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.
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.