The Darkest Time of Year

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It’s been a while since I’ve written anything.  I feel words starting to bubble up, but haven’t wanted to act on letting them go. 

Late last summer something started to shift inside me. I stopped grieving.  I still missed Rick, but it was no longer in the forefront of my consciousness.  I was here, now, in July of 2015 and starting to wake up and feel good.  It had been a long journey, but I was at the end of it and ready for what comes next.

And then… I heard from my brother.  What was thought to be arthritis, then nerve damage, turned out to be cancer: metastasized, stage 4, terminal.  That news came on the 3rd anniversary of the day on which Rick went into the hospital. I spent what would have been my 10th wedding anniversary with him and my sister in law for what I knew would be my final visit.  He died in late December. He and Rick were close; one of my favorite pictures is the two of them leaning towards each other and both making the same silly face.  When Rick died, my brother wrote a heart-felt eulogy; I’ve now returned the favor by writing one for him.

The moving forward I experienced in July disappeared. Emotionally, I went back to where I had been 3 years earlier, almost overwhelmed with sadness and feeling cut off from life.  There wasn’t anything to write last fall that I hadn’t already written  2 or 3 years ago.

By now, I should have it figured out, but I’m still floundering.  I should be at the next stage of my life, whether that means moving on to a new relationship or being happy and content on my own.  I’m neither.  I thought I’d grown into a wise woman capable of doing anything.  Instead, I’m spending my evenings watching binge-watching old TV shows.  I wait for the next bad news. 

I’ve sat on this post for a few days.  Waiting for the coda that shows my realization this is just one spot in a long journey, or the epiphany that turns this very personal revelation into something with universal meaning.  Neither has come to me.  I think, for now, I’m just feeling low.  I’m still stuck working a job I no longer like.  It’s winter, and the sky is dark when I leave in the morning and when I come home at night.  There will be more sun in my life, both literally and figuratively, but right now is the darkest time of year.

Life, Re-invented

Today starts year 4 of my reinvented life.  Today, August 31, marks the 3rd anniversary of Rick’s death.  I’ve thought a lot about our life together and where I had expected to be.  A week earlier was what would have been our 10th wedding anniversary. I spent that day with a severely ill family member, on what may well be my last visit.  Had Rick lived, he would have been with me.  We would have extended that sad trip into a vacation, adding some joy to the sorrow. 

We traveled well, his calmness in the face of anything combining with my planning and organizational skills.   I miss those vacations; the GPS voice helps me to stay on track, but she’s not nearly as much fun. 

“I’ll have to reinvent myself” said my friend, as we talked about the impact of that serious illness.  “I’ve done it before, and I’ll just have to do it again” she said.  Reinventing myself; that’s what I’ve been doing the last 3 years.

Three years out, things are different.  It’s a quiet, personal remembrance. It feels muted.  The minutes tick by at work and I remember: this is the time when I got the final news, this is when I went in to say goodbye, it was at this very moment that he died.  So much has faded, as I knew it would.  Tonight I will go back and read what I wrote as it was all happening, and I’ll feel the immediacy in a way I can’t anymore.  It’s a memory, now.  It’s in the past. 

I have reinvented myself, mostly.  But I still remember, and I still care, and I still grieve. 

Reflections as I end my third year of being a widow

July 30 is the anniversary of the day when I woke up and knew something was very, very wrong.  Three years ago I drove to the hospital, following the ambulance carrying Rick.  I didn’t know it at the time, but he was never coming home.

After three years I no longer actively grieve, but I do mourn.  I miss him, each and every day.   Car rides and walks are my time to talk with him, and I do so regularly.   He was funny and brilliant and kind.  We complemented each other well. I miss his advice and support.  No matter what, he was always there for me. 

Still, I don’t live in the past; I live in the now, in a present that no longer includes Rick or us as a couple.  Much of my time is occupied with interests and friends that he never knew.

I spent the first year after his death grieving, an active and painful year filled with the physical work of going through his house and personal effects, and the emotional work of coming to some sense of acceptance over what had happened.  I had a plan of concrete things to do, and checked off each item as I completed it.   When year two started, I made a new plan, one that focused on me.  I registered for online dating, took classes, and made every effort to create a new me with a new life.  Year three post-Rick, this year just entering its final month, has been different.  I’ve slowed down.  I gave up on actively pursuing dating; if it happens, fine, but I’ve come to terms with the realization that I just might be on my own for the rest of my life.   This year, I have focused on accepting my life as it is, and trying to find some semblance of peace and enjoyment in what I have.

August remains a transition month for me.  Three years ago, I made the transition from wife to widow.  Each year since, I’ve slowed down during this month to spend time thinking about where I’ve been and what I’ve learned.  August has come to be the time when I try to derive some meaning from my past. I think I’m getting better.  I think I’ve truly left grief, that active, burning bright experience, behind me.  I feel at home in my life in a way I haven’t for several years.

I am not sure what I want from this next year, the fourth in my new life.   I know I’ll be making some major changes, though it’s too early to talk about those yet.  I hope to continue growing.  I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next, and I’m finally comfortable.  Maybe that is enough.

What I mean when I say that grief never ends

It’s been two and a half years since I became a widow.  I still grieve.  I always will.

That’s not to say that my life has stopped.  I have friends, I keep busy; I’ve even dated a little.  My life has moved on, and I look forward more than I look back.  Still, Rick remains a presence.  I miss the little things, like being handed a cup of coffee every morning.  Mostly what I miss is knowing there was that one person who really, truly cared about me.  I miss him.

That entire first year, my grief was immersive and all-encompassing, infusing every facet of my life.  As simple an act as buying groceries became a harsh reminder of what had happened.  Every day was a series of events with the same theme: look, you’re alone now, what you had is irretrievably gone.

Time heals.  I became used to buying only the groceries I wanted.  I created new rituals for mornings and evenings, and the silence at home no longer bothered me.    The 2nd bedroom has almost completed its transition from his studio and office to my work room.   I’m now comfortable removing items of his that have no use or value for me. 

Yet, he stays with me, each and every day.  I talk with him as I walk to work.  I daydream about a world where everything turned out differently, and we are planning a celebration of our 10th wedding anniversary.  I still question how much he knew, what he choose to keep from me, and why. 

This is what grief is after two and a half years. It recedes into the background, but it does not disappear.   I am a widow. That term is a description of what I have been through and what I carry forward.  Grief doesn’t end; it doesn’t fade away, or wash off.   It has become a part of me on a molecular level, the same as the tattoo I had done in his memory.  The person I am now and will forever be is that person because of what I have gone through. That is what I mean when I say that grief never ends. 

True Confessions of an Ex-bookworm, or Why I Will Never Finish A Tale of Two Cities

Reading the first words in a new book sends a shiver of anticipation down my spine. I wait for the moment when I am pulled into the story, no longer a passive, external watcher but a participant. Descriptive passages seem to reflect what I can actually see in my mind’s eye, conversations relay what I am hearing. The words become a conveyance used to transmit this reality to my brain, different but no less valid than what eyes and ears do.   The world within the book becomes more real than the physical world that surrounds me.   Despite that, no matter what adventure is being experienced, it is always safe within the pages of a book. Nothing can hurt me when I am reading.

Books, for me, are magic.

For as long as I can remember, there were few things that beat the feeling of being immersed in a good book. I was an awkward, geeky kid and we moved a lot; I never had many friends. What I did have was books, and I read them nonstop.  I’ve spent many weekends sucked into a book, eschewing friends and activities to find out what happens next. There have been nights when I was so tired I could barely see, but I wanted to read just one more page – and then just another one more page – until I would fall asleep over the book.

The switch to eBook format didn’t faze me one bit. Sure, the physical feel of opening a book and turning pages was gone, but that was more than made up for by being able to take every book I was currently reading with me, and the thrill of finishing a book and being able to start a new one right away.

The magic is gone. It disappeared two years ago, during the month I spent sitting next to Rick for hours every single day. Most days he was unaware I was there; I held his hand and read. I read 4 or 5 books that month and I don’t remember a thing about any of them.

Except for the last one I read.

For some reason I had never read A Tale Of Two Cities. I started reading it mid-August. Despite being written 150 years ago about a story that was two generations old even then, the book is a great read. As with all of Dickens’ novels the characters are honest and real; even minor ones are engaging.   The story was exciting, and switching the narrative between characters kept the pacing to a much more modern level than most Victorian novels.   I am a sucker for good writing, and love to encounter a combination of words so effortlessly elegant it makes you stop.  TOTC had many of those lines.

This was the book I was reading when I looked up to see the somber faces of his doctors as they walked in to say there was nothing more that could be done; this was the book I stopped reading the day he died.

I just checked; I’m at page 161 of 237, 68% complete. I will never read another word of A Tale of Two Cities; it remains inextricably bound with those painful, final days of Rick’s life, with the realization that there wasn’t going to be any bottom of the 9th home run to save the game and that all hope was gone.

That day, I lost the magic.   I couldn’t immerse myself into Paris of the 1790s and forget where I was. The world – the real world – was right there and it wasn’t going anywhere.

The magic never did come back. Books are no longer an oasis. Oh, I still read, and probably more than most people do. I can critique and analyze as well as I ever could, but I don’t have that shiver of excitement anymore. I can enjoy a book, but I can no longer become immersed in it. Most of the time, I’d rather watch a movie than read.

I’m not a bookworm anymore.

When it’s a challenge to finish writing a blog post

I’m having a hard time finishing posts.  There’s a bunch of half-written ones sitting on my hard drive.  I’m feeling stuck, and not just in regards to writing.  I don’t like my life right now.  It’s lonely and I expect it will stay that way, maybe permanently.

This blog started under a different name as a way to come to terms with a widowhood that was not expected.  Writing blog posts became my way of coping with a present that seemed incomprehensible.  Its anonymity gave me a safe spot to direct anger, grief, confusion, and sadness.  Connecting with other people in a similar situation provided an ad hoc online support group.

The very act of writing was healing.  I’m a rationalist, the kind of person who likes to imagine there is a logical progression to events.  Of course, there isn’t, but I need to impose some semblance of order to chaos.  Writing provided that chance.  Creating a blog post gave me a chance to step through an event, define its genesis, and consider where it might be taking me.

Then there were those posts where I just related events as simply and honestly as possible, and the very act of documenting them was important.  I knew the smoothing effect of time and distance would eventually eliminate the sharp immediacy of what was happening, and I wanted to remember.  Writing about events as they occurred provided a first-person account of what I was going through.  Going back and rereading those raw early posts is a form of time-travel to where I was16 months ago.

That was then.  This is now.  My grief is a knife dulled from over-use.  That first year was busy; having external deadlines provided a sense of purpose and accomplishment.  It filled the void.  I realize that now, as does anyone who has gone through a similar situation.  There’s the immediate work needed in getting the memorial and funeral completed, probate managed.  The hours spent in going through effects and taking care of things.  Details vary; regardless, the work takes a lot of time and energy.   I’m struggling with the “what’s next” that comes, inevitably, to all of us who like to imagine that we can plan our way through life.  Now I’m facing the areas that can’t be managed, planned, or controlled.  I don’t want to be alone.  I don’t like my life.  I’m not happy.

All the glibly banal self-help aphorisms are useless.  I fully realize what is within my circle of influence and what isn’t, what I can control and what I cannot.  I am not stupid.  I am doing all the right things, from spending time with friends to taking classes.  I am busy, but not engaged.   There is little enjoyment from most of what occupies my time.  I look to fill time, to make the hours go by.  I am disengaged from most of what is happening around me.  I’m sure this, too will pass.  I am sure that eventually I will come to accept my new status in life, to stop expecting anything more than the reality I have.  I’ll adapt, make due.  Perhaps, even, at some point there will be something that makes me feel it’s all worth it.  Perhaps.  But not now.

Once divorced, once widowed: what’s the difference?

During a first meeting with a new friend, it came out that we’ve each been married twice.  He mentioned being twice divorced; I said I was once divorced, once widowed.  A brief conversation on the difference between being widowed and divorced came up.  While we didn’t spend much time talking about this (nothing dead-ends a potential relationship more than rambling on about past ones), it has gotten me thinking a lot about the differences between the two events.

Going through a divorce provides far more choices than going through the death of a spouse.  For most of us, divorce is an option that we choose, while the death of a spouse is something that happens to us.  I realize this is a “Captain Obvious” statement, but the implications are great.

Making choices provides a sense of power and control, even when the choices are limited.  Being a part of the group that is making decisions is always better than just hearing about decisions that were already made, whether the venue is work or personal life.

Very often, the situational realities surrounding death consist of a long series of events with few choices given, and those choices tend to be quite grim.  Certainly for me, and I believe for many people, going through the experience of losing a spouse is an exercise in powerlessness.  You can’t change the course of a disease, or go back in time to prevent an accident.  Especially in situations where hospitalization is involved, the role of the spouse is bystander.  I spent a month sitting with nothing meaningful I could do to help.  By the time I needed to plan a funeral, my ability to make meaningful, rational choices was gone.  In fact, one of the more challenging parts of those first few months of being a widow was a shell-shocked feeling that hit me when I did need to make decisions.  My mind felt like half-set Jell-O, sluggish and thick.

Going through a divorce presents a panoply of choices and the ability to exercise some real power. Every step of a divorce requires action and choices.  The entire process is a jockeying for power and control.

Which leads to the 2nd big difference; change.  Death has no backsies.  Divorce does.  My ex-husband and I have a good relationship. He sent me a very heartfelt sympathy note when Rick passed away.   It wasn’t always that way.  We went through years of acrimony, but the need to continue being parents, and time, eventually brought us to the place we are now.

Death eliminates change.  Part of the grieving process is coming to terms with the realization that wherever you were in the relationship is where it stopped, forever.  Whether it was the best time of your relationship or the worst, there will never be any more growth.  It’s over, irrevocably, and undeniably.

Moving forward is another area, one I’ve written about before.  Every step forward after a divorce is a positive and affirming move; the same actions taken after a death seem bittersweet at best, betrayals at worst.  I first wrote about this months ago, when something as small as moving a bookcase seemed fraught with subtext.  Now I’m actively meeting new people, and it is causing me angst on a level I haven’t felt since adolescence.  I’m feeling more distant from my marriage; in my head it is now firmly in the past.

There’s a new level of grief with that realization.  Last year, I started every day wearing our wedding rings on a chain around my neck; they were my talisman, giving me strength and the ability to make it through each day.  In my heart, I was still married.  This year, I am not.  I look at those rings every morning, but I rarely wear them. My grief is less personal, more situational: I grieve the loss of a future that is no more, of hopes and expectations and dreams that will never be.

Divorce spurs that same loss of a potential future, but differs in that the bittersweet is less, the joy in realizing it will be a different future is so much greater.  I’m slowly coming to see that there can be joy, that there will be changes, but I’m still feeling guilt and loss over that realization.

Ultimately, I think that confusing patchwork of joy and sadness, poignancy and excitement that marks moving on after losing a spouse is the greatest difference between being divorced and widowed.

Daily Prompt: Obstacle Course

An obstacle course is a great metaphor for grief.  I’m still on it, but far enough along that I’m starting to sense the end.

“What’s new with everyone?” asked our improv teacher yesterday.  It was the 1st session of class.  By now we’ve been together a while, and greetings were given with hugs and smiles.  Improv is based on trust; it works best when you believe that everyone has your back.  The more you work with people, the more that trust builds.

When it was my turn to talk  I found myself talking about how good I’ve been feeling lately, how much I’m now looking forward instead of back, and that I am starting to feel reconnected to life again.  It’s true; I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that I’m feeling positive and looking forward to the future.  I joined an online dating site, and while I haven’t yet had a date, just joining is a step I couldn’t have done 3 months ago.  I’ve set a goal of having the second bedroom, Rick’s office, turned back into a room I can use by this summer.

I’ve accepted that I’m a widow, and that my marriage is a part of my past.  I still miss Rick and wish he was here with me, but it is different now.  It’s no longer raw and harshly painful.  I look back fondly on what we had, but the obsessing has stopped.  It’s in the past.  My life is now.

And then, this morning at work, I got an email asking me about a past project.  The project I was managing during 2012.  The project where my emails show a gap in August, as I was spending less and less time at work, as my time at the hospital increased.  The project where there’s an email from a co-worker explaining I’d be out of the office for a few weeks due to the death of my husband.  That project.  That year.  That month.

I had to spend 30 minutes reviewing notes, materials, and emails to find the answer.  It was devastating.  Just the dates were enough to send me back.  Here’s an email send out in mid-July.  It was just before his initial diagnosis, when my life was normal.  Next, I look at a document that was written in late July.  We were feeling good; Rick had gotten a serious diagnosis, but it was Okay as there was finally a reason for why he wasn’t feeling good.  There are a few more emails from first half of August.  That was the first 2 weeks he was in the hospital, when I started feeling that everything was going wrong, when each day was bringing more bad news, but there was still hope for a good ending.  Next are the incoming documents from the end of August, from that nightmare period where I was spending less and less time at work and coming to realize that the time I was spending with Rick was the final times we would have together.

I found what I was looking for and sent off an answer, but lost the peace of mind I’d had.  Now I’m back, remembering that feeling of powerlessness, the realization that the chances of a “happily ever after” were getting smaller every minute.  The way I felt compressed and squeezed, unable to breathe.  The desire I had to run away from everything and not have to deal with anything.  That feeling of being trapped in a terrible nightmare, unable to wake up or escape.

I’m feeling as lost and despondent as I was a year ago.   There is a difference, though.  I know I’ll feel better more quickly than I would have a year ago.  I know that now, at this stage of my grief, feeling this bad is the exception, not the standard.  I know that I will feel better because I have been feeling better, and that gives me hope, even right now when I’m feeling low.   I’m jumping over hurdles, but this time I know they’re just hurdles and that they will come to an end.

Musings on a cold and snowy morning

Winter is settling in, and the land knows it. Animals, earth, and people seem intent on slowing down and creating cozy, tucked in corners. Fall foliage is gone; trees have shrunk to the bones, perennials wilted down to their roots, annuals almost disappeared. Fat squirrels rush about completing their preparation for the cold, hungry months.

I’m settling in too. My weekly visits to the cemetery have been put on hold until next spring, when I’ll look for flowers sprouting from the bulbs I planted a few weeks ago. With colder weather and closed windows, I’m noticing how grimy the house looks, and have started work on turning it back into a home – my home – that I can enjoy. It hasn’t been that for a long time. Not since Rick started being sick, certainly not during the frantic few months that took me from wife to widow, not over the last year as I struggled to adjust to my new station in life. I’m cleaning now, reviewing everything to determine if I still want it. It’s sad work, changing the look and feel from “our place” to “my place”, but it’s work I need to do. I’ve lost patience with being in this in-between phase of life. PaulaB, my blogger friend up in Canada, shared pictures of her lovely apartment and all the homey touches she’s added http://thetemenosjournal.com/2013/10/25/putting-it-all-together/. I’m inspired by her to get moving on doing the same to my space.

I’m not sure what I’m aiming for; I’m flying blind, just randomly reacting to things with no set plan. Slowly, though, I’m starting to get ideas. The second bedroom was used as an office when Rick was alive, and is now a staging area for everything brought over from his house. I’m starting to see a picture in my head of a room with worktable and bookshelves, a comfortable chair and good lighting; a place where I can retreat, but also a welcoming place for visitors to stay. Before I can create the vision that is starting to appear in my mind’s eye I will need to finalize Rick’s things. I need to get moving, to select what can be sold, what to keep, and what to get rid of.

My throat has been sore the last few weeks and it scares me. My attitude towards mortality has changed. I’ve always assumed that any ailment I contracted would heal, and that’s always been the case. Until last year, when I watched Rick go from initial diagnosis to death in under two months, and when what had seemed to be small unrelated things suddenly became the unrecognized signs of a major problem. I’m no longer cavalier about minor symptoms, now thinking that each cough or headache is a sign of some horrible problem. I’m terrified about all the bad things that could happen to me at home. What if I choke on something, or fall and hit my head, or cut myself: I’m alone; there will be no one to help.

I never thought about things like this before, but I do now.

Walking to work this morning in the first snowfall of the winter, I realized that another season has started, that my life is moving on whether I want it to or not. It’s hard work, coming back from grief. Last year at this time, I was experiencing the first two “firsts” of my widowhood, my birthday and Thanksgiving. I skipped my birthday last year, refusing to acknowledge or celebrate it. Thanksgiving was just barely noted; I spent the day with friends, but came home to a lonely dark house.

This year is different. I did celebrate my birthday, going out to dinner with friends and seeing a show. It brought home how much quieter and sadder my life is now. There were no flowers waiting for me after work, no week of finding small gifts hidden around the house, no cards left on the pillow. I’m cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year, but not really feeling any excitement about doing so. It’s an assignment, something to check off a list.

I realize I’m rambling, but these seemingly random and disconnected thoughts match how my life feels right now. It lacks a narrative theme, the unifying connective tissue to pull the individual parts into a meaningful whole. I lurch from one mood to the next. This weekend I started planning what I want to do with the extra bedroom, but also spent time sobbing uncontrollably about all I’ve lost. I’m starting a new phase, moving away from what I was to a new me. It’s too soon yet to know what that new me will be, but I know I’m not the same woman I was 15 months ago. I’m harder and softer than I was, tougher and more vulnerable. Less afraid of taking risks, more afraid of what the future will be. It’s a journey, one I’m just beginning.

and now for something completely different

A few weeks ago I asked for help in selecting a new blog name. It’s been a little over a year since my husband died, and I wanted to move forward from being identified solely as a widow to something more.

There were a lot of thoughtful and wise comments, and I have taken all of them into consideration. After due deliberation, I have decided that the Monty Python tag line “and now for something completely different” is the most evocative of my current status and outlook on life.

If you’re not familiar with Monty Python, check them out. I’ve loved them since first first viewing them on Chicago’s WTTW, when I was in high school. This comedy troupe created magic on TV and screen starting the in late 1960s. They began with a 30 minute TV show on BBC that careened from one sketch to the next. They lampooned everything from religion to politics to fashion, and they did it hilariously. One of the trademarks of the show was ending sketches smack in the middle of the script, often with one of the characters deciding that the sketch no longer made any sense or was “too silly.” At that point there would be an abrupt edit to something else.

John Cleese, one of the members, had the ability to sound like a Very Serious Adult. A voice clip of him saying “And now for something completely different” would be heard, and the video would be of him stark naked sitting on a piano bench, wearing a Beethovenesque wig and getting ready to play with an insane grin on his face, or doing the fish slapping dance.

The juxtaposition of that pompous voice and the ludicrous video is priceless. In fact, one of the greatest things about Monty Python is the way they continually remind us that life is not controllable, that unusual and strange things do happen, and that the best approach to life is to embrace all its bizarreness and just keep laughing.

Last year I encountered the Spanish Inquisition, and as the wise Python lads state, no one ever expects it.

Unlike the Norwegian Blue parrot, I am getting better.

I hope my new blog name communicates that all of do, indeed, encounter situations that completely upend our expectations, but that we can make it through and move on to whatever that something completely different is – even if it is the Spanish Inquisition.