My Girl Friday

Within an hour of arriving home from our trip, I was on a stepladder, dusting cobwebs from the ceiling. The family therapist has advised that when I find myself dusting the ceiling, I should probably step away and do something for myself. Hey, I get that. But I’d left the windows closed all week (so the cat couldn’t escape) and the house needed to be aired out. That meant opening the casement windows near the ceiling, which required a stepladder, and while I was up there, naturally, I dusted. It seemed sensible, at the time. We then picked up the dogs from the kennel and passed a street festival, with so many people having so much fun. I woke up this morning, let the dogs out, stood at the kitchen sink to make coffee, and burst into tears. There was nothing to come home to but dishes and dusting, it seems. 

The tears come easily these days. It seems rather maudlin.  And it seems that the way to counter loneliness is not to plunge into the street festival but to “lean in” (pardon the trendy phrase) to the loneliness. Rather than feel alienated from others in my solitude, why not really go there, really be here in this state of being alone? Why not have a life of my own here, far removed from everyone else?

Stephen Fry, who has recently confessed a suicide attempt, admits that he is lonely, but he also wants to be left alone. He’d like to be with someone in the evenings, but he also cherishes his mornings, alone, when he can get up and work. Hey, I get that. I’m lonely without the luxury of being alone, but for a few hours each morning, I’ve got this place to myself.

I made a pot of coffee and entered the study, a room I’ve been avoiding except to stash unopened autopay bills, the mementos that keep coming in, and other sundries. I cleared out the piles of mail and papers. I vacuumed and dusted with my friend’s herbal cleaner. I found some nice prints from husband’s great aunts that I will take to the frame shop and hang on the walls. I found a small colored trail map of the state park where I kayak and taped it to the wall. The desk is cleared off, the books are shelved. It’s my study again, ready for business. I sat at the desk and wrote a journal entry about feeling like my great aunt, who used to take the train down from the city, dutifully tended to but largely forgotten. 

I brought the piles of papers to the dining room table and enlisted the kids’ help in sorting through them. Son has been wanting to help with financial records. Here was his chance. He may be able to help me come up with a better filing system. Daughter got to use the paper shredder. I appreciated their help. Sometimes I just need some company, or a witness, to get through the tasks I loathe. I should note that I take care of the most important financial stuff promptly. This was all the not-as-important stuff that I set aside and never got to as the semester got busy…or never wanted to get to. There was a birth announcement that lay in the pile for months. I’d better get something delivered to that family before the baby’s first birthday. I found a pair of booties I’d bought for a local baby half a year ago, and I’d better check the size and I’d better get around to paying a visit to that family. The library fine notice…I sent that one straight to the shredder without opening. Daughter opened it as she prepped papers for the shredder. “Do you want to know how much?” she chirped. I didn’t, but she found an overdue notice for a TOEFL book that I never checked out. I will contest that bill! This could kick me into gear.

I was able to slide things out of the pile unnoticed–the death certificate from the lawyer, a photo of the mayor with a memorial brick from yet another memorial service that we didn’t attend, a token from the organ donation organization, a dvd of a talk that my husband gave in The Netherlands. I pack that stuff away in good bins and boxes. I picture my children sorting through these mementos years from now, when they can see how cherished my husband was by others. It’s reassuring that other people carry him in their hearts, until our hearts are healed enough to hold him again.

When I found a three-month-old royalty check from the university press, I announced that we could treat ourselves to brunch. And so we did.


Road Trip(s)

I’m wrapping up my second trip of the summer, trips that I was incapable of a year ago. The first trip was a week stay in nearby midsized city for son to attend fencing camp. This current trip was to Williamsburg, where son attended a computer programming camp at the College of W & M, and daughter and I got to be tourists.

Navigating– I used to be the navigator, husband used to drive, and I’d serve as relief driver for a few hours so he could rest. In midsized city, I learned how to navigate and drive by occasionally pulling over to a sidestreet when I missed a turn. I gradually ceded the Google Map to the kids. We had some growing pains–I snapped at son at a treacherous intersection, he expressed that he feels like he can never do anything right, I was chastened and admitted that I am pretty scared–and now we’ve all improved. 

Slowing down–Husband and I were keen on overnight drives–we’d trade off driving while the kids slept and plow through our road trips. That’s not possible now, and I get nervous about breaking down, getting in an accident in the middle of nowhere, etc. I broke up the trip on the way down and the way back with overnight stops at hotels. It cost extra money, but we became travelers instead of just gunnin’ it. On the way down, we caught a matinee of Romeo and Juliet at a Shakespeare company and stayed at an old stagecoach inn. That was novel. On the way back, we ended up at an “artist’s cottage” b&b in the same town. I’m writing this now from the backyard of the cottage. The birds woke me up at dawn.

We can do this, I guess. I was able to get the kids places where they could experience new things. We are all stronger and more capable that we were a year ago.

And yet I still feel empty. I feel like a servant to these children. It’s noble work, I know, but I’m not deriving much personal satisfaction from any of this. Except for this artist’s cottage, where I fantasize being a solo middle-aged woman in this tidy, light-filled space in a mountain town, I’ve gone through the motions. The tears came easily this week. I kept them in for the entire day at Colonial W’burg, then let them out in my room at night. Another night, in the midst of an entertaining scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (yes, two plays in one week) tears rolled down my face. I don’t even know what I was crying about.

I really have to get happier. This sad and lonely stuff just won’t do.


Yesterday I watched the sun rise through the eastern door of the barn, while we got ready for the horse show. I spent the twilight hours paddling on the lake, in near solitude. I stole glimpses of beauty, I know, but I don’t let it sink in.

I finally received that massage everyone has urged me to get. I couldn’t bear to be touched or to release my clenched body last year. Then I was ready, and it was all rather uneventful. I needed to muster small talk, so masseuse and I chatted about kayaking. I told her about the berth I rent–I got the last one available–and I just pop in when I have a spare hour, or when I see the sky become clear on a rainy day. I told her about the snakes who pop their heads out of the water, ducking under when I approach, or occasionally staying upright (that’s creepy), and watching them glide across the lake, their little nobbin heads just above water. As I left she remarked that I’d persuaded her to get into her kayak more often. Imagine that, me, doing something that someone else wants to do.

I can’t imagine that there’s anything redeemable about me. I can’t accept any beauty, or joy, or even just equanimity.

Daughter and I took the dogs for a walk on the bike path. A cyclist approached us, obviously pleased at the sight of us. I suppose we present a picture. The dogs are big and adorable. Daughter is, apparently, my mini-me. (She and I don’t think we look alike, but we hear it all the time.) Walking one behind the other, mini-me with the big dog, regular me with the bigger dog, must have looked charming. I politely smiled at the woman, but I couldn’t bear to be drawn in. I recognized her type–the lonely woman who appreciates beauty, who savors the moment. This is the woman I will be someday, once I accept that this is my lot. I was so filled with self-loathing that when I spotted her resting on a bench when we returned to the car, I didn’t make eye contact, I didn’t bring the dogs over to say hello. I won’t be the person who finds joy in the moment, in these moments. I am raging against these moments, against this life (insofar as my feeble emotional state allows for rage. My rage comes out like a whimper. I am whimpering against joy).

Driving down the street, I saw one of my best friends leaving a house. Her family must have had been departing dinner with their friends. It was friend’s daughter that I spotted first, in a charming bohemian dress. This is a world closed off to me, not only because our family is fractured, but because I don’t get invited anymore. Some people tried, in the beginning. I suffered through those dinners. I must have come across as a freak. There was the one couple that would kiss, right in front of me, at every gathering, often when the husband was bringing the wife a drink. Who knows what my face betrayed? Who knows what people said when I left, what couples said about me in the car on the way home. The invitations dried up. We spent every holiday this past year, alone, without one local invitation. I don’t harbor resentment about that, but I noted it, each time. Those lonely holidays pushed me right through grieving, letting me know how much had changed, to instruct me that this is my lot.

I wish I’d had the wherewithal to apply for that job last year, which could have taken me to another, even hipper college town where I could have started over. But I couldn’t go through with the application, and the kids couldn’t bear to leave. We went out of town last week, and daughter was homesick by Tuesday night. To cheer her up, I took her to a huge tack store, where she communed with things horse-related. We found a very large park and walked 2.5 miles under the treetops, past ravines, past a lengthy earthwork built by the ancient people. That fortified us for the remainder of the week. The final day of the trip we waited for son to finish up at fencing camp. She fainted from the heat and the noise and the lighting. She was clammy as I brought her out to the car. After a brief nap in the back seat with the A/C cranked up and directed her way, she perked up. Her inner light emerged the closer we got to home. Home!

I fought back tears the closer we got to home. I can’t get away from here. I can’t break free while here. But home it is. We stocked up at the farmers market the next morning. Cherries AND strawberries, imagine that. I used the garlic scapes for a pesto that served as the sauce for a pizza. The homemade crust was so thin. The pizza was delicious. I finished Let the Great World Spin. I tore through Wild, which I haven’t been able to read all year because it’s about grief but now I was ready for it, and it was fine. I’m not depressed, I’m not truculent. What is my hang-up? I think it’s more than a need for attitude adjustment. I think I need self-esteem. I think there’s something I need to let go of. I think I need to get laid. I know I need to stop my nightly wine sessions and face these lonely evenings with more courage. I drove up to my kayak, alone on its berth for 6 days, and got back on the lake. It occurred to me that all these snakes have always been there, I’m only just now aware of their ubiquity. Nothing has changed, except that I know more than I did. I think of the snakes and the fishermen in their small motorboats the way I’d consider the characters in a lower east side neighborhood *shrug,* as part of the neighborhood. I exchange a small wave with the lone fisherman across the lake. I used to be afraid of the fishermen, but now I find some small comfort when I see their pick-up trucks parked on the grass. We’re all out there on the water for some reason, and it’s not to meddle with each other. When the lone fisherman motored away, I paddled out to the middle of the lake and bobbed in his wake.

The Girl

Daughter and I made it to the butterfly conservatory, finally. It is a place of wonder. But–oh!–to watch her, her eyes lit up, an intake of breath, her hands held out, as if she is taking it all in (not rushing into it, but taking it, receiving it, absorbing it) is to witness joy, tempered but unadulterated.

I don’t know which is more beautiful–the butterflies or my daughter’s wonder.

I finally got her to a pool. She has been wanting to work on her strokes. She goes under water, kicking, stroking, holding her breath, and pops up with an audible exhalation, her eyes swimming. Look! She tried this. Now she can do it. Then she tried that. She can! She can!

Kids love the butterfly garden. Kids like to swim. But with her, everything is a marvel, she is so full of vigor. I watch and wonder how my husband could have left her, how he could bear to have missed this, any of this, how he could bear to miss one minute with her.

And, it gets worse. She looks so small in the pool. She is so precious that I don’t understand how he could relinquish the chance to keep her safe.

At this point, when I fail to understand, I start to get it. Reaching a point when it doesn’t make any sense is when it starts to make sense.

I, her only caretaker, entrusted with so much to care for, call from my lounge chair,

“Way to go, kid.” 

Here. Here.

This past year I feel like I have been spun out of orbit. I exist in some other realm. Problem is, there’s no milk, bread, coffee, or oil changes in that other realm, so I come “into town,” buy my coffee, get my oil changed, pick up some kale. I understand why people stare at me. They must be wondering how I can engage in such pedestrian activities after living through such a horror. 

Here’s the thing, though. I’m just visiting normal world to partake of its goods. I haven’t fully made the re-entry. I don’t belong here. I belong in that other realm, where people live through horrors and buy the kale and get the oil changed.

I’ve been diligently engaged in healthy activities–reading poetry, novels, and magazines, playing tennis with the kids, kayaking with or without them, breathing through yoga poses, wandering around meadows while daughter rides a horse. These are all good for body and mind. They are part of rebuilding a life.

But here’s what scares me–These healthy activities are not returning me to normal world. I’m building a life, brick by brick, over there in bizarro realm. I fear that these bricks are closing me in, in some sort of bunker, over here in bizarro world. I’m scared that I’ll never return to normal world. I’ll just be a lone kayaker, a Boo Radley, one of those white-haired ladies with a PBS tote bag, quiet and content, seen but not part of this community.

“Tell me again so that I can understand this,” my therapist urged, as I tried to explain that I’m over here, and everybody else is over there.

And here’s what she told me–I feel alienated, because I’m having trouble integrating my experiences. There’s the trauma, and there’s the resumption of everyday life. Trauma doesn’t integrate easily.

So that’s the problem–I’m of two minds. There’s the person I was in the community I lived in, and the person who found her husband, dying at his own hand. I’m both of those things. The unfortunate fact is that I don’t get to leave bizarro experience behind.  It’s a part of me now. I have to accept that. But it’s just a matter of “integrating” who I thought I was becoming and the person I have become. That’s all. Integrate. There’s no “normal world” to come back to, because I’m already in it, I’m right here.

I guess that’s why the therapist was puzzled. I have a distinct physical feeling that I’m not here, but she’s looking at me sitting right there, able to see that all of this is happening inside of me. 

I’m here.

For someone who has felt like she’s been floating for the last year, there is no small solace in this. I’m here.

That Damn Festival

I missed the big local music festival this weekend. I might as well have missed Woodstock, so wonderful is this festival.

I knew I wouldn’t go. On the first morning of last year’s festival, I told my husband that I was bummed that we weren’t going to the music festival–again. That was the day he took his life. I’m not saying that my complaint caused him to do it, but I feel so guilty for saying that, for inserting my disappointment into whatever hell he was in. Not attending this year was my penitence.

Whenever people talked about this festival, or reference last year’s, it was like a knife through my heart. As people enjoyed the music last year, he was dying. I don’t begrudge others their happiness, this year or last. It just demonstrates the different plane I live on. I hear “music festival” and I think sadness, or thoughts worse than sadness.

A few days before the festival a friend pleaded with me to buy an extra ticket she had. I briefly considered seizing the day. I considered what it would mean to leave my kids for the better part of the weekend after this rough patch we’ve been through. I pictured going by myself, wandering around the festival, unattached, not wanting to be a third wheel to oh-so-happy couples, glomming on to this group or that to hear some music, but being there on my own, exposed to the awkward looks and greetings I still get, a year later. I can hardly bear my 8 minutes at the farmers market each week. How could I withstand that?

So I sat out the festival, as intended. Besides, I needed to be home. Apart from one awful household skirmish that nearly ripped my heart out, the kids and I spent a lot of congenial time together. I’d rearranged the living room recently, and the new layout is cozy and inviting. I was able to enjoy the room with a good Danish mystery novel, but I’d often put it down because the kids would gather, which was nice, too. I made some decent meals that we ate together. There was strawberries and cream. We watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, daughter fell asleep, I periodically removed myself to do dishes, but son sat through it, because all the older techie and sci fi guys (including his dad) reference this classic, and he wanted to know what it was about. He wasn’t sure if it was brilliant or if Stanley Kubrik was just sort of crazy. I’ll let him sort that out in his dorm freshman year of college.

Daughter and I were supposed to go on a guided birding/kayak trip, but it got postponed due to weather. She and I paddled on our own, anyway. We politely stalked the lake’s heron, from one end of the lake to the other.

For much of May, I lacked the wherewithal to load up the kayaks, to get through a book, even to cook. The rough patch was such that the kids and I did not take a lot of comfort in each other’s company, and we’d retreat from one another. So this quiet weekend at home was some sort of friggin’ testament to our humanity.

I got some chores done that have been on my list for awhile. It’s so different from last summer, when I had so much mess to sort through. By now, I’ve cleared a lot of the mess away. There are still so many tasks on my plate, but we get ’em done (pretty much). They’re just tasks. The household matters aren’t the struggle they used to be. We are learning how to live in this home, with just each other. We are building a new life. The world goes on to music festivals and seizing joy, but our lives came hurtling to a halt, and we move at our pace, in our own space, on our plane. I missed all the fun, but I’m pretty sure I was where I was supposed to be this weekend.

I spotted the dog comb on the balcony, too. Golly, it’s been months since I’ve combed the dogs. I completely forget you’re supposed to comb dogs. There’s so much for me to remember, so many tasks that aren’t even on the list. I spent time each evening on the balcony, combing away. As tasks go, this is a decent one–evening breeze, quiet night, snuggling up with a giant dog. I could have filled a garbage bag with the fur I combed off each night. I felt rotten, but there were no fleas, since I’ve been keeping up with their monthly flea medicine (that’s a task that’s on the list!), and there’s only one matted patch on one dog, and we’ll take care of that. I pushed the balls of fur to the edge of the balcony as I worked. At one point, a strong wind blew through, portending a thundershower. I thought of all the townfolk at the music festival. There was probably a headliner on stage at that moment. I felt bad for them. The wind picked up the dog fur and I watched it swirl through the air, across the yard, and away.