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…
Well, last 4th of July I went to a party at the home of dear friends and came very close to having a weeping breakdown in front of everyone.So understandably when this year I had invitations to not one but two parties–one on the 3rd and the other on the 4th, I was more than a little nervous. July 4th has always been one of my favorite holidays–you know what to wear, the menu is pretty much set and there are no gifts involved. Beyond that I happen to LOVE fireworks! L knew all of this and embraced my enthusiasm for the holiday–it was something we shared and looked forward to every year.
The party on the 3rd was of special concern–this annual event was not held last year because the hosts were traveling so as I prepared to go this year I realized that this was going to be a large gathering with several people that I have known for years but who are more acquaintances than close friends. Most of them would be seeing me for the first time since L died. I was tempted to take the easy way out and fake illness and not go but I knew L would be so disappointed in me for this was his greatest fear–that I would crawl into my shell. So I went…and had a lovely evening! The gathering on the 4th was much smaller but there were still a number of “new” faces there as there had been at the party last summer when I had to leave before I broke down. This time I found that I was able to meet people without worrying about whether or not they knew that L had died–some did and some did not. For those who did not I found that I was able to say without hesitation “my late husband” or “L, my husband who died last year” and let the conversation continue naturally. So on both scores I count that as growth on my part–moving past the “it’s all about me and my grief” stage to the “I am doing okay” stage–because I am except…
(And here comes the setback piece of this)…I am finding that the more time passes the more pervasive and devastating the loneliness becomes. I had foolishly thought that I would begin to fall into some sort of routine and fill the hours with tasks and chores and work and walks with friends and movies with friends and dinners with friends and…
And what I am coming to terms with is that IF that is to happen a great deal of the calling and scheduling is up to me and that’s a huge problem because I don’t like to “bother” people so for now I am taking things one step at a time–trying to find things to do even on my own that at least put me in the company of others even strangers. Someone told me about a sketching class starting soon at the local rec department so I signed up for that and I signed up to volunteer for the annual film festival in September so one step at a time…hour by hour, day by day until like the July 4th parties of last year and this I realize that I have changed and grown and coped.
Lately it has seemed as if there’s been an unusual rash of health challenges for my friends–a recurring malignant brain tumor, a stroke, three separate incidents of heart problems requiring stents and resulting in blood clots and other complications, a hernia operation–is this what getting older is about?
I think about the years that L struggled to fight back from his stroke–his brain tumor (benign but nonetheless damaging) and the lung diseases that partnered to take his life. And I realize that knowing what I now know about the best laid fights of man against disease in far too many situations the disease eventually wins, I am afriad for my friends and for their spouses and their children and grandchildren. And I feel so very helpless to do more than simply let them know that I am here and I am thinking of them–holding them in the Light as my Quaker Friends would say.
There is a temptation to throw in the towel–to say that it’s all downhill from here–but I know that L would be furious with that path. There is a saying “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” (Pericles)
L had that gift–the gift of reaching out to others, listening and applauding and sympathizing and laughing (or crying) with them. He celebrated the successes and milestones of those around him and he consoled them when there were those moments that did not go as planned. He was the proverbial glass-half-full man and even now more than a year after his death, he is intricately woven into the fiber of those friends who saw his years of struggle and now hope to be that courageous and that strong and that giving as they face challenges of their own.
And what I try to practice every day is that same spirit of “you not me”–I feel I not only want to do this because it makes me a calmer, more peaceful person–but I also feel called to be that poor substitute for what these dear friends once received from L. It is a daily struggle for I am by nature far more self-centered than he ever was–but the rewards are so great that every day giving of myslef to others becomes a little easier–a little more normal–and a great deal more rewarding.