Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

Megan had not only given me permission to "move on" again once she was gone, she had outright demanded it, years before she died.  She refused to take my heart with her, leaving a hole in me that could never be filled.  This is why, in the deepest pit of my soul, I believe she has brought someone new into my life in the best way possible: unexpectedly.

By random occurrence, I have met a new woman.  I wasn't out looking for a date, or even looking at women as something desirable or needed, when she just happened to sit down next to me at a bar where I was hanging out with some mutual friends.  I was completely numb at the time, with no desire to interact with anyone, so I was just gritting my teeth and trying to act "normal" by making small talk.

Then she sat down.  Damn.

We exchanged a few cordial "get to know the basics" questions, and immediately became fast friends.  Although completely platonic, I was blindsided by a connection that I had never expected to occur.  Suddenly, I was transported back to December 10th, 2002, when I walked into a Kay-Bee toy store, met Megan, and unexpectedly, my whole journey began over a cash register, pudding cups, and Van Wilder in her mother's basement.

Since that time, this new woman and I have talked every day, sometimes for hours on end.  The connection we found at that bar has only grown, without any signs of slowing.  I am again faced with a question that is confusing to me, albeit in a newly pleasant way, and that is "what would Megan think?"

Our relationship has matured, and we have committed to each other.  She gets me, my story, and understands it all, just as I get her, and her story.  We know for a fact that Megan is a part of this relationship, and we BOTH cherish her and wish she was here.  A better person could not have found me.  She has encouraged me to love Megan even more, and I do.

I am truly and deeply happy, for the first time in well over a year.  Though Megan died only four short months ago, she was "dying" long before that, so my happiness was put on hold when it began, and obliterated when she died.  She knew this.  It's why we had the final  "talk" in June, when she was admitted for her last 6 month stay.

I am truly sympathetic to all widows that did not have this "luxury" of knowing their dead partner's wishes before they died.  Though incredibly hard to swallow at the time, Megan said these exact words to me as she lay dying in a hospital bed in Cleveland:

"Don't you dare sit around by yourself if I die.  You need someone else.  Now go get me some broccoli and cheese soup downstairs"

That was Megan.  Frank, to the point, then shifting gears into bossing me around.  She was a goddamned master of living in the moment, influencing the future, and always being right.  That is why I don't feel guilty in the slightest about being happy with a wonderful woman other than my wife.  It is a powerful reality of my heart, and my mind.  Of course, I am still a logical, cynical person at my core, and I know that opening myself up to this could result in a crash of epic proportions.  I am still completely terrified of that happening, because it's been over a decade since I took this kind of risk.

I still reflect upon the absence of Megan every day, but there has been somewhat of a shift in that perspective.  I've gone past the "acceptance" stage of losing her.  She's dead.  No sugar coating it.  What I pine for the most about her is our friendship.  It isn't the affection, her sharp wit, her motherly instincts, and her uncanny ability to be strong in the face of death.  It is her friendship that I miss right now.  I want her to appear, when I am with this new woman, smile, give me a high five, and say "about damn time, idiot, she's magnificent"

How strange is that?  To know that I am falling for another woman, and to want my dead wife to be not only pleased about it but present to witness what is happening?  Honestly, given some of the signs I've seen since meeting this new woman, I'm positive that it was Megan that made sure I was sitting at that bar, and that there was a seat left open beside me.  She expected it, she wanted it, and she made it happen.

I love Megan even more for bringing someone new into my life at just the right, unexpected time, and that is key.  12 years ago, Megan and I crashed into each other like a freight train, and though I'm now left without her in the physical world, she continues to surprise me in whatever ethereal world she exists in now.  I am still putting blind faith into everything about her, and expecting the unexpected.

There is so much more for me to say about all of this.  For now, I am content in the belief that Megan has my back, and she's going to make sure I'm happy.  I just wish she was here to share it with.  I miss my best friend and partner-in-crime, poking fun at me, but also being happy for me.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Ashes To Ashes

Stan's Ashes, in our bedroom, before we scattered them

Saturday, I carried the remnants of my husband's body from our bedroom to the summit of Monks Road, in Glossop, the spot he had chosen as his final resting place. It was one of the hardest things I have had to do, in this 10 month journey since his death.

His family and I scheduled this date months ago. Even then, I was reluctant to consider it. It was a comfort to me, to have his scatter tube here, in our room, underneath the photo of us, taken at our wedding. I loved the little shrine I had made for him. I would touch and pat the tube as I talked to him. I would say hello to him in the morning and tell him good night when I came upstairs for bed. 

To those who have not yet faced the loss of a spouse, (or, perhaps, even, to some who have), this might seem a bit creepy. But it felt no different than visiting a beloved's grave. I knew where he was, and I felt grounded by his presence.

This act of cremation, so popular in recent years, feels unsettling to me. I understand the need for it, and perhaps it is more ecologically sound, but, had it been my choice, I think I would have preferred our traditional custom of burial. It feels so much more concrete. We place our loved ones in the ground, and shovel dirt on top. We memorialise them with a stone. We etch their names into it, and their dates of birth and death. We go to their graves and place flowers, and trinkets, touch the ground where their body rests. Their lives are made permanent, somehow, through these rituals. 

In cremation, we reduce their bodies to a bucket of ash. We scatter them to the winds. They are lost to us, forever. 

It feels so final. 

I know that he was so much more than his body. His spirit was bigger than that. I know that he lives on in our memories and in our hearts. I hope that my written words will serve as a concrete reminder of who he was and what he meant to all of us. Still, it was hard to say goodbye to what little I had left. 

Saturday came, and the date had arrived, and it was time to carry out his wishes. His children, especially, felt the need to have a place to visit, too. It was selfish of me to keep him hidden away, inside a room, when he had always made clear his desire to become a part of that sloping hill at the top of our world, where, on a clear day, the view stretches more than 20 miles, to the cities below. 
Stan's resting place, on a clear day, earlier this year.
I brought his ashes down the stairs and placed them in a carrier bag. I wrapped them in a blanket so they wouldn't be cold, and I seat belted him into the car to bring them to his son's house. The morning was damp and grey, and predictions ranged from drizzle to hard rain, typical weather for northern England, in the spring. 

I asked him to clear the way for us to do what we needed to do for him. I could hear him saying "it's the weather! Just deal with it!" Or, his famous line--"the leaves are dancing in the rain! You should be dancing, too!" 

The family and I gathered at his son's house, where we have gathered many times, for celebrations and holidays, where we had gathered, on the 9th of June, to form a caravan behind the hearse that carried another son's casket--the same place we gathered, two weeks later, to follow his casket. This would be our final gathering, to say goodbye. 

Thirty minutes before we made our pilgrimage to the hill, the weather cleared, and the rains paused. We drove a mile to the summit, where his good friends and sisters waited. We brought his scatter tube to a flat place, and I read parts from a poem he had written, in 2010, shortly before we met. His granddaughter read a beautiful tribute to him, that she had written, at Christmas.

reading his poem

from "The Buddleia and Two Butterflies"
by Stan Kukalowicz, September 2010

Oh the sheer beauty of the Buddleia, emerging from barren ground,
With pinnacles of vivid navy blue, cheekily inviting you to come and view.
Butterflies descend, performing a rhythmic dance amongst the hues,
Each splendid in their beauty and vibrancies, inviting you to taste,
Previous experiences now pupated into a delicate and colourful creation.

We passed his tube, from me, to daughters, to sons, to sisters, each of us scattering a piece of him to the ground. We threw flowers amongst the ashes as offerings. We hugged each other and wiped our tears. We piled back into cars and made our way down the hill. And the rains resumed.

Later, his friends drank a toast to him at one of his favourite pubs, and the family shared a curry at his favourite restaurant, Shere Khan, on what is known as The Curry Mile, in Manchester. They knew him well, there, and remembered him. He had brought each of us to this place, at one time or another, for celebrations, or just to have a bite to eat. It was one of the first places he took me, when we were new.

The food was grand, as was the service. We ate heartily, as he would have, had he been with us, and we raised our glasses to him. 

I had dreaded this day for months. I had tried to ignore its looming closeness. I had not wanted to let him go. But the next morning, I awakened with a sense of calm, and relief. We had honoured his wishes. We had placed the remnants of the body we loved into the earth, where the winds would carry them, and the rains would wet them, and the mud would welcome them. It was hard for all of us, but we did it. He would have been proud.

I have taken the day off from work today, and I am going to go for a little hike, up the hill, to his spot. I'll take a flower, and say hello. 

Later in the spring, we'll plant a bush--a buddleia--a hearty plant, wild, and beautiful, where butterflies like to rest.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Birthdays & Beginnings

Today was my fiance's birthday. The third year without him here. You always think it's going to get easier. And you never really have any clue how it's going to hit you. That's no mystery to me. I've been dealing with the milestone of my mom's birthday for over 20 years now since she died... and some years are just harder than others, for no real reason at all. I gave up long ago trying to understand the "why" of all this.

I feel like this 3rd birthday has been even harder than the 2nd without him. Maybe this is because it is the same amount of birthdays I shared WITH him... we only had 3 short years together. As I'm writing this, I'm thinking it has a lot to do with it. This officially kicks off the first of many milestones this year that are going to be even harder than last year, for that one reason. By June, I will officially be entering into having lived more time after his death than I actually had with him. It's heartbreaking, even now just thinking of it. And it's weighed so heavily on my heart today that I've scarcely even had words.

There were some highlights to the day. My mother-in-law and I went to get pedicures in the morning. Cute toes always make a day better. We did a little shopping and then had a blast out on the ranch ridiculously exploding a pink pony piñata - because sometimes you just need to blow some shit up. I will admit, that felt crazy good. And afterwards, my in-laws and I went out for a really nice dinner. There was a lot of good in the day actually, I have to admit that.

But still... under the surface has been that feeling of the lurking 3 year mark. And that's not the only new thing that's entering into my life right now either. Simultaneous to this whole 3 year milestone, I have also met someone.... new.

There has been wonder and joy and excitement again with this new person. And warmth and support and understanding. It has been so beautiful. He cracked a beer at midnight with me last night - just to celebrate Drew's birthday. He gets me. And I have laughed more in a few short months than I think I had in the entire past 2 1/2 years.

But there also days when I've just had to run off, and create distance from this new person, because being vulnerable feels too hard. And moments when I've been paralyzed by the fear that I will let this person matter so much, and then he will die too. There have been times when I've wanted nothing more than to fall into this new man's arms... And times when I have wanted nothing more than to fall into the arms of my fiancé again - not this new person - because that is truly where I feel the most safe. All of this, the great stuff and the hard stuff, its a lot to take in. To put it plainly, goddamn, this shit is just terrifying.

One of the worst aspects: I hate knowing that - for the rest of my life - I am going to have this fear of the person I am with dying on me. I really, really hate this. I miss the innocence of believing blindly that the odds were in my favor. Now, I know different... and I wish I didn't. I wish none of us did.

This post is really sort of a rambling mess, I didn't plan what to talk about or think through this at all. It's just whatever is going on in my head right now. I am confused, and a bit scared right now. About life. About death. About what lies ahead.

In a few months, I will be exactly as far away from his death as I was the day I met him... and I think this realization has been bubbling up under the surface for a while now. Well, I know it has, I've feared it since he first died. I still cannot even fathom hitting this landline of a mark in June. I cannot even fathom how difficult a time it is going to be... and how much I may regress back into my grief - which makes me want to distance and turn off from the world and be alone. And then I think of this new person, and how much I'd like him to keep being here, but also how scary it is to bring someone else into my world at a time when I may really need a lot of space. I'm confused, and sad tonight. And all I really want is to talk to my best friend, to tell him Happy Birthday, to talk about this new man with him, and to express how scary this year's milestones are going to be. God, why can't we just pick up the phone and call each other?

A Time for Compassion

Like the rest of the world, I awoke to the news this week that the tragic crash of the Germanwings flight 9252 was due to a deliberate act of the co-pilot, and my heart sunk.   My immediate thoughts were for the families of everyone on board - there would be so many questions, so much pain.  All these beautiful, innocent lives lost in a horrific and random act, how incredibly unfair and what an enormous trauma for their loved ones to have to make sense of. 

Among those lost, were every day people including students, teachers, families, opera singers, tourists, university graduates, babies, journalists, business professionals and newlyweds. People with so much to live for, people who will be greatly missed. So many families who will never be the same again, so much grief. 

However my heartbreak was not only due to my sympathy for those whose lives had been lost but also because I knew I would have to brace myself for the inevitable media circus of assumptions and speculation on what lead this man to this catastrophic act. 

This is a difficult topic to write about because it ignites a range of complex and personal emotions, all of which are valid, and there is potential to offend or cause hurt to those who have been affected by similar events. There will be readers whose loved ones were taken due to the actions of others.  And there will be readers whose loved ones, for various reasons, caused others to pass with them.  So I’d like to ask you to join me in making this a safe place for anyone who might feel personally affected by this topic.

I lost my husband to mental illness, he was not of a rational or sound mind when he took his life.  He couldn't see the devastation his death would leave behind and the ongoing pain and trauma he would inflict on those of us who love him.  This is because he had a disease which robbed him of his mental capacity, logic and reasoning.  I have had to come to understand and accept this, however part of my challenge is having to face comments from people who are ignorant about mental health and use words like 'selfish' and 'weak' when speaking about suicide.  

I don’t have the added burden of other lives being lost due to his actions and couldn't pretend to imagine how difficult that would be. So my heart also aches for the family of the co-pilot who have lost a son and are now left to both try and make sense of how he came to be in such a dark place and carry the weight of the hatred and anger being directed at him.  

Please let me be clear here, I am in no way defending or excusing the actions of anyone who takes another  life. This is never ok and there is never a justification for a murder/suicide.  More often than not these horrific incidents are carried out by people who aren't just mentally unstable, but who are trying to consciously cause pain, instil terror or control others due to reasons such as religious extremism or racial hatred. 

Most of us will never know what drives someone to carry out an act such as this. However the fight to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around suicide takes a few giant steps back when public conversation jumps to the assumption that this person was evil and fails to acknowledge that these tragedies are caused by a vast range of reasons, including someone being mentally ill and not accessing the help they need.  

This doesn't excuse or justify their actions - it doesn't make it any less painful for the families left behind. But as a society that is trying to make sense of such events and identify how they could be prevented in the future, it is important to remember there could have been many different causes. 

It's devastating news and, as humans, it’s natural for us to talk about these events in a bid to make sense of them.  So of course people are going to talk about it... but I feel my face burning and my heart sinking, as words get bandied around like ‘selfish’, ‘evil’ and ‘cold-blooded killer’.  The water-cooler gossips in my office and media reports are always quick to jump to the most dramatic speculation but there is never a call to wait with open-minds and compassion, until further facts are known.  

A colleague of mine lost her good friend a few years ago when she took her life, and her daughters, in a very public way that caused shock in our community.  This woman had been battling severe depression and it is her loved ones' opinion that her actions were driven by her belief that she couldn't go on any longer and would be sparing her daughter from the grief and shame that would be associated with her mother's death.

Speculative, nasty and inflammatory comments in the media about the incident added so much extra pain to their grief. In no way is it logical or 'right' but they could never consider her to be a hateful or violent person or a bad mother and their grief was compounded with the despair that she would always, in the eyes of the public, be remembered this way.

When something like this occurs we have the mammoth task of needing to process what has happened and find some peace in a place where there is no logic.  This is not something that our brains are wired to do.  We have an instinctive need to pigeon hole or diagnose or label a situation in order to file it away in our sub-conscious and lay it to rest.  When this is not possible, when the cause is either quite complex or beyond our realm of every-day comprehension, what are we to do? 

My hope is that when people hear about these events in the news and find themselves trying to understand what caused them, they come from a place of compassion rather than judgement.  This man was not well.  His family are grieving his loss as well as coming to terms with the enormity of his actions. The one thing they will know for sure is that their son was suffering so badly that nothing made sense, including his reasoning for taking the life of another.  

So I am choosing not to quickly judge something I don't and could never understand.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Spouse: Blank

Who would ever think that something as boring and mundane as reading your tax return would send you into fits of sobbing, post-loss? A tax return? Really? It's not like I was even the one doing my taxes. Luckily, "I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy" (as Sal would say on "Breaking Bad"), who does my tax return for me. Actually, I am making it sound way more mysterious and shady than it is. He is a good family friend who also happens to be a tax accountant. He does the tax returns for our whole family - my parents, my brother and his wife, and me and Don. And now, just me. I have always been terrible with numbers and math, and because I have so many part-time and temp jobs and my life is complicated as far as "work" goes, it is a huge weight off my chest not to have to worry about how to make sense of my piles of receipts and paperwork, come tax time. Instead, a few rounds of back and forth mailings occur, a few signing on the dotted lines, and we're done. About 3 days ago, I received my tax return from my tax accountant friend in the mail. While reading it, I suddenly and abruptly burst into tears, and it had nothing to do with the obscenely small amount of money I make, or the fact that Im now being charged because I can't afford health insurance. Nope. It had nothing to do with that.

Let me backtrack a bit. The first time you file your taxes after the death of your spouse, the IRS considers you widowed. The space on your return where it says "spouse" - underneath that word is the word "deceased." When I saw that word underneath my husband's name that first year, I stared at it for what felt like an hour. Just stared and stared at it, hoping that it might somehow go away if I stared it down enough. The silent tears formed as I stared down the word deceased - and I wanted so badly to defeat it. I wanted so badly for it not to be true. However, it was true, and even though it hurt like hell to read it there on that page, I was at least satisfied that the government was telling the truth about my situation, and treating me as such. Being filed as a widow, coupled with the fact that my husband happened to die in July, smack in the middle of the year, gave me a bigger refund than I had ever had before. It was nothing amazing, mind you, but for me and my measly little paycheck and income, it made a dent that first year and got me out of more financial ruin.

With the second filing, it was much the same. The IRS still listed me as widowed, and still had the word deceased next to my husband's name. The refund got a lot smaller, because I was no longer dealing with his income as well as my own, but I still appreciated being recognized as a widowed person.

Then came the next tax season. Turns out, the IRS only considers you to be of widowed status, for 2 tax seasons after the death of a spouse. After that point, you suddenly become "single." When I saw this in last year's return, it infuriated me. Single? Single??? I am not single. Single implies that I had a choice in the matter, which I did not. Single also implies that I was never really married to begin with. What happened to recognizing the death of my husband? Is he just suddenly not dead anymore, according to the government? Does my widowhood expire after a 2-year trial run? Hey, it was nice having you as a widow, but your time has now run it's course. I didn't get it. It angered me.

And so, back to about 3 days ago. I opened my tax return, hoping like hell there was some kind of refund coming my way, because Im forever broke and struggling. Well, the refund turned out okay, but as I was looking at the return itself, I noticed something that I somehow hadn't noticed last year. In the space where it used to list my husband's name, then "spouse", then "deceased" - it now just had the word "spouse", with nothing at all underneath it or next to it. It said "spouse", and then just blank. Spouse: Blank. An empty box appeared where his name used to be. As if I had imagined my beautiful short marriage - as if it had never happened at all. It was as if Don Shepherd never even existed, according to the IRS. Where his name used to be - there was now just empty space. I got really angry for about 17 seconds, and then I burst into sudden and abrupt sobbing.

But, it's just a tax return, you might say. It's just the IRS and their silly laws - don't take it so personally - you might be thinking. But here's the thing - that tax return , in my eyes, and in that moment, was a direct mirror and reflection and symbol for how the whole world treats my loss. It was a direct statement on how society views the loss of a spouse or partner, in general. There it was, right in my face and line of fire. In writing, even:

Year One - people are knocking down your door to support you and shower you with love. If you're lucky enough, your job and your family and your friends and life, are all pretty understanding for that pocket of time, and they seem to get that you will need awhile longer to process all of this, thank you very much.

Year Two - Some people still get it, sort of, but they are growing very impatient with you and with all the talking you do about your dead husband. 'Okay, we get it, he's dead", they think or actually say. "Can you talk about something else now? Can we please move on?" Hmmm ... well, sure. YOU are more than welcome to move on, since he wasn't your husband and you are not actually dealing with anything here. I, however, cannot do the same. Work is not nearly as understanding as before, lots of friends have disappeared, and family starts getting back to their own lives again.

Year Three (and beyond) - People are done talking about this loss, and they really wish you would be done with it too. Some people even accuse you of trying to get attention or "wallowing in your grief" , as they sit in their living rooms, next to their own life-partners, judging that which they do not know. The world now wants you to put that life you had with your husband, that love that you shared - on a shelf somewhere, or in a drawer somewhere, and lock it up with a key. Forget about it. Pretend it never happened. Move on. Stop living in the past. You are single now. It's time we got you "out there" again. He isn't coming back.

He is now nothing. He has disappeared into thin air. He isn't even deceased anymore. Just blank space.

It was quite the metaphor, reading and looking at that space where my husband's name used to be. So I cried and cried for a few minutes longer, I got angry, and then I made a vow. I made a vow to keep writing and keep talking about my husband. I made a vow to keep speaking about him and our love in the present tense. It's not we loved each other - it's we love each other. I made a vow to keep creating "this" version of myself, and to live and create for myself a joyful and meaningful life - one that includes him in it, always. I made a vow to continue carrying us and our story with me in my pocket, never leaving home without it. I made a vow to be that voice, to be that person who keeps letting the world know that it's not okay to make widowed people feel bad about loving their partners forever. It's not okay to tell them to move on or leave them behind like some horrible baggage. It's not okay to never talk about them anymore or to never bring up their name anymore, or to have a tone of superiority and pity whenever I bring up their name. It's not okay to erase my husband from existence, or to pretend that his life didn't matter, or that he was never here. None of that is okay with me.

As a society, we seem to celebrate love stories whenever they are fantasy-like or lengthy. I am so tired of reading articles about these married couples who had 60 years together as husband and wife, and who died holding hands , just hours or minutes apart at age 93, because neither could stand to be without the other for more than a few hours. That's called LUCK. If you get the honor - the privilege - of being married to the same person your whole life, and you both get to LIVE long lives together, and die hours apart - you are one lucky bastard. But your love is no better than or greater than my love. Your story is no more beautiful than mine. Why do we celebrate and go "awwwwww, how sweet!" when a couple gets to exist together for decades and decades, but if a widowed person who was forced to live on earth without the love of their life for those same decades and decades , tries to talk about the love they have and will ALWAYS have for their partner - we act like they are somehow delusional or worthy of pity, or they call it "sad" that that person hasn't "moved on" yet. Loving someone your whole life, and their whole life, is not sad. It is goddamn beautiful. I am tired of being silently and loudly judged by people in the world, because I love my husband. If I lost a sibling or my dad died, you certainly wouldn't hear anyone asking that I not post pictures of them, or that I move on from that, or stop talking about them. People are allowed to grieve and love parents and friends and brothers and sisters for a long time - as they should be. But as soon as it's someone's partner - everybody suddenly has a say in how you need to let it go already. Everyone wants to make you feel like your love is something to be ashamed of, or that it's somehow unhealthy or wrong.

My love for my husband will last forever. Even if I meet someone else one day. Even if I get re-married. Even through time and space and ten-thousand moons and suns, and decades of judgmental people. I will carry my husband and our love with me.

He is not a blank space.
He will live inside the rhythms of everything that I am, forever.
No matter what the IRS, or society, or the world has to say about it.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Matters of Interpretation

It's been a busy week, and the highlight was a visit with my friend Margaret who flew in for a nice long weekend from her home in the Bay area. Her husband Dave, who was healthy and fit, died of a sudden, massive stroke at age 50 three months after Mike died, and she and I were put together by mutual friends and family who saw us both falling apart and thought we might benefit from a friendship. They were right.

We have a lot in common, being suddenly and unexpectedly widowed in middle age, and without our own children (I have two beautiful adult stepdaughters). When life throws you a curveball like this - well, having someone with which to share the burden of grief, who really gets what you're going through, can make all the difference. We spent those early days emailing, texting and chatting like mad, sobbing and laughing together nearly every day, and I went to meet her in SF when I was there to visit family the summer before last.

Then last year she flew out for Mike's first angelversary and the highlight was a manta adventure. Here in Kona the mantas feed right off the coast at night, when their briny dinner is around, and you can take a boat trip out to snorkel or dive with them. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in my life, those gentle giants swooping gracefully within inches of us with their big, soulful eyes full of as much curiosity about us as we have about them. There were dozens of them out that night and it took our breath right out of our chests.

This year we decided to go zip lining. I don't much care for heights and I wondered why on earth the idea came to me, because when we finally got hooked up to that first line, for that first short 100 foot zip not far from the ground, my heart was in my throat. I was terrified and I thought - no way I can do this. But in that moment, I just decided to trust - what, the guide? God? My new adventure of life? Did I decide I had nothing to lose? Or maybe I'd already been in the scariest place I could be, losing Mike? I'm honestly not sure, but trust I did, so I took a big breath and pushed myself away from the tree. And guess what? I not only survived, but had the time of my life.

We zipped from tree to tree, going ever higher up in the enchanted and historic Hawaiian forest canopy; sometimes we walked across long rope bridges a hundred feet off the ground, which was also scary and exciting at the same time. The picture above is myself and Margaret on that last, long and wonderfully heart-pounding zip, over 1100 feet and in tandem. Looking back at that picture later we found it highly symbolic. The two of us, precariously zooming off into the unknown, side by side. It was another adventure I'll never forget.

The guides told us afterwards that the longest, fastest zip line in the world is in South Africa - it's a mile long and at the fastest point you go 100 miles per hour. Margaret and I just looked at each other, raised our eyebrows and smiled. Maybe, someday.

We talked a lot this time about signs, signposts, life changes, big decisions, new relationships and that big, scary wide-open question of our futures. As events and people come and go and we are faced with new challenges and opportunities, how to pay attention, how to interpret the possibilities, how to maintain a positive outlook when we've lost so much and feel so unsteady.

I had a conversation with my cousin last week too, she called for my birthday - we don't talk as much as we like since she lives abroad, and among other things she asked me about my new companion. Do I love him? She herself is in a new relationship after the long and difficult ending of her marriage, so she was curious how I was handling it all.

I had to pause at that question. Perhaps there is still a lingering feeling of guilt, as if I'm cheating on Mike, for admitting to deep feelings for another man. I tried to explain that yes, I do feel love for this new guy, but it's not the same love I had for Mike. Does that make sense? - I asked her. It's not as if it's less or more - it's just...different. The love I have for Mike is still here. He still has just as much room in my heart as he did when he was alive - I am still in love with my late husband, and I will always miss him to the deepest part of my soul, to the point of agonizing pain. But yes - how ever impossible it may seem, now there is indeed emotion for a new person in here too. It's just...different. It's a very tangled web. Hard to explain, I told her.

We are a family of musicians, having being raised studying classical piano and other instruments, so I could relate to the analogy she used to explain her understanding of my lack of words...she told me she recently went to a concert to hear a certain symphony she had played herself with an orchestra years ago, but this version, this interpretation of the music, was just so completely different. At first she was taken aback, but she ended up enjoying it just as much.

And so it is with new love, with new relationships, she suggested. It will never be the same love, the same experience, the same expectations...but it can still be good. Great, even.

When I was married to Mike I interpreted the world a certain way. I saw things through a lens we looked through together; through a particular focus we shared. But as time moves on I feel myself less and less able to see things that way. Without him around to help navigate, I've had to re-learn, or maybe re-determine, my own path, and how I see the world. Some days, I see it as horribly difficult, scary and torturous. Other days the sense of possibility and adventure leaves me breathless. And sometimes all those feelings seem to be around at the same time, all jumbled up. Maybe like the experience of that zip line with my friend Margaret.

Maybe, it's just a matter of interpretation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


A few weeks ago, I became fully, wide-awake aware, that this grief was killing me.  Not enough so that I'd actually physically die, but enough so that I continually felt as if a meat slicer was in my chest, merrily chopping away at my innards.  At the same time it was as if an anvil such as blacksmiths might use, was slung around my neck, making it difficult to breathe and slowing my feet. It was intolerable and made me....desperate.

Which I had to be to do what I did next.  The morning after this reckoning, I high-tailed it to the fitness center at Luke AFB, which is a convenient 15 minutes from where I'm staying with my son and his wife and family while resting from the road.  I already had my exercise gear on so that I could do something...anything...that day.  The energy that is grief was so powerful I felt that I could easily implode and I needed to physically exert myself in order to belay it.

In speaking to the staff at the desk of the fitness center, I was very specific.  My first request was for a former Marine to be my personal trainer.  One who would yell and scream at me and push me beyond any limit I ever considered having when it comes to exercise.  Which, to be honest, wouldn't be much because by nature, I'm much more a person who sits and reads as opposed to moving my body.

No Marines were available but this so helpful staff member took me to one of the annexes and introduced me to the man who guides what is called the Warrior Training Program.  Or, as someone I met recently who works that program calls it, the WTF program.  And he put me to work immediately, challenging my own concepts of what it is possible for me to do and not do. Apparently there isn't much I can't do, when pushed.

I'm in week 3 of this Warrior Training program and it's one I guess is fitting for me, since I strive each day to live into the personae of a Fucking Warrior Goddess.  Three times a week, I show up ready to sweat and burn and cry and grieve and push, push, push this grief; if not out, then at least around.

And thus far?  Let me tell you-I've learned that I'm capable of more than I ever considered.  I've done 10 real push-ups at a time (not the girly kind), when I didn't know I could do 1.  I've lifted 20 lbs of free weights over my head after coming out of a squat and done it 20 times.  I've run in between doing those.  I got on the rowing machine.  I've done all kinds of shit and you know what?  The meat-slicer has eased up a bit.  And the trainer, after I told him that I'm widowed and my breathing sucks, reminds me to breathe, encourages me, and very definitely pushes me.

This isn't for me to lose weight, to get in shape-none of the reasons I might have exercised before. This is solely to keep the grief moving because I reached that point of desperation.  Dare I say that I almost actually anticipate going to the gym now so that I can get some grief relief?  Even if my muscles hurt the next day?  Because I almost actually do anticipate that very thing.

Tears oftentimes blur my already sweaty vision as I'm lifting weights, throwing the damned medicine ball against the wall, squatting with weights on my shoulders.  I get dizzy, both from exertion and emotion.  My husband was huge on exercise; I went along with him but mostly I'd try to talk him into shorter or slower exercise walks.  Being in the gym reminds me of so much with him but I don't care if I sob my way through it.  I just need to keep doing it.

The 27th of this month marks 2 years since I took Chuck to the ER and our Odyssey began and I'm not trying to hold anything back.  The entire thing was traumatizing and horrifying and the memories run like a video in my head and I'm going to just keep sweating and crying my way through them.

I think of what Chuck would think if he saw me doing all of this at the gym and I know what he'd say.  Miller, every time I think I know you, you go and do something that surprises the shit out of me.

The desperation of grief.  It led me, ultimately, to the gym~

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Ok, "rose" isn't exactly the first term that comes to mind when thinking of widow, but I'll go with the literary, Shakespearian reference for this post.

I could be posting on getting through the third anniversary of Ian getting sick, which coincided with his birthday on St Patrick's Day.

But much to my surprise, that anniversary passed without too much impact.  Much like his surgery date.  I guess the best term to use is that the anniversaries now feel 'integrated' into my life, rather than sharp, stark periods.

Besides, I've been hanging onto the seed for a post for close on two weeks, from an experience that piqued my interest.

The night after my last post, I learned a word for widowhood I've not encountered before.   Either in my personal experience as one, or through reading or other means (mind you, it probably wouldn't have resonated without the experience to align the word to and just passed on by in my mind).

For nigh on 15 years,  I've been going to see our state company's productions with a friend.  Over the years, having the regular escape to a different world has kept us sane through milestones and crises in our lives, even if some of the productions were a little ... trying ... for us to sit through.   

The order of the night was a triptych of short Samuel Beckett plays.  Sitting through the third play "Krapp's Last Tape", all of a sudden the character mentions a word.


Hmmm, I wonder. 

It was in reference to his elderly mother who'd passed, and I'd thought that I'd miss-heard 'Maturity'. Until the character drags out a dictionary as part of the play - you could hear the sigh of relief from the audience at this move...

Apparently viduity is "the quality, state, or period of being a widow" (per http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Viduity). 

Ahhh, so I'm in a period of viduity.  A state of viduity.

Well, of course I was distracted for the rest of the play, making sure I remembered that word.

I was quite surprised I'd never heard it.  I know a number of older widows, and they'd never used the term. I'd never heard it used by members of my grandparent's generation. I've been to a lot of theatre, read reasonably widely (when younger), and haven't encountered it.  It must have fallen out of favour at some point in time since.

So onto a bit of (oh so academically rigorous) research. The Wikipedia page for the play describes the word vidutity as 'archaic', which probably explains why I've never heard it. 

Maybe it could be a good option; a word that can be used without the social and cultural loading that 'widow' has.  Particularly when the term 'widow' is so often hated, yet seems the one of the only options we have.  A revived, reclaimed word that doesn't have the load of expectation on how you must behave, how to grieve, how you must look, and how quickly you're expected to be 'over it'. 

A word that seems to fit with where I'm at in my journey at this time.

"I'm in a period of viduity.  I'll do what ever I (insert descriptive language if you wish) want"

In the play a reference is also made to a 'vidower bird' which also sent me looking about, but I only found 'widow birds' checking them out online.  Quite a stunning bird in flight, by the looks of it.   Maybe as we journey through our viduity, we gain stunning plumage we have no concept we have as we learn to take flight into our lives as they are now.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Someone's Missing

Stan and me, at his daughter's wedding,  October, 2011

Saturday,  I attended a family 'do'--a term used in England to denote a celebration, or important event. This was a 40th birthday party for one of Stan's nieces, held at a Greek restaurant, with over 60 people, most of them relatives of Stan's. Two of his sisters were there, as were two of his children. The room was filled with conversation and laughter, food and drink, love and joy. The only thing missing was him.

 Because Stan had a large family, and a host of friends, we were often invited to these 'dos', when we were together--a friend's 50th birthday, a sister's 60th, a son or daughter's 40th, a grandchild's 16th--wedding anniversaries, retirement parties, Christmas parties, and, always, gatherings to ring in the new year. We usually arrived early and, more often than not, we stayed late. Stan insisted that we be there, at each of them, to join in celebration with the people he loved, to show them, with his presence, how much they meant to him.

I have attended several of these 'dos' since my husband's death, and I can't say they are getting any easier. I enjoy being with the people who knew and loved him, and I appreciate their warmth toward me and their welcoming me into their fold. But, for me, these gatherings are bittersweet. We mark the important dates of our lives, and the passage of time, and he is not here to share in them. I sit in the midst of the people he loved, and I ache for him to be by my side, celebrating, too. His absence is so glaringly obvious. There is a hole in the room that only he could fill.

Saturday, his children and his sisters and I brought Stan to the family do through sharing our memories of him. We spoke his name. We acknowledged his absence and mourned his passing. We talked about who he was as a child and how he was as a father. We made a place for him, there.

Perhaps, one day, I will be able to attend a social gathering without the constant reminder of his absence, but not now. It still feels so new. I carry him with me, wherever I go, and I can only be a part of these events if I can share my memories, express my sorrow, and thus make his presence known.

I don't mean to bring sadness to what should be a joyous celebration, but I can't attend it without him. To leave him outside the room and outside of the conversation feels disrespectful. I can't erase him from it. He belongs there, with me--with all of us. And I won't hide him away in the back of my head.

Monday, the day of this post, is my 58th birthday. I won't be celebrating, much. I will be working, all day, and I will be remembering him. I will remember my first birthday, with him, when he bought me a prayer rug and gave me a beautiful card. Or the second birthday I spent, with him, when we shared a nice meal at one of his favourite pubs. Or last year, our last one together, when we spent a quiet night on our own. It didn't matter, what we did. Only that we did it together.

And I will allow myself to be sad, to feel the loss, to notice the hole in the room that only he would be able to fill.

It is another big day, and someone's missing.

I'll light a candle to his memory.

 I will speak his name.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Wiping Away the Fears

For two years and nine months now... I have had one of those weird widow "things" that I have done. Or really that I haven't done. For all of these days, weeks, months, and years... I have not cleaned the bathroom mirror. Not once. The reason for this is simple, and anyone widowed will likely understand. When I shower every morning, I get out and look up at the fogged glass of that mirror... and across it are the faint streaks of a hand that once wiped it clean. A hand much bigger than mine.

For two years and nine months, I have been comforted by this... every time the mirror fogs up, there he appears again. For that moment, I can still believe that my fiancé is somehow right around the corner. I can believe that he is nearby even though I can't see him - just like his handprint on the mirror has been there all along, even when I can't see it. It has been a daily reminder to believe his love and his spirit still exist despite his body not being here anymore.

For two years and nine months, I felt right about leaving that mirror dirty. Covered in dust and little bits of toothpaste and soap down near the faucet. But then something shifted. A few weeks ago, when getting out of the shower and looking at it - the thought entered my mind for the very first time to CLEAN it. It came as naturally as could be. Just there, so nonchalantly. I didn't analyze it or force it to be there. Almost as if he was whispering to me, that it was time.

I stood and looked for long time, trying to decide if I would do it. Ultimately, on that day, I decided "not quite yet" and left it. For a few more weeks, each time I looked at it, I would think about it... "Not today". It was a gentle thought, and one I was able to hold without being upset. And then this past week, finally, after sitting with this idea long enough... I looked up and did the same thing I've done for the past month. As soon as I asked myself if I should do it, a sticker that said "broken hearts club" that I had taped to the mirror fell off. It's never fallen off before, and has been there for months. I decided, well, that was it then. He's telling me "just clean the damn mirror already!" And with that, I grabbed a clean rag and took a deep, thoughtful breath, and made a bold swipe across the mirror.

As I cleaned the fog and those final remnants of his touch off the mirror... I didn't see the erasing of him, but instead, I saw me. Instead of feeling like I was losing a piece of him, I felt like I was clearing away the things I had been clinging to and was able to see myself more clearly than I have in years. Without the dust. Without the dirt and grime. I marveled at the metaphor in front of me. How tightly I've been clinging to the tangible things that remind me of him these years. And how suddenly I am standing in this place... ready to begin to see myself more clearly. And ready to allow him to live in my heart.

It felt like a huge shift to feel unattached to that mirror finally - a release - because it means that I am beginning to trust that he is in me and with me always and I can never lose him again. He is no longer in that handprint on the mirror. He is everywhere, all the time. And as I'm beginning to trust more fully in that, the mirror became just a dirty mirror - without any power over me.

How bright everything looked once it was clean. How much brighter my own eyes looked as I watched my reflection looking back at me. I smiled, because now I have a clearer, brighter view of myself and I also have him - just as present as he has ever been. He didn't disappear like I feared. And with every one of these sorts of milestones of loosening my grip, I discover yet again that I can no more lose him from my life than the sky can lose its stars. It is just not possible, and not something I ever have to fear.

The D Word

Over the past couple of months I have been very quietly thinking about that terrifying concept of dating again.  The feeling that I might like to dip my toe back in the dating pool started creeping in around late January, at my 18-month mark, and completely took me by surprise.

After Dan’s death, the thought of finding another partner filled me with such dread – I didn't want anyone else, the idea of another man’s touch repulsed me and I couldn't understand how someone would ever make me as happy or complete as my husband had, or live up to the expectations that he had set. I had married him six weeks earlier knowing undoubtedly that he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I couldn't contemplate an alternative.

For a long time I thought that I had to wait until I finished grieving before being ‘ready’ to love again.  Because how could I possibly ask anyone to take me on while I still had ‘bad days’ on a semi-frequent basis?  How could I give my battered heart to another while still crying for my lost love?  What a disaster – it wouldn't be fair to myself or to any future suitors.  Sex was the last thing on my mind (and is still not the driver for me wanting to date).  I wondered if the 20 wonderful months I’d shared with Dan would be enough to sustain me for the rest of my life, however long that may be, if I were never able to love again.

It wasn't until I attended Camp Widow West in July last year and met so many wonderful widowed people, who had learnt to love again while honoring their dearly departed, that I began to understand that I would never actually finish grieving Dan.  There wouldn't be a line in the sand where I could put that part of my life behind me and start a new chapter, stress and baggage-free.  And more importantly, I didn’t want to leave that part of me behind. 

It was a bit of a light bulb moment. Maybe, just maybe, I would be lucky enough to one day meet a man who was secure within himself and would accept that I could give myself to him without having to let go of the love I have for Dan.  The idea still terrified me – but I don't want to be alone forever.  I also knew Dan wouldn’t want me to be alone.  And for that reason, I knew I would have to try.  But not yet, I still wasn’t ready.  I had more healing to do and needed to learn to love the ‘new me’.  So I focused on that and put the idea of dating out of mind. 

Until recently, when it began bubbling up to the surface more and more often.  After finally accepting that – yes, I think it would be nice to have someone to share my life with.  I think I would like to try dating and see how it felt.  Maybe I would freak out and fall apart, but I wouldn’t really know for sure until I gave it a go.

So, a few weeks ago, I did just that.  I created an on-line profile on a respectable, ‘paid’, dating website and started chatting to a man.  A psychologist, to be exact, who I'd hoped would be sensitive about Dan’s suicide and emotionally-mature enough to help me navigate the world of dating again.  Unfortunately, it didn’t go well… we didn’t click, he was very boring, kind of arrogant and also asked a lot of questions about Dan’s death, critiquing the treatment he'd been receiving for his depression and basically making me feel like my husband was a case study for his professional analysis rather than a real human being.

It was pretty bad.  But I had survived it.  In fact, it was so ridiculous that I actually found the whole situation funny and was able to laugh about it with my girlfriends over a glass of wine or two.  I’d gotten my ‘first date’ out of the way and surely things would have to look up from here.  So here I am.  Officially dating again, well  - looking for a worthy candidate anyway (which is not proving to be easy!).  I'm taking it slowly, not rushing anything but remaining open to possibilities. 

The timeline is different for everyone and I’m still figuring mine out.  If I happen to meet someone I like, I don’t really know how I feel about even kissing another man, let alone having sex.  The idea of giving my heart to another still terrifies me.  But I’m ready to at least take a step in that direction and see where it leads me.  

Friday, March 20, 2015


It's just one of those nights.

I have 40 billion things inside my head all at once, and every single one of them has to do with his death.
I'm not upset or crying or even particularly emotional tonight. Not really. But it's just one of those nights where my brain won't shut off and I can't stop thinking ....

40 billion things.
But one thing more than the other things ...

Things like - why the hell didn't I ever ask him, or actually pay attention when he told me about the very first concert he ever went to in his life? This topic was brought up tonight with a couple friends - naming our very first concert. Mine was Culture Club. Other friends were posting their own, everything from Nirvana to Cyndi Lauper to Menudo to Van Halen. And then there was my husband - the man who lived and breathed music. The man I met in a music chat room online. The man who strummed on one of his eight guitars in our apartment, daily. The man who shared every music-related memory with me, on a very regular basis. And yet, I cannot for the life of me, remember what band he saw as his first concert. And whenever I can't remember a specific memory or fact about him, it makes me incredibly sad and makes me so desperate to remember that one thing. 

Then from there, I started thinking how there really isn't anyone I can ASK about what his first concert might have been, because I don't think anyone else but me would know. Can't ask his parents. They're dead too. Can't ask his sisters, since one of them rarely speaks to me, the other one is nowhere to be found in life, and the other one never even KNEW Don until a couple years before he died. (Yeah - major dysfunctional family. Don't ask, unless you have about 6 hours of free time and don't get confused easily.) Can't ask our kids - BECAUSE WE NEVER GOT TO HAVE ANY KIDS!!! So, there's that heartbreak reminder all over again. Oh, and I can't really ask his friends, because none of them live near me and it's late at night and calling or texting them at this hour with that question is just weird. They wouldn't know the answer anyway. I am supposed to know this. He TOLD me this, probably a thousand times. Why didn't I listen?

So many memories and stories and details - just missing and gone - because I didn't listen. And then I start to think about how many times I didn't listen. Really listen. I think about how many other things were lost and just wiped away from existence, because my husband was talking to me and I wasn't paying attention. How many times did I do that? How many times do we all do that to each other? We only half-listen to what someone we love is saying. We are too busy typing or texting to someone else or staring into space or into our phones or telling ourselves that what they are saying isn't really that important anyway, and we will be sure to listen more tomorrow. But it is important. It is important because that person chose YOU to share their boring stories with. They chose YOU to hold those stories and thoughts close, and keep them in your heart or mind. So when you don't really hear their words, you are , in a sense, throwing away their very history. You are sending the message that maybe it doesn't really matter anyway. But it does. Because sometimes tomorrow turns out to be right this very second - because tomorrow never comes at all.

I know I sound silly. But it upsets me whenever I lose another piece of him, a piece of us. It upsets me greatly when I cannot recall something that I feel like I should be able to recall. It is troubling to me that his voice now feels miles and miles away, and his essence only visits on rare occasions. I wish I could hold onto every concert, every movie, every favorite food, every phrase he used to say, every everything - collect it all and place it in a jar, where it would never be forgotten again, forever.

But it doesn't work like that. My mind, instead, does backflips, attempting to recall and visualize the fragments of our life together. My head feels like it's on fire, as it tries to bring up a specific sound or event or thing that we did. I ask someone, in a begging last-ditch effort to magically make it appear: "Do you remember? It was that place ... that thing ... that day ... you know, that place Don and I used to go to ... what was it called again?" But nobody knows. And I didn't listen.

Isn't it amazing the tiny but significant reasons we can find to hate ourselves for? The things that we beat ourselves up about? I would give just about anything - I would probably give a million dollars if I had it - to hear him telling me that story about the time he went to see his very first rock concert as a kid ........

I would sit. I would stop. And I would listen.

(By the way, thank you so much to Michele Neff Hernandez, who covered for me last Friday with her beautiful post. I was away on a mini-vacation, actually staying with a widow friend in Virginia, and the Wi-fi service in the tiny remote town was spotty at best, and at times, non-existent. Therefore, no blog post from me last week. I missed you all though, and I am back. Thanks as always for reading.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Patchwork Girl

"No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. 

Or you don’t."

-Stephen King

I will apologize in advance for my perhaps over-use of metaphor. But I guess that’s just how my mind works, because the other night as I lay in bed thinking about everything, I had a sudden vision of myself as a patchwork doll.

I was thinking about the person I was, and the life I had, before I met Mike. All the places I went, people I knew, things I did. How I used to perceive the world, and my life. Then I drifted into the years I spent with him and how much he changed me - how much I grew and developed during that chapter of my life, knowing him, and being married.

And then now, these past two years, how much I’ve continued to change and grow. To experience, make choices - and adjust to the void he left behind. How much I’ve learned about the grieving process, and myself as my own person. How many people I know now who are walking beside me in our terrible club. How I’ve had to reformulate my perception of this life and my expectations, for how different the future looks now without him.

It does feel as if the person I used to be exploded into a million fragments after he died. For a long time I didn’t know who I was without him, or how I was going to live without him. I didn’t know how I was going to keep walking without him by my side - but slowly I started picking up the pieces. I didn’t realize it at first, of course, because it was only about survival. At first, I only found the basic parts like a beating heart and thinking brain and cobbled them back into a semblance of a working organism, from the inside out, breathing life back into the startled, shattered shell by means of the basest, most animal instinct.

But I have learned to kept my needle and thread handy, along with a healthy heap of duct tape. Now, various and sometimes unexpected shards and innards start to come into focus in the once blurry, desolate terrain that is my Self. Now, I pick them up, determine if they will fit back into the restructured person, and either patch them back in, or toss them into the work bin for later consideration. 

There is no pattern to go by any more. I’m just working as I go. Some pieces are stitched together upside down or backwards because there are elements of myself that seem worthy, but are forever changed. A lot of the pieces don’t match anymore; the ends are frayed, and the colors are faded. And strangely enough I found other pieces I forgot were even in there. These seem brand new out-of-the-package, and for now, are in stark contrast to the older, worn but more familiar bits.

When I look at myself from the outside in, I see a person made up of the sum of her experiences. Some pieces are dark and scary, ugly and hard to look at. Others are bright and sparkly and surprise me with their vibrance. 

The above quote was posted by my friend and fellow widow Margaret just as I sat down to write this. Perhaps that is no accident. Then afterwards I searched online for images and discovered The Patchwork Girl, who is a character from the Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum. I will have to learn more about Scraps, I guess, because I too am a sort of patchwork person; a rag-tag girl, flopping about this quilt of a life in a strange and undiscovered world.