Variations on a Theme

I have been triggered. You have been warned.

I am generally open to offering perspective or insight. I have not exactly been shy about this path I’m on, as a woman who lost her first husband to suicide, and as a mother to four children who lost a parent at entirely too young an age. I willingly share resources that I have found particularly helpful, books, therapists or organizations, my go-to radical self-care avenues, I share stories of success and failure from my own life. If you think that I personally might be able to help your “friend” (or to help you help your friend) who is struggling because whatever whatever whatever, then I’m in.

If, however, you are calling me to gossip about somebody who “lost her husband in the worst, most tragic way,” then call somebody else. I’m not interested. Do not call me to compare death by heart attack to death by some other attack. Not because I think that my path to widow was worse than anyone else’s. On the contrary, all the ways to widow suck. Period. There is no better or worse in this space. It’s all bad. It sucks in different ways, but every way stinks. I am not going to play this game with you. This is not a competition anybody wins. We are all losers in this race. It sucks whether you’ve been married 5 months, 5 years or 5 decades. It sucks if you’re engaged and don’t even get the “widow” title. It sucks if you’ve been left with young children. Or without them. The sudden heart attack, the drunk driving incident, the terrible accident, the lingering illness. All bad.

If you are calling because you want something you can do so that you will feel better, some task you can accomplish so that you can check the newly-widowed friend off your to-do list, forget that ugly little death business and move on with your day, then I am not your girl. Google the answer yourself. I appreciate that it is incredibly painful to sit with someone you love while she herself is writhing with suffering. I completely understand that this will be inconvenient and time-consuming. If you want to make yourself feel better, pour yourself a glass of wine. Or send the flowers and a note and keep moving. It’s okay. I get that you don’t get it. No hard feelings. Just don’t try to justify to me that you’ve done your part, and now she has to get over herself and figure it out. Her grief is not about you.

If, on the other hand, you genuinely want to help your friend feel better, pull up a chair next to her and buckle up. It’s a long haul, the territory is uncharted, and you’re both in for a bumpy ride. You are welcome to call me along the way. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience, but I will share with you what I have learned.

There will be some dark days ahead. Your friend might lose her appetite and an alarming amount of weight in a short time. She might eat only ice cream for hours on end, and she will let the dog eat Moose Tracks out of the container, even though it sticks to his ears. She will seem barely to function; that’s a good day. She will show up late or on the wrong day altogether. She will hardly ever know what day it is, actually. She will stare into space a lot, especially when you start talking, or even when she is talking. She cannot keep track of her train of thought or the incoming mail. Just when you are starting to doubt whether your friend will ever find light again, she will look up and notice that her designer dog is humping your leg, and she will grab him by his little collar and say, “All right. That’s enough. If I’m not having sex, then nobody else in this house gets to have any sex either!” Then the two of you will laugh until your sides hurt and you are crying again, and in this moment you will trust that your friend is – even now – finding her way.

It is interesting to me that most of the widows I know would not trade their particular journey for somebody else’s. Every path is hellish in unique ways. It’s a lot of suffering no matter how you get there. This is not an exercise in comparing and contrasting. The point is to move forward. The path traveled turns the experience from the unknown into the known, and there is comfort to be found in the familiar. When we transcend the language of better and worse, the seeds of gratitude begin to take root.

These movements forward cannot be rushed or forced, although the loving presence of a friend nurtures them along. Show up. Listen. Cry together. Laugh together. Be together. Even on our darkest days, there are reasons to be grateful and reasons to laugh. Healing starts to happen. She manages to drive herself to the grocery store and come back home with the ingredients for a complete meal, including ice cream, which she puts in the freezer before it pools on the counter. She remembers a cousin’s birthday. She shows up early to help set up for the Back to School picnic. She drives carpool. She will, predictably, dissolve into tears at times you cannot predict, but slowly, tentatively, she begins to rebuild her life. She starts to find joy again. She completes a novel. She plans a vacation. She orchestrates an anniversary celebration. She becomes herself again.

She is not fixed; she is transformed.

If that’s what you want to talk about, count me in.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And transformation.

Conviction

You might never have known what she’s been through when you see her in your weekly yoga class, arriving on time every Tuesday, appearing, as she consistently does, to be so well put-together, a tall pretty blonde, donning the Lululemon yoga pants and corresponding black lycra jacket favored by stay-at-home moms and PTA presidents, freshly pedicured, a mother with the means to work out (and maybe work, depending on whether she prefers hiring a nanny to take the children to the zoo and Music Together classes or taking them to the park herself, but definitely with the seniority and flexibility to take them to the pediatrician when the cough lingers too many days or the fever spikes too high); no, you might not expect, based on her warm smile and the sturdy, effortless look of her Warrior II, that she had grown up with loving parents but ones with a strong German penchant for stoicism, an inflexible puritan work ethic and demand for perfection, that she had been directed her entire life, when facing grief, sadness, anger, or fear to go into her room and come out when she could be a good girl again, a childhood that would render her unprepared for the maelstrom of emotion she would experience by being widowed at the age of 39 when her husband committed suicide by jumping from a parking structure, the classic stock broker’s death on a gorgeous fall day following Black Friday, leaving her with two young sons, ages 6 and 8, and the monumental task of parenting them as a single mother while grieving her own loss, and that it takes every ounce of her concentration to hold the stance, grounded in her feet, steady in her legs, arms outstretched and parallel to the ground, eyes resting just past her outstretched fingers, inhaling and exhaling and trembling, repeating the mantra to herself, “I can do this, I can do this.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And resolve.

Deathaversary IX

Another year passes
since the unthinkable.
We still think about it, of course.
And you.

Your picture stays,
a constant on the mantle,
soft brown eyes, no aging wrinkles,
no additional gray.
Same, steady smile.
Nothing to betray the passage of time,
other than a little dust around the edges of the frame.

Your sons’ pictures tell a different story.
Birthday celebrations,
athletics, concerts and travel.
Photographs accumulate, line the walls, accent end tables and bookshelves,
fill boxes and scrapbooks,
and cover the baby grand piano, marking accomplishments and moments.
Formal portraits,
Casual family gatherings,
Graduations,
Football teams,
School events,
Baptisms and confirmations,
Days at the beach,
Ski weeks,
Fishing trips.
Smiles, laughter and silliness.
Brotherhood in many forms.
They move through their young lives,
With growing confidence.

I see glimpses of you
in his brown eyes, of course,
in the angle of his chin,
in his stoic expression, succumbing hesitantly into a quiet grin.
I see hints of your influence
in his gentle interactions with his little cousins,
in the instinctive, confident stance he displays at the podium
and also in his awkward gait.
And yet they become uniquely themselves.

They have lived more years now without you
than they did with you,
even the “little one” is taller than you.
They live their lives,
with love, integrity and joy.
You remain in their hearts, if not at their sides.
The long shadow of your death too ephemeral to dim the light of your life,
a light in their lives.

Falling Apart

I had a dream last night about going home. The house of my childhood was almost unrecognizable, and the landscaping was so overgrown that I had to park on the street. There were stacks of books, newspapers and files on every shelf and surface and clothes hanging to dry from every doorway. People were standing around, chatting idly in every room of the house, many with a drink in hand, seemingly oblivious to the chaos. I felt as if I had stumbled into a party I hadn’t been invited to. I couldn’t move. I stood still, staring blankly, overwhelmed by the noise, the mess, the humanity, and then my cousin came to my side and gently touched my shoulder to get my attention. When I turned to look at him, I realized that the house was quiet, and I asked where everyone went. “Oh sweetheart,” he said, “they’ve been gone for half an hour.”

***

My father died two months ago, and the usual post-death arrangements, notifications and paperwork have pretty much been my focus. I have busied myself with phone calls and appointments, and I have distracted myself with trips to Goodwill and the lawyer’s office. We’ve hosted lunches and met for coffee and celebrated Dad’s birthday without him. I’ve done a reasonably good job of taking care of logistics and being patient and compassionate with other people’s sad feelings. But now, the party is over, the hoopla has died down, and everyone has gone home. Things have gotten quiet, fewer condolence cards arrive, and when the phone rings, it’s an automated telemarketer and not the voice of a long-lost-but-much-loved cousin. Gone is the busy-ness, and the real business of grieving begins. The spinning top has spiraled to rest and toppled over on its side. My heart aches. I’m falling apart.

It’s not a bad thing, this falling apart. I’m just sad. In some ways the maelstrom of paperwork is simpler to handle because there’s no time to think or feel. I can be numb and in denial and interrupted. But this administrative place does not actually tend toward healing. Soon enough, reality presses and grief demands its toll. This is the moment when I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Now that the service, the phone calls, the obituary writing, the stuff is all done, I exhale. I don’t have to hold it together for anyone else any more. Which in itself is a gift. First the falling apart, then the healing. I can fall apart.

I order my son’s AP Physics book, and that’s when I start to cry. Partly, of course, this is exactly what it seems on its face. Son Number Three is a senior in high school, and this year is typically an emotional roller coaster for the parents. I know this path. It is painful, but it’s also everything he has worked for. It is a difficult, but welcome, transition. As I click through the book order, it’s not so much the graduating senior that brings me to tears, it’s the fact that my dad – with his PhD in Nuclear Physics – was supposed to be here to tutor the boy. Our family physicist is gone. So I cry.

I suppose I might be able to help the boy. After all, I took high school physics once. Then again, that was 30 years ago, and my own father taught the class. Sigh.

I didn’t want to take physics. I wanted to take choir. My parents, however, insisted that I sign up for physics. When the registrar later informed me that the class was cancelled due to low enrollment and that I should choose a replacement class, I was delighted. I chose choir. Several of my friends were in choir. I had always wanted to sing, now was my chance, and I happily reported the good news to my parents that night. I remember my father’s crestfallen face at the dinner table. “They cancelled physics?” He couldn’t believe it.

Dad marched down to the high school the very next morning and arranged to teach the class himself, for the hour before the regular school day began in order to avoid other scheduling conflicts. All for the annual salary of one dollar. I couldn’t believe it.

My favorite yearbook photograph from that early morning class features the back of my head resting on the desk. I am sound asleep. My dad is smiling at the front of the classroom, the chalkboard covered in equations and arcs, the professor dusted in chalk. There were only six of us in that class, getting up early our entire senior year, and I must have learned something of physics, because I did well enough on the AP exam, but I’ve forgotten all the details. What I do remember was that Dad loved to share his passion for physics. Personally, I didn’t get quite so excited about the subject, but I learned what it looks like to be so passionate about something that you cannot help but share that enthusiasm in how you conduct your daily life. I hold on to that lesson. But still, I miss my dad.

I take my grief for a run, and as usual it’s hard. I want to stop and walk, but I keep the momentum by choosing incremental goals, just a few steps ahead of where I am, from this little crack in the sidewalk, to that yellow leaf, to the black mailbox, to the oil stain on the asphalt, to that acorn up ahead, and I inch forward until I reach the Spanish house at the top of the hill where somebody who loves me lives, and this process, I think, is much the same as getting through the languid days of grief. One day at a time, sometimes just an hour, from today to tomorrow to Thanksgiving, through an anniversary.

I move through the sludge. Intentionally. Slowly at first, but gaining ground. There will be other “physics” moments along my path, when memory and gravity will work against me, but I know that sadness is not a force that eliminates joy. On the contrary, feeling the sorrow is the healing trajectory that leads to laughter and song. I will get it together. I promise. But right now, I’m falling apart.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wholeness, eventually.