I just finished a novel by a Swedish author, Frederik Backman. The book is A MAN CALLED OVE [I think it rhymes with ‘love’], and it may be one of the best things I’ve ever read–fiction or non–on the subject of grief. You will laugh and you will cry…and you may find healing in Ove’s story. I know I did. As we head into a time of year that can be especially difficult for us, this is a literary journey that may help you find hope and comfort.
Just returned recently from a group tour to Santa Fe–my first time in New Mexico. Got a long of “flavor” for my western novels and picked up ideas for future stories. Also learned a lot about the diverse and blended cultures that have thrived there for literally hundreds of years–not without turmoil, of course, but then that’s life.
Following the tour I spent four days in the rustic and wonderful apartment offered by the Santa Fe Quaker Meetinghouse. My original intent was to plan for the future of my writing career. What actually happened was an awakening to my life overall.
It began my first night there. The place has no TV (understandable) and I could not for the life of me figure out the radio part of the clock/radio. The street outside my window basically rolled up somewhere around eight and talk about SILENT retreat–I had it in spades. And even though I am a TV/movie/live theater junkie and one who needs activity of some kind, I decided I could do this–at least for one night. (My plan was to go out the following day and buy a small radio at a secondhand shop.) I settled in with a book–lost interest, and replaced that with an exploration of the small kitchen in the place (45 seconds tops), wandered out to the lovely garden behind the meeting house (but it was dark and I was afraid of raising some kind of alarm). By eight-thirty I was in bed where I lay awake thinking about L and whether or not he would like the place and wishing he were there with me and…
I slipped so easily into the mold I had created for myself–the one that says “Nobody cares/understands how lonely this journey is” and “Why didn’t “x” include me when they made plans to see that play?” and “I know my family loves me but would it kill them to pick up the phone now and again instead of me always being the one to reach out?” By that time I had worked myself up to full blown self-pity–tears and all. I wept and sobbed and cried out in the solitude and darkness. “I MISS YOU SO MUCH!”
As calm settled in–one can only rant and wallow for so long–I did what I always do. I asked myself what I planned to do about this misery that promised to keep pulling me under. And I thought of how many times L (not to mention my shrink) had reminded me that the only person whose actions and attitude I can change is ME. Then I found myself thinking about times L and I had traveled and the joy we had shared. And I could practically hear him reminding me that we had decades of a story worthy of putting up on the big screen, while so many others never know even a day of such devotion and laughter and love.
Sometime in there I fell asleep and when I woke the next morning, I felt noticeably different. I felt so blessed to have had the life L and I shared and I felt so blessed to still have the friends we shared all those years. I know they are there for me. I know they care. And so what if they don’t “care” in the exact way I want them to? What if they had all gone away once L died? What right did I–who have had so much–have to want more? Of course, I have no idea how long this epiphany will last. I know there will be rough times ahead, but–as Oprah would say, here’s what I know for sure: I have been blessed with a life filled with adventure and interesting caring people and work that I has given me financial and personal rewards and a love that still sustains me every hour of every day. How hard can it be to reach out to others instead of waiting for them to come to me? And the interesting thing is, once I got home and did make those calls and extend those (sometimes impromptu) invitations, people said “yes”–not only that they seemed genuinely delighted that I had called them.
I will no doubt fall into that old way of thinking more times than I want to imagine, but I know the path out of it now. Oh, and the following morning when I was looking for a piece of notepaper, I found the instructions for operating the radio. Over the remainder of my nights alone in the meeting house apartment, I wrote two short short stories, made sketches of things I had seen in Santa Fe, sang along to the music on the radio and boarded the plane for home refreshed and at peace. I was me again–and I knew L was smiling.
A dear friend, who certainly understood grief and loss, told me shortly after L died that as time went by there would be surprises and disappointments when it came to my interactions with others. And while I recognized the truth of that advice, admittedly I clung to the hope that in time things would change. That those who had ‘disappointed’ me would come to understand my need for their support and draw closer. But as time has passed I have come to understand that in some ways I have been my own worst enemy with regards to this. Others see me as ‘strong’ and even ‘amazing’ in the ways I have chosen to move forward without L in my life. Add to that the fact that even before L’s death, I was one who sometimes openly and certainly subtly pushed people away, and I realize the responsibility for how I am feeling now–three years down the road–is something in large part of my own making.
We cannot go back and so we move forward, and doing so–at least for me–means letting go of that ‘disappointment’ by taking responsibility for my part in creating it. I know these people care deeply for me. I know that should I need them, they will be there without question. My pettiness and pity have in fact held me back from moving forward. The giant steps I took early on–changing my residence, starting to travel, trying new activities, etc.–were great first steps. But I realize that over the last year I have gotten lazy–tired really of making the effort. The result? I am increasingly wallowing in sadness, self-pity, loneliness. It is affecting my health on every level–and it is time to STOP!
[I can practically hear L saying, “About time!”]
My apparently not-so- smart TV died over the weekend–or more precisely refused to die as when plugged in it just keeps turning itself on and off, on and off, etc. My first call was to the cable provider–always the villain that comes to mind. But after two half hour conversations with two different techies, I had to admit that perhaps my television–barely a year old–had gone haywire. Next step was to try and locate the manual for the beast–failed. L was so great at keeping such things organized so they would be at hand when needed. During the mostly sleepless night it came to me that I might have actually purchased the Geek plan for this TV. L and I never did that sort of thing but I remembered thinking maybe I should. Sure enough when I logged in to the site, there was the plan. Again L would have known this right away, pulled out the paperwork and info I needed to schedule and appointment and slept soundly through the night.
My point is not about my disorganization or L’s gift for building systems that allowed nothing to slip through the cracks. My point is that I miss having that partnership–that side-by-side where the things that needed attention were divided; where I was great at some things and he was the master of others; that person sharing the frustration of the experience as I ranted and raved and went through TV withdrawal.
My point is that it’s the small stuff that highlights the enormity of the loss.
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.