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.
We were so packed with activity the last several days of the trip that I have not had the opportunity to post. I am in Chicago now and today will return home to Florida. Once I have my own computer I hope to post some of the almost 200 pictures I took while on this incredible journey. Just to catch up with the itinerary: on Sunday we spent another full day with our English guide, William Jordan, seeing Utah Beach, the village where the film THE LONGEST DAY was set, the German cemetery and the wonderful museum in Caens. On Monday we left early in the morning for the long bus ride to Mont St. Michel–an incredible place rich with centuries (dating back to the 8th century) of history and wonderful places to explore. Our guide here (*and indeed for all the sites we had yet to see) was equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic as William had been. They brought history to life. My impression of Mont St Michel was that J.K. Rowling must have visited the site while inventing the setting for her Harry Potter series–the church on top of the rock as well as the village with its narrow streets and charming little shops was Hogwarts come to life. I kept expecting to run into Harry himself!!
On Tuesday we spent the day at the home and beautiful gardens of Claude Monet. Because it is truly spring in France, the gardens were exploding with tulips of all colors, daffodils of all varieties, fabulous lilac and other flowering bushes and of course the wonderful Japanese gardens that so inspired his work — including the famous painting of the water lilies. I learned two important things about the Impressionist movement–the painting is all about the reflection/play of light on different surfaces from water to fabrics to buildings, etc. and 2) Monet was inspired by the art of Japanese woodcuts, many of them hanging on the walls of his colorful cottage. We had lunch at the museum and then a lecture by a member of the museum staff showing how in so many ways Normandy had been the “birthplace” of the Impressionist movement.
Back to the hotel for our farewell reception–how we had changed since that first night when we were all strangers–and to pack for a five a.m. departure for Paris and the airport. I did not sleep much because my mind was so full of thoughts about the trip and how much L would have loved everything about it (except perhaps the strong coffee and long bus rides). I thought of how proud he would have been that instead of burrowing into my shell (as is usually my habit when in a group) I had made a real effort to get to know almost everyone in our group and in the process made some connections that have the potential to last beyond Normandy. And I knew that L had been with me on this incredible journey when as we walked back to the bus after touring Monet’s gardens I spotted a single perfect feather on the ground. Since his death–nearly two years ago now– I have often found feathers like that when I was missing him and wishing I could tell him all about my adventures. The feather–along with the lilac in bloom reminding me of the lilac he used to gather for me every spring–made me smile and allow the peace and comfort of knowing he was indeed there and that he knew all about the trip…because he is watching.
On Friday we traveled by bus to a number of places connected to the D-Day landing including Omaha Beach, the American cemetery and a battlefield that the USA has preserved as it was at the end of the battle (minus the dead and wounded, of course). It was a long day with a lot of walking but hard to feel sorry for ourselves when we saw what those brave young men had to face on that day. We had our usual wonderful diverse b’fast and then boarded the bus. William Jordan was once again our guide and the man is a veritable fountain of information on the topic of D-Day and all that surrounds that event. His enthusiasm for the topic makes it hard to resist trying to take it all in and he also does a creditable imitation of Churchill, FDR and others.
General impressions: We stopped first in a small beach town where the Brits came ashore on what they called “Gold” beach. The Brits named their three landing places for fish–i.e. goldfish, etc. The story of how the Allies kept the entire plan secret and fooled the Germans into thinking we would be coming ashore at a place more toward the East is beyond fascinating not to mention brilliant. They prepared hundreds of thousands of servicemen for the invasion and NONE of them knew until the last moment where they were headed. Eisenhower was in. Charge and had to make the decision to go. The invasion was planned for June 5th but because of weather had to be called off; the weather wasn’t much better the following day but Ike decided the danger of the plan being discovered outweighed weather and gave the order. As someone fortunate enough to live in a country that has never been occupied by foreign powers it is hard to fully understand what the French in Normandy were facing in those days. At any moment they might be accused of something and shot or sent to a concentration camp. The area where the Allies landed covers about 50 miles of beach with bluffs and villages and farms and open fields and hedgerows and all sorts of geography to be navigated. They travel 100 hundred miles of rough seas with sometimes eight foot weaves to reach those beaches… and face the possibility of immediate death from drowning, friendly fire, German fire, etc.
The cemetery is both what one would expect and at the same time daunting in his tight rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. Two things I learned: 1) this was not the original resting place for these service people (including four women) and 2) when the bodies were moved the families were given the option of having the remains brought back to America for burial–no other country offered that option. The setting is park-like and beautiful. I was put off by the ongoing narration from our guide and the p[presence of so many people–I wanted and needed quiet. So I switched off my listening device and wandered away from the group to take a stroll down just one of the long rows, reading the names, states and rank as I went. There is no distinction between ranks–a colonel lies next to a private and in the next row there might be one of hundreds of graves with a body but no name. They are indeed a band of brothers.
We went on then to Omaha Beach again driving down narrow streets lined with fields, hedges, farmhouses and such–a peaceful bucolic part of the country. The beach is covered in a sort of golden caramel-colored sand and many visitors take sand from the beach and press it into the engraved letting of a grave marker in the cemetery to make the letting stand out. Of course eventually the sand falls out or washes away but it does make a difference. I was able to walk on the beach and pick up a few shells to carry home.
Our last stop was the battlefield and in many ways I felt the closeness of those young brave men more there than anywhere else. The Germans were in the process of setting up huge artillery guns on turntables that would allow them to fire in all directions–when the invasion happened. From the sea and air the Allies blasted their positions and now there are these enormous rusted pieces of the guns and their mountings plus huge craters that have over time filled in with grass and flowering shrubs. And there were cherry trees in blooms–again that sense of quiet and serenity in a place that once rumbled with the thunder of bombs and artillery shells and the cries of wounded and dying young men.
Long bus ride back to hotel and then a short walk to a restaurant for sinner and then back to try and solve the undelivered baggage dilemma. I was told when I got back to the hotel (on FRIDAY) that the bag would be delivered either Monday or Tuesday (I leave for home on Wednesday!). Called United and while they were enormously sympathetic they also appear to be quite powerless in this little drama. I decided to remind myself of O’s mantra–IT IS WHAT IT IS–and forget missing luggage inn favor of thinking about how he would have loved this day and been moved probably to tears by it.
4/3: Lost a day there–the flight to Paris is over night so began on 4/1 and we arrived on 4/2. Other stuff I forgot to mention about the bus ride… we saw many trees with these balls oaf greenery hanging down. At first I thought these were nests of some kind but then I guessed (and guide confirmed) that it was mistletoe! Was L sending me kisses? I choose to think he was. Also not to worry there’s a MacDonald’s in Honfleur but why anyone would choose that over a wonderful crepe or local fish is beyond me. Also I did go shopping–two days in the same clothes was my limit!
So on to this first truly full day in Normandy. I pretty much missed b’fast (another lovely spread offered by hotel) because I overslept and had about 15 minutes to get dressed and down to the lobby for our walking tour of the village. We were each given listening devices so we could hear her clearly even with traffic and other tour groups along the way. The village has a fascinating history that dates back to the Middle Ages and has some buildings still standing to prove it! During the D-Day battle the town was spared because there was far more interest in a larger port nearby (Le Harve). So there are wonderful buildings from as far back as the 13th Century plus a LOT of cobblestone streets (do NOT bring your high fashion shoes to Honfleur!!!) Our guide was full of information about history and architecture and the shifting of the town’s priorities over the centuries…a fishing port turned military stronghold turned Impressionist art community (Monet painted a LOT of scenes in Honfleur and all the Impressionists loved the way the light came over the horizon on clear days and clouds gathered on dreary days.) But more about Monet and his pals later in there week. I took over fifty photos on the tour but of course forgot the proper cord for downloading so we’ll have to wait for that show.
We had lunch at another charming bistro (the town is full of eating places!!!) called le Chat que peche (the cat who fishes)– we had beef burgundy plus a wonderful dessert called a “floating island.” Later in the afternoon I will admit to stopping for an éclair…after all this is France! After lunch most businesses and museums close for a couple of hours so I cam back to the hotel to check on my luggage (not yet here) and take care of some e-mails. The afternoon was. Ours to do as we wished so I went to the museum of Normandy (showing artifacts of historical life/costume in Normandy and located in a former prison (as in line from the 16th century) and the Maritime Museum (located in a former church). I also went back to some of the places the guide walked us past on the tour and took pictures…a couple of wonderful churches included.
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Got back to the hotel just in time for wonderful lecture by D-Day expert William Jordan–an Englishman who has done wonderful research and is exceptional at bringing the story to life. He will travel with us tomorrow as we head for the beaches. I’m not sure some of my fellow travelers liked that he let us know that Americans–because we were fighting TWO wars at opposite ends of the world– actually had a lot fewer men storm those beaches than did the Brits. But he gave us full credit for–as he put it–coming up with huge amounts of “stuff” necessary for the invasion to be a success.
We were on our own for dinner so I chose to come back to the room–wait for the luggage that United assures me is “out for delivery” and catch up on my blog. Tomorrow we start our tour of the D-Day sites and I am so looking forward to that and know L will be fascinated!!! Sleep well–I know I will.
3/31: Our 44th wedding anniversary seems a good time o begin this adventure. I anticipate that it will be bitter and sweet b it will be something I can add to the memory bank of moments L and I have shared for he will be with me every step oaf the journey. I flew from FL to Chicago and stayed in an airport hotel for the night mostly because the weather in the Midwest has been so unpredictable that I did not want to take a chance. Hotel was surprisingly quiet given its proximity to one of the busiest airports in the world!
4/1: Hotel nice enough to give me late checkout since flight does not leave until 6pm but by noon I was so bored I decided people-watching at the airport beat TV watching in my room and the weather was low 30’s with an 18 degree wind chill so not great for getting out and walking. So off I went. Again going through security was unexpectedly easy–apparently it helps to be old. Even for an international flight I did not have to remove shoes, unpack electronics, etc. Spent a long day wandering the concourses of the airport after checking my one bag…a mistake that I will come to later. Finally time to go. No sign of others from my group at least that I could identify so found my seat next to a nice young man who clearly did not plan to interact during the flight. I was fine with that. No WIFI on board so read my book and tried to sleep (failed) and watched the map of our progress on the little TV screen— six hours to go; four hours to go…. etc. Finally about 90 minutes from Paris they served b’fast–a stale manufactured croissant and a little mixed fruit. Suddenly my seatmate became my best friend. “What is this?” he asked holding up the croissant. He was French, a freelance journalist working in Chicago who loves basketball and is interested in WWII history so we had a lovely chat for the remainder of the trip. Arrived in Paris only to learn my bag was still in Chicago. Met the group and boarded bus for 2 hour trip to Honfleur, Normandy. Our guide is Mia. She’s Dutch and lovely and very very well organized. The bus ride (I was trying hard to take it all in and not fall asleep) went through Paris so we saw Eiffel Tower from a distance and then countryside… beautiful woods coming in bloom for spring. I saw those woods filled with the ghosts of all those who fought that terrible war–soldiers from both sides, members of the Resistance, ordinary people just trying to stay alive. Arrived at the hotel–modern and with a super staff. Myth room is large and faces the street(and Bay of the Seine). I had been told by United’s lost luggage people that I could shop “for necessities and be reimbursed so I set out shopping…lost luggage is not so terrible after all I guess. Met all of the group (35 of us) for a welcome reception then walked to a lovely local restraint for a fabulous(One nice thing about this trip is that most meals are included and we are talking local restaurants (not box lunches).) Finally to bed after following the recipe for avoiding jet lag by staying up until “normal” local bedtime and to sleep!