Bloodsucking gratitude

20130814-073205.jpgMan, the bloodsuckers were out tonight…Midwest mosquitoes. Because our spring was so drab, the bugs were delayed in their arrival, but now they are here with a vengeance, making up for lost time. Which is what I am trying to do with my neglected garden as well, spreading mulch after work whilst swatting the bloodsuckers. My garden is out of control this year. I can’t keep up with it because, really, it’s a two-man project, and I’m down one man. But I’m doing the best I can, and some dear friends had extra mulch that they shared with me.

Death, and losing someone, will do the same thing if you allow it, suck the “blood” right out of your life. There’s a strange apathy that hits, coating everything in gray. I won’t deny that there have been times when I have wondered what the purpose is? What am I living for? I could get cancer tomorrow, and I wouldn’t even have a mate to take care of me. So they tell you to try and appreciate the small things. Look closely, there are little breaks in the clouds. Try to be grateful for the things you do have, the things you still enjoy, and eventually the color will come back. I know this to be true. But my gratitude is a work in progress, and it often feels as unruly as my garden. A “thank you” here, a quiet moment there…

…like spreading mulch on this hot summer night. I know my husband would have given anything to be here doing this with me. Despite his hatred of mosquitoes, he loved powering through a gardening project. If he could have made a deal with death, or with the fierce she-leader of the mosquito kingdom, trading his blood for his life (along with some itchy bites), he would have done it. If only that were the choice. Cancer is a much deadlier adversary, the oft victor of life-and-death negotiations, one bad-ass parasite.

I realize my blog tends to focus on the hard parts of loss. It’s a healthy way to work through the tough, honest emotions. A person can’t just go from grieving widow to happy clown in a day. I lost two people, and my life is less without them. I miss them both tremendously. But I’m trying to shift my focus, my attitude, my gratitude.

And I realized tonight that I have turned a corner. I am not out of the woods yet, but on this beautiful summer evening, I can smell the mint and the lavender my husband planted, I am sweating and swatting, and I am grateful. Not for the mosquitoes…(I mean come on, I ain’t the Buddha!), but I am grateful for the life-blood that continues to run though my veins. Some lucky skeeters actually got to enjoy my husband’s sweet blood; I got to enjoy his sweet and funny nature, taste his salty skin. I am still relishing it, here, now, as I tend to our lush garden, full of bugs and blooms, thinking of him, on this night.

Parallel paths

I was at the dog park the other day, getting ready to walk the loop. It was the first warm day we’d had in while. The first true inkling of summer. It was gorgeous, and on the inside and outside, I felt good to be alive.

As I entered the park, I found myself walking along side a nice young man. When I say young, I just mean he wasn’t the retired chatty college professor I have ocasionally walked the loop with. And I should clarify, that it’s not exactly customary to “walk the loop” with other dog owners, but sometimes if the dogs connect and the conversation between owners is flowing, it just happens, and you find yourself walking the whole way round with a stranger.

So, this young guy and I just happened to be walking along together, on parallel paths. We didn’t really talk much, mainly about the beautiful day. I’ll admit, I snuck a few glances at him. He was cute. I liked his energy. And for the record, there are plenty of loonies at the dog park, too. It’s amazing how you can sense their energy from miles away; I steer clear of them, as I have enough of my own “crazy” to contend with right now. But this guy seemed nice, I could tell he was someone who appreciates nature. He said he heard it might be in the 80s all next week, and I said, really? I don’t look that far ahead anymore. Then his dog went one way, my dog went the other, and our paths diverged. It was completely natural.

As natural as the feeling that followed. My heart relaxed and a sliver of light got in. I took a deep breath, and I thought, yes. Maybe one day, I will meet someone again who I will want to shimmy up next to, and walk a parallel path with. It might not be today. It might not be with this young man. I won’t be going home and immediately uploading a dating profile, but I am open, and that’s saying a lot.

I’ve got a bad case of the Tuesdays…

photo 4There is some other-wordly power that gets me going on Mondays. Ok, let’s do this. Start the week, get it rolling, an object in motion stays in motion, get in the shower, put on some clothes, feed the dog, start the car, drive to work, there you are.

After my husband died, some other-worldly power got me through my first year, too. Or perhaps I don’t give myself enough credit. Let me re-phrase: somehow, I got myself through the first year. I DID IT. But I don’t know how. I wasn’t myself. I was beside myself. Like Tuesday, cast in the shadow of Monday.

Continue reading

Rebuilding

14558D36B0431A88EE94F9666096_h316_w628_m5_cZjHylszdSometimes it feels like I am completely starting over. From nothing, with nothing.

My rational mind knows this isn’t true, I have a lot to be thankful for, a job, a home, family, friends. But sometimes my loss just filets me! Slices and dices me into pieces that I just don’t even know how to start putting back together. Continue reading

Half & Half

June08In our household the most important items on the grocery list were always coffee beans and “Half & Half”. Still are. People could find substitutes for other things, but no Half & Half to go in the coffee? All hell broke loose on a nice quiet Sunday.

You can’t even get Half & Half in the UK, where my husband was from. There is only milk, or cream (heavy cream), neither of which are quite right. We tried mixing them on a visit to London once, to simulate Half & Half, it didn’t work. It’s about ratios, people! Ratios. Same goes for a latte. I am a coffee and latte snob. Truly. I grew up drinking european espresso, lived in Seattle as coffee and Starbucks became what they are today, and have been perfecting my taste for all things coffee for close to 20 years. When we moved to Madison, I said to my husband, as long as I can find a Bikram yoga studio and decent coffee, I’ll go. Good thing I also had some job offers.

So secure am I in my coffee snobbery, that I used to claim to my husband that if he blind-folded me and fed me lattes from the different coffee shops in town, I’d be able to tell which one came from which locale. Oh, how I wish we would have done that! I really wanted to impress him with my distinguishing tastebuds. Especially after I failed the “blind taste-test” of the pickle chips…that’s right, I also have a strange obsession with Lays brand Dill Pickle flavored potato chips. Once hubs brought home a different brand, and I complained that they were sub-par. I insisted on proving their inferiority with a blind taste-test, which hubs eventually obliged to, after we got some Lays back in the house. And guess what, I couldn’t tell the difference. Ha ha!

Whatever. Back to the coffee. My parents, too, loved their afternoon espresso and pastries. It was a ritual part of their lives together. When I still lived in the same town, I’d often go over for coffee. My dad was the barista, and my mom the patissiere. It was something they did every sunday, “Kaffee und Kuchen”, as they call it in Austria.

A lot of criss-crossed memories have been running through my head. Especially since Father’s day came and went.

I’ve been thinking about how I have always described myself as being 1/2 like my mom, and 1/2 like my dad. Split right down the middle, half and half. I’ve also been thinking about how when my dad died, it was a huge loss for me. But it was a loss that got drowned in another loss.

I really admired my dad, he was a great father, a great person. I thought he’d live to become a wonderfully stubborn old guy, still insisting on driving and skiing into his 90’s. My dad lived one of the healthiest lives of anyone I have ever known. Never smoked, drank little, ate right, had a positive, light-hearted attitude, didn’t carry grudges or negativity around, exercised his mind and body his whole life. Yet he still ended up with heart-disease, and kidney disease. Neither of which had anything to do with the way he lived. When he called to tell me he had made the decision to stop dialysis, my world stopped. Then only one month after he died, we found out my husband had terminal cancer, and he died four months later. The shock of the unexpected loss of my husband, right after losing my dad, overtook me. It has been very hard to understand it, to absorb it, to separate it, to lay out the pieces in nice little strands and work through each one. It’s a tangly mess of grief, where my sadness is split between the loss of my dad, and the loss of my husband.

Logically, of course, I know their deaths aren’t related. Yet, there is nothing that will change the fact that they both died in short succession of each other and the tsunami of grief that came my way was one big monster of a wave that swallowed everything in sight. A big knotted mass of sea kelp and salt, coffee and cream, my dad, my husband, my past, my dreams.

And here my mom and I are, sharing this unusual journey of becoming widows together. A mother and a daughter. Each of us lost our other half, and are trying to catch our breath on this lonely shore. But if she’s a half, and I’m a half – even if it’s faulty logic – I have to believe that together we can become whole again.

4×6

There are days when I want to burn them all. Every single flat, one-dimensional photo that I have of him. Because I hate that it’s all I have. I hate that I can’t feel the stubble on his face, only run my fingers across the high-gloss sheen of a 4×6 from Walgreens. Is that all you’ve got for me? A shiny fake finish on a life that was so much more? It’s not enough to fill the void. Not. Enough.

Actually, hold on, we can frame it differently if you’d like, we give him 4-6 months. How do those dimensions work for you? 4-6? 4×6? More like getting smacked in the chest with a 2×4.

I never thanked his oncologist. I think it’s because she was the one who said those words. She wasn’t to blame; she tried to help. But it was on that day that I felt the floor give out from under us, and down the rabbit hole we went. It was infuriating and sickening to look up and see them all watching helplessly, with pity in their eyes, knowing there was nothing they could do. But 4 months is more than some people get. And cancer? I guess I can be thankful that I have a convenient enemy to direct my anger at.

And so I continue to flop around, some days thankful, other days resentful. Surrounded by photos, and his folded t-shirts. Memories. A drawer full of socks. His shoes, sitting in the closet, empty, never to be filled again. And the photos, a precious, precious facsimile, but devilish in their trickery. I hate them and love them. The reminder of everything I had, and everything I lost.

Sacred things.

It’s still very hard for me to think about the day he died. While I have visited the hospice grounds several times, I haven’t visited the memories of his last days that often. It’s still too painful. Even thinking over the entire year that is now behind me, I revisit bits and pieces, grief flings certain moments back in my face, but to absorb it all, I’m still not able.

But I would like to share one thing that I really loved about my husband. He had beautiful hands; big, strong, perfectly proportioned, and soft. He loved holding hands. He also liked giving foot massages, and had funny names for the self-taught techniques he’d employ. My feet loved him. All the animals loved him, too, because he’d woo them to sleep with full-body rubs. His touch was magical at taming a beast, at turning a grouch into a slouch, at kneading the hard edges out of a tough day. Man, it was good to be a pet in our house…or a foot. Or a wife. My husband had a lot of love to give, and he wasn’t shy about showing it.

I remember noticing his hands on one of our first dates, we took a picnic to the lake, went swimming. Afterwards, as we dried in the sun, he put his hand on my back. I completely melted. I felt so cared for, protected. Instantly safe in his love.

He also became the designated jar- and bottle-opener in the house. A small thing, but a big trigger of his absence. I’ve actually thrown out several full, unopened jars of spaghetti sauce this past year, in a complete rage. I really wanted to hurl them against the wall, a red messy burst of anger against cancer and death, but at least my rational mind was smart enough to aim for the garbage bin.

* * *

My husband died early in the morning on May 28, 2012. He had been breathing heavily all night. I lay next to him for a while, but then moved to the chair, worried that I was bothering him, worried that he needed room, to breath, to be…to die.

It’s the strangest thing, you go to hospice knowing you are there because someone is going to die. But, truthfully? I didn’t understand that he was going to die there, on that day, on that morning. If I had, I wouldn’t have left his side for a second. But my mind could not make the leap from “before” to “after”.

It has taken an entire year, navigating this stoney path of loss, for my mind to grasp it. No wonder I am tired. My psyche has been working hard, and there’s no one here to massage my feet. I’m the only left walking the dog, a dog that we used to walk together. Every day. We’d walk, talk, hold hands, critique our neighbors’ gardens, discuss what we were going to plant in our own…

So I often think about him when I am walking. I think about his hands, and how I miss them. How I miss him. And sometimes I think back to his last day. How, after he died, I left the room for a while. In shock. I don’t even remember where I went. When I returned, they had folded his hands across his chest. They looked so perfect, as if they’d been carved out of marble. I remember thinking that maybe I should take a photo, so I would never forget.

But some things are sacred. Too sacred to be photographed. Some too sacred even to be to talked, or written about.

And why would I need a photo? The image is etched in my heart. Me, looking at him, touching his hands, one last time, as if captured by the great artist above, the day that my world turned to stone, my husband’s beautiful hands never again to touch my back, my feet, my face, his hands never again to open a jar, or soften one of life’s many blows.

Dinner with Zombie

Last weekend, some dear friends invited me over for dinner. They sent a text and I responded YES!, right away. They welcomed me into their beautiful warm home, full of kids, cats, puppies — life going on, life being lived. Hand-made margaritas, burgers, hot dogs, salad, a meal made with love.

I have to say, it was the most exciting thing that has happened to me in a while.

I’ve been stuck in a dead zone. Zombie-Land. Going through the motions in a semi-conscious state, trying to connect to life. I haven’t been to the grocery store in weeks. I know I am eating, but I don’t know what. As for my garden, I managed to prune exactly half of an apple tree several weeks ago, now it looks like a lopsided head of Medusa. Wise neighbors, to avert their eyes. The house is a wasteland of dirty clothes, dog toys and dog hair, piles of papers, surely some unpaid bills. And, I’m down to my last clean pair of underwear.

So, back to last Sunday, when my dear friends invited this Zombie over for dinner.

You should have seen me. I gobbled down conversation, dinner, drinks and dessert like a ravenous mad woman! I actually ate two hot dogs, which is a lot for someone who used to be vegetarian. I scooped up as much salsa as I could with every last crumb of a chip. I soaked up the food, the music, the energy, worrying only for a moment (before the margarita kicked in), that people might notice my true state:

That I am starving. Starving for companionship, conversation, and food. Starving for touch, compassion and lightness. I want to be near people who are living, laughing, enjoying music, and…cooking. I haven’t cooked since my husband died. I just can’t. I can’t be trusted to turn the oven off, I can’t remember to buy ingredients at the store (and, as mentioned — what store?), food doesn’t taste the same way it used to, but mostly because cooking for myself feels like one of the loneliest endeavors on earth. Lonelier than my bed, my mornings, my walks, my weekends.

But dinner, on Sunday, with friends, it was like a blood transfusion. I could feel the transformation in myself. We talked about a lot of different things, education, music, social issues. They also asked about me, how I was doing, and they talked about my husband – it was like balm on my soul (most people still don’t realize that just the mention of his name is the antidote. It’s the lack of him, the omission of him – the void – that sucks the blood out of my veins).

These kind friends sent me home with a bottle of cider, a belly full of food, and a heart full of love. They probably have no idea how much it meant. I need to use this energy, while I’ve got it. Time to clean house, let the lightness in, shake these limp, dangling limbs into action. I’ll be starting with the laundry. After all, Zombies wear underwear, too.

Touch-and-go

20130510-103247.jpgWhen learning how to fly, student pilots practice something that is called a “touch-and-go”. You bring the plane in for a landing, but right as the wheels hit the runway, you pull the steering wheel toward you, fire everything back up, and take off again, barely touching down, never completing a full landing.

It makes sense to do this kind of exercise, to kill two birds with one stone, to practice these over and over again. After all, landings and take-offs are the most critical part of every flight.

I wish I had more practice at this in real life. I wish I knew how to turn a dive-bomb into a powerful take-off, an ascent of intention. A trip with a destination. Yeah, I know…it’s about the journey, the ride, and I have the “opportunity” to create a whole new life here! Well, blah. I liked the journey I was on, and it was nowhere near complete.

But apparently it wasn’t time for me to get comfortable in a marriage, to start nestling down for a family. Because here I am, airborne, jettisoned back into the search. The search for meaning, for happiness, for love—for what?

That’s how it feels when you lose your mate, no matter where you were at in your journey together. Talk about a rudely interrupted flight. A mangled, incomplete landing, from which you have to recover and take off again. Some couples just had a baby, then boom. Some couples had a rich, long history, and were finally enjoying retirement. Boom. Some, newly engaged, a wedding in the works. Others, deeply entrenched in parenting four kids (I know five different women who found themselves widowed moms to 4 kids)….

We all know there are certain climbs we make in life, toward milestones, and that after we reach them, we relax, we let go of the pressures, the anxieties. I wasn’t someone with a strict life-schedule or plan, I never assumed I would get married. But once I did, I was happy. I loved being married to my husband. Of course there are no guarantees in life, or in a marriage; a successful take-off doesn’t guarantee a smooth flight, or a successful landing.

I accept that this is now the place, from where I have to take off, that there is no other choice. I can’t land back in the past, I can only rev up the engines and hope to get lift. A feat of nature it will be, flying with directional instruments all messed-up, fuel-tank on empty, flight-plan in flames, control-tower on strike, and my co-pilot, gone.

Wish me luck, steep climb ahead…but I also see mystical mountainous cumulonimbus, if ever there was a dream-cloud to take respite in…

Just another week at the office

“Hey, I am working on a t-shirt design for a memorial run. Wanna’ see it, give me some feedback? You heard about that runner in Sun Prairie who was killed by the pastor who was driving drunk…? It was crazy. Horrible. So tragic.”

(Ok, I’ll look at the design. I can be objective. I don’t feel quite as sensitive about death, accidents, hospitals, tragedies, as I did a few months ago. Just breathe.)

“So why did you move to Madison?”

(Oh no! Not that question again!! I hate that question!! I moved here because my husband got a job here. Phew. There! Done! I didn’t even have to mention that he is now…dead. And that I have no idea what I am still doing here. And that I get very confused about what’s next, and start to feel my heart race in anxiety when I think about trying to sell our house. Just breathe, let people move onto another topic, order lunch.)

“Yeah, we were pretty worried about our dog. She had to have surgery to remove two cancerous tumors. But they said she’ll be ok.”

(Oh. Ok. That’s starting to hit a little close to home. They were able to spare a dog. But not my husband. Stay calm, keep it cool. It’s not the same thing. Focus on your salad. Don’t think about cancer.)

“Oh, so you live in Sun Prairie? Isn’t that where that runner got killed…?”

“Yeah! She was our neighbor…!”

(Geez, are we back on this topic again? I am starting to feel a bit sick, here. I wish this Department lunch wasn’t taking place at a restaurant. I am not feeling calm, objective, or hungry anymore. Might need to get up and leave.)

“No way. I coached her son in hockey…”

“Crazy! Horrible.Tragic!”

(Ok, can we please, PLEASE, move on now? Surely people know when to stop talking about death around someone who just experienced a lot of it…)

“Well, people, you think that’s bad, our accountant’s husband died suddenly. Pulmonary embolism. Then the very next day, out of the blue, her mom died. What on earth do you do when when something like that happens?”

B*I*N*G*O!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  You just hit the target!! It was bound to happen, things were building up, but thanks for the cherry on top! After all, my dad and husband just died last year. Did you already forget? Why ask the question hypothetically? I am sitting right here and can tell you first-hand how it feels. How would that be for a little light lunch conversation? I can throw in all kinds of stomach churning details if you’d like.

(Instead, I somehow managed to say, “Ok, can we stop talking about death now?”, and barely excused myself from the table before the tears hit.)

Just another week at the office…navigating emotional landmines and lunch. Not the worst week. But not the best one either. Sometimes work is a safe place. But sometimes, when you are grieving, no place is a safe place. Though, I never really thought death or cancer were great lunch topics, even before my husband and dad died.