After four years that on some days feel like an eternity and on others feel more like L just died yesterday, I ask myself this question often. Trouble is that I don’t know what ‘There’ looks like. I’ve made a lot of changes in my life–[physical and mental and emotional. I have changed my living space three times–as in physically moved from one abode to another. I am getting ready to do that yet again, but this time it feels like this might finally be ‘home.’
Shortly after L died, I started to ‘downsize’–actually I drew into my shell, making myself and the space I occupied as small as possible because that felt easier to manage. This new space will be larger than any place I have ever lived and the adventure of spreading myself over that space will no doubt prove challenging. And yet perhaps it is an omen that tells me I have moved on, become more settled in this new landscape that is my life. There have been other omens as well….
After years of half-heartedly trying to get my weight under control and take better care of my physical health, I have made some actual progress. Also I have begun to accept that I can fill my days with work and activity but for the most part, the nights are going to be long and lonely. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but go to bed at eight and wait for tomorrow. I have come to a new appreciation of my friends–recognizing that they are there when/if I need them and that they care deeply, even though sometimes it may seem as if they have overlooked me as they gather for dinners or plays or such. And when my reaction is to be hurt, I try to think ‘blessing’ and move on. I have made efforts beyond what either L or I would have thought possible to reach out and form new contacts.
And although all of these things are beyond hard for me, I see positive results and so I keep on keeping on. Day in and night out I feel L’s presence with me…sometimes I am out for a walk and I see something that triggers a memory–and a smile. Sometimes I talk aloud to him, ‘showing’ him something I know he would have enjoyed.
And so the days and weeks and months and years pass and it occurs to me that perhaps there is no end of this trail–this is the road I am on. L and I came to a fork and he had to go a different way, and for now I must follow the path that lies before me.
Perhaps that’s the rhythm of this journey–as time goes by there are whole weeks and months when life just goes on and we get caught up in the daily ins and outs. Of course it does not mean the loss is less–maybe the grief but never the loss. Today is Valentine’s Day and I am remembering all the years that I awoke on this day to find a piece of yellow paper from a legal pad placed on my nightstand or the kitchen table. Sometimes it had been cut into a crude heart shape but always it carried the handwritten declaration I LOVE YOU BIGGER THAN I CAN REACH AND BEYOND! scrawled in pencil usually but sometimes Magic Marker.
We didn’t do a lot with gifts on this day–our gift was one more day together especially in those last months. In some ways every day became Valentine’s for us.
As I approached this particular February 14th, I became acutely aware of how my life has changed and continues to change–more to the point how I am changing. In my zeal to fill each day and get through each night I have made deliberate efforts to expand my circle of friends and surrogate family–not an easy thing for this introvert, I assure you. But recently I joined a writer’s group–one that was new to me and one where I knew no one. After several weeks, it lifts my spirits to hear these new friends greet me by name and share bits of their lives with me. I also took a six-week workshop on making handmade books where I met four fabulous women and the instructor and we ‘jelled’ in a way that gave me such a lift.
And here’s the exciting and surprising thing–because I have found these new connections, I am more patient with my main support network–if they don’t call or fail to invite me to something, I no longer assume it’s because they don’t like me or that I have somehow offended them. I give them the benefit of a doubt, accepting –and even applauding–the fact that they have their own lives to lead with their own problems and challenges. In short I am becoming not only stronger but a nicer and more generous person than I ever was before. I’m pretty sure L is smiling big-time on this Valentine’s Day–I know I’m finding smiles easier to come by day by day.
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.
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!”]
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
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.
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.