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.
A dear friend, who certainly understood grief and loss, told me shortly after L died that as time went by there would be surprises and disappointments when it came to my interactions with others. And while I recognized the truth of that advice, admittedly I clung to the hope that in time things would change. That those who had ‘disappointed’ me would come to understand my need for their support and draw closer. But as time has passed I have come to understand that in some ways I have been my own worst enemy with regards to this. Others see me as ‘strong’ and even ‘amazing’ in the ways I have chosen to move forward without L in my life. Add to that the fact that even before L’s death, I was one who sometimes openly and certainly subtly pushed people away, and I realize the responsibility for how I am feeling now–three years down the road–is something in large part of my own making.
We cannot go back and so we move forward, and doing so–at least for me–means letting go of that ‘disappointment’ by taking responsibility for my part in creating it. I know these people care deeply for me. I know that should I need them, they will be there without question. My pettiness and pity have in fact held me back from moving forward. The giant steps I took early on–changing my residence, starting to travel, trying new activities, etc.–were great first steps. But I realize that over the last year I have gotten lazy–tired really of making the effort. The result? I am increasingly wallowing in sadness, self-pity, loneliness. It is affecting my health on every level–and it is time to STOP!
[I can practically hear L saying, “About time!”]
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.
We were so packed with activity the last several days of the trip that I have not had the opportunity to post. I am in Chicago now and today will return home to Florida. Once I have my own computer I hope to post some of the almost 200 pictures I took while on this incredible journey. Just to catch up with the itinerary: on Sunday we spent another full day with our English guide, William Jordan, seeing Utah Beach, the village where the film THE LONGEST DAY was set, the German cemetery and the wonderful museum in Caens. On Monday we left early in the morning for the long bus ride to Mont St. Michel–an incredible place rich with centuries (dating back to the 8th century) of history and wonderful places to explore. Our guide here (*and indeed for all the sites we had yet to see) was equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic as William had been. They brought history to life. My impression of Mont St Michel was that J.K. Rowling must have visited the site while inventing the setting for her Harry Potter series–the church on top of the rock as well as the village with its narrow streets and charming little shops was Hogwarts come to life. I kept expecting to run into Harry himself!!
On Tuesday we spent the day at the home and beautiful gardens of Claude Monet. Because it is truly spring in France, the gardens were exploding with tulips of all colors, daffodils of all varieties, fabulous lilac and other flowering bushes and of course the wonderful Japanese gardens that so inspired his work — including the famous painting of the water lilies. I learned two important things about the Impressionist movement–the painting is all about the reflection/play of light on different surfaces from water to fabrics to buildings, etc. and 2) Monet was inspired by the art of Japanese woodcuts, many of them hanging on the walls of his colorful cottage. We had lunch at the museum and then a lecture by a member of the museum staff showing how in so many ways Normandy had been the “birthplace” of the Impressionist movement.
Back to the hotel for our farewell reception–how we had changed since that first night when we were all strangers–and to pack for a five a.m. departure for Paris and the airport. I did not sleep much because my mind was so full of thoughts about the trip and how much L would have loved everything about it (except perhaps the strong coffee and long bus rides). I thought of how proud he would have been that instead of burrowing into my shell (as is usually my habit when in a group) I had made a real effort to get to know almost everyone in our group and in the process made some connections that have the potential to last beyond Normandy. And I knew that L had been with me on this incredible journey when as we walked back to the bus after touring Monet’s gardens I spotted a single perfect feather on the ground. Since his death–nearly two years ago now– I have often found feathers like that when I was missing him and wishing I could tell him all about my adventures. The feather–along with the lilac in bloom reminding me of the lilac he used to gather for me every spring–made me smile and allow the peace and comfort of knowing he was indeed there and that he knew all about the trip…because he is watching.
On Friday we traveled by bus to a number of places connected to the D-Day landing including Omaha Beach, the American cemetery and a battlefield that the USA has preserved as it was at the end of the battle (minus the dead and wounded, of course). It was a long day with a lot of walking but hard to feel sorry for ourselves when we saw what those brave young men had to face on that day. We had our usual wonderful diverse b’fast and then boarded the bus. William Jordan was once again our guide and the man is a veritable fountain of information on the topic of D-Day and all that surrounds that event. His enthusiasm for the topic makes it hard to resist trying to take it all in and he also does a creditable imitation of Churchill, FDR and others.
General impressions: We stopped first in a small beach town where the Brits came ashore on what they called “Gold” beach. The Brits named their three landing places for fish–i.e. goldfish, etc. The story of how the Allies kept the entire plan secret and fooled the Germans into thinking we would be coming ashore at a place more toward the East is beyond fascinating not to mention brilliant. They prepared hundreds of thousands of servicemen for the invasion and NONE of them knew until the last moment where they were headed. Eisenhower was in. Charge and had to make the decision to go. The invasion was planned for June 5th but because of weather had to be called off; the weather wasn’t much better the following day but Ike decided the danger of the plan being discovered outweighed weather and gave the order. As someone fortunate enough to live in a country that has never been occupied by foreign powers it is hard to fully understand what the French in Normandy were facing in those days. At any moment they might be accused of something and shot or sent to a concentration camp. The area where the Allies landed covers about 50 miles of beach with bluffs and villages and farms and open fields and hedgerows and all sorts of geography to be navigated. They travel 100 hundred miles of rough seas with sometimes eight foot weaves to reach those beaches… and face the possibility of immediate death from drowning, friendly fire, German fire, etc.
The cemetery is both what one would expect and at the same time daunting in his tight rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. Two things I learned: 1) this was not the original resting place for these service people (including four women) and 2) when the bodies were moved the families were given the option of having the remains brought back to America for burial–no other country offered that option. The setting is park-like and beautiful. I was put off by the ongoing narration from our guide and the p[presence of so many people–I wanted and needed quiet. So I switched off my listening device and wandered away from the group to take a stroll down just one of the long rows, reading the names, states and rank as I went. There is no distinction between ranks–a colonel lies next to a private and in the next row there might be one of hundreds of graves with a body but no name. They are indeed a band of brothers.
We went on then to Omaha Beach again driving down narrow streets lined with fields, hedges, farmhouses and such–a peaceful bucolic part of the country. The beach is covered in a sort of golden caramel-colored sand and many visitors take sand from the beach and press it into the engraved letting of a grave marker in the cemetery to make the letting stand out. Of course eventually the sand falls out or washes away but it does make a difference. I was able to walk on the beach and pick up a few shells to carry home.
Our last stop was the battlefield and in many ways I felt the closeness of those young brave men more there than anywhere else. The Germans were in the process of setting up huge artillery guns on turntables that would allow them to fire in all directions–when the invasion happened. From the sea and air the Allies blasted their positions and now there are these enormous rusted pieces of the guns and their mountings plus huge craters that have over time filled in with grass and flowering shrubs. And there were cherry trees in blooms–again that sense of quiet and serenity in a place that once rumbled with the thunder of bombs and artillery shells and the cries of wounded and dying young men.
Long bus ride back to hotel and then a short walk to a restaurant for sinner and then back to try and solve the undelivered baggage dilemma. I was told when I got back to the hotel (on FRIDAY) that the bag would be delivered either Monday or Tuesday (I leave for home on Wednesday!). Called United and while they were enormously sympathetic they also appear to be quite powerless in this little drama. I decided to remind myself of O’s mantra–IT IS WHAT IT IS–and forget missing luggage inn favor of thinking about how he would have loved this day and been moved probably to tears by it.
4/3: Lost a day there–the flight to Paris is over night so began on 4/1 and we arrived on 4/2. Other stuff I forgot to mention about the bus ride… we saw many trees with these balls oaf greenery hanging down. At first I thought these were nests of some kind but then I guessed (and guide confirmed) that it was mistletoe! Was L sending me kisses? I choose to think he was. Also not to worry there’s a MacDonald’s in Honfleur but why anyone would choose that over a wonderful crepe or local fish is beyond me. Also I did go shopping–two days in the same clothes was my limit!
So on to this first truly full day in Normandy. I pretty much missed b’fast (another lovely spread offered by hotel) because I overslept and had about 15 minutes to get dressed and down to the lobby for our walking tour of the village. We were each given listening devices so we could hear her clearly even with traffic and other tour groups along the way. The village has a fascinating history that dates back to the Middle Ages and has some buildings still standing to prove it! During the D-Day battle the town was spared because there was far more interest in a larger port nearby (Le Harve). So there are wonderful buildings from as far back as the 13th Century plus a LOT of cobblestone streets (do NOT bring your high fashion shoes to Honfleur!!!) Our guide was full of information about history and architecture and the shifting of the town’s priorities over the centuries…a fishing port turned military stronghold turned Impressionist art community (Monet painted a LOT of scenes in Honfleur and all the Impressionists loved the way the light came over the horizon on clear days and clouds gathered on dreary days.) But more about Monet and his pals later in there week. I took over fifty photos on the tour but of course forgot the proper cord for downloading so we’ll have to wait for that show.
We had lunch at another charming bistro (the town is full of eating places!!!) called le Chat que peche (the cat who fishes)– we had beef burgundy plus a wonderful dessert called a “floating island.” Later in the afternoon I will admit to stopping for an éclair…after all this is France! After lunch most businesses and museums close for a couple of hours so I cam back to the hotel to check on my luggage (not yet here) and take care of some e-mails. The afternoon was. Ours to do as we wished so I went to the museum of Normandy (showing artifacts of historical life/costume in Normandy and located in a former prison (as in line from the 16th century) and the Maritime Museum (located in a former church). I also went back to some of the places the guide walked us past on the tour and took pictures…a couple of wonderful churches included.
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Got back to the hotel just in time for wonderful lecture by D-Day expert William Jordan–an Englishman who has done wonderful research and is exceptional at bringing the story to life. He will travel with us tomorrow as we head for the beaches. I’m not sure some of my fellow travelers liked that he let us know that Americans–because we were fighting TWO wars at opposite ends of the world– actually had a lot fewer men storm those beaches than did the Brits. But he gave us full credit for–as he put it–coming up with huge amounts of “stuff” necessary for the invasion to be a success.
We were on our own for dinner so I chose to come back to the room–wait for the luggage that United assures me is “out for delivery” and catch up on my blog. Tomorrow we start our tour of the D-Day sites and I am so looking forward to that and know L will be fascinated!!! Sleep well–I know I will.
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.
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…