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.
Excellence–excelling at some task–was something I was taught throughout my life. It is a trait ingrained in me–a trait I know some would think of as competitive. But I am driven to get things right and this “widow” thing is no exception.
Since returning from Florida I have struggled more and more–some would say it’s the weather over the last several weeks in Wisconsin. It’s been unceasingly gray, gloomy and cold with bone-chilling dampness and sharp winds off of Lake Michigan. There has been what has at times seemed to be enough rain that a person might seriously consider building an ark. And I suppose there is an element of that in the downward slide I have made emotionally and spiritually these last weeks. Some would say that the fact that I have been fighting bronchitis for six weeks now and that I have a deadline for my next book looming have been major contributors to my feelings of depression. All valid assumptions.
But as Oprah would say, here is what I know for sure: I am so very tired of starting over, of having to adapt my life to circumstances not of my own making, of finding a way to move forward…alone. And then came this last week and four events that shifted my outlook albeit ever so slightly. I started reading Joyce Carol Oates memoir about widowhood; the Boston Marathon bombings kept me riveted to the TV for hours on end; the West, TX fertilizer plant fire and explosion reminded me of the town where I grew up in the hills of southwestern Virginia; and the film “42” about the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson touched me in unexpected ways.
So here is the second thing I know for sure: when L and I were facing together the end of his life our mantra became “It is what it is.” In an interview with TN women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt who is facing life with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s I heard her add a key second line to that statement: “It is what it is and it will be whatever we choose to make of it.” I have choices I can make, roads I can take or not, self-pity that I can either wallow in or reject.
My therapist has told me several times that Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way time and again and expecting a different result. I do that a lot–always going back to the same perceived slights and issues and how I would like for them to change. It is way past time to let go of that kind of pettiness…L always counseled that and it made him so very sad that I would be “better” for a time but would eventually circle back around to the same whining. In the play A Raisin in the Sun, there is a line about how life is not a circle but an unending line–one we cannot see the end of and one we can only move along addressing the situation we find ourselves in at this moment and making plans for the future with the full understanding that those plans may change.
I was married for over four decades to a man who knowing his future with a certainty that most of us never have CHOSE to live his life with grace and humor, CHOSE to place the focus of his days on me and on others; CHOSE to have no regrets when the end came because he knew that he had done everything he could for as long as he could. He had never given up but rather let go of pieces of that life as the reality of his limits dictated. Surely in honoring his memory and that life so well lived, I, too, learn to “let go” and move forward with purpose so that whenever my end may come I too will be able to look back without regret.
It has been some time since I wrote on this blog and much has happened. I was in Florida for the winter–something I had promised L I would do although the idea of being there without him (in spite of a host of caring friends there as well as here in Wisconsin) made me hesitatnt to commit to a time frame for being there. Still there’s something to be said for taking next steps in life by walking on a beach rather than trying to plow through snow.
The first surprise came in the form of the people down there– another widow who I have admired greatly but known only slightly agreed to have dinner with me and talk about her experiences now that she’s several years out from the actual death of her husband. He–like L–suffered for several years and my friend was cast in the role of caregiver as was I. We talked at length and I learned that much of what I have experienced was similar to what she had gone through. Following that dinner we went to a couple of movies together and in general connected on a level we had not known before. And I knew that L would be so pleased because he admired and respected her so very much.
The second surprise came in the form of “the guys”–men L used to talk sports with and watch games with started sending me e-mails to comment on a game or player. Their respect for my sports knowledge touched me greatly and the fact that these male friends that I had counted as much mine as L’s did not feel the need to stay away was so very touching.
The third surprise was the biggie–always before he died L would ask me several times a week to talk about what I was going to do once he was gone. We both thought that I would travel because our ability to travel–which we both loved–had been so compromised by his illness. I came to Florida with the idea that I would use the time there to plan a trip or two. There’s a couple I’ve gotten to know who run small group tours to Europe and I had for many years longed to take one of those. Imagine my surprise when I realized that–for now–I have zero interest in traveling.
But that’s not the surprise–the surprise came when I went to look at a condo thinking I was looking at it for my sister and her husband and realizing that as I stood in that space with light streaming through the many windows that I could see ME living there and I felt such a sense of peace and happiness as I had not felt since L died. Things did not go smoothly and yet I felt L with me–prodding me to see this adventure through–every step of the way. All along I kept it quiet from my friends but sought the advice of professional friends–my banker, tax accountant, a real estate attorney in Florida and a friend whose business is buying (and reselling) property. With their support and encouragement and that of my family I moved (make that inched) closer and closer until on March 12th, I found myself the owner of a FL condo–a second home–an investment property that will hopefully bring me years of that same feeling of peace and happiness.
I am well aware that most in my position cannot salve their grief by buying a 2nd home–that is not the point. What happened here was that something moved me in a new direction — I turned a corner and I saw before me the possibility that once I turn dozens and perhaps thousands of corners I will find my way. Now that I am back home in Wisconsin, I will admit that there has been a sense of letdown–the excitement and angst of that adventure in Florida is over for the time being. I have a lot of work to do, deadlines to meet, etc. What has not changed is that time of day–right around now at six or seven in the evening–when I have to face yet again the fact that he is not going to be there to watch the TV shows tonight, to talk about the news of the day…to ask me what I plan to do once he’s gone…
From last night’s Eve service, a quote from Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flock
The work of Christmas begins:
- to find the lost
- to heal the broken
- to feed the hungry
- to release the prisoner
- to rebuild the nations
- to bring peace among people
- to make music in the heart.
This my first holiday season without L has been an eye-opening experience filled with unexpected surprises and “gifts” in the form of calls and cards from so many, a visit from two people I have had contact with for years but am just beginning to truly know (and appreciate), family, friends, tears and laughter. It has indeed been a joyous season–a time for reflection on the wonderful life I have been given and always always the realization that L continues to be with me in spirit if not in body and for that I am so very thankful. Blessings to you and yours! Anna
I am starting to prepare for winter in Florida–it was a promise I made to L.that I would back–at least for one more season. Actually my feelings about Florida are mixed (as selfish as that may sound to those facing winter winds, ice and snow!). We started going to Florida eight years ago and it did not take long that first season for me to face two hard realities: 1) L’s health was deteriorating and the best we could hope for was to cling to status quo for as long as possible–there would be no chance for improvement; and 2) going to Florida meant we were done traveling–even for brief weekend getaways close to home. So I am not at all certain how I will feel about being there now. Of course, I understand that I am free to come and go as I please and I am grateful for the wonderful network of friends and family down there. But it’s going to be a new chapter–a new adjustment and I am so very tired of facing new challenges that test my coping skills now that L is gone.
On a more positive front, I stumbled across a wonderful memoir the other day. GRIEVING: A LOVE STORY is Ruth Coughlin’s account of her journey through widowhood. A couple of quotes from the fly leaf illustrate how spot on her observations are:
- “No one can tell you about grief, about its limitless boundaries, its unfathomable depths….No one can tell you about the crater that is created…the one that nothing can fill.”
- “There’s no right or wrong to widowhood; nobody’s written the rules….You make them up as you go along.”
Like I said: Spot on!!!
As I had expected once the hustle and bustle of handling details — financial, home maintenance, plans for immediate events–lessened, the reality that L is not here and will not be here is beginning to settle over me like a dense fog. A contributing factor is that from the time I was eight or nine the season of October-November has depressed me so that doesn’t exactly bode well for slogging through these days in a normal year. This year is, of course, anything but normal. So I wrestle with the usual sadness and despair that comes with the season even as it is finally beginning to sink in that L is truly irrevocably gone. Yes, his spirit is with me but that is not at all the same. I can’t curl into the side of his spirit the way I used to; I can’t discuss frustrations with all the details that come with handling the house maintenance–workers not calling back, not showing up, etc.; I can’t go through the financial stuff to be sure I am doing it right.
Yes, there are others in my life I could turn to but it’s not the same–they have their way and it’s not L’s way–or for that matter my way. So tough times right now–I know this too shall pass but that small comfort. The truth is that I feel like I am simply moving through the hours– continuing to accept the invitations and attend the various functions and tell myself how blessed I am to have so many who care–and I know that things could be ever so much worse for me. L used to use that argument whenever I started to whine and feel sorry for myself–and I would fire back that we were not talking about “other people” and their problems–we were talking about me and what was going on in my head. Guilting me out of it never worked–and it doesn’t work now although I’ll admit that I am deeply ashamed of myself for not focusing on what is rather than what isn’t.
No real conclusion to this post…just rambling…feeling sorry for myself…and missing L more than ever.
It occurred to me the other day that this journey–like many journeys in life–is all about making choices. Each choice becomes its own destination–its own little postcard moment. Some of the choices are pretty routine–when to eat, what to eat, where to eat for example. When L was alive we sat at the dining room table (more spacious and a better view than our small kitchen table) every evening somewhere around six. The meal was well-rounded–meat (usually chicken), rice or potato, veggie, salad. If there was going to be dessert it came later as we watched TV. Up until about 2 yrs. ago L might have made the meal–when he retired (at age 50 because his health was beginning to fail even then) and I went to work (mostly for the health insurance) he made supper three nights a week. It was the only meal of the day we shared (altho he was dedicated to eating three well-rounded meals a day). Over supper we would talk about all the things that had happened that day–in the world, in the workplace, in the neighborhood, among friends, and most of all with us. We never ever lacked for conversation. Now that I am alone I find I need to make different choices. These days the dining room table is often covered with some project I’m working on–bills and bank statements and such that need attention; my latest writing project; lists I need to make to be sure I take care of everything now that he’s not here to remind me or handle it himself. So I don’t so much eat as I graze–a slice of cheese or some carrots with hummus, or a bowl of soup or sometimes something I pick up at the store. Blessedly I go out with friends at least once a week for a “real” meal. But altho I thought when this all began that eventually I would settle into some kind of routine for eating normal meals again, I can see that this is unlikely. The choice has been made–not the best choice perhaps but one that for now works for me.
One of L’s closest friends came for a visit over the weekend. We were pretty much on the go and/or surrounded with others who wanted to see him and catch up from his arrival last Friday until he left yesterday morning. We spent a wonderful day in Madison although it was really cold for September (and he’s from Florida). We went with another couple and visited the farmer’s market, some campus hangouts from their days at UW and the place where last summer I left some of L’s ashes along the lake path. It was a good day. We pretty much ate our way through Sunday–a wonderful brunch with friends and then supper with other friends–but the stories, memories and laughter were the richest part of the diet. It’s so incredible (and comforting for me) that when friends speak of L it’s always with such joy at having known this incredible man. Oh, they miss him as I do–his male friends especially miss the opportunity to rehash a football game with him or dissect the latest political or business fiasco. But their memories (as mine do) bring only smiles and a kind of peace. On Monday I cooked for the football party we were hosting that night while our friend tackled some outside painting that L had asked him to do whenever he got here for a visit. Then he helped me set everything up and it was so nice having another person here to bounce things off–would it be best to set the food here or there? Would there be enough food? All the stuff I would have fretted over with L. The game (Packers vs Seahawks) will go down in sports history (look it up) but the evening was wonderful in spite of it–a house filled with friends and laughter and moans and groans and good food as it always was when L was here…and somehow I know that he was!
The trip to NYC was pretty last minute and spontaneous up to and including inviting my sister to join me there (instead of visiting me here in Wisconsin next month). It’s been some time since the two of us spent time together without the buffer of husbands or other family members. Happy to say that the connection was immediate and the visit went well. The one standout on this trip was our visit to the Folk Art Museum across from Lincoln Center. The entrance wall to this small museum features an incredible quilt (actually it’s quilts since there are multiple panels) commemorating those who died on 9/11–on the flights, in the Pentagon, and in the towers. Thousands of small, hand-decorated blocks, each with the name of a victim embroidered on it make up a tableau that forms the skyline of the city with the twin towers set in the palest beige-colored blocks as if they were there once but are no more. I spent some time walking along the length of the exhibit, reading the names and recalling how I read every single obituary featured in the NY Times in the days and weeks following the event. Somehow I felt a duty to know these people at least to the degree that knowing a stranger is possible. As I studied the quilt I thought of all these lives and the lives their deaths had changed forever. And of course I thought of L and how his death has changed my life forever. I wanted so much to share this moment with him because I knew that he would have been every bit as moved and inspired as I was. That night my sister and I attended a big Broadway musical that was the very essence of what everyone thinks of when you say “Broadway.” It was silly, and kitschy and just plain fun and we walked back to our room humming the Gershwin tunes that made up the music and feeling pretty good. So in a single day I had come face-to-face with the sheer ugliness and downright meanness of life on this planet to the song-and-dance fantasy world that we sometimes wish were more the reality.
The following morning I woke early–it was my b’day–a day I do not choose to celebrate as to me it represents the passing of time and a ticking clock that limits the hours I will have to do all the things I want (and have not yet dreamed of) to do. It’s times like this when I need my solitude so I set out for a walk. And as I passed others I found myself wondering what challenges they might be facing in their lives. This woman looked incredibly anxious and when I approached her to ask about a place I thought might be in the neighborhood, she practically ran from me. By contrast a NY police officer that I approached with the same question pulled out his I-phone and did a map search trying to help. Later when my sister and I went to Grand Central to get the train to CT to visit a cousin for the day a woman clearly on her way to work approached us and asked if she might help. (We were clearly wandering aimlessly and seemed lost.) I told her we had over an hour before our train and simply wanted a place to sit–not available in the famous main concourse! She could have just offered directions but instead she showed us the way.
All of which got me thinking about stereotypes and how in so many ways that is one of the roots of the discord that grows between nations, political adversaries, people from cities vs. people from the country; etc. If we could just set aside our instinct to label others based on dress, gender, skin color, body language, might we not be better equipped to solve problems instead of perpetuating them?
Okay so if you’ve read this far you might have 2 questions:
1. what about Disneyland?
2. how is this about my journey through widowhood.
Well, Disneyland is a blatant teaser for the next entry–I am headed there for a conference this coming week and frankly I see that journey compared to the one to NYC as a little like the day I saw the quilt then went to the musical.
How is this about my journey through widowhood? EVERYTHING these days is related to that journey because in every situation and experience I find myself searching for clues to the future–who am I without L and who will I become?