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.
Just returned recently from a group tour to Santa Fe–my first time in New Mexico. Got a long of “flavor” for my western novels and picked up ideas for future stories. Also learned a lot about the diverse and blended cultures that have thrived there for literally hundreds of years–not without turmoil, of course, but then that’s life.
Following the tour I spent four days in the rustic and wonderful apartment offered by the Santa Fe Quaker Meetinghouse. My original intent was to plan for the future of my writing career. What actually happened was an awakening to my life overall.
It began my first night there. The place has no TV (understandable) and I could not for the life of me figure out the radio part of the clock/radio. The street outside my window basically rolled up somewhere around eight and talk about SILENT retreat–I had it in spades. And even though I am a TV/movie/live theater junkie and one who needs activity of some kind, I decided I could do this–at least for one night. (My plan was to go out the following day and buy a small radio at a secondhand shop.) I settled in with a book–lost interest, and replaced that with an exploration of the small kitchen in the place (45 seconds tops), wandered out to the lovely garden behind the meeting house (but it was dark and I was afraid of raising some kind of alarm). By eight-thirty I was in bed where I lay awake thinking about L and whether or not he would like the place and wishing he were there with me and…
I slipped so easily into the mold I had created for myself–the one that says “Nobody cares/understands how lonely this journey is” and “Why didn’t “x” include me when they made plans to see that play?” and “I know my family loves me but would it kill them to pick up the phone now and again instead of me always being the one to reach out?” By that time I had worked myself up to full blown self-pity–tears and all. I wept and sobbed and cried out in the solitude and darkness. “I MISS YOU SO MUCH!”
As calm settled in–one can only rant and wallow for so long–I did what I always do. I asked myself what I planned to do about this misery that promised to keep pulling me under. And I thought of how many times L (not to mention my shrink) had reminded me that the only person whose actions and attitude I can change is ME. Then I found myself thinking about times L and I had traveled and the joy we had shared. And I could practically hear him reminding me that we had decades of a story worthy of putting up on the big screen, while so many others never know even a day of such devotion and laughter and love.
Sometime in there I fell asleep and when I woke the next morning, I felt noticeably different. I felt so blessed to have had the life L and I shared and I felt so blessed to still have the friends we shared all those years. I know they are there for me. I know they care. And so what if they don’t “care” in the exact way I want them to? What if they had all gone away once L died? What right did I–who have had so much–have to want more? Of course, I have no idea how long this epiphany will last. I know there will be rough times ahead, but–as Oprah would say, here’s what I know for sure: I have been blessed with a life filled with adventure and interesting caring people and work that I has given me financial and personal rewards and a love that still sustains me every hour of every day. How hard can it be to reach out to others instead of waiting for them to come to me? And the interesting thing is, once I got home and did make those calls and extend those (sometimes impromptu) invitations, people said “yes”–not only that they seemed genuinely delighted that I had called them.
I will no doubt fall into that old way of thinking more times than I want to imagine, but I know the path out of it now. Oh, and the following morning when I was looking for a piece of notepaper, I found the instructions for operating the radio. Over the remainder of my nights alone in the meeting house apartment, I wrote two short short stories, made sketches of things I had seen in Santa Fe, sang along to the music on the radio and boarded the plane for home refreshed and at peace. I was me again–and I knew L was smiling.
A dear friend, who certainly understood grief and loss, told me shortly after L died that as time went by there would be surprises and disappointments when it came to my interactions with others. And while I recognized the truth of that advice, admittedly I clung to the hope that in time things would change. That those who had ‘disappointed’ me would come to understand my need for their support and draw closer. But as time has passed I have come to understand that in some ways I have been my own worst enemy with regards to this. Others see me as ‘strong’ and even ‘amazing’ in the ways I have chosen to move forward without L in my life. Add to that the fact that even before L’s death, I was one who sometimes openly and certainly subtly pushed people away, and I realize the responsibility for how I am feeling now–three years down the road–is something in large part of my own making.
We cannot go back and so we move forward, and doing so–at least for me–means letting go of that ‘disappointment’ by taking responsibility for my part in creating it. I know these people care deeply for me. I know that should I need them, they will be there without question. My pettiness and pity have in fact held me back from moving forward. The giant steps I took early on–changing my residence, starting to travel, trying new activities, etc.–were great first steps. But I realize that over the last year I have gotten lazy–tired really of making the effort. The result? I am increasingly wallowing in sadness, self-pity, loneliness. It is affecting my health on every level–and it is time to STOP!
[I can practically hear L saying, “About time!”]
Doing my yearly weekend in Madison WI–today tramped through the sales of Maxwell Street Days on State Street between the campus and the Capitol; made a stop at the State Historical library to do some research; walked the lake path to the place where I set up a little memorial to L three years ago–it is overgrown now and I was unable to get down to it so I found a perfect flat stone, wrote his name on it and tossed it into the lake. Next year I think I will bring some special stone or perhaps a shell from Florida and make this the new tradition. Stopped at the Union and got a scoop of chocolate peanut butter ice cream (made on campus and L’s favorite) and enjoyed it as I walked the path. Now I am back in my room–a room similar to those L and I shared all the years we came here–where I will rest up for tomorrow’s early morning visit to the incredible farmer’s market that runs the entire block around the capitol building.
Normally I would have lunch at the Memorial Union overlooking the lake (and I may do that tomorrow) and then head back to Milwaukee. But this year out of the blue an old friend from my college days who lives in California called to say she and her husband are in the area so I am going to stay over and meet them for dinner tomorrow evening in the small town of Spring Green (where Frank Lloyd Wright established his summer home and school for architects). It’s probably been at least 25 years since I saw this friend and we have stayed in touch only with the annual holiday letter to catch up. And yet she is one of those special friends I hope you are lucky enough to have where time and distance have no effect. I know when we see each other tomorrow it will be as if we are simply continuing a conversation.
The truth is that lately I have been struck by the fact that the loneliness of widowhood does not ease with time–in fact it seems to worsen. But then something like this comes along and I weather yet one more storm of loneliness and depression. I hope those of you who struggle with similar pain can find these momentary reprieve in your life as well. Take care! Anna
It’s been nearly two months since my last post–a good deal has happened in that time including the coming and going of the third anniversary of L’s death. I spent that day here in Wisconsin doing much of what I have done on the other anniversaries–driving around and past all the places we lived, taking a long walk along the lakefront, looking through pictures and most of all playing back the awesome audio tapes he left for me so that once again his voice filled my world.
Once again I have turned my living situation on its ear–in Florida I found that I was unsettled and restless. The place I bought two years ago has never felt like ‘home’ for me even after I surrounded myself with items from the life we shared. One night I decided to make a change and so I went looking for another place to call home down there–found it–bought it–moved in and put the old place on the market. Now I wait for that to sell. L never would have done things in that order and I can only imagine that he is up there shaking his head and trying to figure out how to help me get back on a solid trail. And yet I can feel his approval–feel him saying, “Yes. This is good. This is what you need to keep moving forward.”
For that was his hope for me–that I would step by step find my way to a life I could enjoy and find peace in. He understood there would be stumbles along the way–although he clearly thought there would be bigger stumbles than there have been. This new place feels as right as my apartment in Wisconsin–it feels like me–like us–like ‘home.’
But a dwelling does not make an entire life–for that we need family and friends and human connections. I continue to work on that as well–a harder task for this introverted loner, but one that has been successful enough that I see the power of having those connections. And there is activity or work–meaningful, fulfilling. For me that is, of course, my writing. It gets me through many a tough time. Sometimes I am able to escape into the stories I am writing, but sometimes–like now–just writing down my feelings about what’s been going on in my life is therapeutic in its own way.
I know there are many of you who follow this blog who may be struggling with loneliness and the sheer agony of having to make the effort to find your way. I believe that making that effort–excruciating as it sometimes may be–is worth it. I hope you will open your hearts and minds to the possibilities around you–the hidden messages your loved one is sending your way to say, “I am here. I know it is hard, but know that I am walking with you as you make this journey.”
As I write this I am attending my college reunion… I got my degree at a small Presbyterian school and our graduation class was only about sixty people. Last night I met up with a dozen of them to have dinner and today at the official proceedings apparently thirty or so are expected. These are people I have not seen in 25 years and who for the most part I have not kept up with… my bad! For they are the same funny, smart, delightful souls I shared four years with.
As a part of this trip I have also gone back to the small town where I grew up, stopped at the cemetery where my parents and older sister are buried and tomorrow will spend a couple of nights in the town where L and I were married. A LOT of memories to process from different phases of my life–which is one reason I am writing this a four in the morning!
One of the people attending the reunion is the man who was my first love. I have to say I was nervous about seeing him. Frankly he broke my heart back then but he also gave me a wonderful gift by being that magical first love experience that opened me to the whole roller coaster of emotions that would come with true love. The two experiences are apples and oranges–with that man it was love fraught with inexperience and self-doubt and unformed ambitions. With L it was mature (at least most of the time) filled with a commitment and determination that left no room for doubt–in myself or in what we shared.
And tomorrow when I visit the inn where we were married and recall that wonderful spring day, my heart will be full of memories and smiles and tears–and gratitude for the years we had, the joys and heartbreak we shared and the promise he has kept to walk with me through all the days to come.
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.
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….
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.
A few days ago it occurred to me that for those of us whose spouse suffered a long and often painful end–perhaps months or as in my case (and perhaps yours), years– there is one small compensation in living on: I realized that I no longer worry all the time or walk through my days waiting for the other shoe to drop or sleep with one ear open for a possible change in breathing or a fall or other catastrophe. Not that I wouldn’t cut off a vital body part to have him back for an hour or a day, but there is that release of responsibility.
Then just a couple of days later I developed some “a-typical” (the doctor’s terminology) symptoms that lasted through one night and into the morning. Alone as I am (without children or other family nearby) and ingrained with a need not to “bother” anyone (although I am blessed with wonderful friends and neighbors), I could not decide what to do. Finally I told myself the choice was: either sit and worry and hope symptoms that had last several hours would simply go away or get myself to a walk-in clinic and find out what was going on. I chose Door #2. Foolishly I drove myself to a walk-in clinic where I found that my description of what was going on was taken VERY seriously. Long story short I went directly from there to the ER at the nearby hospital and this time the clinic doctor gave me HER choice: either go in an ambulance or call someone to come and take me. She was clearly upset that I had elected to drive myself to her clinic! I called my sister-in-law.
Long story short–I was in hospital for 2 nights and 3 days; they ran tests, drew blood (every 4 hrs), scheduled a stress test and eventually sent me home without really identifying the root of the problem,. The symptoms improved by the end of that first day and did not return. I came away with a solid baseline of test results that told me whatever my problem was it was not a cardiac issue–that was certainly good news given a strong family history of heart disease. I also came away with a connection to a cardiologist–a specialist I should have added to my team of doctors well before now. And–should those same symptoms reappear, at least I can be fairly certain the problem is not with my heart.
But the real pony in this one is that as news spread friends came…and kept coming and calling and checking in. I was not alone. Mentally I knew that I could have called any one of them, but emotionally I had not yet accepted that their need to be there for me was more than being there because L had asked them to be. I had not yet accepted that they wanted to be there because it was ME. And when I came home (again with my sister-in-law seeing me safely back) I got out of the car and there on the grass at my feet was a beautiful bird feather–as has been the case on a numbers of occasions when I have learned one more lesson in this journey.