Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Well, that was Ian...


Friday was a mixed day.

Great result on one of my subjects.

Speeding fine in the mail.  My first EVER!!  Not a happy camper.  On the up-side, many friends & acquaintances seem to go more than I did above the limit - my fine is about half theirs.

Ian used to speed all the time. At the time he got sick, Ian had one demerit point left before he would loose his licence.  And that was because he had entered a good behaviour agreement to keep his licence six months earlier.  It was just a matter of time until he lost his licence for a period.

I really hope I've not picked up that little habit from him.

In my session with my counsellor this week we looked at what I'd never forget about Ian, what I learned from him, what aspects of his character I wish I had, what isn't as strong in me since he's gone...

Since he died, I've had one experience when Ian's come out of my mouth - what I said in a situation was very much Ian, and definitely not me.

Six months after Ian died, a friend and I attended our 5-day Test Cricket match.  Seating in the members section is unreserved, but you get a sticker from the gate to reserve your seat for breaks in play.  On day one, while negotiating changes to gates to accommodate building works at the ground, she forgot to grab a sticker from the gate staff, so we head back to the gate to ask for one.

She gets told it's not their problem, it's her responsibility to get a sticker, so she misses out.  My friend got quite agitated as getting a good seat reserved is a priority at the event.  The woman heading up the team said 'we can't give you one, it's policy'

To which I immediately retaliated with 'if it's policy, show me the clause in the member's handbook'.    Gate-lady wanders of and has a bit of consultation over the two-way radios. On her return, my friend is handed a sticker.

As we walk away to claim our seats, my friend's immediate response was "That was Ian". 

"Yeh, I know".  You see, I'm usually not that quick, nor confident in a confrontational situation, but Ian was.  He very much came out of my mouth then, and I wish it was a trait that has stuck more than it appears to.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cut Loose



source
I'm at the beach. The Oregon coastline is rocky and rugged but also dotted with long stretches of lovely, sandy beaches. It’s a place I’ve grown to love above all others since I moved to Oregon.

I’d be completely at peace while here, normally, lying on a blanket, reading my book and listening to the crashing waves. But I had to write my post first so I’m at a coffee shop on the shore while I write this. And, there’s this other small detail that is making me feel off-balance.

My guy is learning to launch his paragliding kite a mile down the road from me at the top of a huge sand dune as I type this.

The first time he went paragliding, he told his dad what he wanted to happen to his things if he died. I get the dog and everything else. I swallowed a lump of fear upon hearing this.

I’ve been repeating to myself “We all die someday. Better to live while we can.” I keep picturing his soul being crushed a little while I insist he stays on the ground where he’s “safe”.  

Are any of us safe? On the ground or in the air? My realization, over and over, is that we’re actually not. Safe means airtight, isolated, alone, restricted. The only other option is to open the door wide and accept the risk of experiencing life outside a self-built coffin.

So, today, I’ll not only support his desire to fly, but I will fly too. Tandem, with his instructor. It’s interesting how this has such a double meaning. Flying is the ultimate freedom. It’s defying gravity. I will be literally, but also figuratively flying, if I do it; cutting loose from the lines that keep me bound to the ground by fear and rising above it.  

Update - It's Sunday as I type this, again at the coffee shop on the beach. I did it! I flew off a cliff over the sea. My heart pounded and my mouth grew dry as I waited for the instructor to shout "GO!" but as the kite lifted off and soared over the beach, I grew completely calm, awe overtaking fear. It was flying, just like in my dreams. Running off the edge of a cliff and soaring instead of falling to the ground felt like just what I needed to experience. 

It was the most incredible feeling. I felt free. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Getting My Feet Wet

My kitties back in 2011 checking out the new kayak.

I'm struggling tonight. A mix of emotions are coursing through my veins… as is always the case with anything new on this journey. Why does every single new thing have to pull at my gut with uneasiness for the fact that he is not here? *sigh*

Today my Crossfit class had a water workout at the lake. Swimming, kayaking, lots of hard work and fun. We had about 10 or 15 people come out and spend the entire day out at the lake after our workout. I met some new people, and got to knew a few people from my class a bit more. And for one Saturday afternoon I pretty much just hung around being a normal 31 year old chick… which was nice. But since coming home I've been all kinds of emotional. Why? Well, I did something huge today. I took our kayaks out to the event for everyone to use.

The reason it's so huge is because our kayaks have been in storage since he died. Mine in fact had never even been used - as he has bought it for me for my birthday the fall before he died and we hadn't yet had a chance to take them out together. So today was actually the first time that I used the kayak he bought me. And I had to do this without him. Ouch.

I suppose fortunately, I was having enough fun to not think about it too deeply while there. But the undercurrent of emotions was riding below the surface all day. And as the night is coming to an end and I am curling up in bed alone again, it's all coming up.

He should have been next to me the first time that I used that kayak. Next to me, at the lake in Dallas where we always camped. The lake where we took our first kayak lesson together. I can still remember all of that like it was yesterday sometimes. (God, how is this my reality?)

Still, it was wonderful to share our kayaks with others and have a part of our life be a part of my new life and new events in it. To know that someone else sat in his kayak for the first time today. And someone else put on his life jacket today for the first time. I don't even quite know who that first person was, since we had so many people there. All I know is that it wast him. And of course since these are not close friends, not a single person there had any clue that all of this was going on underneath my cool, easy smile and bright laughter through the day.

I'm physically exhausted, from the workout, but I'm so much more emotionally exhausted. It was a huge step to finally take those kayaks out. Because it isn't just about a couple of water toys, it's about being able to accept in one more small way that he isn't coming back. And about feeling ready to let go of that one small piece of pain and try to share that part of my life with new people in order to give it new life. It isn't easy. And it hurts like hell. But today, I did it, and I'm proud of myself.

Seeing all the fun everyone had did bring me new joy. It made my heart feel good to share. And to be driving the kayaks there strapped down in the bed of his truck, a reminder that he is still so much a part of everything I do. Not the same way as he was. And certainly not in the way that I want him to be. But at least in some way, he is still here.

Hope and Healing at Camp Widow


Photo booth shenanigans with new friends 

By all accounts, I really should be feeling pretty awful right now.  This past Tuesday marked my first birthday since Dan died (turning 34, his forever age) and coming up this Thursday, July 24, is the first anniversary of his death.  This is a tough time of year, there's no two ways about it.  It sucks, it hurts and it's freaking unfair.

But in a really weird way, I feel suspended from the weight of the grief at the moment.  I know it's there, lurking... most likely waiting to strike when I arrive home from my USA holiday on Wednesday, all jet-lagged and grumpy (maybe it will even hit on the 13-hour-trip home which will be fun for the people sitting around me). 

I'm pretty good at tapping in to my grief and leaning in to it when I need to rather than pushing it aside and playing the denial game, so I was thinking today, why do I feel 'ok' right now?  Where did this 'good vibe' buzz come from?  And the only thing I can really put it down to is Camp Widow.

It feels like attending this event last weekend was some kind of turning point in my grief journey.  I arrived in San Diego on Thursday afternoon so excited and bouncing with enthusiasm. I'd heard the stories from other people who'd left Camp Widow feeling like they could take on the world and I couldn't wait to feel that too.  Bring it on!

Then Friday morning arrived, I jumped out of bed and walked up to the registration desk, ready to get started.  That's when it hit me.  What the hell was I doing?!  How on earth did I think I could travel half way across the world on my own, waltz in to a conference of 250 people I'd never met, let down all the walls I carefully maintain to keep myself protected and composed and talk to strangers about Dan's death!?  

I felt so vulnerable and naive and promptly started freaking out.  I had made a serious mistake and couldn't do this - I was way out of my depth.  Before I had the chance to flee I was ushered in to the 'new campers' workshop by a friendly volunteer, where I sat with tears running down my face, carefully noting my nearest exit route and avoiding all eye contact.

After an introduction and run down by one of the Soaring Spirits board members we were instructed to turn to the person next to us and introduce ourselves. Oh shit, crunch time - this is it Rebecca, you finally have to turn up and start playing.  So I paired up with a lovely lady called Angela from Northern California and after blurting out my name, said I'd lost my husband Daniel just under a year ago and broke down in tears.  Once I calmed down and confessed to how nervous I was feeling, I realised Angela was tearing up too.  She assured me it was ok and pointed out that we weren't the only ones in the room crying, I looked around and she was right, I wasn't the 'weird crying woman' at this event, we were all in the same boat.  This really was a safe place and no one was going to point and stare at me. 

Over the next two days my confidence slowly grew.  I started feeling connected to these strangers and felt more comfortable opening up.  I sat and listened to other people's stories - their fears and their pain along with their triumphs and goals.  I cried with them and I cheered for them.  I heard presentations from widows who are further down their path than I am and who have managed to make sense of their grief and even build something positive from their pain.  Many of them had even remarried and I was fascinated that they had found happiness again with partners who embraced their grief so fully that some had even attended Camp Widow with them! 

I danced.  Now that is huge.  I am not really a dancer at the best of times and haven't danced since my wedding in June last year, six weeks before Dan died.  I put on silly props and posed for photos with my arms around women I had only met two days earlier (I'd seen the photo booth photos from previous camps and thought 'seriously, I can NOT imagine feeling comfortable enough with these grieving strangers to pose for laughing photos together' - but it happened!).  

And when it came time to say goodbye, I cried.  I cried because I would really miss these new friends whom I cared about deeply.  I cried because Camp Widow made me feel so happy and normal and actually excited about a life that lay before me, I was scared to leave in case I left those feelings behind.  

I cried because I still missed Dan and I wanted to tell him about my amazing weekend, but I realised that the pain I felt at losing my Great Love (my kryptonite as Michele so eloquently put it in her key note address) could also be my super power, as I carried that love forward with me, propelled by the knowledge that my time with him was a wonderful gift that I am still receiving by being the woman he saw in me, by being the better person he made me and by growing through this horrible life experience.  Love never dies and his love will be my super power as I live the rest of my life. 

This is something I NEVER thought I'd say, but I left Camp Widow feeling proud to be a widow.  How crazy is that!?  I felt proud of the resilience I'd developed, of the compassion I felt for others, and of the strength I never knew I had.   I felt proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these incredible men and women who had also left their homes alone, travelled to an event where they knew no one and let their own walls done in the hope that there was more.

I am now trying to work out if I can make it back to the USA or Canada for Camp Widow next year and anyone else who is considering making the journey, I can't recommend it enough.  There is more for us, there is hope.  This situation may not be what we WANT and it's still certainly not fair on any level, but we don't have to settle for a life that is less than.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sunrise

So, last week, you may have noticed that my post was strangely invisible in here.
Yeah. That is because I totally forgot to write one.

I realized this fact somewhere around the time when my name was being called out loud by my friend and Soaring Spirits board member Janine. We were in San Diego. At Camp Widow West. At the Saturday night formal dinner banquet party. Janine was asking the writers of Widows Voice to please stand and be recognized, and as I stood up proudly, something inside of my brain screamed. And then I screamed out loud, to nobody and everybody around me: "Crap! I forgot to write my blog this week!"

Oops.

But now I'm back. And it turns out, I'm pretty exhausted and, at the moment, almost out of words.
Sometimes, words are not even close to good enough for what Im feeling or thinking or screaming.
Lots of times, only the haunting silence of what was and what used to be and what is, overtake my brain.
The future is filled with fear and anxiety.
The past is gone, and I cant get it back, no matter how much I yell or cry or throw tantrums about it.
The now is the only thing we have, really. But sometimes, the now frightens the living shit out of me.
When I am inside the now, and I actually stop thinking for 15 seconds or minutes, that is actually a place where I feel real joy and fun and glee.
But it is very rare. I think too much.

Sunday was the 3 year death anniversary. It came. It happened. I tried to scream it away, but that didnt work. It came anyway. Maybe it wanted to spite me. Maybe it enjoys mocking me. But it came.

I was in San Diego, attending, and presenting my Grief-Comedy Workshop for the 4th time, at Camp Widow. That morning, on the 13th, I set my alarm to a melodic lullabye-type tone for 5:45am. I made a cup of coffee inside my hotel room, and walked out to the beautiful 9th floor balcony of my room, and waited. I stared into the sky and watched as the sun lit it up slowly and fiercely. It wasn't a sunrise as much as it was an illumination that busted it's way through the darkness and blinded my eyes. It was perfect.


Later that day, I had lunch with a really good friend who lives local, and then even later that night, I had invited lots of my widowed friends out to dinner to honor and celebrate Don, and their loves too. I had each person stand up at the table, say the name of the partner they lost, and tell us something they either learned from them or something they love about them. I went last, and then we toasted to love. Our "group" pay it forward was to pitch in and give our waiter an insanely large tip. I told everyone to put in whatever they wanted to contribute, and we ended up with a 54% tip for our awesomely sarcastic waiter, who was very moved by us and by "Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day," which I created 2 years ago as a way to not only honor my husband and who he was, but a way for me to get through the day.

 He put the day in his phone so that he can recognize it next year and each year after, on July 13th. He will now pay it forward and do an act of kindness on July 13th, in my husband's name. It felt so amazing to do this, and to share this hard, hard, hard day with so many other people who truly "get it." After dinner, we walked to a gorgeous gazebo and I had asked everyone to choose a song lyric that meant something to them and their person, and recite it for us. We went in a circle and everyone had a little story about why that song meant something, and then when it was my turn, I sang my song choice, which was "Longer" by Dan Fogelberg. It was one of Don's very favorite songs, and it was the last song of the night at our wedding. I will never forget slow-dancing with him that night, as everyone stood around us in a circle, taking pictures and coming up and hugging us and just witnessing our love. And now, as I sang the lyrics on July 13th, surrounded by my widowed family of friends, they circled me and witnessed that same powerful love between two people - living on forever.




Longer than, there've been fishes in the ocean,
Higher than any bird ever flew,
Longer than there've been stars up in the heavens,
Ive been in love with you. 

Through the years, as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives,
through the blinding cracks
and the pages start to yellow,
I'll be in love with you.
I'll be in love with you.
I am in love with you. 

For a day that is the saddest and most difficult day of my life, it was a pretty beautiful and touching day. 
I could tell you all about the rest of camp widow and what that was like, but I think I'm going to save that for another post. Right now, I just want to talk about July 13th, and the fact that for the first time ever, I did not wake up on that day in a state of panic and anxiety. My friend Michele made the suggestion about waking up and looking at the sunrise. It was a great idea. It seems that it is almost impossible to stare at something of beauty and nature such as that sky and light, and simultaneously think or re-live horrific and awful traumatic thoughts. Somehow, I got through the early morning hours of that day, and even though I was VERY AWARE that it was 6:32 am when it was 6:32 am (the time that my phone rang over and over and my old life died) - It passed by and nothing happened. I didn't sob my face off. I didn't panic. I didn't shake or feel tremendous fear. I felt incredibly sad, because It was the anniversary of the day my husband DIED. It will always be sad for me. Always. 

But I saw a beautiful sunrise that morning, and I ended my night in a circle of friendship and love, just like on my wedding night. What I felt that day was something that felt a little bit like peace, even if for only a day.

(pictured: sunrise on July 13th. me with our very grateful waiter after we paid it forward with a ginormous tip. me with some widowed friends, toasting to our loves.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Seeds of Change



Growing up in Virginia my parents always had a lovely garden. They still do, actually. Every year they  compost and dig and plant and in the summers appear beautiful tomatoes, beans, eggplants, lettuce and lots of other things. I wasn't much into digging in the dirt when I was a kid though, so when I moved into my first house with Mike in Los Angeles back in 1999 and wanted to start a garden, my parents were a little surprised. But for me, it made it really feel like home. I now had a house and a husband; I felt grounded, and so maybe, the ground called to me.

Mike wasn't much into digging in the dirt either. But he said if I planted hot peppers, which he loved, that he would help me. So we dug out the grass in the back yard and planted all the things we wanted to eat together. I still remember him picking a ripe cherry bomb pepper, taking a bite off the end and declaring it delicious and rather sweet and wouldn't I like to try it; me, not so much. I was afraid of the heat but he insisted it wasn't that hot. Of course the nibble I took also included a few seeds and my mouth exploded into fire! I ran to the garden hose and tried to put it out. He felt bad but we both laughed a long time about that one.

The first few years in Hawaii we were busy running our small business, but after we closed it I decided to get back out and try growing vegetables again.  Once again he got out there with me to help me dig out the grass for additional plots. It was a lot of work but I spent several glorious years happily covered in dirt. It was never a huge success due to the drought and the terrible pests here (not just white fly and aphid and brown rot but wild turkeys we have walking and pecking and rolling in the dirt and eating all your plants and sometimes very loudly, suddenly and awkwardly flying all over our neighborhood in the tallest trees), but we did eat from it quite a bit. It's always a little magical watching things sprout from tiny seeds and then becoming something edible and delicious.

At some point we also decided to keep chickens. Since I used to build things during my stint in Hollywood I was no stranger to tools, so I designed a coop and went off to buy the materials. After Mike saw my plans and the wood and chicken wire laid out in our driveway, he said it would be too rickety. He teased me playfully, saying I was a hack because I only built things to last a few days on a set, not long term. I insisted it would work, even though we used a lot of staples and zip ties. 

Mike sure loved our chickens. He loved all birds, actually. He used to hold them and talk to them. After he died one of the saddest sounds was the crowing of our rooster each morning. Lorenzo was a beautiful Japanese silky Mike simply adored. But not only did it break my heart every day seeing them out there now that he was gone, it became a burden to care for it all on top of the grief. The garden, the chickens...it was Mike who fed them each morning (as well as the turkeys, of course, who seemed to know very well in which house the nice man with the chicken feed lived), and bought and carried those heavy bags of feed...months later I finally decided it was time to let them go. The local animal shelter helped me find a farm that would take them. Eating them was never an option for us.

Since he died the garden has also been left fallow. I just haven't had the heart, or the energy, to go out there anymore. A few hearty plants have endured - New Zealand spinach and collard greens, some rosemary and nasturtium, seem to love it here and never stop growing. There are still the fruit trees too, which is an amazing thing about living here. But everything else is gone. All the tomato cages and pots and turkey fences and tools have sat there, piled up and collecting weeds. The chicken coop sat empty and forlorn.

Every time I looked out there it made me sad. I would remember all the hours I spent in our little backyard farm; the excitement of the daily eggs or a bumper crop of eggplant, or the disappointment of bolted lettuce. All the meals I cooked for Mike with our meager bounties. So out it goes now. I've spent the past week tearing down the coop and organizing the useful bits for an ad on Craigslist. It's been not only backbreaking, but heartbreaking. Another thing to change since he's gone. 

I did find myself smiling when I struggled to dismantle the coop. My "hack job" had secured the pieces together so well it took me hours to take apart for removal. Laboring out there in the sun this past week or two I have found myself talking to Mike, teasing him back that it turns out I did a darn fine job, thank you very much.

I could have asked for help, I know. I have dear friends who would read this and reply they would have been here in a jiffy, had I only called...I know. But I wanted to do it myself. It seemed important, somehow. To be out there in that space where I spent so many hours happily growing, knowing Mike was often only a few hundred feet away, maybe practicing his archery in the front yard. I was the one who bought the seeds, researched organic means of pest control, pulled the weeds. I transformed it from the start - Mike helped, but it was my baby. So I needed to be the one to physically transform the space this next time too. To be alone with the memories, and my husband, on our little plot of land. 

Gardening is a lovely and important occupation. I do believe strongly that people should be digging up their grass in favor of edibles. And I will always treasure the memories of Mike in our garden. But I just can't muster the energy or desire for it any longer at this house without him, and I need to be nurturing the seeds of a new life instead for awhile.  I'll be keeping some of the tools because if I end up moving, maybe I'll start fresh somewhere else. For now, though, it's just the end of an era.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rose-scented Conversations~

Language has changed for me in this time since Chuck died.

I'm certain I'm not the only one who has heard people say "Your fillintheblank would want you to be happy".

Happy is one of the words that has changed for me.  Happiness is a fleeting thing and I'm not concerned about being happy.  Life is deeper than that for me now.  I hope someday I feel peaceful again.  Serene.  Joyful.  Content.  I'd like to feel passionate about a man again.  But happiness no longer seems to fit what my future might be.  I'll always miss my husband and that will always tinge whatever else is going on.

But maybe all of those words add up to happy.  I don't know.  And I don't really care.

Anyways, how the hell do they know what Chuck would want for me?  Though, yes, I know, because I had conversations with him before he died and his intent while living was to add to my happiness in whatever way he could and that didn't die with him.

BUT.  Given my emotional state these days, he wouldn't tell me something inane like that.  He wouldn't say a damn thing because he was educated about grief.  So he'd say nothing.  He'd hug me, though.  Just hug me with his strong arms and I'd relax into him.  When I responded with that answer to someone a few months ago who had just told me about Chuck wanting me to be happy, it kind of threw him for a loop and he really didn't know how to then respond to me.  So he just, well, walked away, mumbling something.

In chipper tones, I've also been told that, if nothing else, I must be grateful to be alive.  Once again, they are taken aback when I say actually, no I'm not grateful to be alive.  I'd rather be with Chuck but a broken heart hasn't killed me and so I'm still alive and therefore I must create a life for myself.  But I don't like any part of it and I miss him unbearably and would rather not be here.  That throws people off big-time.

As I travel the roads Chuck and I traveled in our first year out on the road, I've met so many people (and we're just one month into it) and my daughter and I both have gotten so many hugs and it's been so beautiful and I wish I could tell you that it takes away the pain but it doesn't.  It's beautiful and I'm so very glad to give and receive hugs and I'm so fortunate to have such a strong support community and thank goodness for it.  But underneath it all, I'm still struggling not to throw up constantly and my chest still feels as if a meat slicer is chopping away at my insides.

I met one of my daughter's extended in-laws recently on our travels and heard the most bodacious words come out of her mouth when we sat down to talk.  She said (can you believe this?) I don't know the language of grief.  I haven't been where you are.  I want to support you but I don't know what to say.  Tell me.  Teach me the language of grief.  

It was one of the most powerful conversations I've had since my husband died.