Newly widowed I experienced terror and trauma in waves as frequent and powerful as a category 3 hurricane. For almost a year, I would avoid walking under scaffolding or air conditioners, so afraid of the unexpected. Over the months and years my terror and trauma changed flavors and frequency but has never wavered in its intensity.
I went through a period consumed by thoughts of illness or accident that I would be forced to suffer alone. I changed dentists to avoid dealing with my lifelong Achilles heel taunted by memories of my husband by my side. I changed gynecologists to avoid being splayed in the same stirrups I was the moment my husband died. For the first year or two, I heard all financial and legal professionals as disembodied Oz voices amidst white noise. I couldn’t make any but the most cursory and urgent decisions.
It’s been over five years now. I’ve lived in my most recent home longer without him than I did with him. The terror feels more like fear, and I’m resigned to it. I am alone. Terrible things will happen. I’ll manage. But the trauma…? That never ebbs. Yes, I can once again watch movies and T.V. shows I had to avoid for those first couple of years. I can hear music we or he loved and not become physically ill. Finally, he now appears to me in dreams that have nothing to do with him being dead. I cherish those dreams. But that trauma that was right there on the surface? Doubling over in pain when hearing an ambulance siren? Not being able to breathe when passing the place he died? That trauma has seeped into my being. It is part of me now. It has changed my entire worldview and guides my survival. And I am surviving. I may not be living a recognizably productive life, but I’m still here. I am more porous, fragile, quiet, fearful, grateful, peaceful and solo, than ever before. My life is almost childlike in its simplicity.
For most of my adult life I maintained that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I’ve learned that isn’t entirely true. I can spend the day in shorts, T-shirt and Keds (my childhood uniform) and eat ice cream for lunch, but to say I was happy would be a disservice to real happiness. I am at times peaceful. I am afraid at least once a day. Deeply and profoundly afraid. I am sad often. And my husband is always with me. Always. This is both comforting and shattering. Nobody does “the best they can” and I’m no different. I’m doing the best I choose to do. I may do better some day, I may do worse. I have never bought into that ridiculous chestnut: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What a load of crap. What doesn’t kill us can leave us on life support.