My apparently not-so- smart TV died over the weekend–or more precisely refused to die as when plugged in it just keeps turning itself on and off, on and off, etc. My first call was to the cable provider–always the villain that comes to mind. But after two half hour conversations with two different techies, I had to admit that perhaps my television–barely a year old–had gone haywire. Next step was to try and locate the manual for the beast–failed. L was so great at keeping such things organized so they would be at hand when needed. During the mostly sleepless night it came to me that I might have actually purchased the Geek plan for this TV. L and I never did that sort of thing but I remembered thinking maybe I should. Sure enough when I logged in to the site, there was the plan. Again L would have known this right away, pulled out the paperwork and info I needed to schedule and appointment and slept soundly through the night.
My point is not about my disorganization or L’s gift for building systems that allowed nothing to slip through the cracks. My point is that I miss having that partnership–that side-by-side where the things that needed attention were divided; where I was great at some things and he was the master of others; that person sharing the frustration of the experience as I ranted and raved and went through TV withdrawal.
My point is that it’s the small stuff that highlights the enormity of the loss.
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!!
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.
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.
My decision to move into the city (rather than continue living in the ‘burbs where L and I spent most of our married life) has turned out to be one of the better decisions I have made. From my 6th floor apartment that overlooks a main downtown street plus Lake Michigan I am audience for a passing parade of quirky events that make me smile or raise my curiosity or inspire my creativity. This weekend along I have witnessed the annual ritual that comes with people saving their spots for watching the major fireworks display. Overnight the grassy area across from my building was checker boarded with strips of yellow “caution” tape marking out squares of prime real estate for the viewing that would not happen for another 48 hrs. No one seemed to feel the need to stand guard over their claims and as far as I know no one violated a neighbor’s space by moving the borderlines.
Two nights later I watched in awe as the fireworks display played out. As it turned out I have a front row center viewing spot right from my window. I suspect L had something to do with this since he knows how I love fireworks!!! And then the following morning I took a walk through what just 12 hrs earlier had been “tent” city and saw that although there were some who had left their trash strewn about for the city workers to clean up, a lot of folks had made a real effort in spite of overflowing trash barrels to clean up their space. AND to my total amazement by mid-afternoon thanks to city workers who started at five in the morning everything was back to the beautiful green space that is my daily view from my window.
In the arena of “quirky” there was the morning I was awakened at five or so by somebody playing a beautiful saxophone solo just below my bedroom window and the end of that same day when I fell asleep to the strains of a truly wonderful dance band playing for a wedding reception in the restaurant on the first floor of this building. A few nights later I heard a curious sound around 10:30 at night and looked out my window to see a ‘cherrypicker’ and window washers washing the windows on the building across the street. All of these things might have been annoying to others but for me they were cause for a smile…and smiles were what L wanted for me. I wonder though if he’s also responsible for the spiders who weave their webs on the screens of my windows–there are five of them now–each occupying a different window–each weaving its own intricate pattern. It reminds me of the life I am slowly but surely weaving together now that L is with me only in spirit. It makes me smile because I know that somewhere he is really pleased with how I am coping.
Two years? Feels more like two months. Feels more like yesterday.
As I write this dawn is breaking over Lake Michigan. It rained overnight so the skies are gray and there will be no pink/orange line of light on the horizon as the sun comes up–just a gradual coming of light and morning. The first day of year three on my journey.
Given the fairly massive changes I have made in my life over the last two years I have to accept that indeed time has passed. Those changes–selling our house, buying a condo in Florida and renting an apartment in downtown Milwaukee that overlooks the exact spot on Lake Michigan where L liked to walk and sit to watch sailboats and such–have left me feeling both unsettled and incredibly at peace with the life I am crafting without him. For example the place I own in Florida still feels like a rental–someone else’s place while this apartment where I had spent only a few days before leaving for Florida felt instantly like “home” the minute I walked in a couple of weeks ago. I have realized that it is because here I am surrounded by so much that L and I shared–furnishings, art, even the dishes in the kitchen cabinets. He was never a part of the things I have furnished the Florida place with. In so many ways the two “homes” represent the two parts of my life–a past I treasure and cherish and an uncertain future.
And so I move forward determined to honor L’s life by living mine to the fullest–open to new adventures even as I find comfort and even laughter in our shared past. He is not here physically and yet I feel his spirit walking beside me wherever I go–and that, dear friends of this blog–is something to embrace and celebrate.
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.
A couple of weeks ago–sometime around Valentine’s Day– attended a Sunday afternoon jazz concert that L and I used to attend regularly. It was one of his favorite activities when we were here in Florida. The concerts are held once a month ‘in season’ and feature a trio plus a guest. The event has grown so popular that it has been moved from a small chapel in the downtown church that hosts the concerts to the main sanctuary. What has this to do with the title of this post? Well, actually a lot…
As I took a seat at the end of an empty pew to wait for the concert to begin I observed others arriving. There were couples and couples with other couples; there were a few men–sometimes alone and sometimes with another man; and then there were the women. And it was the women who interested me the most. I watched their expressions and body language as they arrived, chose a seat (or had it chosen for them by the strongest in their pack if they arrived with other women), and settled in. Some chattered to their neighbors or perhaps recognized someone across the way and waved or carried on a part-vocal-part-sign-language exchange. Others sat quietly–alone even if they had arrived with others. Some looked a little sad, others a little lost, many a lot lonely. I had the sense that some had come because…well, what else was there to do? I know that feeling–that sense of not really want to take part in something and yet feeling that it is somehow necessary if I am to continue moving forward as L so wanted me to do. I tell myself that I am doing it for him–because this is what he would want–because this is what I promised. And as I looked at those other women I wondered how many of them were there–not really for the concert or because they loved good jazz but because it was another Sunday afternoon and this at least was something that would fill an hour or so.
In the movie FUNNY GIRL there’s a song titled “Who are you now?” Mostly it’s a song about being in love and begins with the lines..
Who are you now,
Now that you’re mine?
It was on my mind that Sunday as I walked home after the concert except I realize now that I had changed the words to:
Who am I now? Now that you’re gone…
My promise to L was that I would move forward, be strong, embrace life, be open to friends and their caring and new adventures…and I am trying, but sometimes….
The question I am asking myself these days is: Am I moving into a manic stage of this journey or is this just the way I need to handle moving forward with life on my own?
Here’s what the last month has brought my way–I had a book deadline on the first of October. A few days before that I was walking with a friend along the shores of Lake Michigan. I mentioned that when I returned from Florida in the spring I was considering selling the home L and I shared for the last four years of his life and renting a smaller apartment closer to downtown. L and I always talked of living downtown closer to plays and ballgames and friends but because of his lung disease it was no more than a pipedream. My friend–who has lived downtown for some time now–urged me to put my name on the waiting list for an apartment in her building. “Even if you decide not to take it at least you’ll have the opportunity to make that decision.” It sounded like a reasonable first step.
Long story cutting to the chase: there was no waiting list; there was a sweet little apartment perfect for one person and facing Lake Michigan and the sunrise. I protested that there was no way I could finish my book, put my house on the market, pack up and move to the apartment and pack up for my stay in Florida in the time available. But then I did not sleep for two days unable to get the apartment out of my mind and by the weekend I had signed a lease, listed the house and begun the incredible adventure called “downsizing” in a serious way! And yes, I met the deadline for the book.
I have been here now for about a month–actually moved in and began staying here as “home” a week ago and the truth is that it feels right. I even think L gave it his stamp of approval for when the movers were bringing in the furnishings a gift edition of GONE WITH THE WIND that I have no idea how I could have overlooked in packing up the rest of the DVDs, CDs and such stored in that credenza fell out. L had given me that our first Christmas after we were married knowing it was not only one of my favorite films but also would remind me of the time I took him to see it (his first time–my fifth) at a theater in Chicago and when the intermission came with Scarlett raising her fists to the heavens vowing never to be hungry again, L thought that was the end of the picture. How we laughed about that over the years!
And so while life does feel a bit chaotic these days the one thing I know for sure is that I am living the life that L wanted so much for me to live–to not sit around, but to travel and do things that we could not do together because of his health. The truth is that when I make a move like this–or even something much smaller in scope–I feel that I am honoring not only his memory but the love he had for me. No, not everyone is as blessed as I am to have choices such as those I have made BUT everyone who has experienced the death of a loved one does have a choice about how best to honor that person’s life…and the love shared during that life. Take care. Anna
In the early days of my journey I was consumed with loneliness especially from around four in the afternoon until I went to bed. Those, of course, were prime times with L–times when we would share the events of our day, times when we would discuss our tomorrows, times when it was just us. In the first year I realize now that I tried hard to fill in those empty hours by taking long walks, waiting/hoping for friends to call and offer some impromptu activity, watching hours and hours and hours of mindless television, and aimlessly pacing through the rooms we had shared. I had a lot of suppressed anger in those times–not specifically directed at any individual–especially not L who I knew would have done anything he could not to leave me–but at the unfairness of it all. For one thing he was a far better friend to our circle of friends than I could ever hope to be. I labeled myself “sloppy seconds” in the friendship department and was always touched and amazed by the countless gestures of love and outreach that came my way. I felt I didn’t deserve such kindness–and yes in my worst moments I suspected such gestures were little more than pity which of course I resented.
But lately…lately I have deliberately taken action to get out into situations that give me the opportunity to interact with new people–people who did not know me as part of a couple. And not to paraphrase Sally Field too often but I found out that “they liked me–they really liked ME.” And slow to get it as I am it finally dawned on me that the friends L and I have had for decades also “like me–really like ME.” These days I am more relaxed around people–those I have just met and those I have known for more than half my life. These days I struggle fewer evenings being alone–I have learned that the more I believe that L is with me, the more I feel his presence and his encouragement and his love. Oh, do not think I have even come close to licking this grief thing–but I can see progress–I am getting better at this.