hook myself. His favorite photo of me was from the time I caught a sizable small-mouthed bass from the pier of our friends’ cottage. One afternoon I sat alone on that pier while my friends went off in the boat to fish and thought about all the wonderful times L and I shared–all the ideas for stories that were developed as we sat together or hiked through the woods in the fall, all the plans we made for our future. I find that at moments like these I am not saddened but rather grateful. For over forty years I had the joy (and yes, sometimes the frustration) of life with this incredible man. And every day that he is gone I appreciate more fully how carefully he prepared me for the life I would need to move forward with once he was gone. I am doing that–it is not always easy but as L and I always said, “It is what it is” and now I have added, “And it will be what I make of it.”
In year one there were, of course, a lot of “firsts” that had to be navigated and braved. But they do continue–fewer now but still there and still a painful reminder that this going forward step by step and change after change is my life. Today I went to a matinee movie by myself. It was a drizzly Sunday afternoon with back-to-school coolness in the air and overcast skies. A movie I had wanted to see was playing at the local theater. I had thought I would perhaps see it with friends but one thing I am learning in year two is that friends–well-meaning as they are–have turned back to what is routine for them and that does not mean having me front of mind when it comes to social outings. When I recognized that pretty much everyone I might have wanted to see the film with had already been there and done that I had some choices. I could wait for it to come out on Netflix; I could seek out some less likely candidates to see it with me; or I could go by myself.
I wanted to see this movie so ruled out #1; I have grown tired of making the first moves to include myself in the activities that L and I used to take for granted as a couple so that ruled out #2. #3 was left and seemed to be the logical choice since I have had a gift card for the theater sitting on the kitchen table for several months. So I went–totally enjoyed the film, laughed out loud and left knowing not only could I do this but that I would do this more often.
A few years ago L began a tradition of taking me to our state capital–Madison (home of the U of Wisconsin as well) for a special weekend. He always chose the weekend that the shops along State Street (that runs from the capitol building to the university) were holding the mid-summer Maxwell Street days. I would shop for bargains, we would have dinner in a lovely restaurant then perhaps see a play and the following day (Saturday) we would wander through the incredible Farmer’s Market on the Square–a mile-long wonderland of organic fruits and veggies, baked goods, plants and flowers and soapbox orators speaking out about this or that topic of the day. Later we would go to the wonderful Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota and watch sailboats while we ate huge cones of chocolate peanut butter ice cream made right there on campus. Before heading for home we would take a walk along the lake path that runs from the Union past dorms and other campus buildings along the shore of the lake.
This is a tradition that I have decided to continue. Last year I went there and part of that visit was placing some of L’s ashes along the lake path down near the water and near the dorm he lived in as a student there. This year when I walked the path I stopped to “visit” that spot and restore the rocks I had stacked there last year. I shopped the farmer’s market and the Maxwell Street sales and while I did not see a play I did sit on the Union terrace listening to live music while I enjoyed a cone of chocolate peanut butter ice cream. When I started for home yesterday I felt so peaceful and light-hearted and very much as if I had shared this time with L. About 20 miles outside Madison it started to sprinkle even though the sun was out. And then I saw this rainbow or half a rainbow but it was the best rainbow I have ever seen. It was so close that I could clearly see every single color band and it stayed there riding along as I did for another 20 miles or so. I happen to be a person who believes in signs–I believe they are all around us if we will simply open hearts and minds to discovering and receiving them. I have no doubt at all that this rainbow that came literally out of the blue was L letting me know that he agreed–it had been a lovely weekend.
L and I often talked about the life I would lead without him. He was excited at the possibility of my re-inventing my life while I had serious reservations. Now as I enter year two of widowhood I find that re-invention is not only a possibility, it is in so many ways a necessity. Recently I have started to become even more overwhelmed by the loneliness and the sheer number of hours I spend by myself in a day and I have begun to seek ways I can change that. I have a tendency (and a heredity) toward depression so before that becomes an issue I am taking a good hard look at the realities of my life.
L and I were blessed with incredible friendships and a lot of them–those friendships are certainly there for me now that he is gone and I don’t doubt them for a second. But the fact is that in most cases those are couples and I am now not a couple. L used to admonish me that I was going to have to make a real effort–against my normal reclusive personality–to reach out to people. I feel I have done that–inviting people to dinner, calling on a weeknight to suggest a spontaneous run for burgers, letting people know that I’d love to see a certain film if they plan to go–and all of these efforts have been well received. They have not however–in most cases–been reciprocal. I regularly hear of friends getting together (as couples)for a movie or casual dinner. In the past they would have called to see if L and I were available but that’s simply not happening now. I have two ways (and probably more) to go with this: I can choose to be sad and hurt and feel sorry for myself; or I can understand that there is no negative intent–my friends still love me and if I asked if I could join them they would definitely say ‘yes.’
So it seems to me that the answer is to expand my group–something I had begun to do (and L had encouraged) even before he died. What I have realized recently however is that I am definitely going more places–I often work on my writing in coffeehouses surrounded by people and I regularly attend a summer music series on Sunday mornings and once I attended a bookstore’s open book club. But in none of those cases am I really connecting with people–they are there and I am there…period.
After L died I decided to give up my little writing studio once the lease ran out this summer. I still feel that was the right move. But today as I was writing at a local coffeehouse I thought that I had to find some place where I would be seeing some of the same people each time I went to that place and in time I might connect with these people on a deeper level. Down the street from the coffeehouse is an art co-op. These are painters and weavers and photographers sharing a large loft space. I went there and spoke with 3 members of the co-op and lo and behold they told me about a small available space (less than 1/3 the rent I was paying before and yes, less than 1/3 the size). On Saturday I am going to meet the co-op manager and see what we can work out. I feel good about this–it doesn’t completely resolve the issue of loneliness but I feel that it has the potential to be a place–a community–where I might find at least a hint of that sense of connection I am missing so much. Stay tuned…