Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Big Red Day

My husband used to call Valentine’s Day ‘So What Day’…romantic, huh? He thought greeting cards were a waste of trees; that buying flowers because someone told you to defeated the purpose; and that going to dinner on the big day just to eat from a limited menu and have servers anxiously awaiting your departure from the table was ridiculous. I will admit that we fought about this on a few occasions…who wants to be the only girl in the office that didn’t get flowers? Eventually we settled into our own brand of celebrating our love, both on the big day, and on the other 364 days of the year.

I expected to breeze through the first Valentine’s Day without him, because he hated this holiday. But as the day approached, I found myself missing my heart day scrooge. There was no one around to balk at the increase in flower prices. There was no need to peruse the recycled card collection looking for just the right sentiment for my grumpy Valentine, and I cried when I realized there would be no one to take me to dinner at 4:30PM to avoid the crowds. Very quickly I found myself repeating in my head all the reasons to boycott the Hallmark holiday.

When the day arrived I found myself unable to ignore the National Day of Love. Instead of pushing the memories of our on-going struggle to find a happy middle ground for our own celebration out of my mind, I called them each front and center. And I laughed out loud. Recalling the times he showed up in the kitchen with a flower from our garden in hand, the dinners we ‘accidentally’ went to on the 14th of February, my efforts to get him to write me just one letter telling me how much he loved me (I was successful), and finally, the fact that he proposed to me on Valentine’s Day…I felt loved. And I guess that is the point of the day after all. Even though Phil never contributed to the romance testaments proudly placed on desks across America, I never doubted that he loved me. That night I drifted off to sleep murmuring…happy so what day honey.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Where is the "Get Out of Jail Free" card??

I am typing away this morning with a winter cold. Runny nose, coughing fits, watery eyes, achy body...the whole package. Overall, I feel pretty miserable. Whenever I am sick, I am reminded of my mom bringing me soup and hot tea as a child. Sometimes my mind wanders to the way I care for my own children when they are sick (I am famous for a concoction called sickness tea), but often my heart aches with the desire to have a special someone that cares about exactly how bad my cough is, nags me to go to the doctor, or allows use of his lap as a pillow for watching movies or taking an afternoon nap. I can really gear myself up for a self pity session when a winter virus takes hold.

Once you suffer the death of someone you love so intensely, shouldn't you have wracked up some hardship credit with the universe? Haven't grievers earned a grief bonus somehow? A punch card that says, "Take it easy on this one for awhile." ? Isn't having to navigate the daily challenges of living life without your mate enough without having additional challenges, like colds and flus, financial woes, romantic disasters, and suddenly urgent house repairs thrown into the juggling match as well? Where is the get out of jail free card anyway?

As my nose stops running, my head clears up, a friend stops by to bring me soup, and my kids whisper down the hall, "SHHHH, Mom is SLEEPING!" I realize that life isn't so bad. There are good days,and bad ones. There are times I scream at the universe because Phil is dead, and others when I am able to thank God for all the gifts Phil's life, and his death, have brought into my life. There are moments when I would take the easy way out without a second thought, and others when I recognize the value of each life experience--even the painful ones. There are moments of utter despair, and moments of crystal clarity. All in all life calls, and we choose whether or not to answer. Even when we feel miserable.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Question Number Seventeen

After your husband's death, did you sleep in the same bed you shared with him?

Phil died at 6:33PM on Wednesday, August 31, 2005. At the end of that horrific day, I stood in the doorway of our bedroom and faced our empty bed. My mom came to stand beside me as I contemplated what to do...go in? stay out? sleep in our room? sleep on the couch? sleep alone? sleep with one of the kids? In a voice that was laced with despair I told my mom that whenever I was away from home over night, Phil would stack all the pillows from our bed (he was always confused by the need for decorative pillows) on my side to keep my place warm until I got back. Quietly my mom went into the room, and moved all those useless pillows into Phil's empty spot.

The memory of waking up the day after Phil's death is one of the most clear, and haunting, images of my grief journey. His alarm routinely sounded at 4:30AM, and with the shock and horror of the day no one realized the clock was still set for the next morning. After a fitful sleep, I woke up to his alarm--and the stack of pillows where my beautiful husband should have been. The realization that dawned with the morning sun that my husband was not coming home was one of my most desperate moments. I felt panic rising in my chest as I searched the empty bed with my hand, seeking some sign that I was dreaming. I opened and closed my eyes over and over again hoping that somehow he would appear if I kept repeating the process. My mind raced with the desire to turn back time, to start August 31st over again, to run through the house calling his name, to scream to the world how unfair his absence was--because the reality of those extra pillows in his place was almost too much to bear.

For weeks I stacked those pillows up in his spot before I went to bed, and nodded off hoping that somewhere, far away, he had pillows stacked up for me too.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Reflecting on the New Year

New Years Day is a reflective holiday for me. How would I rate last year overall? Are there any obvious changes that I can make to improve the coming year? When I look back at the past 365 days can I say that I am proud of the way I lived them? Self reflection, however, is extremely challenging when grief has walked into your life unbidden and unwanted. Do these questions still apply when you are grieving? Can you reflect on life without a distinct bias when your entire world is upside down? What change, short of a miraculous return of my husband, could be made to improve my life after his death?

In some ways self reflection appears to be a luxury reserved only for those who still feel they have some semblance of control over their life. Before Phil died I harbored delusional thoughts of being in control of every area of my life. I was proud of the careful plans I made, and the way each action led to the achievement of a goal. Seemed to me that hard work and tenacity would always pay off. Then Phil died. Suddenly the ways I previously viewed success were suspect. Without the ability to be certain of a particular outcome how could I chart a course for the future? The day after Phil died I looked at my calendar. Each block was carefully filled in with appointments, reminders, and special dates, but without Phil as my partner not one of the notations mattered. Looking back I think the most frightening thing for me at that moment was the sudden realization that plans fail, life takes unexpected turns, and people die.

How does all of this affect my New Year reflections? Grief has taught me to adopt different criteria for success. When I look at my life today, I hold myself to a new, and in many ways higher, standard. Have I lived each moment knowing that life is precious, and an individual frame in time cannot be repeated? Do I tell the important people in my life that I love them~often and sincerely? Have I taken the lessons of grief and applied them to life? Will I look back at the year passed as a unique, necessary, and unforgettable gift? These measures change the focus from one of loss and despair to one of hope and gratitude. This Pollyanna attitude may sound trite, and there are days when I am surrounded by storm clouds with no noticeable silver lining, but losing Phil taught me to hold onto life~for that reason and countless others I am grateful for the opportunity to have loved him.

Life is full of both challenges and gifts. Without the challenges, perhaps we would be less appreciative of the gifts. Pictured is one of my recent blessings, my brother's new baby girl (and my sister-in-law in the background!). Welcome to a wonderful family Eveline!