It came to me last night (In a dream of all things) that I have been looking at things wrong. When L died, I did not lose my identity–I am in fact more ‘me’ than before. What I lost (and struggle daily to find) is my place in this world. When L was alive I knew that place–it was quite simply wherever we were together. Now that he is not here, I realize that I keep trying to understand where I belong. It could explain the lifestyle changes I’ve made in the last three years. It could also explain the expanded and surprising sense of ‘self’ that has come with events such as attending my college reunion and establishing new relationships in the places I now call ‘home.’ It definitely gives meaning to my restlessness–the constant need to fill the hours with some activity. The truth is that I know who I am — with or without L. He just made it easier for me to operate in the world as that being. Now that I am alone–and in some ways more exposed–it is far more difficult. But I press on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently I spent a few lovely late summer days with friends in northern Wisconsin. L and I made many happy memories up there–hiking, fishing, eating!! I had not gone fishing since his death but found it’s a little like riding a bike–it all comes back. L used to tease me about my side-arm method of casting and he was clearly stunned when I put bait (worms or leeches) on the hook myself. His favorite photo of me was from the time I caught a sizable small-mouthed bass from the pier of our friends’ cottage. One afternoon I sat alone on that pier while my friends went off in the boat to fish and thought about all the wonderful times L and I shared–all the ideas for stories that were developed as we sat together or hiked through the woods in the fall, all the plans we made for our future. I find that at moments like these I am not saddened but rather grateful. For over forty years I had the joy (and yes, sometimes the frustration) of life with this incredible man. And every day that he is gone I appreciate more fully how carefully he prepared me for the life I would need to move forward with once he was gone. I am doing that–it is not always easy but as L and I always said, “It is what it is” and now I have added, “And it will be what I make of it.”
L and I often talked about the life I would lead without him. He was excited at the possibility of my re-inventing my life while I had serious reservations. Now as I enter year two of widowhood I find that re-invention is not only a possibility, it is in so many ways a necessity. Recently I have started to become even more overwhelmed by the loneliness and the sheer number of hours I spend by myself in a day and I have begun to seek ways I can change that. I have a tendency (and a heredity) toward depression so before that becomes an issue I am taking a good hard look at the realities of my life.
L and I were blessed with incredible friendships and a lot of them–those friendships are certainly there for me now that he is gone and I don’t doubt them for a second. But the fact is that in most cases those are couples and I am now not a couple. L used to admonish me that I was going to have to make a real effort–against my normal reclusive personality–to reach out to people. I feel I have done that–inviting people to dinner, calling on a weeknight to suggest a spontaneous run for burgers, letting people know that I’d love to see a certain film if they plan to go–and all of these efforts have been well received. They have not however–in most cases–been reciprocal. I regularly hear of friends getting together (as couples)for a movie or casual dinner. In the past they would have called to see if L and I were available but that’s simply not happening now. I have two ways (and probably more) to go with this: I can choose to be sad and hurt and feel sorry for myself; or I can understand that there is no negative intent–my friends still love me and if I asked if I could join them they would definitely say ‘yes.’
So it seems to me that the answer is to expand my group–something I had begun to do (and L had encouraged) even before he died. What I have realized recently however is that I am definitely going more places–I often work on my writing in coffeehouses surrounded by people and I regularly attend a summer music series on Sunday mornings and once I attended a bookstore’s open book club. But in none of those cases am I really connecting with people–they are there and I am there…period.
After L died I decided to give up my little writing studio once the lease ran out this summer. I still feel that was the right move. But today as I was writing at a local coffeehouse I thought that I had to find some place where I would be seeing some of the same people each time I went to that place and in time I might connect with these people on a deeper level. Down the street from the coffeehouse is an art co-op. These are painters and weavers and photographers sharing a large loft space. I went there and spoke with 3 members of the co-op and lo and behold they told me about a small available space (less than 1/3 the rent I was paying before and yes, less than 1/3 the size). On Saturday I am going to meet the co-op manager and see what we can work out. I feel good about this–it doesn’t completely resolve the issue of loneliness but I feel that it has the potential to be a place–a community–where I might find at least a hint of that sense of connection I am missing so much. Stay tuned…
Well, last 4th of July I went to a party at the home of dear friends and came very close to having a weeping breakdown in front of everyone.So understandably when this year I had invitations to not one but two parties–one on the 3rd and the other on the 4th, I was more than a little nervous. July 4th has always been one of my favorite holidays–you know what to wear, the menu is pretty much set and there are no gifts involved. Beyond that I happen to LOVE fireworks! L knew all of this and embraced my enthusiasm for the holiday–it was something we shared and looked forward to every year.
The party on the 3rd was of special concern–this annual event was not held last year because the hosts were traveling so as I prepared to go this year I realized that this was going to be a large gathering with several people that I have known for years but who are more acquaintances than close friends. Most of them would be seeing me for the first time since L died. I was tempted to take the easy way out and fake illness and not go but I knew L would be so disappointed in me for this was his greatest fear–that I would crawl into my shell. So I went…and had a lovely evening! The gathering on the 4th was much smaller but there were still a number of “new” faces there as there had been at the party last summer when I had to leave before I broke down. This time I found that I was able to meet people without worrying about whether or not they knew that L had died–some did and some did not. For those who did not I found that I was able to say without hesitation “my late husband” or “L, my husband who died last year” and let the conversation continue naturally. So on both scores I count that as growth on my part–moving past the “it’s all about me and my grief” stage to the “I am doing okay” stage–because I am except…
(And here comes the setback piece of this)…I am finding that the more time passes the more pervasive and devastating the loneliness becomes. I had foolishly thought that I would begin to fall into some sort of routine and fill the hours with tasks and chores and work and walks with friends and movies with friends and dinners with friends and…
And what I am coming to terms with is that IF that is to happen a great deal of the calling and scheduling is up to me and that’s a huge problem because I don’t like to “bother” people so for now I am taking things one step at a time–trying to find things to do even on my own that at least put me in the company of others even strangers. Someone told me about a sketching class starting soon at the local rec department so I signed up for that and I signed up to volunteer for the annual film festival in September so one step at a time…hour by hour, day by day until like the July 4th parties of last year and this I realize that I have changed and grown and coped.