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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The son of dear friends died this week ending a ten-year battle with brain cancer. The thought that always comes to mind is children are not supposed to die before their parents. Well the hard cold fact is that they do… even forty-something’s like this young man. The challenge then is how to endure. My heart breaks for my friends because in one way I understand that they have begun a new and in many ways more challenging journey. When L was alive and ill and daily getting a little worse there were reprieves of momentary hope–a new medicine perhaps or more good days than bad. But the finality of death will not be denied. A life has ended. A loved one is gone. There are memories to be sure but there are also choices to be made as we confront those memories. Some will bring tears. Some will bring rage and fury at the unfairness of life. Some will bring a smile–perhaps bittersweet but a smile that reminds us that we had the blessing of this loved one and what would our lives have been without that? The days and weeks pass and we might even think we are beginning to heal but then it comes again… the unbearable loneliness, the crushing sadness. This is the journey we are on. Anyone who has ever endured the death of a loved one understands. The bottom line is that time does NOT heal all wounds. With grief the best we may be able to hope for is a stabbing over of the gaping hole in our lives.
On Friday we traveled by bus to a number of places connected to the D-Day landing including Omaha Beach, the American cemetery and a battlefield that the USA has preserved as it was at the end of the battle (minus the dead and wounded, of course). It was a long day with a lot of walking but hard to feel sorry for ourselves when we saw what those brave young men had to face on that day. We had our usual wonderful diverse b’fast and then boarded the bus. William Jordan was once again our guide and the man is a veritable fountain of information on the topic of D-Day and all that surrounds that event. His enthusiasm for the topic makes it hard to resist trying to take it all in and he also does a creditable imitation of Churchill, FDR and others.
General impressions: We stopped first in a small beach town where the Brits came ashore on what they called “Gold” beach. The Brits named their three landing places for fish–i.e. goldfish, etc. The story of how the Allies kept the entire plan secret and fooled the Germans into thinking we would be coming ashore at a place more toward the East is beyond fascinating not to mention brilliant. They prepared hundreds of thousands of servicemen for the invasion and NONE of them knew until the last moment where they were headed. Eisenhower was in. Charge and had to make the decision to go. The invasion was planned for June 5th but because of weather had to be called off; the weather wasn’t much better the following day but Ike decided the danger of the plan being discovered outweighed weather and gave the order. As someone fortunate enough to live in a country that has never been occupied by foreign powers it is hard to fully understand what the French in Normandy were facing in those days. At any moment they might be accused of something and shot or sent to a concentration camp. The area where the Allies landed covers about 50 miles of beach with bluffs and villages and farms and open fields and hedgerows and all sorts of geography to be navigated. They travel 100 hundred miles of rough seas with sometimes eight foot weaves to reach those beaches… and face the possibility of immediate death from drowning, friendly fire, German fire, etc.
The cemetery is both what one would expect and at the same time daunting in his tight rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. Two things I learned: 1) this was not the original resting place for these service people (including four women) and 2) when the bodies were moved the families were given the option of having the remains brought back to America for burial–no other country offered that option. The setting is park-like and beautiful. I was put off by the ongoing narration from our guide and the p[presence of so many people–I wanted and needed quiet. So I switched off my listening device and wandered away from the group to take a stroll down just one of the long rows, reading the names, states and rank as I went. There is no distinction between ranks–a colonel lies next to a private and in the next row there might be one of hundreds of graves with a body but no name. They are indeed a band of brothers.
We went on then to Omaha Beach again driving down narrow streets lined with fields, hedges, farmhouses and such–a peaceful bucolic part of the country. The beach is covered in a sort of golden caramel-colored sand and many visitors take sand from the beach and press it into the engraved letting of a grave marker in the cemetery to make the letting stand out. Of course eventually the sand falls out or washes away but it does make a difference. I was able to walk on the beach and pick up a few shells to carry home.
Our last stop was the battlefield and in many ways I felt the closeness of those young brave men more there than anywhere else. The Germans were in the process of setting up huge artillery guns on turntables that would allow them to fire in all directions–when the invasion happened. From the sea and air the Allies blasted their positions and now there are these enormous rusted pieces of the guns and their mountings plus huge craters that have over time filled in with grass and flowering shrubs. And there were cherry trees in blooms–again that sense of quiet and serenity in a place that once rumbled with the thunder of bombs and artillery shells and the cries of wounded and dying young men.
Long bus ride back to hotel and then a short walk to a restaurant for sinner and then back to try and solve the undelivered baggage dilemma. I was told when I got back to the hotel (on FRIDAY) that the bag would be delivered either Monday or Tuesday (I leave for home on Wednesday!). Called United and while they were enormously sympathetic they also appear to be quite powerless in this little drama. I decided to remind myself of O’s mantra–IT IS WHAT IT IS–and forget missing luggage inn favor of thinking about how he would have loved this day and been moved probably to tears by it.