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.
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
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 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.
3/31: Our 44th wedding anniversary seems a good time o begin this adventure. I anticipate that it will be bitter and sweet b it will be something I can add to the memory bank of moments L and I have shared for he will be with me every step oaf the journey. I flew from FL to Chicago and stayed in an airport hotel for the night mostly because the weather in the Midwest has been so unpredictable that I did not want to take a chance. Hotel was surprisingly quiet given its proximity to one of the busiest airports in the world!
4/1: Hotel nice enough to give me late checkout since flight does not leave until 6pm but by noon I was so bored I decided people-watching at the airport beat TV watching in my room and the weather was low 30’s with an 18 degree wind chill so not great for getting out and walking. So off I went. Again going through security was unexpectedly easy–apparently it helps to be old. Even for an international flight I did not have to remove shoes, unpack electronics, etc. Spent a long day wandering the concourses of the airport after checking my one bag…a mistake that I will come to later. Finally time to go. No sign of others from my group at least that I could identify so found my seat next to a nice young man who clearly did not plan to interact during the flight. I was fine with that. No WIFI on board so read my book and tried to sleep (failed) and watched the map of our progress on the little TV screen— six hours to go; four hours to go…. etc. Finally about 90 minutes from Paris they served b’fast–a stale manufactured croissant and a little mixed fruit. Suddenly my seatmate became my best friend. “What is this?” he asked holding up the croissant. He was French, a freelance journalist working in Chicago who loves basketball and is interested in WWII history so we had a lovely chat for the remainder of the trip. Arrived in Paris only to learn my bag was still in Chicago. Met the group and boarded bus for 2 hour trip to Honfleur, Normandy. Our guide is Mia. She’s Dutch and lovely and very very well organized. The bus ride (I was trying hard to take it all in and not fall asleep) went through Paris so we saw Eiffel Tower from a distance and then countryside… beautiful woods coming in bloom for spring. I saw those woods filled with the ghosts of all those who fought that terrible war–soldiers from both sides, members of the Resistance, ordinary people just trying to stay alive. Arrived at the hotel–modern and with a super staff. Myth room is large and faces the street(and Bay of the Seine). I had been told by United’s lost luggage people that I could shop “for necessities and be reimbursed so I set out shopping…lost luggage is not so terrible after all I guess. Met all of the group (35 of us) for a welcome reception then walked to a lovely local restraint for a fabulous(One nice thing about this trip is that most meals are included and we are talking local restaurants (not box lunches).) Finally to bed after following the recipe for avoiding jet lag by staying up until “normal” local bedtime and to sleep!
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.
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.”