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.
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.
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.
We were so packed with activity the last several days of the trip that I have not had the opportunity to post. I am in Chicago now and today will return home to Florida. Once I have my own computer I hope to post some of the almost 200 pictures I took while on this incredible journey. Just to catch up with the itinerary: on Sunday we spent another full day with our English guide, William Jordan, seeing Utah Beach, the village where the film THE LONGEST DAY was set, the German cemetery and the wonderful museum in Caens. On Monday we left early in the morning for the long bus ride to Mont St. Michel–an incredible place rich with centuries (dating back to the 8th century) of history and wonderful places to explore. Our guide here (*and indeed for all the sites we had yet to see) was equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic as William had been. They brought history to life. My impression of Mont St Michel was that J.K. Rowling must have visited the site while inventing the setting for her Harry Potter series–the church on top of the rock as well as the village with its narrow streets and charming little shops was Hogwarts come to life. I kept expecting to run into Harry himself!!
On Tuesday we spent the day at the home and beautiful gardens of Claude Monet. Because it is truly spring in France, the gardens were exploding with tulips of all colors, daffodils of all varieties, fabulous lilac and other flowering bushes and of course the wonderful Japanese gardens that so inspired his work — including the famous painting of the water lilies. I learned two important things about the Impressionist movement–the painting is all about the reflection/play of light on different surfaces from water to fabrics to buildings, etc. and 2) Monet was inspired by the art of Japanese woodcuts, many of them hanging on the walls of his colorful cottage. We had lunch at the museum and then a lecture by a member of the museum staff showing how in so many ways Normandy had been the “birthplace” of the Impressionist movement.
Back to the hotel for our farewell reception–how we had changed since that first night when we were all strangers–and to pack for a five a.m. departure for Paris and the airport. I did not sleep much because my mind was so full of thoughts about the trip and how much L would have loved everything about it (except perhaps the strong coffee and long bus rides). I thought of how proud he would have been that instead of burrowing into my shell (as is usually my habit when in a group) I had made a real effort to get to know almost everyone in our group and in the process made some connections that have the potential to last beyond Normandy. And I knew that L had been with me on this incredible journey when as we walked back to the bus after touring Monet’s gardens I spotted a single perfect feather on the ground. Since his death–nearly two years ago now– I have often found feathers like that when I was missing him and wishing I could tell him all about my adventures. The feather–along with the lilac in bloom reminding me of the lilac he used to gather for me every spring–made me smile and allow the peace and comfort of knowing he was indeed there and that he knew all about the trip…because he is watching.
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.
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
Hard to miss the fact that today marks one year since L’s death. Friends have been overwhelmingly concerned and supportive as the day approached–today there have been calls and cards and wonderful vibes of their love and support surrounding me.
Last night I found myself reliving those final hours and counting my blessings that I was with him and that it was just the two of us at home as he had always wanted. He was so afraid that he would die in hospital–he hated that idea.
I also found myself looking back over this last year and realizing how I have found my way–sometimes with sadness and even anger; most times with the assurance that I was moving forward as L had wanted me to–that I honor his life by moving on with mine. At the same time I know that I have more “promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep” on this journey. In some ways marking this anniversary makes tomorrow feel like a new beginning–a second year–perhaps a little like the freshman in college feels having completed that first year and moving on feeling more experienced and equipped to handle what may come.. There are–I am certain– many more lessons to be learned, many more tests to be endured, many more slips and slides that will make me cringe. The one thing I know for sure is that L has kept his promise to be there with me every step of the way. I feel his presence, hear his laughter as well as his concern with every decision I make. And with that in mind I look back on a year that has gone by with excruciating slowness and at the same time seems impossible to believe. Wasn’t it just yesterday???
Here are a few of the lessons I learned on my journey–year one:
- The need to fill in the time gaps—times when I would have been doing something with/for L—planning dinner, watching TV, going to doctor appointments, picking up meds, setting up social dates, working on newsletter for his volunteer work, talking, laughing—even arguing. Hours and hours every day that were suddenly empty and without purpose.
- The disbelief lingered all year—there are still days when I am in the middle of something and I simply cannot believe that he is never coming back.
- The restructuring—of the rooms in the house, of plans for each day-week-month, of relationships suddenly shifted by the absence of L.
- The loss of self-identity—who am I now? (That’s actually the title of a song added to the film: FUNNY GIRL!) Who will I become? How will I achieve that?
- The surprises – travel held little appeal; buying the place in Florida felt incredibly “right”; the fact that I could continue to work—lose myself in the stories and characters for hours each day was a surprise and a blessing.
- The physical worries—what if something happened? How would EMTs get in? Who would they call? The weight gain. The disinterest in eating and so the improper diet. (Plan for start of year 2 = health/weight.)
- The friends—who was there throughout the year—and who was not. The wonderful gifts of friendships that blossomed where they had been only buds before.
- The ongoing confusion about how I was “supposed” to feel–was I grieving enough? There was always a bit of “survivor” guilt going on and it does linger.
- How to explain that although I am doing “fine” I am still a work in progress and what is “fine” today may have shattered by tomorrow. A pronouncement of some future plan or intent made today may be taken back tomorrow or next week.
- The connection to others through this blog and in books and in real life. The comfort of knowing that there is no formula–no right or wrong–for finding the road through grief.
- The acceptance that for decades I have lived in a couples world and while those ties are strong and unbreakable, the fact remains that I need to find ways to broaden my world–to do the very thing that L feared I would not do: reach out to others.
With so much yet to do–I suspect that the entries to this blog will be ever less prolific–but I will continue to record the journey and I hope that it will continue to comfort and support.
Excellence–excelling at some task–was something I was taught throughout my life. It is a trait ingrained in me–a trait I know some would think of as competitive. But I am driven to get things right and this “widow” thing is no exception.
Since returning from Florida I have struggled more and more–some would say it’s the weather over the last several weeks in Wisconsin. It’s been unceasingly gray, gloomy and cold with bone-chilling dampness and sharp winds off of Lake Michigan. There has been what has at times seemed to be enough rain that a person might seriously consider building an ark. And I suppose there is an element of that in the downward slide I have made emotionally and spiritually these last weeks. Some would say that the fact that I have been fighting bronchitis for six weeks now and that I have a deadline for my next book looming have been major contributors to my feelings of depression. All valid assumptions.
But as Oprah would say, here is what I know for sure: I am so very tired of starting over, of having to adapt my life to circumstances not of my own making, of finding a way to move forward…alone. And then came this last week and four events that shifted my outlook albeit ever so slightly. I started reading Joyce Carol Oates memoir about widowhood; the Boston Marathon bombings kept me riveted to the TV for hours on end; the West, TX fertilizer plant fire and explosion reminded me of the town where I grew up in the hills of southwestern Virginia; and the film “42” about the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson touched me in unexpected ways.
So here is the second thing I know for sure: when L and I were facing together the end of his life our mantra became “It is what it is.” In an interview with TN women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt who is facing life with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s I heard her add a key second line to that statement: “It is what it is and it will be whatever we choose to make of it.” I have choices I can make, roads I can take or not, self-pity that I can either wallow in or reject.
My therapist has told me several times that Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way time and again and expecting a different result. I do that a lot–always going back to the same perceived slights and issues and how I would like for them to change. It is way past time to let go of that kind of pettiness…L always counseled that and it made him so very sad that I would be “better” for a time but would eventually circle back around to the same whining. In the play A Raisin in the Sun, there is a line about how life is not a circle but an unending line–one we cannot see the end of and one we can only move along addressing the situation we find ourselves in at this moment and making plans for the future with the full understanding that those plans may change.
I was married for over four decades to a man who knowing his future with a certainty that most of us never have CHOSE to live his life with grace and humor, CHOSE to place the focus of his days on me and on others; CHOSE to have no regrets when the end came because he knew that he had done everything he could for as long as he could. He had never given up but rather let go of pieces of that life as the reality of his limits dictated. Surely in honoring his memory and that life so well lived, I, too, learn to “let go” and move forward with purpose so that whenever my end may come I too will be able to look back without regret.
Some incredible surprises today–when I was reading a classmate’s comments on my work yesterday I saw a note offering to serve as a reader for the ms. Because I respect her comments and knowledge I decided to take her up on it since I regularly employ readers anyway. We ran into each other at b’fast and made the deal. So surprise #1.
Surprise #2 came in a kind of back-handed way: I find comfort in getting a tarot card reading from time to time and had added it to my list of what I wanted to accomplish with this week. So when I went to the shop where I had had a really great experience a year or so ago, I was disappointed to sit down with someone who not only didn’t read tarot but seemed to be intent on offering me advice rather than giving me insight into the psychic world around me. It was, of course, as much my fault as hers but I left there really upset and disappointed. It was definitely out of proportion to the importance of this one thing. Anyway I returned to my room and the disappointment festered until I decided to look online and there was this woman–nearby who is an artist of some repute in the area and I just liked her photo and her blog and her work–so I called her and we have an appt. for Sat. morning–so perhaps it’s fitting that this will be the last thing I do before leaving and bringing this week to a close.
Surprise #3 came when I decided to take a walk along the lake path and find the spot where I wanted to scatter L’s ashes (not all of them–there are other special places he asked to reside in) and I came to this place that I thought might be the right spot and right behind me came this guy who climbed over a barrier to get closer to the lake for fishing. FISHING!! L loved it. Was he telling me something? I think maybe so. I talked to the guy some and he kind of indicated that a little further back the way I had come was an even better spot for fishing. I had looked at any number of places where people had made paths down to the shore but they had all seemed too steep and treacherous for me to So I thought I had the spot but then I started back and sure enough not ten yards from there was a path that was neither steep nor treacherous — it was perfect. Tomorrow I will go back with ashes — I think early morning or perhaps sundown might be best.
Finally surprise #4 came when I returned once again to my room and found a lovely note from someone I have met this week reaching out to say Can we have coffee and stay in touch? Now THAT is L at work! Continuing to bring people into my life from all sorts of directions — people who will ease the way for me with their friendship. As I said to our minister when we were planning L’s memorial: this is not A love story; this is THE love story–one that continues to sustain and comfort me even as I struggle with every new day. Til tomorrow….