It came to me last night (In a dream of all things) that I have been looking at things wrong. When L died, I did not lose my identity–I am in fact more ‘me’ than before. What I lost (and struggle daily to find) is my place in this world. When L was alive I knew that place–it was quite simply wherever we were together. Now that he is not here, I realize that I keep trying to understand where I belong. It could explain the lifestyle changes I’ve made in the last three years. It could also explain the expanded and surprising sense of ‘self’ that has come with events such as attending my college reunion and establishing new relationships in the places I now call ‘home.’ It definitely gives meaning to my restlessness–the constant need to fill the hours with some activity. The truth is that I know who I am — with or without L. He just made it easier for me to operate in the world as that being. Now that I am alone–and in some ways more exposed–it is far more difficult. But I press on.
Doing my yearly weekend in Madison WI–today tramped through the sales of Maxwell Street Days on State Street between the campus and the Capitol; made a stop at the State Historical library to do some research; walked the lake path to the place where I set up a little memorial to L three years ago–it is overgrown now and I was unable to get down to it so I found a perfect flat stone, wrote his name on it and tossed it into the lake. Next year I think I will bring some special stone or perhaps a shell from Florida and make this the new tradition. Stopped at the Union and got a scoop of chocolate peanut butter ice cream (made on campus and L’s favorite) and enjoyed it as I walked the path. Now I am back in my room–a room similar to those L and I shared all the years we came here–where I will rest up for tomorrow’s early morning visit to the incredible farmer’s market that runs the entire block around the capitol building.
Normally I would have lunch at the Memorial Union overlooking the lake (and I may do that tomorrow) and then head back to Milwaukee. But this year out of the blue an old friend from my college days who lives in California called to say she and her husband are in the area so I am going to stay over and meet them for dinner tomorrow evening in the small town of Spring Green (where Frank Lloyd Wright established his summer home and school for architects). It’s probably been at least 25 years since I saw this friend and we have stayed in touch only with the annual holiday letter to catch up. And yet she is one of those special friends I hope you are lucky enough to have where time and distance have no effect. I know when we see each other tomorrow it will be as if we are simply continuing a conversation.
The truth is that lately I have been struck by the fact that the loneliness of widowhood does not ease with time–in fact it seems to worsen. But then something like this comes along and I weather yet one more storm of loneliness and depression. I hope those of you who struggle with similar pain can find these momentary reprieve in your life as well. Take care! Anna
A couple of nights ago I took a long hard look at my apartment. It is furnished with many items that L and I chose together along with some antiques from my parents’ home and one or two items I have added over the last three years. In short it feels like home. But what I realized as I wandered the space is that I continue to arrange and use the rooms as if I am still living the life I lived before L died. The truth is that my life has changed in significant ways–I am alone for starters. There is no one to please with how things look or are stored but myself. There is (rarely) no one else who might need space for his or her things. Oh, there may come a time when I have an overnight guest, but that is unlikely in a one bed/one bath place that has to count the closet to hit a thousand square feet.
No, this is no longer a place I share, and that realization hit me hard on a number of levels–some painful, but some more hopeful. On the hopeful side of things, I guess I felt as if coming to this understanding of the living situation was progress. Last night I spent 2-3 hours moving things around–not furniture so much as the stuff I had stored away. Out of sight, out of mind is remarkably accurate. As I went through drawers and boxes placed high on closet shelves, I came across things that are important to me–the tools for hobbies I looked forward to pursuing “some day;” mementos that had special meaning for me if not L because they are from the life I led before I met him; papers and documents in need of shredding or attending or filing….
Today the apartment feels more like home than ever. L never lived here and so I do not suffer the potential ‘guilt’ of displacing him or the stuff of his life. The truth is that it feels as if he’s up there somewhere releasing a sigh of sheer relief and whispering…”Finally.”
It’s been nearly two months since my last post–a good deal has happened in that time including the coming and going of the third anniversary of L’s death. I spent that day here in Wisconsin doing much of what I have done on the other anniversaries–driving around and past all the places we lived, taking a long walk along the lakefront, looking through pictures and most of all playing back the awesome audio tapes he left for me so that once again his voice filled my world.
Once again I have turned my living situation on its ear–in Florida I found that I was unsettled and restless. The place I bought two years ago has never felt like ‘home’ for me even after I surrounded myself with items from the life we shared. One night I decided to make a change and so I went looking for another place to call home down there–found it–bought it–moved in and put the old place on the market. Now I wait for that to sell. L never would have done things in that order and I can only imagine that he is up there shaking his head and trying to figure out how to help me get back on a solid trail. And yet I can feel his approval–feel him saying, “Yes. This is good. This is what you need to keep moving forward.”
For that was his hope for me–that I would step by step find my way to a life I could enjoy and find peace in. He understood there would be stumbles along the way–although he clearly thought there would be bigger stumbles than there have been. This new place feels as right as my apartment in Wisconsin–it feels like me–like us–like ‘home.’
But a dwelling does not make an entire life–for that we need family and friends and human connections. I continue to work on that as well–a harder task for this introverted loner, but one that has been successful enough that I see the power of having those connections. And there is activity or work–meaningful, fulfilling. For me that is, of course, my writing. It gets me through many a tough time. Sometimes I am able to escape into the stories I am writing, but sometimes–like now–just writing down my feelings about what’s been going on in my life is therapeutic in its own way.
I know there are many of you who follow this blog who may be struggling with loneliness and the sheer agony of having to make the effort to find your way. I believe that making that effort–excruciating as it sometimes may be–is worth it. I hope you will open your hearts and minds to the possibilities around you–the hidden messages your loved one is sending your way to say, “I am here. I know it is hard, but know that I am walking with you as you make this journey.”
As I write this I am attending my college reunion… I got my degree at a small Presbyterian school and our graduation class was only about sixty people. Last night I met up with a dozen of them to have dinner and today at the official proceedings apparently thirty or so are expected. These are people I have not seen in 25 years and who for the most part I have not kept up with… my bad! For they are the same funny, smart, delightful souls I shared four years with.
As a part of this trip I have also gone back to the small town where I grew up, stopped at the cemetery where my parents and older sister are buried and tomorrow will spend a couple of nights in the town where L and I were married. A LOT of memories to process from different phases of my life–which is one reason I am writing this a four in the morning!
One of the people attending the reunion is the man who was my first love. I have to say I was nervous about seeing him. Frankly he broke my heart back then but he also gave me a wonderful gift by being that magical first love experience that opened me to the whole roller coaster of emotions that would come with true love. The two experiences are apples and oranges–with that man it was love fraught with inexperience and self-doubt and unformed ambitions. With L it was mature (at least most of the time) filled with a commitment and determination that left no room for doubt–in myself or in what we shared.
And tomorrow when I visit the inn where we were married and recall that wonderful spring day, my heart will be full of memories and smiles and tears–and gratitude for the years we had, the joys and heartbreak we shared and the promise he has kept to walk with me through all the days to come.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had a string of things happen that reminded me that it’s not one big thing I miss about L not being here–it’s the day-to-day little stuff.
I’ve been sick with a bad cold/cough for over a week now and while friends have been wonderful–calling, e-mailing, bringing me chicken soup–the bottom line still is that he’s not here. Before L died I had never darkened the door of a walk-in clinic. Somehow I figured as long as he was there, we would get through it together. But not a month after he died, I actually feared I was having a heart attack one morning and I vividly remember standing in the middle of the living room wondering, “Now what?” I didn’t make the best choices that day (even though it turned out not to be a heart attack but rather the onset of shingles–and yes, I had the shot). But it was the realization that if/when something happened that I needed medical attention, I was pretty much on my own in terms of deciding who to call and such. So I miss the security of him being there–of being able to turn to him and say, “Now what?”
A couple of weeks ago, I had to replace the heat/AC unit in my condo–a huge purchase decision. Following the process I knew he would have taken I found the right deal, got the thing installed, etc. But afterward I kept thinking, “This is new. This is something he managed and now it’s up to me.”
Today I was driving home from a class and one of those ‘check-something’ lights came on in my car. The little icon made no sense so I dug out the owner’s manual and looked it up. It was the icon for the signal indicator. So I checked the signals–all working fine–and the warning light is still on. Again this is not huge, but something he would have taken care of.
And most of all I miss sharing my day, venting about frustrations, laughing together about silliness that happened. I miss watching TV with him–he would have LOVED the Super Bowl game–not because of either team, but because it was a good game. I miss all the times we took long walks and planned out the next part of our life. I miss picking out a card for Valentine’s (or waking up on Feb. 14 to find one he had made for me–sometimes just a handwritten note on a sheet of yellow legal pad paper). I miss trying to come up with something for the man who wanted nothing to give him for his birthday. I miss…
Like I said: it’s the little things.
Okay, stay with me here while I explain that title…
The other night I attended a lecture by the author of THE ORPHAN TRAIN at the Sarasota Public Library. The lecture was held in the building’s atrium and off to one side of that space is the entrance to the children’s library. That entrance is framed by a fabulous arched aquarium filled with several species of fish who can swim back and forth from the bottom of one side of the entrance, across the arched doorway to the other. As I waited for our speaker–the wonderful Christina Baker Kline–to be introduced one large fish in particular caught my attention.
This fish would swim top to bottom on one side of the arched aquarium again and again but never even seem to consider crossing over to see what it might be like on the other side. From time to time through the program I found my attention drawn back to that fish–evident by its size and color–but it never did more than swim to the top of the side and then right back down again.
On the drive home I found myself thinking about how we sometimes get stuck on a path like that–never wavering from the familiar to dare and explore the ‘other side.’ Doing so may feel safer or easier, but what I have learned as I have walked this path through grief is that daring to step off the path, to be open to taking a side trail can be both rewarding and comforting. L was always so afraid that after he died I would withdraw into my shell and keep people and opportunities at arm’s length. In my effort to honor his memory and to set aside those fears he held (should he be out there watching me) I have forced myself time and again to “take the road less traveled.” My interpretation of that quote is that it is not about a road less traveled by the masses but rather the road that WE have not dared try before, the road that is unfamiliar and perhaps a little scary.
It has been two and a half years since L died and over that time I realized that unlike that fish I have time and again forced myself to cross that arch and swim for awhile in unfamiliar waters. And as I think about all those times I realize that the journey has gotten easier and the rewards have far outweighed the fear I might have carried with me. If we keep swimming the same channel we will certainly be safe and secure but oh, what we may miss!!
It’s the day after Christmas and for several days now I have been reflecting on what the holiday/season means to me. The adage that it is better to give than to receive rings true. I find my greatest joys at this time of year come when I have put myself out there for others. It comes when I make a donation of food, clothing, toys or money so that those less blessed than I am might have a little better time of it. It’s there as I prepare a party or meal for others. It’s there when I choose gifts for family and friends, prepare tips for those who provide services that make my life easier, come up with the idea to drop off a little something for a special neighbor. It’s there when I remember my parents and the example they set for us about giving back, and it’s there when I think of L and all that he gave to me and to others throughout his too-short life. In giving I honor him and the memory of all the times we worked together to make someone’s day a bit brighter.
The trick of course is to maintain that spirit throughout all the days of the year. The truth is that I do pay it forward often throughout the year…the difference is that without the special trappings of Christmas…I may not pause to take the special joy that comes with the giving. But when the recipient of my gifts thanks me I never fail to think, “No. I thank you for your smile of appreciation, your eyebrows raised in surprise and delight, and the look in your eyes that tells me I just made your life a little better if only for a moment.” That’s a gift I can carry with me through hard and sad times. That’s a gift that brings me closer to L. That’s the gift that I can unwrap and marvel over again and again.
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.