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.
December marks the month when four years ago L and I were told, “This is it. Might be months or weeks or days, but not a year.”
As always L accepted this news with his usual calm and set about focusing on what was important for him–friends, family, and me. That Christmas I remember he found ‘elves’ to do the shopping he could not manage. He sent them on shopping missions–his sister to get roses for me specifically NOT red. (Instead they were a unique brilliant orange and they lasted for weeks.) And he added a beautiful Waterford crystal rose–a forever rose.
Another friend was tasked with going to a bath store and finding bath salts and lotions and–a candle. Why was the candle so special? Because he knew how I loved fires in the fireplace and candles throughout the house at this time of year. The problem was they affected his breathing and not in a good way, so for several years I had filled the house with those artificial battery candles.
For the past several years we had been in Florida for the holidays so being back in Wisconsin added to the understanding that this year was different and the realization that this year we would not be going to Florida at all. We attended Christmas Eve services and had our Christmas Eve ‘dinner’ at Cheesecake Factory–the only place we had found open. Afterwards we took the long way home driving through neighborhoods and enjoying the lights. L sang carols… little Jewish boy singing carols and knowing the words.
In the months that followed we settled into a routine–one I never would have thought I would come to savor. Friends came to visit; as he insisted, I spent my days at my studio and brought home the news and funny happenings out in the world; we sat for a long time over dinner just talking; we became avid fans of a number of TV series–L loved The Closer and those early seasons of Downton Abby and The Good Wife. His favorite though was Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and sometimes he even made it through The Colbert Report. Oh, how he would laugh! I have to wonder what he would think of the political situation today!
And so in this season when memories are gifts of their own (or in some cases ‘bags of coal’), these are some of my favorites. We had been told what was coming–but don’t we all know that’s the way our story ends? The message is to be aware of the finiteness of this life and to live it fully with gratitude and gusto. L and I were blessed because we had time for savoring–for saying goodbye. Not everyone is so fortunate, so whatever your celebration, may it be merry and happy and filled with moments that are truly gifts to cherish.
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.
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?
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.
Traditionally this is a time to honor those who have “given the full measure of patriotism” having given their lives fighting in the name of our USA. But it is also a time when I can’t help but pause and consider the lives, the gifts, and the memories of those dear to me who are no longer physically with me. I can hardly go a day without something reminding me of some special moment or lesson learned from a loved one whp has died. L, of course, is at the top of that list. But last night I glanced at a collage of family photos and realized that I was blessed to have been nurtured by not one but three ‘mothers’. There was my actual mother–an incredible woman who unfortunately never understood how much she had influenced her children or contributed to the people we became as adults. I recall vividly walking with her one day about the time I was going to get married and I chose that moment to say how much I had learned from her and how thankful I was to be her daughter. She was quiet for a moment and then she said, “I was scared to death every day I spent raising you kids that I would not do a good job.” This woman with her 7th grade education who had taught me that I could dream as big as I dared? This woman who had applauded every boundary I broke through? This woman who gave me my first set of wings?
And then there was my oldest sister–eleven years older than I am she had early on been cast into the role of babysitter and parent stand-in. She married when I was about 10 and soon I became the babysitter for her children. When her husband of quarter century left her for another woman she showed such strength, such courage and such determination to make the best life she could for those children. She went back to school to get a master’s degree while holding a full-time teaching job. She was the family baker — making wonderfully creative decorated cakes for our birthdays. She was also scared to death and lonely and fighting to stay positive in circumstances over which she had no control. A victim of Parkinson’s disease I watched as her life slowly narrowed from a house of her own filled with the things she loved collecting to half of a room in a nursing home where even the furnishings were impersonal (except for little touches like the quilt on her bed and the photos on her window ledge) l and had little to do with her or her life. And in the week that I spent with her as she lay dying I learned that she had created her alternate family in the staff at the home–they told wonderful stories of her humor and her mischievous smile and her sometimes “mom” reprimands.
And finally there was our next door neighbor–a nurse and my mother’s best (and often only) true friend who opened her door and her heart to all of us giving us a place we could go when life at home became difficult. She was not only a surrogate mom to me, she was also a dear friend who taught me a great deal about how to be a friend to others even when that meant my doing all the heavy lifting (as she had to do in her friendship with Mom) to keep the bond secure and alive.
These three women–simple folk from a small hick town who never lived anywhere but there were my mothers and my mentors. Some of the lessons I picked up from watching them were not the best to be sure. There were definitely times especially after L came into my life where I was forced to question their ways and find my own path. But they set me on that path in the first place and holding them in my memory today, I understand that the love that L and I shared and the life we built together began with those three women.