Home Improvement as Memorial

The kids and I agreed not to commemorate the first anniversary of husband’s death. He hurt us so. We’re just not ready. The therapists approved of this. But spring just kind of threw it in our face, nevertheless.

See, during the horrid weekend of his death and the subsequent weeks last year, this house was invaded with spring. The kitchen had ants and a few roaches, which was weird–we never get roaches here. (During my brief visits back to the house from the trauma center, I’d wash dishes and without even skipping a beat, would smash a roach with the glass I was washing. These were rare moments of clarity.) The dogs’ yard had weeds, three feet high. There were signs of pantry moths in the cupboards.

Sometimes I bemoaned this invasion of nature in terms of all the problems that husband left us with. Other times, with the roaches, especially, I sure did wonder if husband hadn’t opened the hellmouth and all these creatures crawled into our lives as he left it.

Even as I was in the thick of loss last year, I bought roach traps, and took care of those suckers immediately. I kept forgetting to buy pantry moth traps, though. They got out of control. By mid-summer, I had to throw away a lot of good grains and flours they’d infested. As for the weeds, a friend’s husband came over to weed-whack them. He taught me how to use one of them weedwhackers. By the end of the summer, I had a weedwhacker of my own.

As May progressed this year, I watched the return of the spring invasion.

There were no roaches.

At the first sign of pantry moths, I bought my favored traps. I am still battling, but it is a battle I am winning.

As for the weeds, I saw them come up early in the month. I went to our local Sears (one of those little, locally-owned Sears franchises, not a full-fledged department store) for a new string for the weed-whacker. The young guy was all, “This is the one you need.” It wasn’t. I wasn’t able to get back to exchange it for another week. By then, the rains began, followed by the fatigue. By this anniversary week, the weeds were back to 3 feet high. It was if those weeds were keeping vigil, reminding me not to be too hard on husband; things can get out of hand pretty quickly, before we know it.

This Friday, I got out there to whack those weeds. I inserted the new spool of string. I turned on the weed whacker. The cap for the spool of string flew in one direction, the string in another. I knelt down in the ivy where the cap had gone, searching, searching. I was reduced to tears. I whacked weeds without the cap for a little while, until the spool got all tangled up. The next morning, we stopped at Sears on the way home from the farmers market. I bought a new weedwhacker. (This is crazy, I know. I am crazed. Those 3 foot weeds were a testament now, to some memory of awfulness and a world out of control. They had to be whacked.) When we got home, I explained to daughter that I bought a new weedwhacker, plus string for the old one, should I ever find that cap.

“Oh!” she exclaimed in her little pixie voice. “What does it look like?”

“Black, round, plastic,” I intoned.

She skipped away, to the middle of the lawn, a good 20 feet from the ivy I’d been searching. “Here it is! I saw this last night and didn’t know what it was!”

So I used my old weedwhacker and tore away at those 3 foot weeds in the dog yard and elsewhere. Daughter appeared in closed-toed shoes and safety goggles, so I let her hack away at other spots while I mowed the lawn.

I returned the new weedwhacker, which was never taken out of my trunk. The owner of the Sears franchise made the return. He sees a lot of me, what with the new oven, dishwasher, and dehumidifier this past year. Probably some other things. Oh, yes! A tool chest, and that weedwhacker from last summer. He rang up the return, when I piped up,

“Oh! But we’re not returning that spool of string! It’s $8.99.”

“Doh!” he responded, as the return receipt came out of the printer. “Let’s just call it even. You’ve been good to us this year.”

This afternoon, a mom came to pick up her daughter. As we chatted in the driveway, she remarked that the end of the lawn looked so cleared away. I explained that we chopped down the pine tree for a Christmas tree, and this weekend, we hacked away at weeds down there (not really knowing what we were doing).

“And you noticed,” I said. “I’m so glad you noticed.” As if she were a witness.


Holding Vigil

This past week was the first anniversary of my husband’s death, inviting the protracted reliving of that horrible stretch of days last year. It was harder than I thought it would be.

He took (or, almost took) his life on a Friday. This past Friday, I dropped the kids off at school and went back home. My heart was racing. I let myself imagine even-worse-case scenarios that could have transpired that Friday last year. Luckily, I had a therapy appointment scheduled, so I got out of the house. The therapist let me know that I was panicking because I was fighting it. I gave in. I’d had a quick walk scheduled with a friend on her lunch break, so I didn’t need to give in alone. As we walked, it occurred to me that she missed him, too. This loss is not only my loss. Then, to endure the hour it actually happened, I met another friend at the Irish pub. We go there for the pesto pizza, but this time, we had a beer. I needed it, but she did, too.

The kitchen sink was clogged. I figured I could fix it. I cleared some gunk out, but I found that the clog was deep down in the external pipes. In putting the pipes back together under the kitchen sink, there was a small leak. I put a kitty litter box under the pipes to catch the drip. I ran the dishwasher and held vigil, sitting on the floor across from the sink, with a big dog nestled up to me, making sure that the draining of the dishwasher didn’t cause an explosion. It didn’t.

Last year, we spent the weekend traveling back and forth to the trauma center in nearby city. This year, we went back to that city, but, this time, for a horse show for daughter. (She was, of course, adorable.) I left son at home. He had some friends to check in with, but it was undeniable that he was alone, without a mother, without a father, with a clogged kitchen sink. He rode it out remarkably well. The worst he had to report was that he inadvertently locked the cat in the family room, so I should expect to find cat poop on the rug. *shrug* It’s a change from dog poop.

I called a plumber on Monday. They came when I got home from work. In half an hour, the guy fixed the kitchen sink as well as a bathroom sink that’s been giving me some trouble.

We seemed to approach the actual, formal anniversary okay. But it was final exam week in the local schools, and one of my kids was hit, hard, with anxiety, anxiety that couldn’t be alleviated until it was passed along, and absorbed, by the rest of the household. I found myself, one evening, sprawled on the kitchen floor, in tears. I sobbed in the shower, keening that widow’s wail. It felt like Summer 2012 all over again. Luckily, I’m such so seasoned in grief that I could recognize that I was tired, very tired.

I scheduled a hike midweek. Inexplicably, we got lost on a familiar trail. Our simple hike turned into a three-hour trek. I showed up to a noon meeting unshowered, sweaty, and dirty, with plantlife sticking to my socks and shoes. But, hey, I arrived on time. I allowed myself to laugh at myself. It was a nice change of pace to come across as goofy to my colleagues, rather than tragic. And the final race to the car was somewhat exhilarating.

I met a friend today and shared a few of the hardships of this week. (There were more. I’ve only shared a few of them here, but you get the idea.) I feel like I’m living in a fog. I function, but I’m not grounded. She assured me I could drop the kids off with her, whenever I need it.

I tried to rest this evening, my first Friday in the second year of widowhood. It went okay, for a little while, but when the kids had some kerfluffle that started to escalate, I couldn’t bear it. I found myself sprawled on top of the shoes in the front hallway, in tears. This is when I knew that I was tired, beyond tired. I thought about inviting one of my sisters to come stay with us, or calling a mom in town and packing up one or both kids to their place. Instead, daughter and I got in the car and drove around to look for food. I put on my sunglasses, so as not to allow my tear-stained, distressed face to give people something to gossip about. I couldn’t bear to sit in a restaurant, so I sent her into the bakery to buy a bag of locally-produced corn chips. Once home, I whipped up a pan of Migas (scrambled eggs + cheese + broken chips). *shrug* It has lots of protein, and the fat and salt are comforting. That’ll do.

I gave in to my masochistic tendencies and looked up people I’ve hidden on Facebook. Oh, such happy lives. I spotted a call for meals for a mom who recently had a baby. This isn’t just any mom. This mom has just had a baby, but in Winter 2012, her 3 year-old son died unexpectedly. I’d heard about it, but I didn’t know her at the time. In Summer 2012, she signed up to make a meal for us. When that meal arrived last summer, I explained to my kids that lots of people in town made meals for her when she lost her son, and now she was making a meal for us. My son asked if we would ever make a meal for someone who needed it. I sure hoped so.

This nice mom worked at our local bakery, and we became friendly. One day last summer, as she rung up my milk and eggs and bread, she asked me if she could give me a hug. I don’t know if I looked like I needed it that day, or if she needed it, or needed to give it. Who can know of such things?

Tonight, as I brushed off the dirt and dog hair on my shirt from this evening’s sprawl on the floor, as I wished for sleep but lingered in misery, I plotted what meal I could reciprocate for this lovely person. I planned a visit to the farmers market tomorrow. I thought about nice containers on my shelf. Maybe I could whip up an herbal iced tea, if it gets hot next week. I visited some of my favorite websites to find a poem to slip in a card. The poetry made me cry. I realized that a new mom doesn’t need a poem. I needed the poems. Poetry and meditation and yoga and visits with friends and cooking–these have all sustained me, grounded me, opened me up to possibility. I haven’t been able to grasp them these last few weeks, as much as I’ve tried. Tonight, as I sought to return a gift so freely given, to sustain the connection with someone who also harbors this terrible secret of loss, of hope, of life, I felt the glimmers, again, and I gratefully reached out to the simple act of giving. I hung on to it. Sure, this new mom could use a meal dropped off next week, but I really need to give it to her.

Renewal Notices

I was caught up in a library book snafu today. I had some overdue fines, so I couldn’t renew my books. In copyediting a manuscript today, I picked up a book and realized that the semester due date was last week. I am so screwed. I had to return all my (ahem, the library’s) books, over 100 of them. I stuffed them into the library return box in the office. When I filled that, I made two different trips to the library, carting tote bags to the car, then leaving the car right under the NO PARKING STOPPING OR STANDING ANYTIME sign so I could dump them into the book drop. It’ll cost me, but, oddly enough, that wasn’t foremost on my mind.

First, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I just added this library fiasco to my list of things to do. I didn’t have husband’s kind assistance to meet me in front of the office, I had to lug the bags all around myself. This is a contrast to last summer, when everything was so hard. Now, I just focus on the task, one at a time, without bearing the weight of Everything. I just got those books returned, one trip at a time. I’ll deal with the fines another day.

Second, this problem was not a product of grief. It’s actually a fairly predictable personal failing. Every 3 years or so, I miss the end-of-term due date and have to clear all my borrowed research books off the shelves. I get the renewal reminders by email, ignore them, and then sit in denial until it’s too late. It’s some kind of pathology, this unwillingness to return books. It goes way back, too. While painting my childhood bedroom when I was a teenager, I found a postcard from the public library in the heating vent, addressed to a 6 year-old me, reminding me to return When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne. Seems I was hiding the evidence, there in the heating vent. Seems I’ve got some book thieving tendencies. What can I say? I love books.

As much as I feel like the wreckage of a human being, some old part of me–not always noble and willfully disorganized–has emerged intact. Hey, I’m still here. 

On the Periphery

I went to a birthday dinner with a group of nice women. Somebody asked me how my daughter was doing on her class trip to Gettysburg. I started to reply, when someone else asked what she was doing there. I explained that the gifted and talented group joins another school’s annual trip. The atmosphere sharply turned into a seething mix of anxiety and resentment and query. Ah, I’d triggered parental competition zone. I let the veil drop and turned into myself to ride out the chattering, the references to learning styles and I don’t know what else they were going on about. When they turned to me to ask when the testing for the gifted program was, I quietly said I didn’t know.

I disconnected, but this time, I followed the clues to figure out why I’m disconnecting. Mothers go out together to get the scoop. Here I’d given them a scoop when what I needed was a receptive audience to hear my own hardships. Why was that so important to me? My daughter was in Gettysburg without me. My husband had chaperoned son when he went a few years ago, and I always hoped that I’d chaperone her. That didn’t work out. I’d allowed myself to imagine worst-case scenarios of her on a trip without me. Once she departed, however, so confident with her smartly-packed suitcase and little camera at the ready and her knowledge of battles and generals and colonels ready to be put to use on the actual battlefield, I trusted the process, and I let her go. That was a big parenting step, especially this year, when I’ve been so protective of these kids. I was so proud of her and so sad about our situation. In the days that she was gone, I spent so much time alone that I held it all in. I didn’t have anyone to talk this through with. When finally asked at the dinner, it was my chance to share my feelings, but they didn’t want to know about my or her troubled souls, they just wanted to know how to get their kid into the program. I get that. The fault was mine in expecting more from dinner-party conversation. I’m seeking out connections that one finds in a partner, because that’s what I really crave, but nobody goes to a dinner party to deeply connect, they get that at home. This is what I took away from that dinner: I am not Number One in anyone’s life.

It’s okay. A lot of people care about me and care for me, and I’m grateful for that. I am lucky to have a number of people who will listen and counsel me on some pretty deep stuff. But they’re not there for me everyday, or for every little problem. When it comes down to it, I’m on the periphery of everyone’s life and the center of no one’s. (except the kids. I know. But I take care of them, they’re not here to take care of me.) I understand that many people live alone, so it’s time to figure out how to live a life this way, too. But first, I’m just going to let it simmer a while so I can feel how much it hurts, and explore the depth of this absence. This past year I’ve been so distracted by the activity of getting our lives in order, and I’ve felt so much pain that it’s as if husband and I were still a couple, bound by pain. As I’m moving on, I’m finally confronted with emptiness, and it often surprises me to encounter it, and to be reminded, again and again, just how lonely I am. I’m sitting with it for the time being, because I’m pretty sure that loneliness has not finished slapping me in the face. I’ll let myself get battered around by it, then I’ll be sure to let this go, too. And then I’m going to need to rely on myself, on my own core. Meditation has taught me that if you turn in deep enough, you come around on the other side to meet the whole world, the universe, and maybe I’ll even be able to connect with people at dinner parties, what with my lowered expectations and all. I know there’s hope. But today–crikey!–I’m a lonely son of a gun.

This must be like that drunk dialing all the kids are doing

I recently had a 2-3 week stretch of waking up at 1:30am. That wasn’t the worst of it. The bad nights were those when I didn’t fall back asleep. That was either a source or a symptom of my recent rough patch. 

Last night I woke up at 10:30pm. I groaned and started not watching a series on Amazon Instant Video. I’ve got the Amazon Prime, so I can fire away and watch (or not watch) a lot of their shows for free. It worked. I must have dozed off, but I woke again at around 1am.  I reloaded the video, but instead of pressing Resume, I hit the button to buy the whole season of the show…a show that I can watch for free. That’s how I found myself at 1am, scouring the Amazon website for customer service info. (Note: Amazon really would prefer not to talk to us directly; they make it a challenge to find them.) (Note: Just because you’re an insomniac doesn’t mean you’re not tired. I was so tired that I felt like I was drunkenly navigating the Amazon website.) Eventually, I was able to chat with a customer service representative. I briefly explained my situation. He wrote back, “Are you referring to The Good Wife, Season 3?”

Here’s what I wanted to say: I am, but I’m not really watching it. I just stream shows in the hopes that they’ll lull me to sleep. Can you also track my usage patterns? If so, please don’t judge. I am very lonely. When I wake up in the wee hours of the morning, there are no arms to retreat to, there’s only my empty self, so to avoid that–and the attendant sadness–I numb myself with mindless tv. So many hours of mindless tv, most of which I sleep through. British criminal procedurals are ideal, really, they are so boring that I am asleep soon after the first murder, but I’ve run through them all, so now here I am, tearing through The Good Wife. A JD-PhD I know recommended it. Does that make this less embarrassing? Also, does the Resume This Free Episode button have to be so close to the Buy the Whole Season button? 

Here’s what I wrote to him: Yes, that’s it.

He refunded my $19.99.

Long dark nights of the soul are the stuff of poetry. But they get pretty wearing after awhile, and when you patch them in with British procedural dramas and harmless tv series and the occasional reality show, it’s all rather tawdry and embarrassing. That’s the thing about this grief journey. It’s really deep, and sometimes, it’s awfully trite.