Annual Check Up

I cried at the gynecologist’s office.  No one was more surprised than me. But the nurse started asking me questions, and I noticed the cheerful posters all around me, and I knew that all those services for pregnancy and for birth control are not for me anymore. I was just there to make sure I don’t have cancer.

Everything I knew about myself has just stopped. Life continues, but really only to take care of the kids. I just need to carry this body around to make sure that the kids have what they need. They need so much. They have been thrust with a burden that they cannot shed. They will carry this horror with them forever. All I can do for them is to provide stability. I am doggedly determined to give it to them.

I find myself doing the calculations. Next semester, I’ll have between 9:00 and 3:00 each day. What if there are a zillion two-hour delays on days I teach? Take daughter with me to the office. Cancel the occasional class, maybe, to drive her to school. Heck, keep her home once in awhile. We’ll work it out. But pretty soon son will take classes at the university, and I’ll have to drive him during the workday. By his senior year, he should be driving, in which case I’ll just give him the car. After that, do it all again for daughter. Maybe one of those years of her high school-university transportation will be a sabbatical year for me. So if I break it down, there are just a few difficult semesters ahead, but not every single one of them. Then, after I get them into college, my work is done.

That’s all there is. That’s all that’s left. That and the pain. Any reminder of joy in the past gives way to pain, because the joy rested on hope, but all hopes have been dashed, so this pain wipes out the past joy and pleasure. But that’s like a door open wide to depression, and that won’t do, as I’m so doggedly determined. I must work through the pain, and I come out on the other end, spent from the weariness of it, with the pain behind me, for the moment. All that’s left is to wash the dishes, fortify these bodies with food, distribute their folded laundry, assure them they will be warm, they will be driven around and picked up, they will get their pencil sharpener and graphing calculator. Let them know they are cared for. Let them know they are loved. And that’s all there is.

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Equitation

I still don’t know how children grieve, but I do see how they operate. They think they are amazing. They think they deserve good things. They think they can do anything. Daughter and I spent much of this weekend doing horse things–hanging out at the barn to get the horses ready yesterday, showing up at 5:30 am to help load them onto the trailers, going to her first show. When that was over, we drove another hour farther from home to watch Olympic and Olympic-caliber jumpers compete. The first time we saw this jump, we gasped:   We did all these horse-related things because daughter wanted to. It took up most of the weekend, and son was left largely alone, but she wanted it. That’s what drives me these days. If they want something, I give it to them. I was about as moved by this jump as I was by the Olympic jumping.

As we departed this morning I was sad, wishing husband could be seeing this with her, could be here for her. But by the time we drove home, through hills dotted with early fall foliage, it was undeniable that time is marching inexorably forward, and we are doing it without him. I’m not happy about it, but there is no choice. I wasn’t scared driving around today. It occurred to me that I could take them on a road trip. Where we would go, I have no idea or desire to consider, but at least I know I could do it. She, on the other hand, fell asleep with her 2nd and 5th place ribbons clutched in her hands. She thinks she’s amazing. She thinks she deserves good things. She thinks she can do anything. She is. She does. She can.

Halfway There

I’ve left the globe light unlit, not having hired a handyman yet. But in the past few weeks, light after light went out around the house. The outdoor light in the dog yard, a light in the kitchen, one in the bathroom, and a light in the hallway. There may be more. Had I a different cosmology, I’d blame a poltergeist. I bought various type LED bulbs at big box store this week and left them in the trunk for another day, avoiding things I don’t know how to do. Today I brought them in, realized I bought the wrong light for the dog yard but used the one I’d gotten for the kitchen. (And when I let them out for their final outing tonight, I flicked on the light and said, “Look, you have a new light!” I actually said that out loud. To two dogs.) The bathroom light was straightforward. But then there was the hallway light. It was another one of those 1966 lights. Drats. I’ve been eyeing it for weeks, taking no action except to use other lights to illuminate the hallway at night. But it seemed solvable: it’s only a half globe, and it’s just hanging from the hallway ceiling and not nestled precariously in the middle of the stairwell.

Tonight I went to a movie with friends. The kids were in bed when I got home, but one kid peeked out to ask me to turn on the heat. Doing that would mean turning on the furnace, which my brother showed me how to do when he visited, but I’m still not sure I’ve got it, and is there a flue or something I’m supposed to open, and good thing we have a CO2 detector, because I don’t know what I’m doing, and once I light the pilot light, I just fiddle with the switches on the wall? But instead of sharing my pent-up anxieties, I just fetched a blanket. Amazingly, there was a wool blanket right there in the cedar chest. The next kid asked for her quilt (which was, coincidentally, sewn by farmer’s wife). She knew where it was but couldn’t reach, so I hopped on the stool and grabbed it for her. And I was like, hey, there’s a stool in this hallway. So I just moved it over to the hallway light, and it was the right height. I struggled with the globe for a minute, but then I realized there’s a certain art to getting it off. I slipped off the half globe, washed it (but not vigorously; I didn’t want to crack it, as I have no clue how to find a vintage replacement), inserted the bulb I was going to use for the dog yard, which I’d chosen for its full-glare natural daylight illumination, and slipped that half globe back on. It gives off quite a light.

The burnt out lights have bothered me these past few weeks. I keep up wiht the daily chores, but I’m purposively not housekeeping all day. I’m not a housewife. I’ve got to figure out how to manage the house in conjunction with a full-time job. But those lights (and some other spaces in the house not vacuumed or mopped or repaired) have made me feel like things are falling apart at the seams. Cue How may professors does it take to fix a lightbulb joke here, but these globe lights have vexed me, and worried me, as they have signaled my limits. Unscrewing that half globe was some sort of friggin’ victory. I was all chuffed that I’m ready to move on to the full globe precariously perched in the stairwell, when I heard from a bedroom, “Can you turn off the light?” So I did.

Fellow Travelers

In an episode of the Wallander tv series, Wallander buys a whole book of raffle tickets from a neighborhood kid. It seems like he did that because he’s got a thing for the kid’s mom, the gorgeous prosecutor he works with. She calls him on it. He explains that the prize is soccer tickets. He loves soccer, he reveals. He has always wanted to see an English soccer game. He bought all those raffle tickets because he really wants to win.

Wallander is melancholy and lonely. He is trying to get happy. Things might not work out with this prosecutor, but it wouldn’t be a big setback because he’s not really getting his hopes up, anyway. He’s just taking a chance, not to get anywhere with her, but to step out of the sadness.

I am so moved by Wallander that when I dropped off daughter at fiddle I dashed over to the university library to check out more of his books. And when I got to the stacks, a memory returned. One day, in my first few years here, I went to find a book written by someone in the time period I study. I ran into an English professor who asked, “What are you doing here in the PR 3600’s?” Such a funny scandal to be caught up in–roaming outside my discipline, and caught by a literature professor.

How Simmering May Move a Piano

I want to get rid of our Victorian-Era upright piano.

I asked the antique shop guy who sold it to us if he’d take it. He hemmed and hawed and told some story about the piano guy working out of state. or something.

One thrift shop doesn’t take pianos.

Another thrift shop* would take it, but she has limited moving capacity. My house would not be an easy house for amateur movers.

There’s a friend of a friend lead I could check out.

I could do Craigslist, but I don’t want strangers coming around.

I was thinking that maybe I’d hire movers to take it to the one thrift store.

I could check with the local arts center to see if they could use an imperfect but serviceable piano.

I think of such ideas and then move on. The piano isn’t the most important thing on my list.

The other day a friend and I, walking out of breakfast, passed the antique guy on the street, and he inquired about the piano. Hey, and here I thought he was blowing me off! The fire department is on his case, so he’s loathe to bring in such a big piece.  He’ll call (or run into me) if something opens up.

So it’s all simmering. At some point, something will pop to the surface. Like a little piece of gnocchi.

*This thrift shop was the site of the saddest donation. In the course of talking to her, I had to explain that husband died. We walked over to my trunk and it was filled with tools. “Are you sure?” she asked. I told her that I don’t know what to do with all this stuff, and it would make me happy if her organization could use them and make money off of them. As we finished bringing things inside, she asked once more, “But maybe you’ll want these someday.” “Please,” I replied, thrusting an $80 (or maybe $150?) jigsaw (or maybe it was a drill?) into her arms, “please, take it. Take it all.”

Saturday

The weather today was beautiful.

Son and I snuck in a little tennis before the farmers market. We got to the market early. I explained that we could walk down the length of it, see what was good, and when the bell rang, we could grab our wares and go.

It wasn’t that easy.

As we left the car, we saw the parents of daughter’s friend. Both of her kids had a sleepover last night, the mom announced. Oh, how nice for you, I responded, with a smile. I walked away. “Do you realize that she was still talking to you?” son asked. I hadn’t. I was preoccupied thinking of the few times that happened to us. Husband and I–not believing our luck–would scramble to find a few people to meet at a bar. We’d come home and fool around. So, yeah, I didn’t feel like hearing what this couple did last night. Was I supposed to get more details while my heart broke into a million pieces? And what would I say? “Husband and I always enjoyed nights like that.” Or, “Last night I stayed in scouring the biography of David Foster Wallace for clues to his suicide.” No, better that I seem rude or socially awkward. Not many people really want to know what’s on my mind.

With the professoriate back in town, I’m surprised I only had two of the Step 1. furrowed brow Step 2. approach Step 3. condolences. “Thank you,” I said, as I exchanged $2 for my chard. “I’m fine, thank you,” I said, as I held a handful of loose kale leaves. (What am I supposed to say when I’m crouched down, clutching loose kale leaves?) I had already chatted with the farmer’s wife (before the bell ring) and stroked her fuzzy handknit sweater. As she handed me my change after the kale conversation she leaned over and muttered, “Are you doing all right with this, Fichereader?” I looked her right in the eye. I got this, I assured her. I could picture her coming up with some way to make this easier for me, but the thing is, just her being there makes things easier for me. She is one of the many anchors I have to help me through this awkwardness.

Let’s scram, I suggested to son. On the drive out, he said that I could stop and talk to people. I politely told him that after years of him pulling at my apron strings (i.e., whining), it became too disconcerting to stop and talk, so when I’m with him in public, I move fast. By the time we stopped in our driveway, he explained that he was like that because Daddy would stop and talk with people, ignoring his needs. I paused. “Daddy often treated other people much better than he treated me and you.” He raised his arms and hugged me. We stayed like that for awhile in the front seat.

So the market was difficult, but son and I make little breakthroughs in all sorts of ways.

In the afternoon, daughter had another party at a local festival. We met the birthday girl’s mom at the entrance. “Just get on line and the rest of the family will meet you at the other side of the entrance,” she explained, gesturing to the fenced line to get in. I saw the fences. I saw people arriving, one of whom might not know husband died, or knows and never said anything. I saw the fences that would trap me in the line. I looked the mom right in the eye and stated, “I have to get away from here.” She sprang into action. “I will take daughter in. We’ve got this. What do you need? Do you want us to take her home?” No, I could pick her up, I just couldn’t go in. I kissed my daughter. I felt like giving the mother a peck on the cheek, so grateful I was for her kindness.

At the designated pick-up time I stood outside the festival. A woman with a lovely voice was singing Jolene. The sky was so clear. People were so happy. People around here are so healthy, so happy. The festival looked a lot like any other year, and I expected husband to walk out of the exit gate and meet up with me. I can recognize beauty, but I can’t bear it.

I was spent, but daughter was involved in a boffer incident. I could tell she was holding in her sadness. She let it out in the car. One of the guests didn’t know the boffer etiquette, and then when she did, she fought with some malice and hurt daughter. I took note of that kid’s name for future reference. We took the back roads home. It’s a beautiful part of the county. By midride, she told me about the fun parts. By the end of the ride, she was asleep.

I took the dogs for a walk on the bikepath on the way to pick up son from his friend’s house. There was some small misunderstanding between two cars and a lawnmower on one of the little side streets. No one was angry, but I was confused. I pulled into the tiny parking lot and bawled. Then I walked the dogs, and the day got easier.

When I picked up son, he and his friends were chasing each other across the lawn. I was halfway up their long driveway, and he just leapt down a hill and right into the car. I reversed the car. He laughed, rolled down the window, and said his farewells. I haven’t seen him that lighthearted in a long, long time.

For dinner I served canned baked beans on toast. On the side was peanut slaw that I made, trying to knock off the delicious slaw served in a cafe in Nearby Medium City. I used my fancy new food processor, which maybe wasn’t overpriced after all, because it is so awesome. The kids didn’t love the slaw, but they each took a few bites and didn’t complain. I’ll take it.

I learned that the Swedish series, Wallander, is available on Watch Instantly. I’ve wanted to see that for a long time.

Son was invited to hang out with some high school friends tomorrow at the festival. I’m pretty sure that the mother put the kid up to inviting him, but I don’t care. These kids are wise and funny and son sent his own email in reply, after discussing it with me four times. In this house, that’s progress. And to top it off, the mother will drive.

Nice things happened to all of us today, but all three of us shed tears in the front seat of the car today. So when I say, “We’re okay, but we struggle,” this is the sort of day I mean.

Gremlins

Last weekend it occurred to me that I could have done more, or there were things I could have done differently to have saved him. Of course there was nothing I could have done. Furthermore, nothing I did or didn’t do deserves this, this way we are now, these things that happen to us now. I shrugged it off and proceeded to mop, or whatever I was doing.

But those thoughts kept coming, all week long. They battered at me. They were relentless. The barrage of thoughts, the constant conflict, exhausted me. I took so many naps last week, I lost count. By the end of the week, I couldn’t fend them off anymore, and I capitulated. I figured that I got what I deserve. I can’t have nice things. I had this kind, handsome, funny man, and I couldn’t hold onto him. He slipped out of my grasp. I lost him. That’s what I deserve. I didn’t deserve him, and I don’t deserve happiness.

That was the state in which I met my professional caretakers at our appointments. I shared my depressive thoughts. They hardly batted an eyelash. I am passing through a stage of grief, they explained. My recent physical improvement probably opened me up to it. I got stronger, but rather than things getting easier in turn, harder things came at me. Strength just means that I’m able to withstand more.

I take comfort in knowing that I’m just caught up in a larger system. So I accepted that. But, wow, progress is painful.

Simmering

Sometimes I drive down my long, steep driveway and think, “How am I going to deal with this in the winter?” How will I shovel it all? How will I get all the ice off? How will I muster the courage to put my kids in the car and trust that we will not slide into the gully or into the street?

These kinds of thoughts can be dangerous. They can lead me to worry about things that aren’t happening now. They can lead me to feel hopeless, to feel sorry for myself, to conclude that we will never be safe, I will never be able to do all this. That’s not healthy thinking.

But, when done appropriately, this kind of thinking allows for simmering. Because this is a problem that needs a solution. I learned simmering this summer, when I tried to fix the ceiling fan, toilet, deal with the mess, the finances, sorting and organization, and not least of which, the trauma. My brain couldn’t wrap itself around solutions, or even the problems, so I would observe, then tuck it away, let it simmer, and then one day I would just know what to do.

I do need to cope with the snow and ice in the winter. I need to come up with a solution. I don’t even know what all my options are, so I need to learn about it. Sometimes I research snowblowers online. I read reviews to figure out how long it would take, how big a machine I need, whether I would be confident enough to operate a giant gas-powered snow blower.

The other day, as I walked into my therapist’s office, I walked around a lawn service truck. The side of the truck listed its services, which include driveway plowing. So I stopped and chatted with the guy about how that service works, and I asked him for a card. Now I know. I know that there really are people you can hire out, and it makes sense that it’s lawn service companies, who pick up business off-season. I wouldn’t have noticed that sign unless the problem had been in the back of my mind.

Simmering is okay. Agonizing is not. I must always wrestle between the two.

Not for Me

When people share their news and happiness, I accept them as things that are good for them and not for me. I can rattle off a list of things that are Not for Me: snapping a family photo at graduation, relaxing on vacation, finding comfort in faith, watching the Olympics opening ceremonies, watching the Democratic national convention, sharing first day of school photos on FB, taking pride in accomplishments, making love, chatting at the grocery store, catching up on the day, having hopes and dreams, enjoying simple pleasures.

So naturally my interest piqued when the acupuncturist aimed the needle at my head. I’d heard what happens–people feel stoned. I could use that. But the needle could not penetrate the heaviness in my head. All it did was to invite me to sit with that heaviness for the 20 minutes that I lay there. The heaviness feels like packed cotton, fyi.

So, for crying out loud, add “feeling virtually stoned” to the list. Not for me.

Recognition

The Pilates teacher greeted me with a hug. How am I doing? “Struggling,” I replied. “And I’m happy to be here.” We had a good workout, with decent effort and laughter all around.

People sometimes grimace when they see me. That’s awkward. Other times people just pretend that nothing is different. I guess that’s their gift to me, to treat me like a normal person. But it becomes too taxing to talk about everything but the thing I think about all the time, this thing that is a part of me. People want me to be okay, but I’m not okay, and I’m tired of pretending that I am. Literally, it gets tiring to keep up this pretense.

The most comfortable thing is when people face it. We acknowledge the pain, the shittiness. Not just his death, but whatever crap I’m mired in that they know they can’t understand. When people acknowledge the inexplicable awfulness, they let me pass the weight for a moment, and we hold it together. Then we move on.  And then we can laugh, share stories, share small talk.