Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Existing



In 1998/99 I spent a year living and teaching English conversation in Japan.

And up until recently, I would describe that year in many ways as 'existing', not 'living'.  But in retrospect, I had something resembling a life there, not a great one, but I was engaged socially with the expat community.

Now at home, as a widow, I really find I'm in a period of 'existing', not living.

I'm disconnected and disengaged from uni - it's so easy to think 'I'll catch up with that lecture on line' and stay home.  And have I caught up ... of course not.

I can't be arsed doing anything... in general.  I get the occasional bursts of inspiration and get physical work done, but I'm more inclined to sit on the sofa and do nothing.

With my US friends sending their kids back to school for a new year, plus friends here griping over birthday parties and sporting commitments, over the weekend I found myself wishing that John was already at school.  Not that I want him to grow up too fast, but it would mean that there are sports, and other activities that come along with being involved in a school community happening over the weekend.  Something to do, somewhere to.  That I have to go to, that doesn't involve a high degree of choice or flexibility.

Since Ian died, I've ebbed and flowed through living and existing.  There have been periods where I felt strong, engaged, enthusiastic, and have direction to travel. 

But at the moment.  Meh.  I'm just going through the motions of having the appearance of a life, without really having one.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Matter of When


For 15 years (from 20 to 35 - while Dave and I were together), I didn't think I wanted kids. I knew Dave really didn't and I figured that little nagging question mark in the depths of my heart (Should I? Am I missing out?) was just about questioning and doubting, which is what I do about everything.

From the moment he died, though, something shifted within me. My first thought was My only chance to be a mom is gone. I missed it. It's over and will never be and I only want it now that I can't have it! 


I began to see babies and toddlers everywhere I went. Little families were suddenly all I saw. Strollers, chubby baby cheeks, nursing moms, a father playing with his little girl on the jungle gym or dangling a tiny baby from a carrier on his chest. I obsessed about having a genetic remnant of Dave. I thought about how I didn't get to have a mom and now I wouldn't get to be a mom. How could I possibly have neither one of those experiences? What the hell was the point if I don't get to be either a mom or a mom's daughter? Why live? 

I knew why. I had art, friends, learning, love, singing, living. I knew I didn't need a child to live fully. I didn't feel that need when Dave was alive, so I was only feeling it now because he had died and left me all alone.

 It was just causing me to face mortality and my thoughts were all going to the only way to have a little bit of immortality - making a child. Life suddenly seemed so fragile and precious and I wanted to live fully, including creating life.

But there was more than that. I think a part of me shelved my desire to be a mom because I knew that Dave would never change his stance and that I'd never leave Dave. 

So, I took comfort in knowing that I'd never felt a strong urge to have kids. Only a moderate amount of wondering. What would it be like? Would I regret not doing it? Can I even make a baby? Do I want to? 

I told myself that having a kid was something you only did if you really wanted it. It's too hard and stressful and important to take on if you're not really gung-ho. 

But here's the thing. I worry about and question everything. Not once in my life did I make a decision I didn't question and doubt at least a little. I prefer to make my move when I know I'm ready. Here's the catch. I'm never ready. Never. And if I'd waited till I was "ready", I'd never have gotten married, become a teacher, moved to the Pacific Northwest, come to Camp Widow, or gone back to school for art. All things I'm now eternally grateful I did. I'd never have done them if I'd waited for ready. 

Now, here I am in a completely alternate universe in which I'm actually seriously contemplating having a child one day. Talking about it. Planning for it. Thinking about it. I'm in a situation where it makes sense. It's scary and I'm not ready. But it makes sense. 

I saw a healer during one of my darkest times about a year ago who told me that he almost stopped while he was working on me because he thought I was pregnant. Then, he said, he realized I wasn't pregnant, but I would be soon. 

I scoffed and said told him that I most certainly would not be. An IUD and no father figure in the picture said quite clearly that I wouldn't be. Oh, he said, this soul is coming. It's a matter of when. 
Outwardly I laughed it off, but inside, something blossomed. Me, pregnant. Carrying life after all I'd been through. I didn't know how it would happen. I hadn't yet met the wonderful man I would meet 4 months later. Who would want to have a baby with me. Me!

And here I am. That healer might be right. Maybe. We'll see.

In the meantime, my poor brain is trying so hard to protect me from more pain. It's telling me about the terrible things that could happen if I get pregnant. It's trying to convince me to not even try. Too many chances for heartbreak and suffering, so let's just skip it all together. 

But, the only way to avoid suffering is to never do anything or love anyone. And that's unacceptable to me. 

So, I'm actively working on thinking about all the wonderful things that could happen as I enter into this new phase of my second life. 

Preparing for the bad things before they happen doesn't work. You can't prepare. But you can ruin your chance to enjoy now. I would like to enjoy now, especially after all I've been through. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Powerful Irony

Dearest Pepe,

This week you’ve been on my heart minute to minute as the anniversary of our final kiss has loomed large. Flashes of the last week we shared as husband and wife have been spontaneously popping into my head with surprising clarity. There is no rhyme or reason to these recollections, and the bittersweetness of memory has both plagued and comforted me as the anniversary of your death has arrived with its usual inevitability

There are still times when your physical absence takes my breath away. It's surreal, even nine years later, that your death was the tragedy that escalated the local conversation about how motorists and cyclists can safely share the road. The image we use for our Share the Road campaign is an athletic, confident man in the prime of his life riding his bicycle on a gorgeous autumn day. When I stumble unexpectedly upon the photo hanging in a store-front window or on a community bulletin board I’m shocked every time that the athletic, confident man is you. I know, I can hear you laughing at me because I created the damn poster! But boy does it still hurt to see you smiling at me from a foam board instead of across our dining room table.

As time marches on my imagined ability to know how you’d feel about any given topic has decreased.  I wasn’t allowed the privilege of knowing the you that would be turning fifty next year. How would life experience have changed you? What surprising opinions would you have developed as you aged? Which long-term plans would have played out as we imagined and which would have evolved into new dreams? And yet, these questions don’t haunt me as they once did, because surviving your death has taught me that no dream is guaranteed. While that reality may seem a deterrent to creating new dreams, the contrary is true. Understanding the shortness of life has helped me acknowledge the value of the now in a way that was never possible for me before your death.

While you were alive, my life was incessantly driven by long-term goals, and far-off ambitions. I loved the life we created together, but often imagined how much more fulfilled I would feel when XYZ was achieved, or when we were able to check-off the next goal on our ten-year plan.  My head was so full of plans for the future that I didn’t take enough time to revel in the joys of the present. My one regret regarding our time together is that I spent too much time goal-setting, and not enough time life-living. No dream is guaranteed, which makes today an incredible gift. Saying good-bye to you taught me the true value of this moment, the only one we are assured.

For many years I have feared that the passing of time would slowly steal even more of you from me. I wondered if being unable to recall the timbre of your voice would lead to losing the ability to conjure the feeling of safety I felt in your arms. When I fell in love with Michael, I worried how larger-than-life you would find a comfortable place in my new life. As our family has grown, and new members added who've never met you, I felt a nagging concern that you’d be lost from our family history. Thankfully, your final gift to me has walked me through every one of these fears. I can almost hear you whispering in my ear, “This moment is the one that counts babe, don’t waste the joy of now by worrying about the past or the future.”

This may sound strange, but somehow you seem less ‘gone’ to me now. Not a day goes by that you aren’t part of my thoughts or conversation. You are everywhere instead of nowhere. As the memories of our time together get woven into the narrative that is my life, they become more colorful, not less. The memory of you has become a warm embrace on which I can count day in and day out. Your tall tales are legend in our family, and the story of your death provides the explanation for how Michael came into our family. My heart is so full when I realize that the two of you are connected, each with your own unique and important place, in our family tree. Stories about you come to me in the strangest ways, and the impact you made on the people around you is more obvious as the years pass. The love you showed others is a gift that keeps on giving, and I am just one of the many beneficiaries of your amazing spirit.

The irony of the fact that your final gift to me, the reminder to live in the present, was first imparted when all I wanted to do was live in the past, is not lost on me. I’ve spent years longing for one more chance to live in the past with you. Then I spent more years worrying about what pain and disappointment the future might hold, afraid to dream and afraid to plan. Years of my life have been spent not recognizing that for every moment I wished to live in the past, or feared the pain the future might hold, I was wasting away the only moments that are guaranteed.

My love, I want you to know that your final gift to me has not been given in vain. Nine years after you left this earth, I have come to understand that living for today is the best way to honor the past, and also to pave the way for a beautiful future. Irony at its best.

You are loved. You are missed. You are one of the most beautiful parts of my life story.

Thank you for choosing me,


Your Lolita

***Special thanks to Sarah for sharing her writing day with me so that I could post my annual letter to Phil on the anniversary of his death. Sarah will be back next week. Also, many thanks to all of you for allowing me to share my journey with you. And in case you are wondering, Phil's favorite alter-ego was Pepe and his favorite nickname for me was Lolita.***

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My own worst enemy

The better past of last Sunday was spent laying in bed crying... while the cat persisted in trying to comfort me

I feel like I’ve been in a rut for more than a month now, since Dan’s first anniversary.  I’ve had days here and there where I’ve been able to smile and actually mean it, but in general, the pain has been very deep and the ache for him, overwhelming.

The grief has been so relentless that it’s started messing with my head and making me question if I was doing something wrong.  If I’d gotten stuck in it some how. Was I doing enough to keep moving forward? 

I mean, I know this dance well by now, the three-steps-forward, two-steps-back tango.  I know I need to keep my expectations realistic and that this is a marathon, not a sprint.  I know that I can’t project manage my way out of this, yet in the dark of the night when the tears won’t slow and my heart feels like it’s going to stop beating from the sheer agony, I forget that this moment will pass and I’ll take steps forward again.

I just don’t understand why I’m this hard on myself.  Losing your spouse in such tragic circumstances, so young and early into our lives together, would have to be up there with the one of the most terrible experiences anyone could be forced to endure.  Yet I can’t seem to give myself permission to stumble. 

As the weeks pass and I continue to put this pressure and expectation on myself, it has started to mount into feelings of guilt and inadequacy.  I worry that I’m bringing everyone around me down and taking up so much of their energy with my constant state of fragile melancholy.

So this week I spent a lot of time contemplating how and why I’m so hard on myself.   I think that sometimes I have trouble understanding the difference between accepting that there are going to be bad days where I don’t want to face the world; and just wallowing in my sorrow to the point where it becomes an excuse not to try anymore.  I know I have to be gentle with myself – but where is that line between acceptable self-care; and just using my grief as a shield against anything unpleasant or moderately challenging.  Does that make sense?

Don't get me wrong, I know there's no set answer. This pondering is more rhetorical than actually looking for a response. When I think about my grief and whether I'm 'doing it right' - there is no fair bench mark to asses myself against. Because everyone's grief is different. 

I can't look at what seems to be working for a friend and try to apply it to my situation because we're not fighting the same battle. No one can actually tell me if I'm grieving appropriately because it's MY grief, I'm the only one who knows it and feels it, so I'm the only person who can truly answer that question. That's the crux of my conundrum ... I don't seem to trust myself to make that call!

On Thursday, the psychologist who runs a local suicide bereavement counselling program and support group that I became involved in a couple of months after Dan died, called me to check in.  I told her that I’m doing ok, but was struggling with this concept of ‘am I grieving appropriately’.

I confessed to her that some days I just don’t know what to do with myself.  I just sit in the loneliness and cry for hours and think ‘I’m so sick of this sadness, I don’t want this life for me.  I hate this pain.  Despite the fact that I’ve been carrying it around with me for 13 months, I still have such a long road ahead of me and it’s just not fair. 

She replied that of course I’m sick of it, of course it’s not fair.   My husband died and how else am I supposed to feel? It doesn’t mean that I’m broken or there’s something wrong with me.  I’m grieving and it’s horrible.  She pointed out that everyone around me is giving me more acceptance and understanding that I’m granting myself. 

She reminded me of the progress I’ve made since those first few months.  I don’t cry at work as much; I’ve travelled; I’ve taken up new hobbies and made new friends. 

She pointed out that while I have bad days, I also have good days.  And on those good days, while I might take steps to keep life simple, I don’t use Dan’s death as an excuse for a free pass. 

Being reminded of that really helped.   I actually think I’m going to print it off and stick it to my fridge.  Widowhood is such hard work.  So many life lessons all being shoved in my face at the same time, it’s exhausting and overwhelming trying to take it all in. 

Plus, my memory isn’t the best right now so I forget a lot of things… like the fact that it’s ok to be this dreadfully sad and that there will be more good days. 

If only I could have that breakthrough and learn to trust myself. Like my counsellor said, if only I saw what others saw - and if only I gave myself the grace and compassion that was being shown to me by the people around me.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bored Together, Bored Alone

Okay. Once again, I FORGOT to write in here late last night, by the midnight pacific time deadline. Woke up this morning and did some errands and had my coffee and prepared my teaching syllabus for college courses that start next week, and then, BAM!!! Out of nowhere, again, I suddenly remembered that I'm a widow who writes for "Widow's Voice." Oops. Seriously, how many freakin' times am I going to forget to write in here? You would think at some point, it would just become part of my overall being, and I would simply remember. You would think writing "WV" in big letters on my desk calendar, listed underneath Thursday evenings, would be a big enough hint for me to remember. You would think that the fact that I spend several hours a DAY, everyday, writing my book, which is about losing my husband to sudden death, would spark my memory that I have to write in here. You would be all kinds of wrong. I still forget. And it's been 3 years since he died, so I kind of think that using "widow brain" as an excuse at this point is a bit lame. At some point, I need to just own up to the fact that I'm a huge scatterbrain.

So here we are at 1pm eastern time on Friday, and I'm just now writing my piece. Sorry!!! I will say that my brain IS on overload this week and this month, because I've been spending a good part of the summer writing this book about this loss, and trying like hell to have it done and self-published by the end of this year, and it's been way more emotional writing and re-telling and re-living all of these stories and memories, than I ever thought it would be. Last night I cried so hard while writing the piece about the day I knew I was in love with my husband (before he was my husband, obviously.) So I'm very tired, and I also need to take breaks from all this writing. Not just because my fingers hurt after typing for hours on end, but because my body needs to get up and move and walk and go outside and talk about something besides loss and pain and death. So here we are at Labor Day weekend, upcoming holiday, gorgeous weather in NYC-area, and I really need to take a mini-vacation from all this writing, at least for a couple of days. The problem is, as soon as I made the decision to do that, I very quickly realized that I have zero plans and absolutely nothing to do.

I feel like I have spent so much time alone lately, which is okay, because I dont mind doing things alone. But there has to be a balance. I also need friends. I need company. I need to talk with people or just sit with people or connect with people. What I would love to do this weekend is sit with some friends by a pool somewhere, and just chill out, have some drinks, and jump in and swim and wade the weekend away. The problem is, I really dont have anyone to do those things with, which is odd, because I do have a lot of friends. However, it seems to me, that whenever I am feeling lonely and bored and it's a weekend or a holiday or both, all of my friends are somehow busy doing their own thing. "Their own thing" usually means hanging out with their significant other, or their own families, in the case of my many friends with kids. I do have some widowed friends, but none that live close enough to me that we can go away somewhere for a weekend together, or none that I feel close enough with to want to do those things. A lot of my widowed friends also have kids, so our lives are just very different sometimes. Then I have widowed friends AND single friends, who like the "singles" lifestyle. Hanging out at bars on weekends, loud clubs, drinking, trying to find dates or hook-ups. That is just not my thing. So lots of times, what Im left with, is myself. I don't mind speding time with myself, but it's getting a bit old. There are a lot of days I feel so lonely and so bored, and just don't know what to do about it. Then I remember the days of sitting around and being bored with my husband. How glorious and ordinary and wonderful that was, to be bored WITH someone else. To hang out together and do nothing all day long, and not care. Now, on days like today, I feel restless and depressed and sad. I miss my buddy. My friend. My person to sit around and do nothing with.

This sucks.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

iPhone Blues





I lost my phone.

Normally that sort of thing doesn't faze me. Yeah it's a pain and an expense to deal with, but I'm not so attached to the smart phone world to mind living without it for a few days. I can lock it remotely (yes, if you have an iPhone I highly recommend the Find my iPhone app), my contacts are backed up, and I can borrow other phones in the meanwhile.

But...it was Mike's phone. I remember how excited he was to get a smart phone a few years before he died. He was so enthralled with the idea of live video chat; that he could laugh and talk in real time with his daughters, and baby grandson. He downloaded all kinds of apps and games and I'd often find him in deep concentration over a game of Angry Birds, or sitting listening to his iTunes or Pandora. He was mesmerized by the technology. He felt like it was only one step away from have a Dick Tracy watch, something he loved reading and dreaming about when he was a kid.

Me on the other hand couldn't be bothered. I couldn't care less about having a smart phone - in fact I stoutly refused to get one. I wanted to hold out as long as possible before entering that world. I was already resenting seeing people sitting together at a restaurant for example, not talking but each staring into their ridiculous little rectangles, their eyes glazed over, hypnotized by the virtual reality.

We used his phone after he died to call a lot of his friends, but I still didn't consider using it myself. My stepdaughters encouraged me to take it over but I couldn't imagine ever needing to use Facebook on a mobile device. I found the whole thing ridiculous. But eventually they convinced me. My stepdaughter Heather even put my line on her family plan to help out which was an amazing thing to do. I remember the day I went in to the phone store and they deleted his line, and put my number in. It felt horrible to lose it into the ether...just another part of him, gone forever. 

But, I did have his phone. It  was a little out of date and kind of slow compared to what I see other people have now, but I didn't care. It had all his pictures on it (yes, I backed those up too, but it's not the same), all his contacts in addition to mine, all his music, apps, backgrounds and sounds. So losing it is like losing another little piece of him. 

It's just a thing, yes...and yes I have cleared out many of his other belongings. But certain items do seem to have a stronger importance, or vibe, to them.

For example, after he died we all freaked out when we realized his favorite wrist guard which he used for his archery was missing. We couldn't find it anywhere. It hurt a lot - I cried about that wrist guard many times.  I feel very much the same about his phone. A dig in the depth of my gut; a twist in my spirit about a material object that represented so much about my husband, but has gone missing along with him, somehow.

Eventually I made peace with the idea that that wrist guard was just a thing, and I had others of his things and there was nothing I could do about it anyway. But one day, about a year after he died, I decided to move his mattress, and found the wrist guard had been somehow wedged underneath. I stood there, stunned, for about a minute, trying to figure out how this bit of leather we had all longed for had suddenly appeared unexpectedly. But there it was. 

Maybe, someone will call the "lost phone" app number I entered. But it's been a few days. Pretty unlikely. Probably, it's gone. I probably  won't get it back as miraculously as that wrist guard reappeared.

I don't find that living without my smart phone is any real challenge. The little beeping and chirping rectangle I'd carried with me so closely and religiously all this time is now gone, but I haven't gone into withdrawal. The sadness is only due to its energetic connection to my husband, who is also gone. And that, I will admit, hurts very deeply.



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Changes and Things~

We all arrive at that time after our loved one dies where we look around and see what remains.  What remains of a person who filled our lives in one way or another or so completely that we look at their physical belongings and are struck with disbelief that this is it.  The sum of their existence.

My husband and I specialized in not being attached to external things.  In 2009 we sold our home in Jersey and most of our belongings.  A few special things we put in storage while we figured out what direction our lives would take us.  And then we decided to stay on the road, adventuring, and we donated more and more of what was in storage.

After Chuck died, I spent a day going through that storage unit.  I held his clothes against my heart, inhaling, striving to find some remaining scent of the man who impacted my life so hugely.  His scent was gone, of course, and, one by one, I placed his clothes in a bag for donation.  Piece by piece, memory by memory.  It wasn't easy, but with each article I thought well, if he were here, he'd want me to donate these rather than keep them in a storage unit.  So I took a deep breath and gave them away.

I kept a few things;  a couple shirts and pairs of pants I really loved seeing him wear.  Three of his ball caps.  His military uniforms, both dress Blues and BDU's.

Mostly, what remains of his clothes travel with me.  Those shirts and pants, the jacket from his BDU's (he looked so hot in those!).  His flag, his dog tags, his cremains.  His wallet.  The mustache comb he used almost absent-mindedly at times.

I don't want external reminders much, because they put my focus outside of me, where I can't find him.  I want to hold him close in my heart and feel him there.  Deep in my soul, in the marrow of my bones, and external stuff is a distraction for me, using energy I don't have.

You know what is hardest to rid myself of?  Things I had from our final time together.  Recently my tooth brush wore out.  I'd kept it unused for a while after he died but finally used it and now its worn out and I need to toss it.  And I'm having the damndest time doing that.  What I had when we were together, when our lives were filled with a future....those things require deep breathing through the pain and the desolation.  A shampoo bottle from our commonly used shampoo. Simple things that were of every day use and little noticed, until now.

I miss Chuck so very much.  I miss seeing him comb his mustache.  I miss seeing him striding towards me with a smile on his face.  I miss his wink at me from across the room.  I miss his arms around me as we slow-danced.  I miss his strong shoulders that supported me in hard times and good.  I miss his encouragement of me to live my best.  I miss his magic in my life.

Things?  No, they don't matter much, because they are ultimately temporary.  Instead I want to remember all the things about him that I miss, and hold them close and, in doing so, feel him so much and so deeply that he becomes me and I become him.  I want to feel him so strongly in my heart and soul that it will be as if he is still wrapping his arms around me.  Wrapping the loneliness from me.  Exorcising the grief and pain from me until I become nothing but the love he had for me and I, for him.

Sheer pure love.  I seek to become that and, in doing so, find again the very essence of what is stronger than death can ever be, what Chuck and I shared so vividly in life, fueling me in this life that I must create without his physical presence.

Just sheer love.