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.
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.
Traditionally this is a time to honor those who have “given the full measure of patriotism” having given their lives fighting in the name of our USA. But it is also a time when I can’t help but pause and consider the lives, the gifts, and the memories of those dear to me who are no longer physically with me. I can hardly go a day without something reminding me of some special moment or lesson learned from a loved one whp has died. L, of course, is at the top of that list. But last night I glanced at a collage of family photos and realized that I was blessed to have been nurtured by not one but three ‘mothers’. There was my actual mother–an incredible woman who unfortunately never understood how much she had influenced her children or contributed to the people we became as adults. I recall vividly walking with her one day about the time I was going to get married and I chose that moment to say how much I had learned from her and how thankful I was to be her daughter. She was quiet for a moment and then she said, “I was scared to death every day I spent raising you kids that I would not do a good job.” This woman with her 7th grade education who had taught me that I could dream as big as I dared? This woman who had applauded every boundary I broke through? This woman who gave me my first set of wings?
And then there was my oldest sister–eleven years older than I am she had early on been cast into the role of babysitter and parent stand-in. She married when I was about 10 and soon I became the babysitter for her children. When her husband of quarter century left her for another woman she showed such strength, such courage and such determination to make the best life she could for those children. She went back to school to get a master’s degree while holding a full-time teaching job. She was the family baker — making wonderfully creative decorated cakes for our birthdays. She was also scared to death and lonely and fighting to stay positive in circumstances over which she had no control. A victim of Parkinson’s disease I watched as her life slowly narrowed from a house of her own filled with the things she loved collecting to half of a room in a nursing home where even the furnishings were impersonal (except for little touches like the quilt on her bed and the photos on her window ledge) l and had little to do with her or her life. And in the week that I spent with her as she lay dying I learned that she had created her alternate family in the staff at the home–they told wonderful stories of her humor and her mischievous smile and her sometimes “mom” reprimands.
And finally there was our next door neighbor–a nurse and my mother’s best (and often only) true friend who opened her door and her heart to all of us giving us a place we could go when life at home became difficult. She was not only a surrogate mom to me, she was also a dear friend who taught me a great deal about how to be a friend to others even when that meant my doing all the heavy lifting (as she had to do in her friendship with Mom) to keep the bond secure and alive.
These three women–simple folk from a small hick town who never lived anywhere but there were my mothers and my mentors. Some of the lessons I picked up from watching them were not the best to be sure. There were definitely times especially after L came into my life where I was forced to question their ways and find my own path. But they set me on that path in the first place and holding them in my memory today, I understand that the love that L and I shared and the life we built together began with those three women.
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.
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….
Back home in Wisconsin the weather has been really cold with sub-degree highs and wind chills that are almost impossible to believe. Here in Florida where I am so blessed to spend the winter months it has been cooler than normal and there has been more rain. The shelling has also been affected–very few shells on the beaches compared to previous years but sometimes wonderful discoveries like the number of live olive shells I have seen this year. The olive is a favorite of mine with it’s shiny brown shell–to discover the animal that calls this beautiful shell home has been a special treat. I do not take live shells–ever! Instead I delight in watching them make their little trails across the sand as the tide comes in.
Now that my Wisconsin home is an apartment I will not have a “home” there as I have in the past for the shells I have collected and carried back north with me each year. But I have this wonderful new home here in Florida and just below my balcony is a little park bench under a wonderful and enormous live oak tree. I have planted the two abandoned planters that sit at either end of the bench and every year before I head north I plant the bromiliads that I have nurtured on my balcony under the tree. I have spread mulch under the bench and around the planters and perhaps in time I will cover the mulch with shells. My neighbors are of two varieties–they have either praised or ignored my efforts so I continue until someone tells me to stop. Even when we rented here I would plant the plants I had accumulate during the season (and could not take home with me) and many of them are thriving on the beautiful grounds here. There is one bush with bright yellow flowers that I see every time I leave the complex–it reminds me of the wonderful times L and I shared here and makes me smile every time I see it.
I know that one day it will probably be gone in favor of some landscaping change but for now it is a source of comfort and that is the point. Knowing how brutal the winter in Wisconsin has been I am grateful every day (in spite of the chilly rainy days here) that L brought us to this wonderful community. Seeing that flowering bush brings back memories that remind me of the love story I was so blessed to play a part in. And this new home here that L never shared with me is nevertheless filled with his spirit.
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.
It occurs to me that a great deal has been written about survival of the first year but very little about what happens after that milestone has passed. Other people in my shoes but a little further down the grief trail have agreed that this is not a journey with an end or destination in sight. This is a road with curves and turns and bumps and no real end.
I have just returned from what a friend referred to as my “vision quest”–a week alone in beautiful Door County Wisconsin. For those not familiar with the geography: when you look at a map of Wisconsin, Door County is the “thumb” that sticks out in the upper right. It is–in my opinion–the Cape Cod of the Midwest–charming, quaint, picturesque. I planned this trip last August as I began to look ahead and wonder what/how I would be feeling when I reached that one-year anniversary. I looked at various locations across the country–places L and I had enjoyed together–and settled on this quiet bucolic setting filled with memories. I am happy to say I made the perfect choice.
The week held so many serendipitous surprises that I have created a separate page to describe this adventure. I have added this page (like a bookend) to the pages I wrote in December of 2011 when I first started this blog. But in the event you haven’t the time or inclination to read this journal of a journey, let me give you the gist of it: the thing I kept finding myself focused on as I explores haunts of the past and encountered new venues was that L and I had 42 incredible years together–years that were filled with adventure and love and laughter. We had our bad days–we had days when we each thought we had made the biggest mistake of our lives hooking up with the other one.
But I see now that those were detours and construction zones as we found our way down side roads and byways until we came together again breathless with the relief at still being together. In short, for 42+ years he loved me and I loved him. We were each other’s best friend and wisest counselor and the fruit of that love story will sustain me for whatever time I have left in this world. Yes, I will cry and I will rant at what I will declare is the unfairness of our fate–we all want more and more and more of something so right. But in my heart I know that what we shared is more than most people get. Yes, I am a widow and I shudder every time I even think that word much less speak it aloud or mark its check box on some form. But I am now and ever shall be a woman who was half of an incomparable love story–and for that I am truly blessed–and with that always in mind I begin year two.
Today about two dozen friends and I held a 2nd memorial celebration of L’s life–it was fitting that it came on his birthday. He had asked me to be sure and do something here in Florida for those friends who could not come to Wisconsin last May. What a wonderful event it turned out to be. There is a long bridge from mainland Sarasota over to the barrier islands. Every year he was here L took great pride in riding his bike up and over that bridge and back again. The last year he was down here toward the end of the season he came back one day and said, “I made it to the top of the bridge today.” I knew that was the last time he would manage that and sure enough that was the day he stopped riding his bike. So the friends and I walked to the top of the bridge–a long gradual climb and there we had a moment of silence, then dropped orchid and rose petals. Because of the strong wind they petals flew through the air and way out onto the water as they landed. One person said looking down at the water so far below that they looked like a cluster of butterflies and it was true. It was SO beautiful. Afterwards we had lunch at L’s favorite pizza place. I had given the chef there L’s recipe for salmon patties (one of his standard meals when he cooked) and the chef took the recipe and made up appetizer sized patties for us to enjoy. I had also ordered L’s favorite frozen custard sent from Wisconsin for dessert. It was a day of surprises and stories and laughter–a bittersweet day to be sure–but as always with L the emphasis was on the “sweet.”