Being Alive

Over the course of one week I experienced two significant anniversaries: it has now been five years since my husband died and nine years since I’ve lived in my home. I’m a numbers gal, always have been, so these kinds of things really resonate. Even if you’re math averse no doubt you’ve gleaned that I’ve now been in this home longer without him than I was with him. It is also the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my entire life. For real.

By the time I was in 4th grade I think I’d lived in about 13 places and attended perhaps 5 schools. Needless to say, I don’t have many romantic notions about a homestead. I do however have many feelings about stability. I abhor surprises and above all else, I like to be told. Mr. Rogers did and said many things that spoke to me (he was most definitely my surrogate parent) but it was his song “I Like To Be Told” that made me feel so seen.  So yes, given my druthers I probably would never move, let alone dozens of times in my life. It is no wonder that it takes me no more than 24-hours to fully unpack. I love stability. Have I mentioned that? I could eat the same lunch every day for the rest of my lunch. I am like a dog with my love of routine. I don’t love to travel (see every word I’ve written above) but do enjoy the planning and packing. Those days or weeks imagining myself in another place are usually more fun that the realty. I’d rather read about travel or watch someone far more adventurous than myself (with a stylist and personal assistant just off-camera) traipse through the Swiss alps. I simply don’t like the unknown. Is that a product of so much moving? Probably not. The moving was simply the fall-out from a very unpredictable childhood. (Having to move across town and away from your four best friends because your mother can’t get along with the neighbors is about one’s parents’ unpredictability not about real estate.)

Going though life having stability as one’s guiding light is not ideal. I’d like to think that with age and repeated upheaval I’ve gotten less rigid. And I probably have. About stuff that really doesn’t matter. Change in plans? Okay. Purchasing a one-way ticket? Sure, I’ll try that. But the big stuff is still the big stuff. It’s been five years and I still become a bit nervous going out alone at night or having to make big financial decisions. I still at times feel paralyzed after five years. I spent the first year stunned and furiously taking care of legal business. While I did have to take care of everything myself, I had people who were always “there” for me. I felt somewhat taken care of by my “village” for the first year. I began casually dating the next year and had a few “relationships”. I loved the familiarity of the relationship routines and at times felt whole again. But over time I grew less resilient to disappointment (middle-aged men can be very very disappointing – it simply never dawned on me that they wouldn’t have learned how to be nice by now.). Not surprisingly, by the time I grew tired of dating, my support circle had dispersed. Well of course they had! They have their lives to lead and presumably I should have made one for myself by now.

Five year is a long time. I still get mail addressed to him and have memories so strong and sudden that they stop me in my tracks. But I’ve lived in this place longer without him than with him. For five months I have parented a dog (for the first time) without him. In other words, time is definitely marching on. I look different than I did five years ago. My hair is longer and my skin is getting a bit saggy in places. Other than that I’ve really nothing to show for these past five years except that I’m still here. I am still in the apartment I chose partly for the sunken living room which I (very wrongly) predicted would be suitable for a hospital bed when the time came. (You tend to think that way when your spouse is 19 year older than yourself.) I look around and realize that the place has changed as little as I have; a hallway painted, some chairs moved, a bathroom refurbished. But mostly everything is just the same except he’s not here. That seems wrong. He took up so much room. He was a big man in every sense. I feel there should be a visible chasm, right here in the living room. There should be some physical representation of the enormity of the loss (besides the bags under my eyes.)

I’m proud of myself for surviving. During the past five years I have never engaged in destructive behavior or done anything (too) rash. I’ve gotten out of bed every single day. I have tried new things and new people. None of these accomplishments are small or should be dismissed. But I honest to G-d thought that by now I’d be “all better” and have a new life. Let’s face it, I watch too many movies and tend to believe they are actually real. The five year anniversary was  disorienting in its intensity. I was gutted for a week. I listened (for the first time) to voice mails I had frantically had tech support save. I took out a photo of us with our (late) Bichon. I lit a yarhzeit candle for the first time. I made his favorite foods and even ate some of them. It felt sacred, raw, recent, sad and powerful. But mostly it felt jarring. How could I still be feeling the loss of him so strongly? The sorrow was deep inside and on the surface at the same time. I spoke to him all that day, something I very rarely do. And I admitted to him what I am to you right now: I never expected to feel this alone after this much time.

 

 

 

 

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Out Here On My Own

“I’m making Verdene’s cabbage, Husband,” I hear myself say out loud as I stir a steaming pot of goodness. A second later the tears come, and not from the copious amount of onion chopping. He’s gone and no one else in the world (except for Verdene) knows what Verdene’s cabbage is. It’s been five years since he died and only about six months since I could make his favorite dishes. I’ve never been much of a chef-for-one so not cooking isn’t all that noticeable. But even so, there are some foods that I’ve actively avoided since he died as their emotional power is just too much. I was tickled the first time I made something that his mother used to make and actually enjoyed the process and results. It felt like gaining part of my life and joy back. Recently life has become very very hard. It’s come as a surprise and in the form of harassment from a neighbor. I am frightened and anxious in my own home and it hurts beyond reason that I know for a fact that this would not be happening if he was still here. This neighbor wouldn’t have dared to launch an attack against me if my solid, sturdy and old-school husband was still here.

I stir the cabbage and cry and hear myself plead; “Come back. Please come back.” My heart breaks for me. I cried that same cry five years ago. It’s a faint but real memory. Faint, because for the last five years I have worked fiercely to move forward. I’ve dipped my shark head down into the foreign waters and moved forward like my life depended on it. Because it did. As I lunged forward those waters sloughed off protective layers. I became more porous, more open. There is a lightness and darkness to this change. I became open to new experiences and people. I tried so many new things; projects, jobs, volunteer opportunities. I let people into my life and my home. I confided and let go of long -held secrets. I stopped touching up my lipstick, hell, I stopped wearing lipstick. I became a little less mired in perfection. But with the openness came porousness. I lost my protective layer. Things hurt and feel personal in a new exponentially deep way. I’ve lost the capacity to brush off callousness and insensitivity. I never much subscribed to missives of; “that’s just the way they are” or “they’re doing the best they can.” First off, to say “that’s just the way they are” is all the information you’ll ever need to justify staying the hell away from that person. Secondly, “they’re doing the best they can” cannot be verified. I suppose a person can say; “I’m trying” but how do you know you’re doing the best you can? And how would anyone else be able to gauge that?

I am not a competitive person, except in one arena: I will go head-to-head, toe-to-toe with anyone wanting to play the misery game. Why? Because I know my odds are good. I’m no Augustus Boroughs (damn you Augustus!) having not lived in a home where dog food was considered a family dinner. But I feel pretty confident that I can hold my own in the poverty/chaos childhood home category and I know I can kick ass in the neglect category. I would go so far as to say that my life has never been easy but that wouldn’t be entirely true. My life was mostly glorious for the 17 years I was married. But those other 35 years and counting? Not easy. There are far worse stories. And I’ve stuck by that party line for my entire life. “People have it much worse.” Hell, even in the moments after the detectives told me my husband had been killed, I thought: “thank G-d I don’t have children.” In other words; in the worst minutes of my life I was thinking of how it could be worse.

The stories I told myself and the world about my childhood…the tremendous perks of growing up around creative and off-beat people are true. But I left out the other 90%. I was never parented and left to my own defenses at a very early age. My feelings, desires and opinions never mattered and I thought that was normal. I was dirty and unkempt and commuting on public transit at aged 10. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I learned that some parents actually help their kids. I watched friends’ parents help them move into their apartments and even help to decorate and (gulp!) finance such endeavors. One day, I was in a dressing room in a lovely shop. I could hear a woman about my age in the only other dressing room. She was with her mother who was helping her select her first interview suit. I broke down in tears (there’s no crying while shopping!). I’m not sure my mother even knew when I was interviewing let alone offered any help (Reader, I had to buy her a dress to wear to my wedding, that’s how disinterested she is). There have been dozens of these sad little realizations throughout my life. Maybe more. But I brushed it all aside. After all, all that hands-off parenting made me the fiercely independent and strong woman I am today! And that was probably true for many years. But you see, my protective layer is gone now. I am no longer feeling strong and I’ve run out of resiliency. Maybe that happens with age, you lose your elasticity. Perhaps my husband’s death and my age are too potent a formula.

The other day I struck up a conversation with a woman about my age. She told me about her neighbors who pitched in and helped her with her dog on a regular basis. When she added that her brother lives in her building and helps all the time I think I audibly yelped. I cannot imagine that life. I cannot imagine that level of caring and generosity. I’ve never known it and up until now, I’m not sure I needed it. But the most important person in the world to me is gone and with him the only time in my life I was ever truly happy. I consider myself fortunate (see? there I go again!) to have about 7 very good friends. I’ve dubbed them; The Magnificent Seven. But none of them are able to “help me” in any real and regular way. I also am deeply grateful to have an uncle who regularly and consistently demonstrates care and love. But in the end, it’s not enough. I want what everyone wants; I want to feel not so alone in the world. I did once, for 17 mostly glorious years.

Come Back

I Am Katie Sipowicz

It’s no secret that when it comes to binge watching, I am a repeat offender. There are decades old series, and even game shows, that provide me great comfort from time to time. My ability to re-watch and continue to enjoy certain shows and films drove my husband bonkers. It is one of the very rare upsides to being alone that I can indulge in these vapid pleasures without judgement. This past year, my living room has been screening The West Wing and N.Y.P.D. Blue. The comfort derived from a fictional White House staffed with civility, reason and stellar intellect is clear. The appeal of “being back on the Blue” is a bit more elusive. It is not for everyone, I admit that. But for me it is all about the relationships. The dialogue and acting are always so spot on. The directing and editing capture silent moments sometimes far more powerful than the dialogue. There is a realness to it all.

I don’t relate to all of the characters. I have clenched my jaw watching the character of Diane as she uses her childhood and family of origin to justify her weakness and bad choices.  I almost have to avert my eyes as she wallows in widowhood having been married a whole week before her husband dies. I’m always more of a champion of those that don’t bask in victim-hood.. At various times I have various favorites. I like to watch these “people” overcome their demons and evolve.  This go around I’ve been drawn to the character of Andy Sipowicz’s ex-wife. Katie is played by the enchanting Debra Monk and for the first few years is mostly annoying. The loss of her marriage and their only son, shatters her. She finds A.A. and gets in touch with her religion, and becomes a different sort of annoying but not longer a victim. The other night I saw the most heartbreaking moment between her and Andy. The bareness of her need and the depth of history and feeling Andy has for her were evident in about 5 seconds of film. I gulped and let go of a flood of tears. A few episodes later Andy gets into bed with his preschool aged son who is sleeping with “Aunt Katie”. He cuddles the boy and they drift off to sleep. The camera moves to Katie on the other side of the bed and we see that she is awake. Her face registers serenity. The thought bubble says “This moment, all I need is this moment.” For this night she has her old life back. He’s no longer her husband and that is not their child, but it feels familiar. It reminds her of a time she had it all.

It is almost five years since my husband died. I have had boyfriends and relationships and I’ve no doubt that many if not all, have been the result of my seeking to reclaim my old life. I’ve sought comfort in the rhythms of a coupling rather than the dynamic between us. It mattered less how I felt about the person than how I did about the mechanics of our coupling: to wake up and have coffee with someone, to spend holidays together, to discuss the highs and lows of our day. That’s what I craved. I don’t have the sense that these men appreciated me anymore than I did them. I was able to ignore many shortcomings and red flags in pursuit of the rhythm. It is akin to an addiction, the drive to recapture what was lost. Even when I was doing it I knew what I was doing. I am pragmatic and hyper-aware so have never had the luxury of deluding myself. I silently narrate my experiences, no matter how emotionally intense. (You shoulda heard the monologue when I was told my husband was dead!) My most Katie moment came two years ago on a speedboat in the middle of the Caribbean. My boyfriend and I were traveling to a remote island to spend eight days together. The last time either of us had done anything remotely like this was on our respective honeymoons. Before we left for the trip I had already seen the signs. I knew we were not going to go the distance. On paper it really was a great match. But I knew. So there we were on the speedboat and the captain told us to hold on it was about to get rough. Without warning my partner wrapped me in his arms and held on tight. I watched the distant island grow closer and thought; “Remember this feeling, it may never happen again.”

Rerun, Repeat, Repair

Predictability is comforting. Mr. Howard Johnson knew this. I’ve never been an adventurous soul. Edgy for me is trying a new flavor of frozen yogurt or seeing a musical written after 1980. I never grew out of the Mr. Rogers song; I Like To Be Told. Surprise or newness can throw me into a full-blown tizzy (for reasons we can explore in another post). So when something happens, or doesn’t happen, or when I embark on something new, I can get a bit floopy.

When the news reaches a heartbreaking crescendo, I, like many others re-watch The West Wing. Imagine my giddiness when I discovered (through the miracle of Twitter) that others clung to President Bartlet’s leadership as if it was real. I’m up to Season 3 (for the third time) and it’s not all smooth sailing. Coincidentally, after recently making a change in my life I discovered there’s a channel rebroadcasting N.Y.P.D. Blue (a bizarre choice for an elixir, I know). The exquisite acting and emotionally laden storytelling draws me back when I need comfort. (I refer to these periods as “being back on the Blue.”) In what can only be called a macabre perfect storm; there were two gut wrenching partner losing episodes on both of these shows this week. I saw them coming (that’s the upside of re-watching!) and did not avert my eyes.

I clutched my dog as the gunman made his way through the courthouse. I heaved an audible sob, tears running down my face as Sylvia said; “Take care of the baby.” Watching Sipowicz move through his days as if the air was made of cut glass, brought it all back to me.. Later watching C.J. collapse after hearing the news that Simon was gunned down, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah playing over the scene, brought out a whimper and tears. I poured myself a drink and thought about what I’d just done. I had voluntarily exposed myself to two scenes that were gut wrenching and emotionally very familiar. I know with every fiber of my being the shock of sudden loss. But it is only now, almost five years on, when I can watch these things and gain comfort. I am not re-traumatized, as I once would have been. Why would I put myself through the sobbing and gut wrenching? Well, it’s like picking at a scab. It’s strangely satisfying to be past the original injury and be able to control a teeny aspect of the healing..

Calendar Man

A few months ago I lost interest in dating. It’s not that I checked it off my bucket list once and for all. It’s that I lost the same interest I once had. It ceased to seem important or even worthwhile. Maybe it was the two thoroughly disheartening experiences I had in May. Maybe after over three years of it, I’ve had enough. Potato Potahto.

I still keep a hand in (not the best choice of phrases, I know) but do so in a very different manner. I sort through, looking for the one profile/person I might be able to tolerate hearing from; not date, not partner with, but hear from. I no longer consider choosing to stay home a sign of anything but self-knowledge. The world isn’t watching and my worth is not predicated on someone wanting to buy me dinner. Quite frankly I’d rather not eat than sit across from someone uninteresting or unpleasant. I am done feeling as if I’m being auditioned or worse, not being seen at all. None of us walk through life as kind and compassionate as we could be. But if you can’t treat a friend or date with interest and care, what are you doing with your life? Don’t paw me, don’t ask me to wear something sexy, don’t begin a communication (when you’ve never met me) with “hey sexy.” I am not a prude I am a person. Seeing me as a potential conquest is so dehumanizing.

I haven’t joined an order. I am still open to dating from time to time (okay, once a month) but I do so with a very different mindset. I no longer assess men’s characteristics for long-term partner worthiness. I take them as they present themselves. Does a man express interest in me (which is NOT the same, in fact often the opposite of; does he want to sleep with me!)? Does he appear to see women as equals not adversaries? Is he interesting? IS HE KIND? The intangibles are now meaningless. I don’t care where he lives, what his faith is, what ages his children are…it just comes down to; would I rather watch TV or go out with this man?

Thus far this new approach has resulted in two simply lovely dates. Both men were kind, funny, interesting and seemingly emotionally intelligent and engaged. I may see them again, I may not. But to have spent a June evening debating the appeal of Chekov and a July evening discussing gender as a social construct, all while laughing and feeling a kinship, is enough for now.